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Grave-robbing, desecration of the dead, sacrificial blood rites, inhuman experiments and murder are just a few of the grisly ingredients of The Mad Ghoul (1943), which despite its lurid title is not a poverty row quickie but a polished and unusually classy B-movie from Universal's low budget unit. Based on a story by Hanns Kraly the working title of the movie was "The Mystery of the Mad Ghoul" with a screenplay by Brenda Weisberg and Paul Gangelin, the story focuses on the experiments of Dr. Alfred Morris (George Zucco) whose scientific research has uncovered the formula for a deadly poison gas used by the ancient Mayans in their religious ceremonies. The gas, whose deadly vapors put its victims in a living-dead state, is first tested by Dr. Morris on a laboratory monkey. Later, his assistant Ted (David Bruce), who is also a romantic rival for the beautiful nightclub singer Isabel (Evelyn Ankers), becomes an unwitting guinea pig in the experiments when Dr. Morris exposes him to the gas. The side effects are irreversible, however, without a mixture of herbs and heart fluid obtained from fresh corpses and soon Ted is digging up bodies in the cemetery at night for his master. Dr. Morris' attempts to cover up his crimes while exercising mind control over Ted eventually leads to murder and increasingly maniacal behavior.
Like Lionel Atwill, George Zucco was a classically trained stage actor who ended up being typecast in horror films as mad doctors and insane scientists. His first official starring role in the genre, though he had already played villains in films such as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939), was The Monster and the Girl (1941). Zucco's wild-eyed stare, flamboyant gestures and imposing voice made him an ideal madman but it also stereotyped him to such a degree that he was mostly only offered low-budget horror films or thrillers by the mid-forties. Unlike Atwill, he appeared in a large number of low quality pictures for poverty row outfits like Monogram and PRC such as Voodoo Man (1944) and The Flying Serpent (1946). Yet his performance in The Mad Ghoul is a model of restraint and intelligence that gives the movie a distinctive advantage over its competition.
In addition, David Bruce's performance as the doomed Ted lends The Mad Ghoul a sense of genuine tragedy and the macabre that stays with you. Prior to this movie, Bruce was an attractive leading man in B movies with a busy if undistinguished career. The Mad Ghoul elevated Bruce to cult status among horror buffs, and though he would appear in similar Universal releases such as Calling Dr. Death (1943) and The Mummy's Ghost (1944), he would never match his creepy, haunting appearance here: "What am I? Alive or dead? Man or beast? What have you done to me?"
Bruce's gruesome makeup was designed by the legendary Jack Pierce who was responsible for creating the look of some of the most famous Universal monsters including Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy and the Wolf Man. In a later interview Pierce stated that the only direction the filmmakers gave him about Bruce's ghoul makeup was that he look like a fresh cadaver. Pierce obliged them and not only tinted Bruce's skin green but also applied a layer of false skin on the actor that proved to be difficult and painful to remove later.Turhan Bey, who plays the musician who becomes Isabel's fiance in The Mad Ghoul, was a legendary ladies' man in Hollywood, linked romantically with Lana Turner, among many others, and had an exotic screen presence. Bey later had fond memories working with George Zucco and with the film's director James Hogan and producer Ben Pivar, whom he admired as one of the many musician/ producers working at Universal at the time. The Mad Ghoul, by the way, was scored by Hans J. Salter, a six-time Academy Award nominee, who also composed the music for such Universal horrors as Man Made Monste (1941), The Wolf Man (1941), The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Son of Dracula (1943) and many more.
As was typical of its era, The Mad Ghoul, being a horror film, was immediately dismissed by mainstream movie critics as junk. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote, "Most of the ghouls we've met in horror films have been more or less scatter-brained, so there's really nothing out of the ordinary about the one in Universal's The Mad Ghoul, which came clomping and goggle-eyeing into the Rialto yesterday. He is just another poor unfortunate who has been turned into a walking fiend by another maniacal scientist who has discovered some peculiar witching-gas. And the nature of his madness is no different from that of any ghoul who has gone clawing around among cadavers and generally making a nuisance of himself. As a matter of fact, we would call him a definitely second-rate ghoul. And if anyone is privileged to be crazy, it's us poor folks who have to look at such things." By today's standards, however, The Mad Ghoul remains a remarkably stylish genre outing that is distinguished by Milton Krasner's imaginative camerawork and excellent performances from Zucco, Bruce, and Ankers.
Director: James P. Hogan
Screenplay: Paul Gangelin, Brenda Weisberg; Hanns Kraly (story)
Cinematography: Milton R. Krasner
Art Direction: John B. Goodman, Martin Obzina
Music: Hans J. Salter
Film Editing: Milton Carruth
Principal Cast: David Bruce (Ted Allison), Evelyn Ankers (Isabel Lewis), George Zucco (Dr. Alfred Morris), Robert Armstrong ('Scoop' McClure), Turhan Bey (Eric Iverson), Milburn Stone (Sgt. Macklin), Andrew Tombes (Egan, mortician), Rose Hobart (Della Elliot, reporter), Addison Richards (Editor Gavigan), Charles McGraw (Det. Garrity), Gus Glassmire (First cemetery caretaker).
by Jeff Stafford
AFI Catalog of Feature Films
Universal Horrors: The Studio's Classic Films, 1931-1946 by Michael Brunas, John Brunas and Tom Weaver(McFarland & Associates)
Horror Film Stars by Michael R. Pitts (McFarland & Associates)