James P. Hogan, 1943
Starring: Turhan Bey, Evelyn Ankers, George Zucco
Yet another crazy scientist, Dr. Morris, is experimenting with a nerve gas used by natives (the internet says Mayans, but I don’t remember the film specifying) during ancient rituals of human sacrifice and dissection. His assistant, Ted, is a medical student, and unfortunately for Ted, Dr. Morris falls in love with his girlfriend Isabel. Meanwhile, Morris focuses his experiments on a monkey, who he kills with the gas, but revives with aortic fluid from other animals. Isabel accidentally makes it clear to Morris that she is unhappy with Ted. A traveling musician and singer, she is secretly in love with her partner, Eric, but Morris misinterprets the information and plans to do away with Ted and take Isabel for himself.
He exposes Ted to the gas, which turns him into a zombie-like ghoul unless Morris gives him the aortic fluid of recently dead humans. Morris and Ted follow Isabel on tour and, while Ted is in ghoul form, kill a number of people to keep Ted alive and put the police on their trail. Morris wants Ted to kill Eric, so that he can have Isabel for himself, but when Ted is in his conscious form, he is determined to protect her at any cost.
Directed by James P. Hogan (The Strange Death of Adolf Hitler), The Mad Ghoul feels much more like a Poverty Row horror film than a Universal classic, though by 1943 the two had basically merged. Universal were all about reusing sets, plots, and many of the same actors. After The Wolf Man and much of the Inner Sanctum series, Evelyn Ankers is again the female lead. She’s not particularly good, particularly bad, or particularly memorable, but stands out in these films for the sheer number of them she was cast in. Another Universal regular, Austrian actor Turhan Bey, known as “the Turkish Delight” to his fans, appears as her partner and love interest, Eric.
Of course George Zucco is really the show stopper and almost manages to surpass the middling plot. Whether in Universal horror, Fox, MGM, or Poverty Row films, the British Zucco nearly always appeared as a villain, taking roles as varied as Dr. Morris in this film to Professor Moriarty in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939) alongside Basil Rathbone. He appeared in dozens of horror, cult, and adventure films. If you’ve never had the pleasure of watching his barely contained ranting and raving, this isn’t a bad place to start. He’s excellent as Dr. Morris and this was one of his first starring roles.
The Mad Ghoul does contain a number of horror tropes that were popular in the ‘40s: the mad scientist, the luckless protagonist and his damsel-in-distress girlfriend, a suspicious police inspector, a meddling reporter, annoying comic relief, murder, grave robbing, and highly illegal scientific experimentation. This probably could have been a bit more compelling if Universal put more work into the script, but as it stands, it is a mostly dull affair and can’t compare to other early zombie films like Bela Lugosi-vehicle White Zombie and Val Lewton’s melancholic I Walked With a Zombie. It’s also a shame that the heart removal is so tame and zombie/ghoul Ted mostly shuffles about unimpressively. The overall proceedings feel more like an old school comic book than like a compelling horror film.
If you really want to watch The Mad Ghoul, I would advise looking for it online. There’s an overpriced DVD-R for sale on Amazon and a very expensive box set of some rare Universal horror films. The Mad Ghoul is definitely more of a rental than a purchase, so neither of these options seem worth it. I do really wish Universal had cast Zucco more often, though.