Synopsis: Professor of chemistry Alfred Morris (George Zucco) delivers a lecture about the ancient Mayans to a room full of university students. He describes how the Mayans employed a strange gas to make their enemies into zombie-like slaves. Morris further demonstrates that what archeologists had believed was ritual sacrifice was in fact a practical means of temporarily bringing the zombies back to normal.
After the lecture, Morris asks medical student Ted Allison (David Bruce) to assist him in a new line of research. Ted is surprised and elated by this honor.
Morris shows Ted the experiment he’s working on: a monkey is exposed to the gas Dr. Morris had referenced in his lecture. As a result, Morris says, the monkey is somnambulant and prone to external suggestion. But when the heart from another monkey is removed and its “heart matter” used on the test subject, the result is a peppy monkey that is as good as new.
Ted congratulates Dr. Morris on this discovery, and tells him that he can’t wait to tell his girlfriend Isabel (Evelyn Ankers) , a singer whose career is taking off. In fact, Ted and Isabel are planning to have dinner that very evening because Isabel is leaving the next day on a multi-city tour.
Morris suggests he bring Isabel over to his house for dinner — that way, he says, they can all celebrate.
While Ted and Isabel are over that evening, Morris sends Ted out on an errand that takes him out of the room for a few minutes. While he is gone Morris tells Isabel that he knows she is unhappy; that she has outgrown Ted and is looking for a more sophisticated man — a more experienced man — “who knows the book of Life and can teach you to read it”. Isabel admits that all this is true, but she is afraid of hurting Ted by breaking off the engagement. Morris tells her that he believes Ted will break off the engagement himself.
The next day, Morris arranges for Ted to be exposed to the Mayan gas. Ted becomes a blank-eyed zombie who must obey Dr. Morris’ commands. The two go to a nearby cemetary, where they dig up the grave of a man buried earlier in the day. Morris forces Ted to remove the heart from the cadaver.
Ted wakes up in a bedroom in Morris’ house. He is back to normal, remembering nothing of what has happened to him. But he’s shocked to discover that two days have passed, and Isabel has already left on her tour.
He follows Isabel to her next city. Morris, feigning concern for Ted’s health, goes with him, and urges him to break off the engagement for health reasons. Ted does so. But when he reverts to his zombie state, another grave must be robbed.
Meanwhile, Dr. Morris is stunned to learn that Isabel is in love with her accompanist, Eric Iverson (Turhan Bey), and that the two are planning to marry.
When Ted reverts to his zombie state, Morris gives him a handgun and new instructions: to first kill Eric, and then kill himself….
Comments: For all that we’ve gained through the proliferation of VCRs and DVDs (and most recently, streaming-on-demand), there is one thing we’ve lost since the days of Horror Incorporated.
It’s the element of surprise. The old creature features were immense cinematic grab-bags. You had no idea what you were in for on any given week. The horror genre has always tended towards modestly-budgeted films that provide a little thrill before fading from view and from memory. So there are plenty of small forgotten gems out there to see. The challenge is finding them.
The Mad Ghoul is one of those elusive movies. It never enjoyed a DVD release, which isn’t surprising given its distinct lack of star power.
But what it has going for it are some good performances, a few clever ideas and a sly determination to undermine our expectations.
At the center of the narrative is something rare for a movie from the 1940s: a plausibly presented romance. In most Universal pictures from this era, we are made to endure the company of young lovers who are perfectly in tune with one another, lovers who are eternally, blissfully, mercilessly devoted to each other’s happiness. By contrast The Mad Ghoul depicts a relationship that has survived long past its expiration date. Isabel has outgrown Ted, and the professional and social world she is preparing to enter will have no place for him.
But for all her newly-minted sophistication Isabel is still a coward. She is incapable of breaking it off with Ted even after she has become engaged to another man. Later, she asks Dr. Morris to deliver the news that she can’t see him anymore. Her rationale is that Dr. Morris, as a worldly man of science, would know just the right words to say (honey, he’s a chemist).
Ted, on the other hand, is so madly in love with Isabel it’s easy to see why she’s grown tired of him. He is like a puppy, so eager and so needy that he not only fails to recognize her needs, but seems entirely blinded to her as a person.
In spite of this, it is Dr. Morris, the catalyst for all the film’s mayhem and destruction, who is the biggest fool for love. Played with great zest by George Zucco, Morris is driven not by meglomania or a thirst for destruction, but by his impossible love for Isabel and by his vanity.
It never occurs to Dr. Morris for one moment that Isabel might have no interest in him. He never stops to consider that there might be events beyond his control. Rarely are we presented with a Hollywood villain who is so lacking in self-awareness.
In his mind he is the world-renowned man of letters with an inside track to the Nobel Prize, a worldly and devilishly handsome sophisticate whom any woman would be grateful to be near. But he never sees himself for what he really is: a lonely, self-deluding egotist. He never asks himself what a beautiful and successful singer would want with an aging, pompous chemistry professor. And so he becomes an amoral reflection of Ted himself, blinded by lust, hobbled by his immense self-regard, and ultimately undone by his inability to predict what his victims might do to him, given the opportunity.
David Bruce benefited from being a young 4F actor in Hollywood during World War II, and he excels both as the lovesick Ted and the shambling Ghoul. Evelyn Ankers provides her usual bloodless performance, in her fifth Horror Incorporated appearance to date (we’ve seen her previously in Son of Dracula, Ghost of Frankenstein, The Frozen Ghost and The Invisible Man’s Revenge, just in case you’re keeping track). We get to see Turhan Bey play the dashing and sensible Eric Iverson; and in a sweet bit of comic-relief casting, Robert Armstrong (Carl Denham in 1933’s King Kong) shows up as a snoopy reporter who gets a bit more than he bargained for.