The Ghoul (1975)
"It'll haunt your mind and freeze your flesh!"
A former missionary to India keeps his crazed, cannibalistic son locked away in the attic of his country house in order to prevent him from killing to eat. When a group of people in a cross-country race stop off at the house, it is only a matter of time before the son escapes to feed.
British horror in the 70s was at its lowest point. Hammer and Amicus had been churning out the same horrors for years with dwindling results. Creativity had been exhausted and audiences just didn’t want to see the ‘quaint’ old school horrors films with old fashioned men dressed as Frankenstein or Dracula slowly going about their business in the most low key British fashion, especially since a new breed of brutal, visceral horror was emerging from America with the likes of Night of the Living Dead, The Exorcist and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre all hitting cinemas between 1968 and 1974. Some people foolishly stuck to the formula that had brought about the greatest success in the hope that people would eventually come full circle again but all it did was expose how poor and one-dimensional the films had become. Tyburn Films was a new studio established by Kevin Francis, son of horror director Freddie Francis, that attempted to replicate the Hammer formula at a time when everyone else was trying to ditch it. What we got from Tyburn in their short lifespan was a handful of competently-made but ultimately weak and feeble horror outings that may have scared people back in the early 60s but looked woefully short of imagination and scares in the mid-70s. The Ghoul is one such outing.
The Ghoul might as well have begun with characters saying “been there, done that and got the t-shirt" because it's so routine and unimaginative. The story itself is very thin and it plods along way too slowly to do anything effective with it. There's lots of padding early on with the antics of the racers taking up the bulk of the running time. Even when they do get to the country house, they spend too much time doing very little of note. I would say its exposition-heavy but there’s hardly anything happening to explain and some of the key plot points are never once addressed. What's worse is that not only is the film rather plodding but it's depressingly grim, unnecessarily so for what should have been a low budget chiller.
Whilst The Ghoul is well shot, with plenty of fog-drenched moors and remote locations, it just doesn't do anything with it. Francis was a cinematographer before he started directing so he knows how to make the picture look good. But there's no atmosphere, no sense of dread or foreboding or worthwhile build-up to the eventual reveal of the cannibal. Typically of old school horror films, the monster isn't revealed until the very end of the film and its no surprise to find out that it's a big let down. The 'ghoul' of the title is simply a man with a bit of green paint on his face. It's hardly going to make you wet your pants, especially as he looks to be wearing a huge nappy and waddles across the floor like he has just done something dirty in it. Some of the posters designed even show the ghoul in full glory, thus negating the need to keep him hidden away for so long.
It's a shame because The Ghoul has got good pedigree with the cast and crew: director Francis, who had helmed over a dozen horror films for both Hammer and Amicus; writer Anthony Hinds penned some of Hammer's best early outings; both Peter Cushing (no introduction needed!) and Veronica Carlson starred in their fair share of Hammer horrors and had become almost royalty in the genre; John Hurt would shoot to fame when an alien burst out of his chest a few years later in Alien; and Ian McCullough starred in his fair share of late 70s/early 80s Italian exploitation horrors. For the younger heads in that group of talent, you can't blame them for taking any chance to step onto the ladder. But for the older, seasoned veterans behind the camera, wisdom should have kicked in that this just wasn't the sort of material people were flocking to cinemas to see anymore - so much so that Tyburn didn't even secure a distribution deal for The Ghoul in America.
Cushing does what he does best and that is improve how watchable any rubbish film could be simply by his performance. This was three years on from the death of his wife, from which he never really recovered, and apparently he broke down a few times during filming. The photo of his character’s wife in the film was actually one of Cushing’s real wife. It's not one of his best performances, if you can call it that, as he seems to be portraying himself - a heartbroken man full of grief and mourning. There is something deeply moving about Cushing’s performance as Doctor Lawrence here, something even slightly uncomfortable about the way he blurs acting and reality when expressing his emotions. Fellow Hammer alumni Veronica Carlson gets the Janet Leigh treatment from Psycho (if you know, you know). John Hurt pops up as Tom, the crazy groundskeeper, and shows the right level of sinister intent and crazy-eyed madness to liven the film up but sadly his part is not very large. Given that the ghoul is confined to the rooms of the mansion and Lawrence is too much of a tragic and sympathetic character to hate on, Tom is the only real threat to the characters.
The Ghoul isn't going to win any horror awards with its pedestrian, lifeless formula being about ten years out of date. It's harmless enough but just a chore to sit through the same old, same old time and time again.
Director(s): Freddie Francis
Writer(s): Anthony Hinds (screenplay)
Actor(s): Peter Cushing, John Hurt, Alexandra Bastedo, Gwen Watford, Veronica Carlson, Don Henderson, Ian McCulloch
Duration: 85 mins