Saturday, August 18, 1973: The Mad Ghoul (1943) / Revenge of the Creature (1955)

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 cemetery, 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: It’s been a couple of years since we’ve seen The Mad Ghoul, a dimly-remembered Universal entry from 1943 that never sought to be more than a modest programmer. But it’s actually quite a clever little film, with an unexpected sting in its tail.

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.

Young male actors were in short supply in Hollywood during World War II, and David Bruce was probably the best Universal could get at the time (he’d been excused from military service for medical reasons). He isn’t bad as Ted, but he comes across as something of a lightweight, never fully inhabiting the role. I think critics tend to overlook this because Ted himself is a weak character — strung along and mistreated by the selfish Isabel, and cruelly used by Dr. Morris. But the whole trajectory of Ted’s story leads to him standing up for himself against Dr. Morris, and we just don’t see that in Bruce’s performance — instead, it just happens.

Evelyn Ankers provides her usual bloodless performance, neither good nor bad; and once again I’m puzzled as to why she was apparently seen as the go-to female lead of the Universal horror films of the early 1940s. 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.

Revenge of the Creature

Synopsis: In the Amazon, scientists Joe Hayes (John Bromfield) and Jackson Foster (Grandon Rhodes) hire Brazilian launch owner Lucas (Nestor Paiva) to take them to the Black Lagoon, where a strange creature had been reported by an earlier expedition. The two men are determined to capture the creature and take it with them to civilization. They tell Lucas that the creature is a throwback — something that got caught outside the flow of evolution and is therefore of interest to them. But Lucas replies that the creature is stronger than evolution, and that they are foolish to try to take it from its home.

Soon after the men arrive they see the creature for themselves, and they rig a set of explosions in the water with hopes to stunning the creature and forcing it to the surface. The explosions are successful, as the unconscious creature floats to the surface along with many dead and stunned fish.

The expedition returns to Florida with the live creature and it becomes a resident of Marine Land, a forerunner to SeaWorld. The creature goes on display to eager sightseers as scientists try to learn more about it. Dr. Clete Ferguson (John Agar) plans to be in town for two weeks in order to study the creature. He meets ichthyology graduate student Helen Dobson (Lori Nelson), and immediately asks her out to dinner. The two test the intelligence of the creature, using fish in cage as a reward and a cattle prod to provide negative reinforcement. Ferguson concludes that the monster’s intelligence ranges between that of a chimpanzee and a dolphin.

The creature doesn’t like its imprisonment, and works on trying to break the chain that keeps it in its tank. Meanwhile, it spends a lot of time gazing longingly at Helen.

Eventually, the creature breaks the shackle that keeps it confined. On the loose it causes a panic, flipping over cars as it makes its way to the ocean.

As authorities hunt for the creature, Ferguson and Helen are concerned about the destruction it might cause. But what they don’t know is that the creature is hunting Helen and plans to take her back to his watery domain….

 Comments: Guillermo del Toro often cites Creature From the Black Lagoon as his inspiration for The Shape of Water, but it’s clear that Revenge of the Creature is really the template upon which del Toro’s film is based. After being dragged away from its underwater home in the Amazon, the creature in this opus is supposedly having its intelligence tested by scientists, led by John Agar. But the “tests” are really just obedience training, and seem to be an excuse to torment the monster with an electric cattle prod; one could imagine much better ways to gauge the monster’s intelligence. Meanwhile, the creature becomes smitten with Lori Nelson’s ichthyology grad student, who takes to the water in a white bathing suit clearly meant to evoke the one worn by Julie Adams in the first film (say what you want about Creech, you can’t fault his taste in women).

As was typical of sequels of this era, Revenge of the Creature was somewhat dumber and cheaper than its predecessor, though it benefits from having Jack Arnold return to the director’s chair. It’s pretty careless about plot holes: the creature is taken from the fresh-water Amazon but is somehow able to live in the saltwater aquarium, and later in the ocean. When it escapes from its enclosure, the PA announcer bellows “The Gill Man is loose! The Gill Man is loose! Get to your cars immediately!”, which would be the perfect words to shout if your goal was to incite a panic (unsurprisingly, panic ensues). After escaping, the creature is somehow able to track Helen Dobson to her motel, which is conveniently located right on the beach. Similarly, it later finds the restaurant she and Clete Ferguson have stopped at, which is also conveniently right on the water.

There’s little in the way of comic relief in this film, but one humorous scene is rather oddly shoehorned in, and often cited as the screen debut of future Hollywood star Clint Eastwood.

Revenge of the Creature wasn’t technically Eastwood’s first screen appearance. Earlier in the year he had a bit part in another Jack Arnold picture, Tarantula, as a fighter pilot giving the order to drop napalm on the target. He was mostly obscured by an oxygen mask and helmet, and in any case was only on screen for a few seconds. In Revenge of the Creature he gets an actual scene, as a lab assistant who complains to Dr. Ferguson that only three of the lab’s four caged rats are still in the enclosure with a common house cat. “It’s my considered opinion that rat number four is inside that cat,” he says authoritatively. A moment later he discovers the missing rat in the pocket of his lab coat.

It’s a puzzling scene. What are rats doing in a cage with a cat? How did one of the rats get into the lab assistant’s pocket? It’s not that funny a gag, and if anything it just makes Ferguson’s research staff look silly. It’s not really clear why this scene didn’t end up on the cutting room floor. The best guess I can make is that the producers were playing a bit to the teenagers who would be seeing the film, and in fact Eastwood seems to be playing the role as a bit of a hipster.

John Agar had also appeared in Tarantula, and seems to have taken the place of Richard Carlson as Jack Arnold’s leading man of choice. He lacks a lot of Carlson’s warmth, though, and winds up coming across as insincere and even a bit creepy. Agar appeared in a lot of genre films — westerns and science fiction, for the most part — and his career after Revenge of the Creature did not improve. Soon he’d be starring in independently-produced cheapies like The Brain From Planet Arous (1957), Invisible Invaders (1958) and Journey to the Seventh Planet (1962).

Lori Nelson appeared as the love interest in Roger Corman’s Day the World Ended (1955) but didn’t stay long in feature films, instead moving quickly over to television.

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2 comments

  1. A really great cast in THE MAD GHOUL, and more surprises than one would expect; I mean, if Wallace Ford were playing the reporter his fate would be totally different. REVENGE OF THE CREATURE was a huge comedown from the original Gill Man feature, but still light years better than THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US.

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