An Offbeat Guide to the Incredibly Strange and Obscure in Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Movies
Written by Paul Gangelin and Brenda Weisberg
Directed by James Hogan
Produced by Ben Pivar
Music: Hans J. Salter
Cast: George Zucco, David Bruce, Evelyn Ankers, Robert Armstrong, Turhan Bey
Running time: 65 minutes
Also Known As: Mystery of the Ghoul
Mad scientist Dr Morris (Zucco) experiments with an ancient nerve gas on his student (Bruce) and has designs on his student’s fiancée (Ankers).
Released on the bottom of a B-movie double bill, The Mad Ghoul is an overlooked, efficient (at just 65 minutes) flick that features a rather unusually restrained performance from mad scientist actor George Zucco.
Zucco is Dr Morris, experimenting with a recreated ancient Mayan gas. His student Ted becomes an unwitting subject, and the pair go on tour with Ted’s singer girlfriend Isabel, having to raid graveyards en route for hearts from corpses to keep the Jekyll-and-Hyde-like Ted going.
It’s admittedly daft, but no more or less than many other bizarre horror movies. It’s entertaining mainly because the tour party is pursued by wisecracking journalist Robert Armstrong (King Kong’s impresario Carl Denham) who senses a scoop, and then becomes part of the story himself.
Ted’s plight is a very different take on the zombie concept than that pursued by later filmmakers (mainly following the George Romero model, with variations). Half the time Ted’s more or less OK, but the rest he turns corpse-like and is susceptible to suggestion, becoming forced to carry out Dr Morris’s will as the scientist tries to win over Isabel for himself. Isabel’s new romance with pianist Eric (Turhan Bey) is nicely played and gives Bey a chance to feature in something not including bandage-wrapped mummies. Of course, the Frankenstein factor holds true as the ‘creature’ turns on his ‘creator’, infected by the same gas he inflicted on Ted. The final theatre scenes were shot on the old Phantom of the Opera stage that still stands on the Universal studios lot.
With good performances and some minor directorial flourishes, Hogan’s film is a neat programmer, even if its central monster is a bit bland. Perhaps a bit slow in its set-up (even if it’s only just over an hour), The Mad Ghoul delivers enough thrills, within 1940s Production Code limits, to make it worth reviving.
George Zucco was the quintessential horror movie mad scientist of the 1940s. Born in Manchester, Zucco started in vaudeville before starting in movies in the mid-1930s. Willing to take almost any role, he became a regular in Hollywood’s horror flicks, from The Mummy’s Hand (1940) to House of Frankenstein (1944). He’s probably best known for the role of Professor Moriarty in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939) opposite Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. He died in 1960.
Evelyn Ankers was another British-born actor best known for appearing in US horror movies. She featured opposite Lon Chaney Jr in The Wolf Man (1941), aged just 23. She appeared in a variety of horror films, among them The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Son of Dracula (1943), The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944) and The Frozen Ghost (1945), and was known as “the queen of the screamers”. She died in 1985, aged 67.
Robert Armstrong is best known as the impresario Carl Denham in both King Kong (1933) and Son of Kong (1933), who brought the beast to wreck New York. He died in 1973 aged 82, within a few hours of King Kong co-producer Merian C. Cooper.
James Patrick Hogan’s final film was The Mad Ghoul, as he died of a heart attack in 1943, aged 53, just one week before the film was released. Hogan had come to Universal in April that year after seven years at Paramount, and many years as a journeyman director since 1920. He was best known as the director of the Bulldog Drummond film series between 1937 (Bulldog Drummond Escapes) and 1939 (Bulldog Drummond’s Bride).
The stealing of hearts from corpses in order to keep Ted functioning is a pretty (pardon the pun) heart-stopping moment (especially for the 1940s). The fact that a regular supply of corpses is then needed comes as a surprise, as does the vision of King Kong’s Robert Armstrong as a corpse (spoiler!), which is a heart-stopper. The stage entrance of the zombie at the movie’s climax is another showboating moment.
Released as a support feature with Son of Dracula, The Mad Ghoul featured David Bruce as the title monster simply because he was under contract to the studio and happened to be available at the time. More used to playing nice young men in light comedies, Bruce joined the Navy Air Service during the war but was discharged due to his habit of fainting while in flight!
“All they told me was that they wanted [David] Bruce to look like a reasonably fresh cadaver. I said ‘How fresh?’ They said a couple or three weeks buried. This was not much to go on, but I did my best. They seemed satisfied.” — Jack Pierce, Universal’s make-up supremo
A 1997 VHS video release is still available (at a price), but The Mad Ghoul is a film that has escaped the quite comprehensive DVD releases of Universal’s horror classics in recent years. TCM have released it on DVD in the US, but it’ll cost you around $45.
An photo essay on mad scientist actor George Zucco
Evelyn Ankers: A History of Horror biography
This might work quite well as a modern remake, although the horror elements would need to be updated — however the press pursuit of the touring concert that coincides with the Ghoul attacks would make for a great contemporary thriller.
The Bottom Line
Efficient little programmer, the performances of Zucco and Armstrong give this relatively tame horror film a little extra kick.
By Brian J. Robb