The Mad Ghoul

I just know it's around here somewhere!

Growing up in California,  as a  kid I kind of hoped that one day, while digging foxholes for tiny green Army men with a spoon in the backyard, I would strike gold. The gold prospectors of old seemed to strike it rich as often as not due to luck.  So the possibility coming across the mother-load wasn’t totally ludicrous to me. I imagined myself on the front page of the San Diego Union-Tribune, the headline reading: El Cajon Gold Fever above a picture of me and my kid brother, holding the steel spoons that served as tiny shovels for the construction of roads for Matchbox cars and the like.  Later, I read about alchemists who sought the philosopher’s stone, a substance that could aid in the turning of lead into gold.  None of them ever succeeded in more amazing than the occasional death by mercury poisoning.  The formula for creating gold out of lead was as  ill conceived as mining with a spoon and a garden hose.

In 1931, Universal Pictures managed to make gold from dead flesh, after a fashion, with a hugely successful movie about a scientist who animates a body he’s made from scrap parts from the local grave yard –  Frankenstein.  Here it begins in earnest, the rise of the mad scientist, a formula that Universal and other studios would return to time and time again, with varying degrees of quality and success.

The decades of 1930’s and 1940’s were more or less the heyday of the mad scientist.  Some of the films were good and others not so much.  Most of what I’ve seen so far, which is substantial but by no means exhaustive, falls between the two extremes, into a place filled with camp and unintentional humor.  Most all of these movies are rather dated, lacking the pathos of Frankenstein, the creative vision and wit of the Bride of Frankenstein, or the simmering menace of Island of  Lost Souls.  The mad scientist movies of this era tend to be highly formulaic.  The villain is usually a gentleman of a certain age and his goal  falls into one of three categories: revenge (They said that grafting cat claws on a mouse to make a self-killing rodent was mad!  I’ll show them!), global domination (I’ve mixed electric eel and ape blood to create an invincible army of electro-monkeys!) or winning the affections of a much younger woman (How could she not love a man who has lab full of bloodsucking Tyrannobats?).  The means to the end always involves murder.  I’m sure there are exceptions, but most plots fall along these well-trodden tropes.

You might be saying to yourself, “Man, people were stupid back then.  Did they notice that they were watching the same movie and over again? “ I’ll answer that question with a question: Have you ever seen a cop buddy action-comedy film?  They’re the same thing only with more shiny lights and ka-booms.  So screw you!

So, now let’s get to the movie shall we? Tonight’s creature feature is The Mad Ghoul.  The lurid title alone suggests all sorts of great things: grave robbing, the walking dead, madness, and murder!  Dr. Alfred Morris (George Zucco), a professor of chemistry at the local college and the town’s resident mad scientist, has a thing for Mayan art.  He’s stumbled onto something interesting; apparently the Mayans were playing with poison gas as well as cutting out human hearts.  Morris believed that the Mayans were cutting out the hearts to make an antidote for the poison gas, which flies in the face of the prevailing belief that the Mayans were really into Valentine’s Day . . .  extreme Valentine’s Day.  To test this hypothesis,  Morris makes a batch of Mayan poison gas at home and tests it out on his pet monkey.  The monkey goes into a deathlike stupor and is only revived when given a serum made from a fresh heart of another monkey and the Kentucky Colonel’s Eleven Herbs & Spices.  Awesome!  I hate monkeys!

Dr. Morris recruits one of his students, Ted Allison (David Bruce), a talented surgeon who desperately needs a job.  Dr. Morris invites Ted to his house and takes him down to the basement to show Ted his monkey, which is flaccid, emaciated and lifeless. Dr. Morris tells Ted about his discovery of the Mayan death gas and its antidote, explaining that he needs Ted to cut the heart out of his other monkey to cure the first one.  Yeah, I’m done with the double entendre and penis jokes . . . for now.  Ted reluctantly agrees and opens the monkey up.  Together they make the serum and inject  the first monkey, which is roused from its stupor and ready for some hot monkey action.

Dr. Morris is thrilled.  His serum works!  Dr. Morris is so thrilled that he invites Ted out for a little celebration. Ted politely declines, telling Dr. Morris that he needs to be off to meet his girlfriend, Isabel Lewis (Evelyn Ankers).  Ted goes on to explain that he hasn’t seen much of Isabel lately because she is preparing to go on tour.  Apparently Isobel is the Susan Boyle of 1943, only pretty.  Dr. Morris suggests that Ted brings Isabel by his place after dinner so that they can all celebrate the monkey business together.  Ted agrees.

Later, the couple drops by Dr. Morris’ place for a drink.  Mix master Ted goes into the other room to mix up some drinks at Dr. Morris’ request.  Isabel is moping and stabbing at the piano.  Dr. Morris figures out that Isabel is trying to distance herself from Ted.  Isabel confirms it.  Dr. Morris, suddenly sees his opening and starts to lay out the smoothness, “Ted is only a child. You’ve outgrown him. You need a more sophisticated man . . .”  Isabel, misty eyed, agrees, but explains that she finds it difficult to give Ted the brush off.  Dr. Morris offers to take care of it for her and take care of it he does! Mwahahahha! He takes care of it by giving Ted a dose of Mayan poison gas, which turns him into a zombie slave.  Shortly afterward, the monkey that Dr. Morris assumes he’d cured turns up dead.  The serum only treats the symptoms of the gas and is not a permanent cure.  Ted will need repeated doses of the serum.  Grave robbing, murder and a zombie love triangle ensue.

The Mad Ghoul has quite a few things going for it. The writing is fairly good with entertaining dialogue and a decent plot twist midway through the movie.  The cast is especially good for a B picture with the hamtastic George Zucco reigning it in a wee bit as Dr. Morris. David Bruce cuts his own path to Zombieland, a lurching trailblazer; after all, how many zombies had people really seen up that time?  He’s also sympathetic as the love struck tragic hero.  Evelyn Ankers, the scream queen of the 1940’s, does a turn her as the love interest.  Turhan Bey sweeps in doing his suave metrosexual thing.  I was surprised that Dr. Morris didn’t invite Bey to the house to see his monkey too.

One thing I really was stoked to see was Jack Pierce’s zombie make-up.  David Bruce’s lean face with high cheek bones are  just begging to be zombified and Pierce gives it to him.  The result is a rather early example of what would become de rigueur in zombie films twenty years later, beginning with George Romero and continuing with everyone else that tried to replicate the horror of Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead with their own spin on the subject.

The Mad Ghoul is quick paced, except for the musical interludes, coming it at a light sixty-five minutes, it’s a very easy film to watch.

George Zucco
David Bruce
Evelyn Ankers
Turhan Bey
Robert Armstrong

James P. Hogan

Paul Gangelin
Hanns Kräly
Brenda Weisberg

Two and a half of five Vincents

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