“The Devil is digging up the graveyard” in this minor but fun Universal horror.
Universal horrors include a whole world of lesser known creeps and creatures presented in the same style and spirit as their iconic monsters Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man or The Wolf Man. Maybe they have less fame and substance than their “essential” relatives, but to me, movies like The Mad Ghoul (1943) are every bit as attractive and usually loads of fun.
The Mad Ghoul begins with George Zucco as a professor, giving the last lecture before summer vacation. He’s showing his students slides of primitive art depicting native experiments with poison gas and surgery to open a victim’s chest. He announces that he’ll be taking the summer to finish up his research on the types and uses of history’s mystery gas, and asks his brightest student (David Bruce) to be his assistant. A flattered Bruce wants to grab this opportunity but wants to run it by his girlfriend (Evelyn Ankers), a celebrated vocalist with a broadcast and an upcoming tour.
Zucco is a complex and off-kilter genius with many surprises in store. For one thing, he has already worked out the gas formula, and tried it on a monkey, which has put the animal in a state of suspended animation, a “life in death” as he calls it. Zucco and Bruce successfully reawaken Jocko the miracle monkey but it needs repeated injections of heart cells taken from a healthy monkey. Zucco’s other big secret is his obsession with Ankers; he wants her, knows she doesn’t love Bruce, plans to use Bruce to get closer to her and eventually have her for himself.
To that end, Zucco gasses Bruce and we see all the poison’s nasty side effects play out: instant emaciation, dark circles around the eyes, flaky skin, collapse and brief paralysis followed by complete mindless obedience, and most frightening of all, thorough hair mussing (just watch Bruce’s hairstyles if you’re ever in doubt as to which stage of poisoning or recovery he’s in). Now doctor and assistant have to find heart cells to give Bruce his fixes and periods of normality, which they do by desecrating the graves of the recently departed, and, in one case, murdering a hapless cemetery caretaker. The crimes attract the attention of detectives and they profile the ghoul as a skilled surgeon. Meanwhile, clever reporters Robert Armstrong and Rose Hobart connect each incident with a stop on Ankers’ concert tour. Suspicion then falls upon Ankers’ pianist and new boyfriend Turhan Bey. Ankers figures out from Bruce’s presence and weird behaviour that he must be the villain, and foolishly takes it upon herself to find out. More killing, poisoning and some backfired experiments ensue.
With this film you get the fun of spotting familiar faces like Charles McGraw as a detective who gets on the nerves of his Sergeant, Milburn Stone. You see Andrew Tombes and Addison Richards in very small but key parts, and you get a lot of morbidly and disturbingly fun moments like Zucco playing the understanding friend to Ankers, quickly putting the moves on her and then subtly reacting with a sad face when his advance flies clear over her head. Similarly, Zucco is frustrated by the gas’s failure to control emotions; try as he might, he can’t hypnotise Bruce into losing interest in Ankers. Ultimately Bruce can’t be controlled at all, and when he sees he’s losing Ankers and realizes what evil things Zucco has used him for, he pushes himself through a final struggle of willpower against the control of the mad doctor.
Bruce and Ankers play it totally serious, which works in contrast to the maniacal but never hammy (and always a pleasure to watch) Zucco, and the touches of comedy brought in by the rest of the cast. Stone gets some neat little putdown lines on his fellow detectives when they’re stumped by the grave robberies, and when Armstrong uses himself as bait for the mad ghoul, by getting in a coffin and pretending to be dead, his smart-aleckry costs him his life (“that one’s so old, it has whiskers!”). “The End” appears over one of the excavated wall drawings that shows the natives keeling over from the gas, and all this fog shrouded grave digging begins and ends in the aptly named town of Merryville. You have to enjoy a scary movie that makes you chuckle with little throwaway items like that. The Mad Ghoul is light on the horror but heavy on the creepiness and fun, and has a fully formed zombie for fans of those particular creatures, complete with a shuffle toward the camera and slurred lines. This was director James Hogan’s last film; he died of a heart attack at age 53. His credits include many Bulldog Drummond and Ellery Queen films as well as the Randolph Scott western The Texans (1938).