The Ghoul Review

The Film

From a time when horror movies just weren't British, comes The Ghoul. Borrowing heavily from haunted house fare like The Cat and the Canary, this is a British attempt to build on the early Universal success of Boris Karloff. Until recently, this longer version was thought lost and its rediscovery has caused something of a reappraisal of its place in a genre which polite British society has always preferred to ignore.
The Ghoul sees Karloff dying very early on, only to rise from the grave once his distant relatives, and an assortment of scurrilous rogues, appear at his home searching for family treasure. Treading a fine line between improper suggestions of occult jiggery pokery and thriller conventions, the treasure is pursued by kissing cousins and corrupt hangers on. The story is mounted with a very stagey approach, like the Universal movies before it, and the cast list is riddled with theatrical types and old stagers.

Despite the very proper clipped tones of its cast and the thematic hypocrisy of being a disguised horror film, what I found most interesting about The Ghoul was how un-British it was. The great Universal horrors which preceded it had a predominance of Blighty based talent with cast and stories coming from these isles, but they were in fact collaborations between American money and European talent. This British production with an all British cast intrigued me because a lot of what makes it remarkable is the contribution of the German/Austrian technicians who worked upon it.
The expressionist photography of Gunther Krampf allows the movie to outperform a forgettable story and a competent cast. What comes to really matter is the suggestions and intimations of shadows, the foreboding way that the faces are shot and a tangible atmosphere of malevolence created through the manipulation of perspective and light. Alfred Junge's sets are not as grand as those he dreamed up for Powell and Pressburger, but they allow the limited budget to make impact in the crypt scenes which end the film. Finally, the make up, brilliantly used by the cinematography, means that Karloff's character can create the horror which was his trademark.

Karloff's performance is rather good, and, even if the film's title proves a misnomer, he creates a macabre impression as he stalks the family retainers and ne'er do wells who turn up to feast on his character's apparent demise. Like most of the memorable monsters he created, there is a certain pathetic and desperate quality to his mostly dead occultist, and some of the close-ups of his face achieve a disturbing yet intimate quality. In fact, his monster is possibly the most sympathetic character in the film because of both how pitiful Karloff makes him and how mercenary and annoying the others seem.
Seventy years has passed though and time has not treated some of the film's elements well. The comedy relief provided by Kathleen Harrison is to say the least awkward, and the central couple of kissing cousin sleuths are both soppy and "the rudest man alive". Still given the technical qualities and the almost compete absence of other British horror films from the period, this is deserving of a very special place as a British challenge to the dominance of the Universal monsters.

Transfer and Sound

The Ghoul is apparently, according to the commentary, taken from a re-discovered print unearthed in the BFI and the good news is that it is in fine nick. It's a full frame transfer which is sharp and often showing excellent detail. The black levels are on the verge of perfection, and, bar some print damage and one artefact which looks like a dropped or partial frame around the 40 minute mark, this is quite wonderful.
The sound shows more age, it's a little worn with minor background hiss and dialogue sounding a little distant at times - not uncommon for the period. Everything is clearly reproduced though and for a seventy five year old film, it looks great and sounds fine.

Discs and Special Features

Kim Newman and Stephen Jones pair up again for another commentary on this region 2 and 4 Network disc. I have to say I enjoyed this track a lot more than their partnership on Carnival of Souls with Jones definitely more engaged in the chat. Here he takes the lead and Newman joins in with what turns out be very interesting stuff about the history of British horror. There are occasional hypothetical and tangential comments, but these are fewer than their other collaboration and the emphasis is on being well researched and factual. It's kind of the nature of horror movie commentaries that they are less seriously researched and more at the mercy of flights of fancy, but my taste is for a more focussed approach, and on this score Newman and Jones succeed admirably.

The remaining extra is a stills gallery and the menu is basic with few options to get lost in.


This is a fine transfer of a film that I enjoyed more for its technical virtues than the plot or cast. Those interested in the British horror film need to chase it down, as should fans of Karloff's pathos laden monsters.

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