Sunday, May 19, 2013
May Day Movie Marathon, Part III
The early 1930s saw the release of a number of American horror films from Universal Pictures that are familiar to American and European audiences 80 years later (although precious few have actually taken the time to sit down and watch them). Dracula (1931) is usually credited with starting the trend, followed by Frankenstein in that same year. Subsequent films included The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933) (although more of a sci-fi film than a horror movie), and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Lesser known movies filled the latter half of the decade, including a second Frankenstein sequel: Son of Frankenstein (1939). A number of pseudo-sequels to The Mummy were released in the early '40s, although the most famous monster movie of that decade is probably The Wolf Man (1941).
While the Universal monster movies were seeing diminishing returns by the '40s, and were eventually reduced to self parody with films like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), the earlier movies were very popular. (Those who think sequel-mania is a recent phenomenon might be surprised by how many monster movies of the late '30s and '40s were sequels of these original films.) It wasn't long before filmmakers on the other side of the Atlantic wanted a piece of the monster movie action, particularly in Britain, but the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC) had other ideas.
The BBFC was relatively lenient with imported American horror films (Island of Lost Souls (1932) being a notable exception), apparently believing that Brits wouldn't be overly influenced by the product of a foreign culture. However, they were a lot more strict on domestic movies, making it clear to homegrown filmmakers that American-style horror films would not be tolerated. This proved to be unfortunate for Gaumont-British Picture Corporation. Gaumont had been able to convince Boris Karloff, who had decided to vacation in his home country after the release of The Mummy, to star in a movie technically based on a crime novel but that included elements strongly influenced by Karloff's recent film. While The Ghoul clearly aspires to be a Universal-style horror film, it's undermined by the limits imposed by the British censors.
Our film starts with the confrontation between an antiques dealer and an adherent to an ancient Egyptian cult. (It's funny how many of these older movies, and even the 1999 version of The Mummy, suggest that significant numbers of modern-day Egyptians worship the ancient pantheon.) The cultist demands the return of a jewel called "the Eternal Light" to the tomb from which it was stolen. The dealer no longer has it, having sold it to a Professor Morlant for a sizable portion of his fortune.
When we finally meet Morlant (Boris Karloff!) we find that he's a true believer in the ways of the ancient Egyptians and believes that the Eternal Light is his key to immortality. As he lays dying, the Professor demands that his servant, Laing (Ernest Thesiger! a.k.a., Dr. Pretorius from The Bride of Frankenstein), wrap the jewel in his hand. Morlant believes that, after his death and burial, he will revive the night of the first full moon so that he can make his offering to Anubis. At "the first hour" (which turns out to be 1 AM rather than midnight as one might expect) he will place the Eternal Light in the open palm of a statue of Anubis. If Morlant is found worthy of eternal life, the statue will close its hand over the jewel, signifying that the offering has been accepted.
The deeply Christian Laing strongly disapproves of his boss's beliefs. Failing to pursade Morlant to give up on his pagan ways, he argues that burying the jewel in Morlant's ersatz-Egyptian tomb will deprive the Professor's heirs of their rightful inheritance. With Karloff's characteristic intensity, Morlant warns that any attempt to deprive him of paradise will cause him to rise from the grave with the full moon to wreak a murderous vengeance. Despite this warning, Laing removes the jewel from his master's hand not long after he expires.
Shortly thereafter, the doctor declares Morlant's death by heart failure. Several people notice that the dead man's hand has been recently wrapped, which raises the suspicions of Morlant's shifty-eyed lawyer, Broughton. While going through Morlant's papers, Broughton couldn't help but to notice that his client recently spent a huge sum of money, but that the item or items it purchased are nowhere to be found. That night Morlant is buried in his tomb where the statue of Anubis that had been watching over his death bed has been relocated. As the pallbearers leave, Broughton sneaks back into the tomb to take a look at the wrapped hand, but finds nothing.
Contrary to my expectations, Laing isn't the stereotypical unscrupulous servant who robs his deceased employer for his own gain. While he does take the jewel from the corpse, he does so because he truly believes that the dead shouldn't rob the living. After hiding the Eternal Light, Laing finds the address of Betty Harlon, one of Morlant's heirs. The servant surreptitiously hands Betty a message, but the paper is immediately stolen by Broughton, who had been shadowing Laing. Not long afterward, Betty is visited by the other surviving heir, Ralph Morlant. Although there is some bad blood between Betty's and Ralph's families, Ralph's meeting with the deceased's attorney earlier in the day has convinced him that Brougton is trying to rob both him and Betty of their inheritance. The two set off to Morlant's mansion with Betty's friend, Kaney. Kaney will be our odious comic relief for the rest of the picture. I still cannot understand filmmakers' insistence on including such characters. Even newer films fall into this trap; Transformers (2007) had at least two such characters, neither of whom accomplished anything except to earn the audience's loathing.
Betty, Ralph, and Kaney arrive at the Morlant house to find Broughton there. Of course, the three put little stock in the attorney's claims that he's simply putting his client's papers in order. These are joined by Parson Hartley, the clergyman who had been rebuffed earlier when he tried to give Morlant his last rights. It's not long before the Egyptian antiquities dealer is knocking at the door, claiming to be an associated of Morlant (which isn't entirely untrue). Meanwhile, the dealer's cultist companion skulks around the house looking for any sign of the Eternal Light.
As the mansion becomes the gathering place for various characters, all of them secretly looking for the same valuable object, I see my Mummy-inspired horror film turning into one of the dreaded "spooky-house mysteries". Past the halfway point, just as I'm starting to despair that Karloff's part at the beginning was just a cameo, we see the full moon rise. Despite his earlier disregard for his master's beliefs, Laing starts to show some trepidation. This turns to outright terror when he sees the door to Morlant's tomb open and its angry occupant stride out.
Oh how I wish we actually got what Karloff's character so chillingly promised.
Morlant stalks around and through the house for much of the rest of the film. Although the cultist is dispatched pretty quickly, Laing is spared when he reveals where he hid the jewel. The rest of the titular ghoul's rampage consists of almost killing several people, much to the disappointment of any viewer who is expecting the kind of body count that contemporary American pictures had. (Despite my desperate pleas, he doesn't kill Kaney.) With only minutes to go before 1 AM, Morlant finally obtains the Eternal Light and returns to his tomb. With a knife taken from the cultist's body, he carves a bloody ankh on his chest and places the jewel in the statue's hand. Betty and Ralph arrive in time to see Morlant's offering and watch in amazement as the statue's hand closes over the jewel. With a shout of joy, Morlant falls to the ground dead.
I wish I could say that this was the end of the movie. I wish I could say that Boris Karloff's Professor Morlant had really been an undead ghoul and that the hand of a "heathen image" really did accept the Eternal Light. The offering scene is actually very well done and had the blessed words "The End" appeared immediately after Morlant's death I would have a much higher esteem for the movie. But no, like I Bury the Living (1958), The Ghoul has to give us a "logical explanation" that's nearly as far-fetched as any supernatural one.
So, how does the statue of Anubis accept the jewel? Well, after Morlant's final death, the hand withdraws into the hole where the statue's stone hand had been originally. It turns out that Parson Hartely is a fraud and that he has spent much of the night chiseling off the hand so that he could hide inside the statue and "accept" the offering (since when did the Egyptians make hollow statues?). As the heirs try to stop the faux-parson, the antiquities dealer shows up and takes the Eternal Light. During the scuffle, a bullet damages the tomb's lamp, which is fed by an outside source (plot point!). The dealer makes his exit, locking Hartley and the heirs in the tomb.
In the meantime, a doctor and the police rush to the Morlant house in response to a phone call Ralph placed before entering the tomb. As expected, the doctor declares his belief that the Professor may have actually suffered from a fit of catalepsy so severe as to be almost indistinguishable from death. (I can't help but to mention that a believer in the ancient Egyptian religion would certainly have insisted on being mummified; a process that would definitely prevent a premature burial.)
While making his escape, the dealer drops the Eternal Light where Kaney can find it. Broughton confronts the fleeing Egyptian, who realizes that the odious comic relief has ended up with the MacGuffin. The villains demand the jewel from Kaney at gunpoint but are held at bay when she threatens to drop it in a well.
Back in the tomb, Hartley, Ralph, and Betty are trying to find a way out. Suddenly, the damaged lamp drops and starts an enormous blaze. Hartley reveals that he had previously installed explosives outside of the doors (obviously he hadn't expected the tomb's owner to simply open the doors for him). The advancing flames set the explosives off and Betty and Ralph escape the tomb while Kaney is saved by the timely arrival of the police (drat!).
As usual, watching Boris Karloff is a pleasure, although he should have gotten a lot more screen time. Thesiger is always fun to watch. And with the exception of the obnoxious Kaney, the other characters are completely forgettable and manage not to damage the film too much. But it's the ending that really brings this movie down. I hate a Scooby-Doo ending, especially when it's in a movie from an era known for its supernatural films.
American films from this period had been unashamedly invoking the supernatural with good results, both at home and abroad. The Ghoul obviously wanted to share in that success, securing an actor who gained his fame in American monster movies and filming a story involving Egyptian mysticism and revenge from beyond the grave. However, in The Mummy, this film's obvious inspiration, Karloff's Imhotep isn't a cataleptic or a thief in disguise. Imhotep actually is undead and he uses genuine mystical powers in an attempt to carry out his fiendish plot. It's possible that The Ghoul's filmmakers thought that a spooky-house mystery with a horrific angle would play better than an outright supernatural movie, although it's suspected that the BBFC's strong disapproval of domestic horror movies might have influenced them to take the path of least resistance; i.e., "logical explanations" and mortal villains who are inevitably brought to justice. It's also very likely that the few deaths we see at Morlant's hands reflect Gaumont's fears that the BBFC might not certify the film.
The worst part is that the supposedly logical explanation is completely ridiculous (I Bury the Living is also guilty of this). The Ghoul would have us believe that immediately after providing a very specific warning regarding what would happen if the Eternal Light wasn't buried with him, Morlant could go into a cataleptic fit that is mistaken for death by the attending doctor, just to conveniently come out of the fit and go on a murderous rampage on the night of the full moon; thus seeming to fulfill his threat in exact detail. Then, the movie wants us to believe that Hartley expects Morlant to place the Eternal Light in Anubis' hand and accordingly modifies the statue, even though Laing is the only one who is privy to the Professor's intentions. A supernatural explanation would have held up a lot better than these outrageous coincidences.
One final nitpick: it's obvious that the filmmakers only read enough about Egyptology to pick up a few names, since the movie's version of Egyptian theology is almost entirely unrecognizable. Although Anubis was the god of mummification and the afterlife, I don't believe that adherents of Egypt's ancient religion called upon him to grant eternal life. That was typically the domain of Osiris and Ra. This kind of historical license can be expected in even the best classic horror movies, though.