The story of The Ghoul's release, preservation and eventual VHS / DVD release is perhaps as interesting as the film itself. After the film's theatre release in the UK in 1933, the US in 1934, then one final reissue in 1938, the film was for all intents and purposes lost. Not even a trailer existed. In 1969 a virtually inaudible but subtitled version was uncovered in Czechoslovakia, and though it was missing eight minutes of what would have been considered at the time, excessive brutal savagery, it allowed fans to actually get to see Boris Karloff strutting about in his prime. Finally in the early 1980s behind a forgotten Shepperton Studios door a perfect negative was found, The British Film Institute was able to make a clean new print and we're all now able to appreciate this 1933 gothic horror in all its glory.
Director T. Hayes Hunter's The Ghoul is a low budget film of its era. The story is hokey, full of cliché and a little convoluted, the acting stilted, with dialogue on more than one occasion forced and exaggerated. Scene by scene it would be easy to pick holes, yet as whole entity The Ghoul still today, in all its black and white glory, oozes atmosphere and style, with a narrative that stays remarkably on point, pacing that feels unforced and at ease, unlike many horrors of the day, and the myriad of twists and turns does keep the film feeling fresh and interesting.
It's all about The Eternal Light™. Esteemed Egyptologist and soon to be dead Prof. Henry Morlant (Boris Karloff) wanted it, his solicitor Broughton (Cedric Hardwicke) when he discovers how much he paid for it, wants it, Egyptian Sheik Aga Ben Dragore (Harold Huth) wants it back, Ralph Morlant (Anthony Bushell) and cousin Betty Harlon (Dorothy Hyson) want to inherit it, Nigel Hartley (Ralph Richardson) wants to steal it; heck, even the police know about it and want to return it. The thing is servant and most trusted confidant, Laing (Ernest Thesiger) has it and the person this has most annoyed died earlier that day.
It maybe tries a little too hard with the ambitious number of characters all vying for control, and okay, the film does labour a bit over the first thirty or so minutes as it contrives to fill the back story, introduce and give reason to get all the interested parties to Morlant's late night Egyptian slumber party right on time. But once in attendance, and with Morlant ready to make his grand after-death appearance the film flows, with characters and action bouncing off each with spirit and finesse; and it's the perfect vehicle for Karloff to once again work his screen presence.
Morlant wants The Eternal Light™ because he believes it will ultimately grant him eternal life. On his death bed he instructs Laing to wrap the gold-gem-broach-thing to his hand ready for him to be buried in his newly constructed faux-Egyptian tomb where, when the next full moon's light reaches the door, the hand of the nearby statue of Anubis will, if he's done well, clasp it and transfer immortality. Should however The Eternal Light™ be missing he informs him, he will come back to kill! Morlant may be a heathen and a bit self-centred, spending all his inheritance unscrupulously acquiring the light, but he is at least a man of his word.
Now Morlant wasn't looking great before he died. With heavy eyes, broken deteriorated skin he certainly possessed the right zombie face to immediately fit straight in should there have been a sudden modern outbreak. Up and about, he appears angry, desperate and increasingly gruesome with both deteriorating body and mind. Now, it is suggested near the end that rather than actually being returned from the dead (back to life is a term never mentioned) he was in fact suffering from catalepsy. Whether or not right, there's still a lot of ambiguity. Morlant on returning never speaks, his cognitive functioning appears to be degrading and he appears to possess unnatural strength. His compulsion to reacquire the Light is also all consuming with parallels to the Draugr / Revenant mythology; undead creatures returned from the dead to protect their ill-gotten treasure. Yes he's not the Romero or modern zombie, with memory, and ability to function and interact with the world, but he's not the Morlant that died in bed demonstrable and absolute.
A middle quarter aside that rather drags out and convolutes the set-up, The Ghoul is tight claustrophobic death house gothic horror that remarkably, some 80 years after being made still retains charm, style, atmosphere, and the ability to surprise. Egypt and curses is a trope that's been done to death, but here there's a real early play with the ambiguity of the zombie, or the walking-dead; a play with the life-death dissonance that resonates uncomfortableness on the viewer. Surround this in a solid crime drama with interesting characters all vying to win the prize, and even a bit of light comedy, with the eccentric and exaggerated Kaney (Kathleen Harrison) and the film is a very solid early horror treat that should be sought out. Whether Morlant is a zombie or not, that'll have to be up to you, 7/10.