Saturday, December 18, 2010


I'll say it again: THE MAD GHOUL is the best PRC horror movie that Universal ever made. It's every bit as strange and oddly engaging as any Poverty Row monster movie of the 1940s that you can name, but it's got all the brand-name (B-unit) trappings of Universal Studios to give it that little bit extra and deliver a lasting, satisfying, and fun film. Although it was probably pretty forgettable as the second-banana feature in the cinemas in 1943 to SON OF DRACULA, THE MAD GHOUL--- complete with grave robbing, corpse desecration, and the best treatment ever of an unfunny, wisecracking, comic-relief news reporter--- might be the ideal, archetypal selection for a horror movie shown on late-night TV.

Creepy middle-aged chemistry professor Alfred Morris (George Zucco) is sexually obsessed with young, beautiful concert singer Isabel Lewis (Evelyn Ankers); he delusionally thinks that the feelings are mutual, and so to move things along, he sets out to dismantle Isabel's engagement to a promising surgery student named Ted Allison (David Bruce). Morris hires Ted as a laboratory assistant and deliberately exposes him to a nerve gas vapor that had been developed for religious rituals by the ancient Mayans. Anyone who inhales these fumes is robbed of his consciousness and his will, and he is left as a sort of living-dead zombie slave. To pull the dead-alive out of this eventually terminal state of being, the Mayans had concocted a blend of herbs and the blood-clotting agents extracted from a recently-deceased heart, and Morris has mastered this ancient secret as well.

Once Ted has been zombified, Morris figures that he can order him to break off the engagement with Isabel. But his plan to move in on the singer gets sidelined when he discovers that the remedy's effects are only temporary: it appears that Ted collapses back into zombie-slave mode following a period of intense emotional stress, and that forces Morris to march Ted off to the nearest cemetery and dig up a fresh heart to revert him back to his normal self.

Rather than simplifying his love life, Morris finds that he's made things more complicated for himself. Ted insists on following Isabel around on her concert tour like a stalky puppy dog and Morris tags along. Isabel, meanwhile, has fallen in love with her smarmy-suave Continental accompanist, Eric Iverson (Turhan Bey), but she hasn't worked up the nerve to tell Ted about it because of his spells of unexplained illness. In between attending Isabel's recitals and plundering the graves of the recently deceased to steal the corpses' hearts, a desperate Morris finally decides to use Ted to kill Eric so that he can pounce on Isabel, but by then a couple of wise-ass reporters and a couple of clueless police detectives have started to close in on this morbid lovers' quadrangle.

My summary of THE MAD GHOUL doesn't come close to explaining how grisly and weirdly delirious the whole thing gets, and it is those quality that brings to mind some of the "suspenstories" that might be found in the old EC anthology titles like The Haunt of Fear or The Vault of Horror. But like I said at the outset, THE MAD GHOUL also makes me think of some of my favorite Poverty Row monster & mystery movies of the early 1940s. I have a genuine affection for many of those low-budget quickies churned out by the likes of PRC, Monogram, Republic, and Invincible/Chesterfield; there's a sort of underdog charm that always wins me over when I watch these movies that allows me to accept whatever bizarre and unlikely scenario is being presented therein and leaves me admiring their audaciousness--- for the sake of illustration, let me mention some favorite stuff of mine like THE CORPSE VANISHES, BLUEBEARD, FOG ISLAND, and THE FLYING LIZARD.

In previous posts on this blog, mention has been made of the movies hosted by Swami Drana Badour (Chicago's WBKB, 1950-52) and Vampira (LA's KABC, 1954-55) as a kind of pre-history of SHOCK! broadcasts. And if you look at those lists, you'll see that Poverty Row mysteries & horror films constituted the bulk of what was shown on TV before SHOCK!'s release in 1957. But even in the 1970s and 1980s, when there was so many more movies available for telecast on the weekly horror/sci-fi movie programs, there was still a stubborn smattering of Poverty Row horrors that would turn up and still satisfy--- as a recent example, there's the appearance of PRC's DEAD MEN WALK (1943) on TCM's "Underground" in November 2007. There's something so primitive and dreamlike about these claustrophobic soundstage-bound pictures that seem to work so well on late-night TV... it was as if they had been specially made to be seen by someone alone at night on a small television screen. This is the same vibe that I get off of THE MAD GHOUL: it feels like it had been produced as a made-for-TV movie designed to be shown on branded showcases like "Shock Theater" or "Creature Features" of the late 1950s and early 1960s where it would blend in easily with some of that other Poverty Row fare. Other B-movie Universal titles with a similar Poverty Row feel include NIGHT MONSTER (1942), MAN MADE MONSTER (1941), THE SPIDER WOMAN STRIKES BACK (1946) , HOUSE OF HORRORS (1946), and THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. RX (1942), all of which were included in SHOCK! and will be discussed in the weeks to come.

Gazette-Mail, Charleston, WV, Saturday November 8, 1959

As a footnote, I want to mention that at same time that THE MAD GHOUL was first appearing on television, THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL was released into theaters. In most of the ad mats, one of the tag lines coincidentally trumpeted: "Mad ghoul rules terror villa!" But in terms of theme (young person cruelly exploited by mad mentor), there are strong similarities between THE MAD GHOUL and AIP's I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF (1957) and BLOOD OF DRACULA (1957).

NEXT: "Now you see him --- now you don't! That's what you'll see or think you see in Shock's THE INVISIBLE MAN telecast on this channel!"


Mirek said...

Wonderful review of THE MAD GHOUL. I, too, love many of those Poverty Rows, which have their own charms and memories.

kochillt said...

It's easy to make the connection between this film and the Poverty Row horrors of the 40's, Monogram and PRC did far more mad scientists than Universal did. After Lionel Atwill, the pickings were slim (there was John Carradine in both CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN and THE INVISIBLE MAN'S REVENGE). At least PRC awarded Zucco top billing, he settles for third here. THE MAD GHOUL has always been under the radar, a puzzle, since it has one of the finest casts ever assembled at Universal. For once, Evelyn Ankers is at the center of things, rather than just the token female, while David Bruce at least earns his top billing playing the monster, wearing the same kind of aged makeup designed for Karloff in THE MUMMY. This has to be the most three dimensional mad doctor Zucco ever played, and it's doubtful if Atwill could have pulled it off with his more flamboyant persona. A great tribute to Zucco's low key menace. It's always a thrill to see reviews of the undeservedly obscure movies that were such frequent guests in living rooms during past decades, and the 70-plus features in this category should continue to find an audience. One of the first SHOCK! titles to debut on Pittsburgh's CHILLER THEATER, as the second in a quadruple Halloween bill in 1965, this aired a total of 6 times overall.

kochillt said...