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DVD SAVANT

The Ghoul


The Ghoul
MGM Home Entertainment
1933 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 77 min. / Street Date August 26, 2003 / 14.95
Starring Boris Karloff, Cedric Hardwicke, Ernest Thesiger, Ralph Richardson, Dorothy Hyson, Anthony Bushell
Cinematography Günther Krampf
Art Direction Alfred Junge
Film Editors Ian Dalrymple, Ralph Kemplen
Original Music Louis Levy
Written by Roland Pertwee, John Hastings Turner from a play by Leonard Hines, Frank King
Produced by Michael Balcon
Directed by T. Hayes Hunter

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Here's a surprising rarity and a collector's treasure, an amazingly perfect version of the 1934 English Boris Karloff starring vehicle The Ghoul. It's been seen previously only in copies so wretched only the die-hards could bear to sit through it, and MGM's restorers have made it look better on DVD than most of Universal's classic horror films of the period.

No, it's not a particularly good movie, but it's great viewing. The cast alone is a knockout, and although Karloff is wasted as usual as the non-verbal boogeyman playing hide & seek in a haunted house, the film is a visual pleasure from one end to the other.

Synopsis:

Egyptologist Professor Morlant (Boris Karloff) is dying, and per his wishes, his servant Laing (Ernest Thesiger) binds a rare jewel called the 'eternal light' into his hand. Morlant believes that after death, he will return to the living, and if he gives the stone to an idol of the god Anubis he'll achieve immortality. Unfortunately, several knaves are after the priceless stone: Morlant's conniving lawyer Broughton (Cedric Hardwicke), Aga Ben Dragore (Harold Huth) and Aga's knife-wielding cohort Mahmoud (D.A. Clarke-Smith). They make sure they're at the Morlant house when heirs Betty Harlon (Dorothy Hyson) and Ralph Morlant (Anthony Bushell) show up; along to scoff at all the pagan mumbo-jumbo is pushy local cleric Nigel Hartley (Ralph Richardson). They all expect trouble, but nobody expects Morlant to do just as he predicted: return from the grave.

Before this summer The Ghoul was considered a lost film for all practical purposes. There were VHS versions out of horrendous quality. The one I saw is preceded by disclaimers pleading that the only known source was a subtitled Czech print in horrible condition. The video transfer had been made by blowing up the top area of the image to lose the subs. Besides that, the sound was almost inaudible. I'll bet that the only people able to watch the whole show were readers that remembered the great stills from Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. Forry Ackerman once grieved the film as lost forever.  1

The English company Carlton owns The Ghoul. With their license from the Goldwyn company, MGM got the video rights but no film elements, which is not as odd a circumstance as it sounds. MGM restorer James Owsley was asked if he could locate elements, which sounds like a new executive saying, "Gee, Fred, this extra-long Greed movie sounds good - go see what you can find!"

Owsley made routine contact with the British Film Institute, which had provided the great visual element for another MGM acquisition, The Thief of Bagdad. Much to his surprise, the BFI had an element in excellent shape, sitting there un-requested for almost 30 years, probably because of the film's public domain status.

A careful transfer and digital cleanup later, The Ghoul was ready for DVD.

I was able to compare the new disc to the old tape, and the difference is shocking. The DVD is lovingly shot in sombre greys and blacks by Günther Krampf (Nosferatu, Pandora's Box) and sports some nice designs by Alfred Junge (I Know Where I'm Going!, Ivanhoe). Showing the whole frame reveals decor and characters previously masked. The Morlant mansion is a mismatched series of dark rooms with a strange Egyptian crypt out in the 'back yard'. Creepy stained-glass windows offer good opportunities for eerie compositions. Krampf's lighting has a nice range from drawing-room clarity to dramatic closeups for Karloff.

On the downside, the story source is one of those late-20s haunted house plays where everything supernatural is eventually revealed to be false. (spoiler) There's actually an inserted shot of a doctor rushing to the house, telling us that Karloff didn't come back from the dead, but simply had a problem with catalepsy. Once the central story is launched, we have to deal with almost an hour of various characters running about plotting to snatch the jewel from Morlant's tomb. The reat of the time is taken up by the sterile ingenue leads, as they meet cute and warm up to each other.

Karloff comes back from the dead with some great makeup but inexplicably mute and hostile (and strong, considering his previous poor health). The best part of the show are the great shots of him stalking about, strangling the interlopers, and preparing to offer up the 'eternal light' gemstone to the statue of Anubis. There are maybe 20 shots as good or better than most of Karloff's American output; the rest is thrown away by T. Hayes Hunter's indifferent direction. The Egyptian crypt, for instance, is an impressive construction that goes unexploited in the choice of camera angles. Hunter started directing in 1912 (!). The Ghoul was his last film.

Karloff is in fine form, considering he has one speaking scene as a dying man, and then skulks around menacing people in the last couple of reels. His pantomime is as expressive as ever, showing us what's happening in almost silent-movie terms. Ernst Thesiger is his tall and baleful self, although younger than we're used to seeing him and giving us a fun Scots accent. Cedric Hardwicke is still an old crab, even if he's younger. Ralph Richardson looks like a tot, and has the most fun with his fussy churchman role. His is the only humor in the film that still works - he makes with little asides and droll expressions when he can get away with it. Dorothy Hyson is rather forgettable, and Anthony Bushell a complete stiff as the young heir. This was the style for young handsome leads in Brit films of the time, but Bushell doesn't come up with much personality. A later colleague of Laurence Olivier, he played many better character roles (A Night to Remember) and even became a director (The Terror of the Tongs, the Danger Man teleseries). An attempt to make comedy relief between Kathleen Harrison, a yak-prone girlfriend along for the ride, and Harold Huth, a sinister Arab, goes nowhere.

Ordinary audiences will probably not be moved, but Horror fans will find The Ghoul a must-see.


MGM's DVD of The Ghoul is a plain-wrap presentation of a vintage horror show. The image is as clean as a whistle, and the Lowry digital enhancement that was used has not altered the dusty B&W images or erased subtle skin textures in the closeups. The sound is also pristine; it was cleaned up by a company called Sonic Solutions. Although a few lines still needed subtitles for this Yank viewer to understand them, there wasn't a touch of hiss or crackle, or the feeling that they had been eliminated by rolling off strata on the DB meters.

The cover illustration is the second Karloff show this year to represent the horror legend with a graphic of a big eye. Very interesting - we can't tell if they want to hide the film's age, or if they are concerned about the legal issue of Karloff's likeness.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Ghoul rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 23, 2003


Footnote:

1. Actually, Sinister Cinema may have come up with a better version from a surviving English print, after the bad domestic video releases.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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