by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film was The Mad Ghoul, a 1943 Universal horror production which I hadn’t seen since the old Robert Wilkins Creature Feature days in the Bay Area in the 1970’s but which I had fond memories of if only because it was yet another example of how Egyptian-American actor Turhan Bey escaped the usual fate of people of color in classic-era Hollywood. Just about any other actor of color would have been relegated to the title role, while the white Anglo-Saxon co-lead with a bland name like David Bruce would have been the hero; instead, producer Ben Pivar and director James P. Hogan had Bruce play the titular monster and Bey got to end up with the female lead, Evelyn Ankers, at the end.
Aside from that, The Mad Ghoul is a pretty small chip off the old horror log, with George Zucco billed third (after Bruce and Ankers, in that order) but really the star as chemistry professor Dr. Alfred Morris. It begins with him giving a college class in which he shows slides of ancient Mayan paintings, in one of which puffs of white smoke appear in the design. Morris explains that this is evidence that the Mayans actually had a form of poison gas, which he is attempting to replicate in his lab (the fact that it would have been far more likely to be tobacco smoke doesn’t occur to him — or to the film’s writers, Paul Gangelin and Brenda Weisberg, adapting a story by former Lubitsch and Valentino collaborator Hans Kräly). Like the heroine of the Lifetime movie Student Seduction, professor Zucco notes that student Ted Allison (Bruce) is neglecting his chemistry studies and offers to tutor him privately — and over the summer (the class we’ve seen depicted at the beginning is supposed to be the last one of the term) Ted starts coming over to Morris’s house, where he learns that Morris has already discovered the Mayan gas formula and that it doesn’t kill its victims, but puts them into a weakened “death in life” state in which they’re susceptible to being commanded by a superior will.
Romance then rears its attractive head in the person of Isabel Lewis (Evelyn Ankers), who’s about to graduate from the music department and pursue a lucrative career as a concert singer with Eric Iverson (Turhan Bey, billed fifth) as her accompanist. (Charles questioned why an Egyptian actor with a noticeable accent would be playing a character named “Iverson,” but I reasoned he could have been the product of a British father and a Egyptian mother, much like the Zita Johann character in Universal’s 1932 classic, The Mummy.) According to a trivia note on the Universal-TCM DVD, Ankers wanted to do her own singing for the role — she could have — but because the shooting schedule was so short, producer Pivar had her mime to three recordings already in Universal’s music library by singer Lillian Cornell, including “I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls” from Balfe’s operetta The Bohemian Girl and a piece called “Our Love Will Live” cobbled together from the famous opening theme of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. (The dubbing was more obvious than usual, mainly because Cornell’s records were so old the sound on them was grainy and distorted, and clearly inferior to the rest of the soundtrack.)
Isabel was previously dating Ted but has decided he’s too young and shallow for her — and she confesses to Dr. Morris that she wants someone older and more worldly. Morris has a crush on her himself and thinks she means him, but she doesn’t — she means her accompanist Eric. Thinking this will pave the way for him to get Isabel, Dr. Morris mixes his crystals containing his Mayan gas formula with water (in a crucible that was a familiar prop to Zucco, who’d also used it to brew the tana-leaf tea with which he revived the Mummy in Universal’s later films in the cycle), locks Ted in the basement lab as the gas is being released, and thereby turns him into the Mad Ghoul. He actually becomes one of Universal’s most disappointing and least scary monsters, looking like a cross between a punk rocker and Moe Howard’s younger brother. Jack P. Pierce’s usual makeup genius was out to lunch for the duration of this project, and there was also no attempt through colored filters or double exposures to do Ted’s man-to-monster or monster-to-man transformations on screen. Instead David Bruce merely puts his hands over his head and sinks his head in his lap (he always seems to be sitting down when the “changes” happen), and when he raises his head again and lets us see his face it’s the monster’s.
It turns out that the only thing that can change Ted back to a normal human being is blood drawn from the heart of a recently deceased human being — which means that he and Dr. Morris end up following Isabel around on her concert tour, with Ted in his monster state neatly removing the hearts from the newly dead (using a fresh corpse if one is available, creating one themselves by committing murder if it isn’t) and Isabel getting upset that the concerts she’s giving and the acclaim she’s getting are being eclipsed in the media by the exploits of the killer ghoul. Reporter “Scoop” McClure (Robert Armstrong, fourth-billed and as authoritative as ever even though Hollywood ill-used this ballsy actor by sending him back to the character-player salt mines after his star turns in King Kong and Son of Kong) notices the juxtaposition that a ghoul victim turns up dead in every city in which Isabel performs — no one else in the movie seems to pick up on that — and he and the cops (including a young Charles McGraw) finally track the ghoul to Isabel’s final performance (on the famous set built for the 1925 Phantom of the Opera) and the cops shoot Ted down just as he’s about to kill Eric — which was Dr. Morris’s plan: turn Ted into a monster and use his zombie-like control over him to get him to kill Eric, so both his rivals for Isabel’s love would be eliminated and she’d have nowhere else to go.
The Mad Ghoul isn’t much of a movie — its derivations from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are too obvious, and it’s made with a cool professionalism throughout but it still isn’t very exciting. Zucco was making even tackier films in the mid-1940’s — including The Mad Monster, Dead Men Walk and The Flying Serpent for PRC — but somehow those crude movies have an energy The Mad Ghoul lacks, probably because Hogan didn’t let Zucco chew the scenery the way PRC director Sam Newfield (who made all of those movies, either under his own name or as “Sherman Scott”) did, and somehow an under-wraps Zucco is a less effective Zucco. Universal deserves points for having Turhan Bey get the girl (as they did again in the 1945 historical epic Sudan with Maria Montez and Jon Hall) in spite of his ethnicity, but otherwise The Mad Ghoul is a pretty standard by-the-numbers horror exercise and yet one more piece of evidence that by 1943 artistic leadership in U.S. horror films had decisively shifted from Universal to Val Lewton’s unit at RKO.