The Ghoul

The Ghoul.
Gaumont British Pictures 1933.

Before watching the movie:

It never really seemed consistent to me what kind of supernatural entity a ghoul is. I kind of settled on a subtype of ghost that’s more corporeal than a spectre. I looked up the definition and it wasn’t very helpful. “A monstrous humanoid associated with graveyards and consuming human flesh” is broad enough to include zombies, only this is from pre-Islamic Arabia instead of from Haitian Vodou.

In this movie, Boris Karloff comes back from the dead to get revenge on those who wronged him, but I don’t think he eats flesh, just strangles or snaps necks or something. I expect a lot of overwrought tension that comes off as corny today.

After watching the movie:

Egyptologist Professor Henry Morlant is close to death, and has come to believe that if he dies with the jewel known as the Eternal Light in his hand, he will return from the dead, and if he places the Eternal Light in the hand of the statue of Anubis he has placed in his tomb, he can live forever. Though he dies with the gem bandaged to his palm, his servant Laing steals it when they lay him in the tomb. As Morlant spent most of his fortune on the jewel (7,000 pounds, the equivalent of about $7 million today), his two surviving heirs, niece Betty Harlon and nephew Ralph Morant, are rather upset to find that they’ve lost their allowances and not inherited much more than a house in disrepair with a pagan tomb in the back. Also present to show concern are passing parson Nigel Hartley and “friend” Aga Ben Dragore, the Egyptian scholar who sold the Eternal Light to Professor Morant, who is now trying to get it back so the cultists who protect the tomb it was taken from won’t kill him. When everyone gathers in Morant’s house for the news, the light of the full moon lands on the door of Morant’s tomb and, as he said he would, Morant awakens, finds that the Eternal Light is no longer in his possession, and goes to wreak vengeance upon those who took it from him.

This movie was not as monster-focused as it seemed. The professor dies 20 minutes in and only returns undead about half an hour before the end. Most of the movie is people disapproving of his religious beliefs, explaining the situation to each other over and over again but getting interrupted before they can broach any new developments, and arguing about what to do. It felt a little like a cozy mystery in that the main source of conflict was forcing people who don’t like each other to interact, only there was no mystery, only a brush with the supernatural.

I was looking forward to seeing Karloff play a regular human, but they made some disappointing choices for his look. He gets a little to do as the elderly professor on his deathbed, but it’s not very extensive. He mainly prays to Anubis and then dies. I’m not sure his appearance changes from life to undeath at all, but they gave him some really bushy eyebrows and lit him from below so he looks like a monster for the whole movie, even when he’s still alive.

There’s a line of dialogue near the end that explains that the whole thing wasn’t supernatural, only medical malpractice, which I’m sure is the same kind of executive censorship that made Klaatu’s resurrection in The Day The Earth Stood Still temporary, for the true power of life and death is “reserved to the Almighty Spirit”. Is it a move that lets them play with the toys without compromising the studio’s beliefs, or does it cheapen the events of the story as a mundane misunderstanding? I’m inclined to call it the latter. I have more respect for creating ambiguity than definitively contradicting the point of the story.

If I’d come to this expecting more focus on the double crossing than the monster that got all the hype and none of the substance, I’d probably feel better about this movie. It seems that in the 60s there was a comedy remake that sounds like it could serve the concept better. There was nothing scary about this, just the frustration of waiting for them to get on with it.

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