“When the full moon strikes the door of my tomb, I will come back, you hear? I will come back…to kill.”
Professor Morlant, The Ghoul
1933 would be a key year for Boris Karloff as he would temporarily walk out on Universal Studios. This came about following a disagreement with the studio over his pay for performance in The Invisible Man. Yes, indeed Karloff was scheduled to play Dr. Jack Griffin in that film albeit briefly. Director James Whale actually never really cared much for Boris and ultimately pushed for Claude Rains. However, Universal did peg Karloff for the film although at a reduced rate from his regular salary, which was firmly stated in his contract. This would result in Karloff walking out of Universal and soon to be a founding member of the Screen Actors Guild. During 1933, it would also leave him available for work which he ultimately found in Britain with The Ghoul.
The film offers a mixed bag that leaves fans of it rather split down the middle. Visually, the film is appealing and has a couple of great cast members in Karloff, Cedric Hardwicke and Ernest Thesiger. The story is somewhat reminiscent of The Mummy as Professor Morlant (Karloff) is a British Egyptologist who believes possessing a jewel called The Eternal Light will guide him to immortality as given to him by the god Anubis. The jewel must be wrapped in his hand after he dies and is placed in a tomb. However, if it leaves his hand, he will arise and kill those responsible. Great setup, good cast, creepy visuals. So where does this film go wrong?
Part of the film’s problem is its rather confusing plot and that is really due to too many characters and too much comic relief. I love a laugh or two in a horror film. I also greatly enjoy horror comedies but this film is set quite seriously and then seems to get off track with too many sub-plots about characters we ultimately don’t learn much about nor really care to. The scenes with Karloff and Thesiger and jewel thieves and the Egyptian Aga Ben Dragore (Harold Huth) work very well. The rest really seems to drag the movie down. And, unfortunately, a few developments at the end of the movie remove the supernatural element, spoiling a bit of the fun.
The story behind this film is perhaps better than the final product. The Ghoul disappeared shortly after its 1933 release only to be rediscovered in 1969 in Prague. It had substantially deteriorated and had Czech subtitles. Because of this, the movie was still virtually unseen and had acquired a legendary status. Many film historians went as far as to say that it was one of Karloff’s finest films. The film was released on VHS around 1990, which is when I first saw it. The print was indeed very rough but I remember enjoying it despite being a little confused on what exactly was going on. As is often the case when “lost” films are recovered, the product did not quite live up to the hype.
Thankfully, an intact and pristine print was eventually recovered and released on DVD by MGM. This print is beautiful and does enhance the film presentation greatly. The Ghoul is still a bit of an uneven mess at times but well worth checking out. Viewers must beware though as those earlier Czech prints still circulate from time to time. Make sure you are watching the MGM print and enjoy it for what it offers.