November 15, 2011

The Mad Ghoul (Review)

The Mad Ghoul (2011)

Director: James P. Hogan

3 / 5 zedheads

Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, and the Invisible Man. These are the names you probably think of when you recall Universal Pictures. Few people, on the other hand, remember the lone zombie from Universal's 1943 horror/sci-fi/drama The Mad Ghoul. I can't blame them. Stacked up against Universal's roster of classic monsters, the Mad Ghoul is bland as stale toast. The Mad Ghoul, as it turns out, is a tepid tale of terror released at the beginning of Universal's decline into monster mash sequels and B-movies, but it's a film of note if for nothing more than its intriguing premise and for being the first zombie film to be released by Universal.

I love the smell of open heart surgery and taboo science in the morning
Ever feel powerless and think the world is conspiring against you? Well you have nothing on Ted (David Bruce), a young would-be surgeon whose life and will is wrenched out of his control by the conniving chemistry professor Dr. Alfred Morris (George Zucco). Dr. Morris turns Ted into an unwitting guinea pig during his experiments with an ancient Mayan gas. The gas induces a state of living-death paralysis rendering Ted a subservient zombie slave. The only thing that can bring Ted back to normal -- but only temporarily -- is a solution derived from a combination of the Colonel's secret blend of herbs and spices and a FRESH HUMAN HEART!

 Dr. Morris doses Ted with the gas in order to steal his girlfriend, a rising singer named Isabel (Evelyn Ankers). When Isabel confides in Morris that she no longer loves Ted but doesn't want to break his heart, Morris takes it upon himself to use the gas on Ted to induce a convenient sleeping-illness. That way, Ted is removed from Isabel's life so Morris is free to pursue Isabel for himself. Unfortunately, Ted will die completely if left to waste away without regular doses of the heart-solution, and Ted is too valuable to Morris as research and as a ploy in his attempt to woo Isabel, so he must keep Ted "alive." Therefore, as Morris and Ted follow Isabel on her singing tour, Morris commands the zombified Ted to rob graves and kill to obtain the fresh hearts needed to bring Ted back to lucidity. With the police beginning to narrow in on the culprits of these ghoulish crimes, Ted begins to realize that Morris is manipulating him during his unconscious, zombie blackouts, so he prepares a plan to free himself from Morris's evil clutches.

The Shadow Knows!
 The Mad Ghoul is not a particularly frightening film, even by the standards of 1943. That Ted and Dr. Morris's hunt for fresh hearts is a ghoulish plot device, and there's some inherent suspense involved when Dr. Morris attempts to use Ted to kill Isabel's new lover, but long stretches of the movie involve long conversations set in plain labs and living rooms instead of the creepy locations you'd expect. Of course, being a Universal film, there are the requisite scenes set in misty graveyards, but they are few and far between. The whole tone of The Mad Ghoul tends toward drama rather than horror, but the drama's fairly run-of-the-mill. The inadequacies of The Mad Ghoul are even more apparent when you compare The Mad Ghoul to another zombie film released the same year: Val Lewton's I Walked with a Zombie. Whereas I Walked with a Zombie is moody, creepy, well-acted, beautifully shot, The Mad Ghoul is plain, unambitious, and only moderately creepy.

Sleepy. You are getting very sleeeepy.
Despite the harvesting of hearts, The Mad Ghoul is not a gory film; it hails from the era before George A. Romero re-imagined zombies as flesh-eating monsters. The Mad Ghoul adheres to the traditional depiction of zombies as mindless slaves as in such films as White Zombie. Here, the terror should come from the concept of losing one's own will to another. Ted is a man rendered powerless in his own life. While awake, his girlfriend is in love with another man and secretly slipping away from him. While asleep in his zombie state, he is at the mercy of Dr. Morris and commanded to kill. Intellectually, the idea is frightening, but The Mad Ghoul is more interested in dwelling on the love triangle than the existential horror in which Ted finds himself. To make matters worse, Ted is a very boring zombie. The director's idea of distinguishing live Ted from zombie Ted is mussing up his hair, colouring him pale, and instructing him to sleep walk through his scenes. For scarier zombies of the same era, see White Zombie or even I Walked with a Zombie.

There's not a lot to recommend The Mad Ghoul over the better and more interesting black-and-white zombie films from the pre-Romero zombie era, but then again The Mad Ghoul only clocks in with a running time of about an hour. There are worst ways to spend an hour, but then again there are better.