At first glance, it would be easy to dismiss Universal Pictures The Mad Ghoul as just another quota quickie to explode out of the studio cannon. Universal, who played such a massive part in establishing the genre during their golden years, had mainly resorted to sequels and mash up features during the war years, but in amongst the well-known iconic monsters, there were a few wild cards popping up here and there. The Mad Ghoul being one such feature, a blend of sci-fi and horror infused with aspects that rehash themes from a number of sources to produce something of a curiosity. Director James Patrick Hogan – although prolific- , only seems to have made one horror film, this, his last picture for the studio. It comes with a sad resonance that the director died of a heart attack the year this was made, (aged only 53). Although the film feels slightly pedestrian at times, there is a certain flair for establishing an atmosphere to be found, especially in some of the more macabre scenes. While not as well-known as the studio’s genre defining epics, The Mad Ghoul does have a lot to offer to fans of early genre features- now out to own on DVD courtesy of Odeon Entertainment in a restored version, this is the perfect film to while away a cosy afternoon.
Scriptwriters Paul Gangelin and Brenda Weisberg use a number of themes in this engaging little story to weave their tangled tale of love, obsession, power and control. The first underlying theme aligns with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in an in- direct way, with mad scientist Dr. Alfred Morris (George Zucco) who is experimenting with an ancient nerve gas used by the Mayans. Resident monkey Choco falls foul of the gas, and dies, but Dr. Morris with the aid of his assistant- medical student- Ted Allison (David Bruce), is able to resurrect the unfortunate primate by giving him the blood taken from a heart- so far, so good. Choco is restored back to health- or so they think- and Ted can go back to worrying about the apple of his eye, Isabel (Evelyn Ankers). Isabel, Ted’s girlfriend, is a singer who is about to embark on tour and Ted is anxious she knows his feelings before she departs. Sadly this isn’t going to happen though, and when Ted gets a face-full of the noxious gas, he too becomes a victim of its effects. In order to be restored to health, Dr. Morris must feed Ted the blood from human hearts, and this involves various trips to graveyards to dig up the recently deceased. While under the influence, the medical student becomes like a zombie, and the doctor is easily able to control his actions through commands- influence number two, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)- with the character of Ted showing a likeness to somnambulist Cesare from the aforementioned picture. What is curious about the way in which the plot is constructed are the foundations are built on a thread that follows the theme of obsessional love- Ted is not the only person who has set his sights on Isabel. This essentially turns a gruesome and macabre narrative into something of a four sided love triangle when fourth wheel Eric (Turhan Bey) is introduced, making the feature slightly more multi-dimensional than first apparent.
The plot jogs along at a brisk pace and although not remotely graphic certain sensationalist language is used to convey grim elements to the audience. The introduction of a police/reporter angle allows for various discussions to occur surrounding what the papers dub as ‘the mad ghoul,’ with secondary characters speculating over why this villain is going around desecrating graves and stealing human hearts. On paper it all sounds pretty morbid, with the undertones focusing on dark elements, however the acting all round is fairly light-hearted and comes with that air of innocence that will often be found in older pictures of this nature. George Zucco as Dr. Morris stands out as a fairly sinister force, manipulating those around him- much to Ted’s detriment- to get what he really wants. Zucco manages to portray a menacing character, despite his physical appearance, whose threat comes from his ability to hoodwink those around him into bending to his will. His mock concern masks his true murderous intentions, and the actor does a great job at putting in a convincing performance. Evelyn Ankers steps in as love interest Isabel, and provides some retro glamour- although, for such a major player in the overall scheme of things, she gets very little screen time. David Bruce as Ted manages to extract sympathy toward his character being a victim of circumstance, the actor playing his part successfully manages to garner audience support as a well-meaning hero. Although action is moderately applied, what makes the film is the dynamic between the various characters, each one caught up in events that are out of their control with the selfish Dr. Morris pulling the strings and convincing everyone he is only acting in their best interests.
The production is fairly sparse, but given this was made in the war years, it is to be expected. There are little in the way of special effects, and the zombie make-up is basic. Sets are limited to few locations, which asserts a static, almost made for the stage feeling over the entire piece as a whole. When the film does strike its high notes, they come in the form of the creepy graveyard scenes. Director James P Hogan and cinematographer Milton R Krasner (who later went on to win an Academy award for his work on Three Coins in the Fountain (1955)) make the best of what they have and summon a wonderfully eerie aura in these moments. The closing scenes especially hold a lasting impression, ending on a downbeat, but nevertheless victorious note.
This release by Odeon is a great restoration, given the status of The Mad Ghoul as a lesser known chapter in the huge history of Universal’s genre output. The print does demonstrate its age at times with dust present, but in my opinion this adds to the charm- this is a very old film, and personally I like to be reminded of that- making everything too clean and shiny often undermines the tone. Regardless of this the picture is clear, nicely detailed and well contrasted.
Out now on DVD, check out the Odeon Entertainment official website here for more details.