Though he’s not a horror writer, I’ve often wondered what P.G. Wodehouse (famous for his Jeeves & Wooster short stories) might write as a tale of terror. A typical Wodehouse story takes place in a rural English manor, where a group of quirky characters is assembled, each executing a plot to achieve their own ends. The drama and comedy come from the characters tripping over each other in pursuit of their goals. That is, more or less, what happens in The Ghoul (1933).
The Ghoul is centered around the pursuit of a jewel known as The Eternal Light. It’s not only a rather fetching bit of sparkly, but it also has magical properties. When offered to the Egyptian god Anubis on the night of a full moon, you can become immortal. Immortal is a jolly good thing to be if you are, like professor Henry Morlant (Boris Karloff), a bad-tempered Anubis worshiper who is dying of some horrible disease that also makes your face look like stale flour tortillas.
Morlant instructs his servant Laing (Ernest Thesiger) to make sure the jewel is buried with him in a bandage wrapped around his hand. Morlant is worried that the jewel will be plucked from his body before he can make the deal with Anubis. And he has good reason to worry; if he was the only one who coveted the stone, this wouldn’t be much of a movie.
Morlant dies and Laing makes a big deal about staying with Morlant’s body until it can be interred in the Egyptian-style crypt on the manor grounds. Laing, alone and unwatched, pilfers The Eternal Light, taking it from Morlant’s bandaged hand.
Shortly after interring Morlant’s body into the crypt, the vultures begin to circle. Broughton (Cedric Hardwicke), Morlant’s unscrupulous solicitor, in the course of putting his client’s affairs in order finds out about the jewel. He knows that Laing, rather than sealing in the tomb, has stashed it somewhere and means to get it for himself. Also descending on the manor are Morlant’s rightful heirs, Ralph Morlant (Anthony Bushell) and Betty Harlon (Dorothy Hyson), who brings her best friend Kaney (Kathleen Harrison) along for the sake of propriety. Ralph and Betty, though they share the same family tree, are from feuding branches and have declared a truce in a pact of mutual self-interest to ensure that each receives their proper inheritance.
On arriving at the manor, Ralph, Betty and Kaney, unsure as to whether they are at the right house, have a chance meeting with the local curate, Nigel Hartley (Ralph Richardson), who confirms that they have indeed arrived at the right place. Hartley, joining the party, accompanies them to the house. A short time later Aga Ben Dragore (Harold Huth), the thief who sold Morlant the jewel, arrives with Mahmoud (D.A. Clarke-Smith), who wants to return the jewel to its rightful owner’s tomb in Egypt. Ben Dragore introduces himself into the household, explaining that he is an old acquaintance of Morlant’s and has come to pay his respects. Mahmoud, armed, lurks on the grounds, waiting for Ben Dragore to return with the goods.
The final contestant in the hunt for The Eternal Light is Morlant himself, who, as promised, has returned from the grave to find the jewel he planned to give to Anubis in payment for immortality.
The Ghoul plays out like a drawing room play in a horror-comedy vein similar to James Whale’s The Old Dark House. It shares with The Old Dark House not only in its gothic setting and dark, quirky sense of humor, but also two of its cast in persons of Karloff and Thesiger. Both films are less a vehicle for the top billed star, in both cases Boris Karloff, and more reliant on the cast as an ensemble to carry the movie.
Boris Karloff casts a sufficiently menacing shadow over the movie to reel horror fans in, but the film’s strength is a cast that’s eminently watchable no matter who is in any given scene. Ernest Thesiger, Cedric Hardwicke and the great Ralph Richardson would each eventually receive a knighthood for acting and great though they are here, they are nearly upstaged by Kathleen Harrison, who gives a tremendously entertaining performance as Betty’s winger, Kaney. Oddly, as the story unfolds, it’s Kaney, the colorful sidekick, more than the two leads who move the plot. It’s an unexpected turn and I rather like it.
Well shot, well acted, well edited and furnished with a competent soundtrack, The Ghoul is a vastly underrated film.
Review by Rob Silvera of Midnight Monster Show
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