Plot: Dr. Morris (George Zucco) is a man of science and he puts the work ahead of all else, shrugging off morals and ethics if need be, in the name of discovery. His latest experiment involves an ancient formula developed by Mayans, a gas that could have a massive impact on the world. The gas seems to make whoever it is used on become a thrall of sorts, susceptible to suggestion and compliant to orders, a dangerous situation if under the control of Dr. Morris. He finds a test subject in Ted (David Bruce), who he puts under the gas’ controlling influence, then dispatches to rob graves and collect hearts, which can break the gas’ spell. As if that wasn’t enough, Dr. Morris soon begins to pursue Ted’s girlfriend and a determined reporter is on his trail, so will he finish his research or will this be his final experiment?
Entertainment Value: The Mad Ghoul is a lower profile Universal horror movie from this time period, but it remains a well crafted chiller with some interesting social and political elements woven in. The movie isn’t subtle about the references it is making, but it isn’t blunt either, though the ruthless medical experiments and lack of ethical compass from Morris send strong signals. The narrative is effective and efficient, with a run time of just over an hour, The Mad Ghoul keeps things tight and there’s little filler here, which is always good news. This is also the only zombie oriented classic Universal horror flick, though of course, this vision of the zombie isn’t exactly what it would become in later decades. Otherwise, the movie mines the usual Universal horror tropes, with the spooky graveyard, mad doctor, unrequited romance, and stylish, dark visuals, all put to good use in The Mad Ghoul. This might be a b tier picture for Universal, but it hits the right notes and delivers more than solid chills throughout. For fans of old school horror, The Mad Ghoul is well recommended.
If you’re a fan of these classic Universal horror movies, then you should be quite familiar with George Zucco, as he pops up often. He often played the villain and he was given that role so often for a reason, as he is able to convey menace and turn in rock solid work, movie after movie. In this one, he gets to tune up his performance more than usual, giving us an over the top, enjoyable mad scientist. There is some camp value of course, but he is never elevated to slapstick levels, just a dialed up performance that plays up the “mad” in mad doctor, to fun ends. He is more or less the central presence and he carries the movie well enough, especially as he unravels as the movie progresses. David Bruce is good here as well, as both the likable Ted and the brainwashed thrall version of the character. The romance thread is quite good in The Mad Ghoul and Bruce is a big reason why it comes across so well. The cast here also includes Evelyn Ankers, Robert Armstrong, and Turhan Bey.
The Disc: As part of Scream Factory’s Universal Horror Collection: Volume 2, The Mad Ghoul looks superb on Blu-ray, much better than I had expected. The print is super clean and detail is almost astonishing, as the level of crispness and fine detail is simply remarkable here. It is hard to believe this movie was made in 1943, it looks nearly pristine and is consistently razor sharp, defying decades of time’s tolls. Fans should be thrilled with this treatment. The extras include some still photos, as well as a film historian’s audio comments.