Monday, 19 October 2020

Gothic Originals / Horror Express 2020 #8:
The Ghoul
(Freddie Francis, 1975)

 I make a point of trying to cover at least one previously unseen Peter Cushing film each October, and I've had this one lying around as a VHS-rip since god knows when, so here we go.

As anyone who has read up the history of British horror cinema will probably recall, Tyburn productions (named for the infamous site of London’s public gallows) was a short-lived outfit founded by Kevin Francis, son of Freddie, with the deliberate intention of reviving the more old-fashioned style of gothic horror filmmaking which had pretty much been driven to extinction in the UK by the mid-1970s.

(Precisely the kind of films the then 25-year-old Kevin had grown up watching his father work on in other words, although this is neither the time nor place to dwell upon the psychological motivations underpinning forty-five year old entrepreneurial ventures.)

Be that as it may, Tyburn was not a success. To put it bluntly, there were good reasons why production of traditional gothic horrors had flatlined in the preceding years, and the young Mr Francis had no ace up his sleeve to help overcome them. Greeted with almost total disdain by audiences and critics alike when they scraped into cinemas in ‘74-‘75, the three feature films Tyburn produced attracted little interest, and the company faded from existence shortly thereafter.

Released in June 1975, ‘The Ghoul’ was the last Tyburn film to see the inside of a projector, and, true to its producer’s intentions, it’s a sombre, slow-moving and ultimately pretty dispiriting attempt to revive the ‘stately’ (read: stuffy / Victorian) feel of classic-era Hammer.

Indeed, Hammer’s own Anthony Hinds (writing under his John Elder pseudonym) provided the script, a substantial portion of which is directly recycled from his work on 1966’s The Reptile - only, this time around, there’s no reptile, which gives you an immediate insight into what a bloody-mindedly uncommercial production we’re getting into here.

Dour as it may be though, ‘The Ghoul’ does have its charms - not least an excellent, late-era Cushing performance. As so often in this era, the actor seems to be drawing pretty heavily on his own well-publicised battle with grief, and I really hope that the scene in which his character cradles a photograph of his late wife, reflecting that they will “always be together” and so forth, was not added to the script simply to capitalise on the star’s personal circumstances. (1)

Either way though, Cushing handles it all with the grace and dignity we’d reasonably expect of him, whilst his character Dr Lawrence - a morally compromised former missionary, returned from India with a dark secret and henceforth dedicated to his solitary passion for building violins - incorporates enough psychological nooks and crannies for the actor to really get his teeth into (so to speak), irrespective of the relatively shoddy stuff which surrounds him.

It's a shame therefore that second-billed John Hurt pretty much phones it in as the simple-minded groundskeeper/hobo type character who skulks about Lawrence’s swampy, dilapidated country pile, luring young ladies back to the literal chicken-shack he calls home and falteringly attempting to abuse them. Despite being painfully uninteresting, this vacant numbskull is assigned an absolute ton of screen-time, and although he essentially representing the film’s only portrayal of a working class character, neither script nor actor bother to put in a very good showing.

Having already played leading roles in several higher profile films by this point, as well as being nominated for a BAFTA for his harrowing supporting performance in Richard Fleischer’s ‘10 Rillington Place’ (1971), it’s possible that Hurt simply felt this gig was beneath him - and indeed, with its Wurzel Gummidge costumery, moptop wig and clunking, remedial dialogue, it quite possibly was. But, he could still have taken a few tips from Cushing vis-à-vis counting one’s blessings and making the best of things, I would suggest.

Elsewhere, it's great to see Ian McCulloch (‘Zombie Flesh Eaters’, Zombi Holocaust) popping up a few years before his Italio-horror glory days (there’s some uneasy, class-based tension when, noticing that Hurt’s character is a former soldier, McCulloch’s young officer starts bossing him about in regimental fashion, igniting an awkward battle of wills), Whilst Veronica Carlson (‘Dracula Has Risen From The Grave’, ‘Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed’) makes for a far ballsier heroine than you normally encounter in this sort of thing, taking charge during the film’s opening car race, and generally lording it over her male co-stars in no uncertain terms.

Despite of ‘The Ghoul’s all-pervading atmosphere of nostalgic gloom in fact, some efforts have clearly been made here to bring a more contemporary feel into proceedings. The unusual 1920s setting for instance seems to have been introduced largely in order to facilitate some rambunctious, jazz-age merrymaking into the film’s opening scenes (retro ‘20s hi-jinks were, oddly, often a by-word for envelope-pushing modernism in ‘70s cinema, post-‘Bonnie & Clyde’), whilst the aforementioned nocturnal car race - in which the movie’s hateful young toffs recklessly roar around ill-lit country roads in their vintage motors - is both well-executed and quite exciting, surpassing the similar scenes featured in ‘The Devil Rides Out’ (1968).

Beyond ‘The Reptile’ meanwhile, Hinds’ script also seems to have borrowed at least some of its structure from ‘Psycho’, and the film’s scenes of violence, few and far between though they may be, are effectively gory and hard-hitting.

Indeed, given that it is inevitably being tagged as a boring, old fashioned throwback by British horror fans, it is ironic that ‘The Ghoul’s “bright young things find themselves at the mercy of doddering old weirdos” plotline entirely mirrors the far edgier films being made by directors like Pete Walker at around the same time, realigning the class-based conflicts underlying most of Hammer’s output to reflect the generational rifts more frequently explored by younger filmmakers during the ‘70s.

Conversely however, some viewers might be liable to find other elements of ‘The Ghoul’s script more retrogressive and objectionable - specifically, its apparent portrayal of Indian culture as an ‘exotic’, sinister sort of business which serves to undermine steadfast, Christian morality; a conduit for depraved, pagan beliefs which Cushing’s character has opened himself up to by “going native”, destroying his family in the process.

Embodied in the figure of Cushing’s taciturn housekeeper Ayah (a ‘browned up’ Gwen Watford), who rather unfairly emerges as the primary villain of the piece, this strain of pulp fiction-era racism was already present to some extent in ‘The Reptile’, but regrettably it becomes more emphatically pronounced here.

Whilst I certainly couldn’t argue with anyone who would wish to dismiss the film on this basis however, I personally found that the ambiguous atmosphere (Freddie) Francis and Cushing bring to the film help to steer the material in a more interesting direction than that of mere xenophobic scare-mongering.

Though the elder Francis’ talents as a horror director were often taken for granted, even his lesser efforts are usually characterised by their close attention to production design, lighting and camera-work, and the pungent atmospherics he summons up during the better passages of ‘The Ghoul’ are no exception. Thus, the idea of an “alien” Indian/Eastern culture subtly underlying the prosaic surface of a conventional English country house is given a great deal of play here, and actually becomes quite intriguing.

The house is kept sweltering by roaring fires in every room because “we’re used to the heat”, whilst the residents speak primarily in Ayah’s native tongue, awkwardly reverting to English for the benefit of their guests. Meanwhile, in a striking visual metaphor, the shrine of the black onyx Thuggee goddess worshipped by Ayah literally sits directly behind Dr Lawrence’s modestly adorned Anglican chapel, hidden from sight by a flimsy screen, as the compromised patriarch writhes in culturally conflicted mental agony before his impotent, gold-plated cross.

Imaginatively rendered through the film’s production design more-so than its writing, this all adds up, in its own way, to a curious sideways reflection on the ‘end of empire’ and the effects of the Indian experience upon upper-crust British identity, whilst Cushing, mindful no doubt of these sensitive themes, making a lingering sense of guilt and displacement the keynote of his performance.

In saying this, I realise I’m probably giving ‘The Ghoul’ more credit than it deserves. To the casual viewer, much of the movie will simply seem clumsy, boring and amateur-ish, in addition to its questionable racial political. This all comes home to roost when, after well over an hour’s painstaking build up, the climactic reveal of the titular ‘ghoul’ (played by prolific bit-part actor Don Henderson and a couple of buckets of blue paint) proves a crushing disappointment all round.

Filmed in perfunctory, one-take fashion amid a haze a Vaseline-lensed blurriness, it feels as if Francis was reluctant to even put this nonsense on camera (which is saying something, given that his recent directorial assignments had also included Herman Cohen’s ‘Craze’ and Ringo Starr & Harry Nilsson’s atrocious ‘Son of Dracula’). Just a hideous embarrassment for all concerned, the less said of this farrago of a finale, the better, to be honest.

Sad to say, these final scenes serve as an absurd and rather pathetic final pratfall for the traditional British gothic, of which this was, effectively, the final example. It feels especially fitting therefore that, with a thoughtfulness characteristic of the sub-genre’s most gifted and iconic performer, Cushing claws back some degree of dignity in the film’s last moments, furnishing it with an appropriately sombre grace note and a memorably doomed closing image. Nice work Pete - you earned your fee on this one, and then some.


(1)As per IMDB trivia; “according to Veronica Carlson, director Freddie Francis made Peter Cushing do multiple takes during the scene where he talks about his love for his wife. This caused Cushing great distress, and reduced him, and some of the crew, to tears.” So that would seem to confirm my worst suspicions then.


Maurice Mickelwhite said...

Superb write up, Ben, superb. I know its flawed, I know it creaks and the ghoul himself is a let down, but I can't help but have a comfort food soft spot for me. Lots of memories of watching it as an initiate, on late night BBC in the mid 90s, when I had a full blown foggy wood at the end of the garden for gothic el max.

Its also unwittingly responsible for my moving up the scale slightly when finding a VHS in the secondhand shop and thinking "Ian McCulloch? From The Ghoul? Well, this'll be alright then as I like The Ghoul!" and wandering home with a copy of Zombie Flesh Eaters under my arm, aged CONSIDERABLY under 18.

Ben said...

Thank you as always for your kind words Maurice, and those sound like some happy memories indeed. I honestly can't imagine how I would have reacted to something like 'The Ghoul' as a teenager... would I have loved it, or would it have put me off this-sort-of-thing for life? Could have gone either way.

Despite watching it for the first time as adult, I probably end up on the same page as you, in that I feel so warmly toward creaky old British horror films that I can pretty much always find something to like about them.

Oddly enough, your comment also reminded me of the fact that the first Italian horror film I ever saw was 'Zombie Flesh Eaters 2' (I was on a tight budget, and it was cheaper than the first one, for obvious reasons). It's a wonder I didn't just pack it in there and then, after that experience.

Maurice Mickelwhite said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Maurice Mickelwhite said...

"I honestly can't imagine how I would have reacted to something like 'The Ghoul' as a teenager... would I have loved it, or would it have put me off this-sort-of-thing for life? Could have gone either way."

I suspect what would have happened is that the next week, BBC1 would have put Psychomania on, then it would have fired up the "this is amazing! more!" syndrome haha.

To be a fan is to persevere, as you never quite know what yr gonna get once those credits roll.......which is why we keep at it :) The rewards are worth it when a gem is found!

Ian Smith said...

Thanks for this series of pre-Halloween reviews. It's now a 'Breakfast in the Ruins' tradition that I look forward to every October.

With 'The Ghoul', I think it first turned up on British TV as part of those Saturday-night horror double bills that BBC2 would show every summer. I remember watching it at the age of 13 and being totally unimpressed by it. Partly this was because it formed the second half of a bill with 'Night of the Demon' which, although it seemed a bit creaky by the end of the 1970s, I was really enthused about. And partly it was because I'd recently seen 'Psycho' and the murders in 'The Ghoul' seemed to rip those off -- the shower scene being transplanted to a four-poster bed with billowy curtains taking the place of the streams of water, and Ian McCullough's death-scene being very similar to Martin Balsam's.

I watched 'The Ghoul' again earlier this year and, now a middle-aged codger, I warmed to it rather more. It’s disconcerting to see Cushing, normally imperious as a heroic savant or a calculating villain, playing such a lost, weak character, and the film's generally handsomely staged. I agree, though, that the ending is rubbish. What gets me is the fact that Don Henderson is wearing a nappy...

Incidentally, I also recall watching 'The She Creature' during one of those BBC2 Saturday-night horror seasons! Even back then, I realised its plot was nonsensical, but there's something about the film's theremin-serenaded atmosphere and the shots of the she-creature emerging from the surf that's stayed in my memory ever since. So it was nice to see you giving the film a little bit of love the other day.

Ben said...

Thank you so much for your kind words Ian - I really appreciate it! As you might have noticed, I've been having a bit of a hard time keeping up the marathan posting schedule this October (real life getting in the way, etc), but it's really spiriting to know that there's someone out there enjoying the posts.

I'm not sure how managed never to catch 'The Ghoul' on TV back in the day - everyone else of a certain age seems to have seen it that way! : D And yes, it does rip-off 'Psycho' quite a bit actually, doesn't it, which is... strange? It's as if Tony Hinds thought "I'm damned if if I'm actually writing anything new for this," and just stuck bits from 'The Reptile' on top of the basic plot structure from 'Psycho', or something along those lines.

Thanks too for mentioning 'The She Creature'! Having never seen it before, I loved the sheer, accidental weirdness of it... it really made an impression on me. I've actually been really getting into '50s American monster movies and atomic sci-fi flicks recently. I was too snobby to bother watching them when I was an SF-loving kid, and when I got a bit older they just seemed really square and boring compared to wilder 60/70s horror movies. But, now I've finally seen the light and realised that they're short, fun to watch and almost always have something really bizarre or unexpected going on in them. It's becoming a nice process of belated discovery.