Despite a rich tradition in British literature, ranging from the popular Gothic romances of Anne Radcliff in the 18th Century and spanning a particularly fertile 19th Century, which included such monumentally influential works as Mary Shelly's Frankenstein (1818), Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897), the Horror genre always enjoyed a very uneasy relationship with the early British cinema. Hitchcock bypassed the problem of the genre's reputation directly (at least until the 1960s), finding ways to express his own private morbid obsessions through the suspense and mystery genres; but a film such as The Lodger (1926), for instance, was nonetheless steeped in a shadowy expressionistic imagery which had been imported wholesale from Germany — imagery which would soon come to define the look of the Horror film when Hollywood eventually came to adapt the classics of British literature for the screen in the early-Thirties. Many of the technicians and directors who worked on these films were German émigrés who had originally been instrumental in crafting the specific light-and-shadow techniques of German Expressionism. And those early Universal horrors, besides usually relying on British Horror classics for their source material, often retained uniquely British sensibilities. The high point of this trend came with the Horror films of the British born James Whale; American made films such as The Old Dark House (1932) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) were replete with a particularly mordant strain of British humour -- a strange compound of eccentric homeliness and dark cynicism -- which somehow complimented the warped Gothic fantasy elements at their core beautifully. The Old Dark House was even described as "Hollywood's British film" by reviewers at the time of its release.
And yet the British film industry seemed unable to produce anything remotely equivalent to this kind of film for a long time. A lot of this can be laid at the door of The British Board of Film Censors, which hated Horror films, hacking to bits Paramount's Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) and banning outright Tod Browning's Freaks (1932). Director Thorold Dickinson, at the time described this board as being "full of ex-Colonels and maiden aunts in long flowered frocks", and they certainly saw little that was of worth in Hollywood's parade of sensationalistic "shockers". Yet when Boris Karloff — who had in the meantime become one of Hollywood's biggest stars while living and working in the U.S. —finally returned to his homeland to visit his friends and family for the first time since he made his name, the time was ripe for British cinema to exploit that fact by employing him in its own fully fledged attempt to emulate those very films which had made Karloff such a box office draw in the first place. The result of that attempt was the Gaumont-British film, The Ghoul (1933).
Gaumont-British was a smallish British company, at the time headed by Michael Balcon: the very man who had facilitated Alfred Hitchcock's Ufa-influenced experiments in expressionism back in the '20s and who had recently resumed his professional relationship with the young director — a relationship which was to result in many of the early classics of Hitchcock's British period. Balcon clearly had no intention of throwing the opportunity away on a rushed botch job — although it's only now, with the discovery of a pristine print from the vaults of the BFI, that we can see the true quality of the resulting film on screen. Previously, a battered, murky old Czech print with burned-in Czech subtitles was the only known copy in existence and the film's reputation consequently suffered as a result. Now, the true expertise is right up there on screen. This looks, to all intents and purposes, like a Universal Horror picture! Not one of the top tier efforts perhaps, but it still looks very nice indeed.
Now largely un-remembered, the American director T. Hayes Hunter turns out to be more than competent enough to keep the very stagy material interesting (basically the familiar group-of- disparate-characters-go-wandering-round-a-forbidding-old-house scenario) with a lot of busy camera movement, still not always a given, even in the Universal Horror output of the time. Balcon also imported many of the film's key crew members from Germany to get that authentic Expressionistic feel: Cinematographer Günther Krampf duly baths the entire film in a rich black tapestry of shifting shadows and flickering candlelight; Alfred Junge's art direction is a surreal concoction of Dickinson old dark house Gothic, shoehorned with the orientalist Egyptian trappings that became so popular with the success of The Mummy (1932), and peppered with the kind of detail in its elaborate sets one would later come to appreciate in Junge's work for The Archers in the following decade. Karloff make-up is unexpectedly rich: a truly nasty creation by Heinrich Heitfeld which manages to load on all the scarred, burned and mutilated tissue "business" one could hope for, while retaining Karloff's distinctive, glaring, heavy-browed features.
Balcon was also canny enough to once-more pair-up Karloff with Ernest Thesiger, making sure the casual filmgoer stood a very good chance of mistaking this home-grown British effort for a Universal Horror flick. All this good work might well have immediately come undone in the screenplay though: although Thesiger has a memorable turn as Laing, a clubfooted Scottish servant with an orthopaedic shoe (!), Karloff's sepulchral professor Morlant dies in the first ten minutes and then goes unseen until the final twenty minutes or so, whereupon he is called upon to execute another speechless mime act similar to that of Frankenstein (1931) as the undead Ghoul of the tile. The story is over-busy but largely redundant and concerns a precious Egyptian jewel which everyone in the movie needs to get their hands on for various MacGuffin-like reasons. Morlant had purchased it because, as a student of the Occult and collector of all things Egyptian, he had believed that it held the power to bring to life an Egyptian statue in his possession — which would then grant him eternal life. Morlant's dusty, granite-faced solicitor, Broughton (Cedric Hardwicke), meanwhile, wants it for himself after discovering in Morlant's documents that the professor paid £75,000 for it. Meanwhile, Morlant's grasping relative Ralph Morlant (Anthony Bushell) and cousin Betty Harlon (Dorothy Hyson) are convinced that they're being stitched up by Broughton and want to find out what he's really up to. Also, two Egyptian scholars, one of which sold the jewel to Morlant in the first place, want to return it to its rightful ancient heritage. There are other more devious forces at work in the shape of Ralph Richardson's fake parson; his kindly persona merely a front for a plan to rob the undead Morlant of the precious jewel. All of them end up in Morlant's' crumbling old mansion on the Yorkshire moors, with Morlant's body resting in the Egyptian-style mausoleum that stands in the grounds.
This stuff seems to take up the majority of the film's running time and it is only thanks to the hugely watchable cast (who really seem to throw themselves wholeheartedly into the whole business) and the care and attention which has been lavished on every aspect of the film's production, that it doesn't become a total slog to sit through. But even when Karloff is seemingly returned from the tomb and rampages about the house trying to wrench the jewel from the other cast members, the screenplay can't seem to commit itself to the obvious fact that this is meant to be a Horror picture. It's not the slapstick comic relief that upsets the balance (this comes in the form of Kathleen Harrison as Betty's scatty friend Kaney) which was fairly standard even in Universal films of the time, but the fact that all the Occult trappings of the plot — even Morlant's return from the dead — are hastily and unconvincingly explained away in a few lines of dialogue near the end of the film. Perhaps for the sake of that stodgy board of film censors, it was felt necessary to mendaciously present the film as a mystery drama rather than an outright Horror picture, although it's difficult to believe anyone would be fooled for long by this. The film also struggles with a leading man who comes across as almost entirely unsympathetic for most of the picture, but then unaccountably morphs into the "Romantic Lead", purely for the sake of conventional plotting dynamics, presumably. It is also noticeable that Morlant doesn't actually kill any of the main characters ... in fact he only dispatches one minor foreign baddie throughout the whole film!
The film looks wonderful in this newly restored version. If you've only previously seen it and dismissed it as a minor, rather creaky attempt to cash-in on the U.S. '30s Horror boom, then this print will almost certainly lead you to a reassessment. The plot may not always convince (although, few of the Universal pictures wasted much time in tying up all the loose ends), but the film looks so good and is so well-made that it is bound to push its way up into the forefront as being one of Karloff's most memorable Horror performances. Network's DVD looks marvelous and to compliment your enjoyment of this once-lost classic, they've included another commentary track by Kim Newman and Stephen Jones. As was the case with their enjoyable assessment of "Carnival of Souls", this track is loaded with wit, critical analysis and just all-round enjoyable chat between the two on their personal memories of the film as well as its background. The encyclopedically inclined Newman has even gone to the trouble of seeking out a battered copy of the original novel and comparing the differences in plot between the film and written versions (the novel was a minor Edgar Wallace-style mystery, it turns out); once-again, it's the kind of commentary which it would be a pleasure to listen to more than once and which helps to make this yet another essential purchase for classic Horror fans.