What is it about those creepy British country manors? You know, the ones that are shrouded in fog and family secrets? Those places that, hell, even the local cops don’t dare venture near.
We encountered one such manor in Curse of the Crimson Cult. An equally foreboding abode can be found in 1975’s The Ghoul.
I first encountered The Ghoul back in 1991. It was one of those late-night horror movies that I taped off late night TV. There it was, nestled in between ads for soap operas and Pizza Hut.
I was eleven and in heaven.
Fast-forward to 2003: I stumbled across this one on the shelves of my beloved Video Busters in Melbourne’s inner north. Who could resist that faded green videocassette cover, with the shot of a bloke with a dagger in his skull? Here it is:
I was twenty-three when I revisited The Ghoul, and an exhausted Honours student. I wanted respite from my thesis (on vampire fiction, no less), and what better way to get it than by tuning into one of the last gasps of old school British horror?
Anyhoos, The Ghoul begins in grand Grand Guignol style. Daphne (Veronica Carlson) is walking up a staircase, candle in hand, while a male voice calls her name. She arrives in an attic room to find the source of the voice: A chap in a dinner suit, hanging off a meat hook.
Then the lights come on, and the truth is revealed: It’s all a prank.
Cut to a Roaring Twenties party. Fortified by champagne, Daphne suggests that a drag race is just thing to liven up the evening. Her friends (who’ve also over-indulged) think this is a jolly good idea, and off they drive into the day-for-night.
Alas, the dry ice machine is working overtime on the moors, and Daphne’s vehicle falls into a spot of bother. Her male companion goes somewhere, and dear Daphne heads to … Unheimlich Manor. Fans of Freud will know that the term ‘unheimlich’ translates to ‘unhomely’; it’s strange and familiar, all at once.
Unheimlich Manor looks cosy, with its crackling fireplaces and brightly-lit interiors. This place looks homely, dammit, but it turns out to be anything but …
So it’s at Unheimlich Manor that Daphne encounters the sleazy War Doctor (John Hurt) and former clergyman Dr. Lawrence (Peter Cushing).
And, of course, Daphne encounters Dr. Lawrence’s sinister secret.
Actually, there’s no fucking spoiler at all. C’mon, this film’s called ‘The Ghoul’. And the ghoulish creature turns out to be Dr. Lawrence’s son, who lives in the attic and feeds on human flesh. He’s spoken about in hushed tones. There are shots of body parts being served up in silverware outside his door.
The Ghoul is, however, concealed from view until the final scene, when he’s revealed to be … some bald, middle-aged bloke in a loin cloth, who’s shot in the soft lens that Lucille Ball mobilised for Mame.
Okay, so here’s Ghoul-guy in action:
It was enough to make this schlock connoisseur scream with laughter.
So maybe this all sounds familiar? Maybe it should. The Ghoul borrows heavily from Psycho and Brides of Dracula (both 1960). In both of those films, fearsome family members are liberated from their domestic prisons to wreak havoc.
And, of course, in those films, there are malevolent mothers. In The Ghoul, the monstrous maternal figure known only as ‘Ayah’, and her evil is signified by her ‘foreignness’. Ayah is played by Anglo-British Gwen Watford, and belongs to regrettable tradition of white performers donning racial drag:
There’s the suggestion that Lawrence’s son was corrupted by some ancient, mystical curse. Or something. Any chance of British imperialism being critiqued disappears into the quicksand that is also (conveniently) located near Unheimlich Manor.
Oh, and there’s the patrician patriarch, Dr. Lawrence. Carlson recalled how Cushing was still grieving over the death of his wife, Helen, while The Ghoul was being filmed; and how this grief impacted on his characterisation of the tortured ex-churchman:
Moving stuff. Genuinely. We still missya, Peter.
Okay, so is The Ghoul scary? No. There’s no atmosphere, save for the fog that swirls around the Lawrence lair. There’s no suspense, and there are no real surprises. We know that there’s a cannibalistic critter in the top room. We know he’ll go on the rampage, and we know that he’ll be punished (can’t have that ‘foreign’ evil threaten bucolic Britannia).
And we know there’ll be a damsel in distress—though it won’t be Daphne.
Said damsel will be played by Alexandra Bastedo (of The Blood Spattered Bride fame – I mean, you could write a whole essay about that film. In fact, I have … ). She’s the one who’ll deliver the high-pitched holler that Daphne failed to exhale in the party prank.
Yes, The Ghoul is unremarkable. Indeed, this a film that’s remarkable in its unremarkableness.This is a film that recycles every Unheimlich Manor cliche ever (and not a few frankly racist cliches, too.)
And this is a film that was right at home amidst those late night fast food commercials. Or on the shelves of that long-ago video store, behind peeling plastic, its lime-coloured cover saying nothing and everything about the creepshow concealed within.