Universal horrors in the forties were not only Wolf Men and Frankensteins. This 1943 low budget entry is a standalone feature, and it’s not bad. It’s subject matter is rather gruesome, but it cleverly bypasses the Hays Code. An early zombie movie, it does suffer from a thin script and too much operetta. (5/10)
The Mad Ghoul. 1943, USA. Directed by James P. Hogan. Written by Paul Gangelin, Brenda Weisberg, Hanns Kräly. Starring: David Bruce, Evelyn Ankers, George Zucco, Turhan Bey, Robert Armstrong. Produced by Ben Pivar for Universal. IMDb: 5.7
The crowning achievement of Universal’s horror franchise was arguably The Bride of Frankenstein (review) in 1935, and after that the studio’s output slowly waned in quality. Despite the huge success of The Wolf Man (1941), the horror films were decidedly B movie fare in the forties, as Universal churned out one movie after the other, narrowly staying afloat of the Poverty Row quality abyss. A classic example of a forties Universal horror sci-fi film is The Mad Ghoul from 1943. It is filled with modestly talented B actors and has decent production values, and even some original ideas, but still stumbles on the script department as the setup is already all too familiar.
The film starts with Dr. Alfred Morris (mad scientist veteran George Zucco), apparently a medical scientist, explaining to his students his new theory on the human sacrifices of the Mayan people. According to Morris, the Mayans had discovered what we now can explain in the very scientific terms ”poison gas”. But this ”poison gas” didn’t so much kill people, as it brought on, again in very exact scientific terms ”life in death, or if you will, death in life”. He then asks his top student Ted Allison (David Bruce) to spend his holiday helping him develop this new theory, to which Allison eagerly agrees. Morris shows him a monkey lying immobile on a slab, which Allison presumes to be dead, but when examining it he discovers signs of life. Exasperated Allison asks just how on earth Morris was able to put the monkey in such a condition, and Morris points to said gas. Of course a simpleton might have assumed that a creature which lies still but has life signs is engaging in the extraordinary activity which scientists call “sleeping”, but of course Allison is not a simpleton.
The thing is, the Mayans discovered that taking blood from the heart of a newly deceased and mixing it with certain herbs was able to bring the people back from this living death. And in fact, this living death was not so much death as zombification, with the victim obeying orders from the master, devoid of a free will. Yes, I suppose you see where this is going.
Now, it just so happens that Allison’s singing girlfriend Isabel Lewis (Universal star Evelyn Ankers) has fallen out of love with Allison, as she has become a woman of the world, whereas he is still just a small-town student. In his illusions of grandeur, Dr. Morris assumes that he is the man of the world that Ms. Lewis is looking for, and as Lewis sets out on her tour, Morris ”sedates” Allison to keep them apart, and so … eeh, well somehow this scheme is going to separate them and Lewis will fall into Morris’ arms. When Allison awakes he remembers nothing of his sleeping spell. An unfortunately it turns out that the antidote is only temporary, and every time he suffers some extreme emotions, he falls back into his undead state. Since Morris is all out of freshly dead hearts, the two must set out on some grave-robbing every time Allison zombifies.
And the problem is that Allison, when he is himself, is adamant to follow Lewis on her tour, and soon journalist Ken McClure (Robert Armstrong) starts noticing that grave-robbings and heart-carvings follow Lewis on her tour. Unfortunately for Morris, he discovers that Lewis is not at all smitten with his grey-haired (or rather no-haired) charm, and is in fact in love with her pianist Eric Iverson (Turhan Bey). And confronted by both police and the journalist, Lewis slowly puts two and three together, and it all boils down to a showdown which leads to no good end …
The Mad Ghoul’s good point is that it actually portrays a fairly realistic relationship, as opposed to most of these films, where the leading couple is always totally devoted to each other and can’t help falling into each others arms under all circumstances. Here, on the other hand, we actually deal with a relationship that very believably is falling apart. Of course, everything that happens could have been avoided if Lewis had simply coughed up the nerve to tell Allison she was no longer in love with him in the beginning of the movie, instead of trusting that the professor could somehow make Allison cut off the relationship. The focus on the romance is probably due to the involvement of German Hanns Kräly in the screenwriting process. Kräly is known for Eternal Love (1929), One Hundred Men and a Girl (1937) and Romeo und Julia im Schnee (Romeo and Juliet in the Snow, 1920) – and received an Oscar for The Patriot (1928). Screenwriter Paul Gangelin is responsible for the ”so bad it’s good” film The Giant Claw (1957) and Brenda Weisberg is perhaps best known for contributing to The Mummy’s Ghost (1944).
The Mad Ghoul is also one of the rawer of Universal’s post-code horror films, as it actually shows people clawing through the dirt to get to the graves, and the subtle zombie-makeup turns Allison into one of the more scary Universal monsters. The makeup was created by Universal’s monster-making genius Jack Pierce who used the same basic idea as for Boris Karloff in The Mummy (1932) – applying layers of spirit gum and cotton, and then squeezing it with pincers to get the wrinkled surface. The only thing that bothers me a bit is that apparently turning into a zombie also messes severely with Allison’s hairdo, to some comic effect. But as opposed to being just a guy covered in a big mask, David Bruce actually manages to be quite scary at times, which is of course also a credit to his acting abilities.
Somewhat interesting is that on the posters of the film, Turhan Bey was top-billed, despite the fact that his role was fairly inconsequential. Bey wasn’t in any way a major star, but his ”oriental” dark charm made him a gossiped-about figure in Hollywood at the time, and at this time he was more or less on the height of his fame. Bey was born 1922 in Austria as Turhan Gilbert Selahattin Sahultavy to a Turkish diplomat father and a Czechoslovakian Jewish mother and moved to the States in 1940, where he was immediately spotted by a Warner scout. Despite his dashing looks and his popularity with women who called him ”The Turkish Delight”, Bey was never able to make it big, and appeared mostly as second love interests in B movies or in small supporting roles in A films. He did receive a few leading man roles, mostly in Poverty Row movies at the end of the forties, before his career completely folded.
He later returned to his home country of Austria via Germany and retired from acting. He did, however, come back to the States in the mid-nineties to pick up an award, and guest starred on a number of TV shows, including quite a few sci-fis, like VR.5 (1995), Virtual Combat (1995), The Visitor (1997) and Babylon 5 (1995 and 1998). There is nothing bad to say about Bey’s performance in The Mad Ghoul, and he pulls off his part naturally and with charm.
A downside of the film is that we get one too many operetta performances, sung by Lillian Cornell and not very convincingly mimed by Evelyn Ankers. Ankers, who was already established as Universal’s number one leading lady in their horror films, initially does a good portrayal of the slightly world-weary singer, but unfortunately the script reduces her role to a sniveling damsel in distress towards the end of the film. For more one Ankers, see my review of Captive Wild Woman from the same year.
But despite all the film’s redeeming qualities, it is still a B horror movie, and even at 1943 the formula was all too familiar with the audiences. We all know how it eventually ends, although at first viewing the road there is fairly interesting. Unfortunately, somewhere along the 30 minute mark the films starts treading water, and nothing really happens for another good 30 minutes, leaving us waiting for the finale, which on the other hand is quite thrilling. So once again the film gets slapped with a boring 5/10 stars, as with so many of these late thirties and early forties sci-fi horror films.
This is, more than anything, a testament to the strengths of the studio system, especially when it came to the Big 8 studios. It would have been difficult for Universal to completely trash a horror film in the forties, even if they came close a couple of times. There was just too much talent and experience to draw from, not just the pool of character actors, but also the pool of artistic and technical staff. Even a director like James Hogan, new to the genre and best known for directing a number of Bulldog Drummond detective stories in the late thirties, was a seasoned veteran who knew exactly what he was doing in what was to be his last film.
This is one of those rare times when most modern critics seem to agree on a movie. Almost all reviews I can find place The Mad Ghoul squarely on the middle of the spectrum. AllMovie and Moria both give it 2/5 stars. Richard Scheib at Moria is one of its harshest critics, calling the plot “oddly contorted” and “structured in a way that makes for a dull horror film”. Erich Kuersten at Acidemic awards the film with 2,5/5 stars, as do Brian Orndorf at blu-ray.com and The Terror Trap. According to Kuersten: “Zucco has fun with all this, as much as he can, but the plot is the same as all the Universal ‘non-big 3’ monster B-pics of the time: an exploited killer and his evil mastermind handler take out their critics or romantic rivals while a snappy reporter goes undercover to catch them.” Finally Derek Winnert gives the film 3/5 stars: “It is an entertainingly daft, minor chiller with only a few shocks and just the odd touch of gore. But the players keep this fairly spirited hokum very watchable and fun.”
Arbogast at Arbogast on Film likes the movie’s subtext, calling The Mad Ghoul “a deceptively sophisticated concoction that makes a meal of man’s obsession with permanence. The desperation of Zucco’s aging academic to secure for himself a top spot in the annals of science, the desire of Bruce’s ill-starred lab rat for eternity with college sweetheart Evelyn Ankers, her anguish at the burgeoning of stronger, more primal feelings for pianist Turhan Bey, and the compulsion of investigative reporter Robert Armstrong (in a largely comic relief role that recalls his immortal turn as Carl Denham in King Kong a decade earlier) to crack the crime of the century speak to an all-too-human denial of the inevitability of death.” But Cody Hamman at Life Between Frames sums it up neatly: “It’s a perfectly serviceable standalone horror picture with an interesting enough story to sustain its 65 minute running time”.
David Bruce (born Marden McBroom) was by this time a seasoned B movie actor. He had already appeared in a few films alongside Errol Flynn, who was one of his good friends, often in minor supporting roles, and had played leading man in a small B movie. To this day, though, The Mad Ghoul remains his best remembered role. His daughter, singer-songwriter Amanda McBroom wrote a touching tribute to her father, called Errol Flynn, about the man who was always billed four names after the big stars. In fact in his Errol Flynn films he was mostly billed perhaps 14 names after Flynn, but it is a touching song nonetheless. His career never really took off, and he found himself working mostly in Poverty Row in the late forties, and worked mostly in TV in the fifties. He retired in 1956, but planned a comeback as his daughter Amanda was doing headway in Hollywood as a TV actress and songwriter for films and TV. But he died of a heart attack literally in a the set of his comeback movie in 1976. Three years later Amanda McBroom won a Golden Globe for her song The Rose in the Janis Joplin biopic with the same name, with the peculiar choice of Bette Midler as Janis.
George Zucco is excellent as always, drawing on his broad theatrical cunning to breath life into the mad doctor. It is a joy to watch his pompous madman, so bathing in his own superiority that he has no doubt that a beautiful, successful young woman would fall in love with his old self-righteous professor. And his downfall when he realises she is in love with her pianist is similarly well-played. Zucco could well have lived off his theatre and character work in A films, but seems to have cherished the range that these mad scientist roles gave him. He appeared in The Monster and the Girl, The Mad Monster (1942, review), Dr. Renault’s Secret (1943, review), Return of the Ape Man (1944, review), and House of Frankenstein (1944).
In the role of the journalist we see Robert Armstrong, best known as the male lead from King Kong (1933, review), Son of Kong (1933) and Mighty Joe Young (1949). As a female journalist was cast Rose Hobart, perhaps best known for playing Dr. Jekyll’s fiancée in the 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and for playing the lead in the B movie East of Borneo the same year. Surrealist artist Jospeh Cornell cut most scenes not involving her from East of Borneo, and replayed the re-edited film through a blue lens at faster silent movie speed, calling the new 18 minutes long art film Rose Hobart.
A lot of the team had just come off their last work with Captive Wild Woman, among them editor Milton Carruth. Carruth edited the silent version of All Quiet on the Western Front in 1930, and the original Universal shockers Dracula (1931) and The Mummy (1932), as well as a number of other horror films, like The Leech Woman (1960). Cinematographer Milton Krasner had just been nominated for an Oscar for Arabian Nights (1942), and would go on to receive another five nominations in the fifties, including one win. Krasner also filmed The Invisible Man Returns (1940, review), The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942, review), and years later Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970).
Art director John B. Goodman won an Oscar for The Phantom of the Opera the same year this film was made. His colleague Martin Obzina was nominated for two. He also worked on House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945, review). Set decorator Russell A. Gausman had worked on nearly every Universal horror film since Son of Frankenstein (1939, review). He later won Oscars for his work on The Phantom of the Opera (1944) and Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960) – and was nominated for 5 more. He worked on over 700 films, many of them science fiction.
I went through the whole list just for you, guys, so take a deep breath – here are all his sci-fis: The Son of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man Returns, The Invisible Woman (1940, review), Man Made Monster (1941, review), The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942, review), The Ghost of Frankenstein, Invisible Agent (1942, review), Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943, review), Captive Wild Woman, Jungle Woman (review), The Invisible Man’s Revenge, House of Frankenstein (all 1944), The Jungle Captive (review), House of Dracula (both 1945), It Came from Outer Space (1953, review), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954, review), Revenge of the Creature (1955), This Island Earth (1955), Tarantula (1955), The Creature Walks Among Us, The Mole People (both 1956), The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Deadly Mantis, The Monolith Monsters (all 1957), Monster on the Campus (1958), and finally The Leech Woman (1960). Whoah!
His colleague A.J. Gilmore also worked on a small number of the afore-mentioned films. And once again, of course, Universal queen of the frocks, costume designer Vera West is in for the ride, as is sound director Bernard B. Brown and composer Hans J. Salter, relegated to picking out stock music, though. This was assistant director William Holland’s second film – he went on to work on about 60 more, including The Incredible Shrinking Man and The Deadly Mantis.
The Mad Ghoul. 1943, USA. Directed by James P. Hogan. Written by Paul Gangelin, Brenda Weisberg, Hanns Kräly. Starring: David Bruce, Evelyn Ankers, George Zucco, Turhan Bey, Robert Armstrong, Milburn Stone, Andrew Tombes, Rose Hobart, Addison Richards, Charles McGraw. Cinematography: Milton R. Krasner. Editing: Milton Carruth. Art direction: John B. Goodman, Martin Obzina. Set decoration: Russell A. Gausman, A.J. Gilmore. Costume design: Vera West. Makeup: Jack Pierce. Assistant director: William Holland. Sound director: Bernard B. Brown. Musical director: Hans J. Salter. Produced by Ben Pivar for Universal.