Boris Karloff rises from the grave to get back the jewel stolen from his grasp
In The Ghoul Boris Karloff plays an Egyptology professor who acquires and holds dear the jewel of everlasting life. He believes that being buried with it guarantees him immortality, and promises that if the gem is taken from his death grasp, he will return to avenge the robbery. More guaranteed is that the jewel will be pilfered in a mansion of shady people who don’t believe Karloff’s mumbo jumbo. Sure enough, Karloff is buried without the jewel and rises from the grave to get it back, right when his home is visited by two young relatives seeking their inheritance, plus various and sundry players after the jewel themselves.
Ernest Thesiger plays Karloff’s thieving servant; he had recently appeared with Karloff in The Old Dark House and later played Dr. Pretorius in The Bride of Frankenstein. Here, he does a great job scheming and lurking in shadows with that fabulous face accentuated by the stark lighting. He hides the jewel in a can of coffee, (naturally coffee will be the only drink people desire later in the plot) and flees in pure terror at seeing his master rise and come after him. You get to see baby-faced Ralph Richardson in his first movie as a parson concerned about Karloff’s soul before death and after going through such an unusual ritual; he rightly predicts that “the scandalous and disgraceful burial has disastrous consequences.”
But, as another character exclaims, “we all know dead men don’t come back!” which is the cue for the casket to be pushed open by Karloff’s bandaged hand. For a movie with good music, it’s an interesting choice that the big reveal of Karloff as the monster is done in silence. He emerges in shadow, a tall and lanky figure crawling out of casket and backyard crypt, and only after he’s spotted by a shrieking witness, does dramatic music begin. Karloff’s face is made up like dry cracked clay, and he’s scary as he goes lumbering about the grounds and inside the mansion in hunt of that jewel and people to terrorize. This best part of the movie doesn’t happen until more than halfway through, and is preceded by setups for characters ranging from slight to boring. Neither the women friends (Dorothy Hyson and Kathleen Harrison) nor the romantic lead (Anthony Bushell) add much spark. Harrison fills a Ruth Donnelly type of role (I wish that was her playing it), but the bit about her chasing after a “Sheik” at the mansion is silly, as is the constant bickering between Hyson and Bushell, cousins who continue a family squabble they don’t even understand, and then fall in love in the last minutes. But they don’t do much damage, they’re more like props in jeopardy (mummy fodder) or witnesses to Karloff’s trek back to the crypt where he finally restores the jewel and ascends to immortality. Or does he? Giant plot twist involving a statue and one character you realize has been absent for a while.
This was Karloff’s only movie in 1933, sandwiched between far more productive years, but the project had some unique benefits and surprises for him. It allowed him to return to England, where he was born, for the first time in 24 years, which also made it his first British film. Karloff was pleasantly surprised by his treatment as a bona fide celebrity and the warm welcome given by his diplomat brothers. Working in England, he managed to avoid some unpleasant matters occurring in the US, like the scandal of his ex-wife being deported from Panama because of expired work documents and the financial collapse back home that cost many Universal contract actors their jobs . The Ghoul was considered lost until 1969 when a poor quality print was located in Europe. It’s since been restored, and though the story and direction (by T. Hayes Hunter) underwhelm, The Ghoul still belongs on any Karloff or monster fan’s watch list.