One night, after unknowingly being spied on from the streets and followed back to his apartment in England, Aga Ben Dragone, an Arab man, is threatened by a knife-wielding Egyptian, Mahmoud, who demands he return an ancient jewel called the Eternal Light. Dragone tells him that he has sold the jewel to Prof. Morlant, a dying Egyptologist who believes that it will grant him immortality through Anubis if he is buried with it. As he lies dying in bed at his dreary, English countryside estate, with his lawyer, Broughton, waiting, Morlant gives his servant, Laing, explicit instructions as to how he is to buried in his estate's Egyptian-themed tomb. He also has Laing place the Eternal Light into his hand and wrap it secure with a bandage, warning him that if it is taken from his grip at any time, he will resurrect and kill the one who has taken it. Shortly afterward, Morlant dies and he is interred per his instructions, but Laing is revealed to have taken the Eternal Light from his grip beforehand. Knowing of the jewel himself, and finding that it's been removed, Broughton has his personal driver, Davis, stay behind and keep an eye on Laing. Laing, meanwhile, hides the jewel in the house and then, after writing a note, has a parcel carrier take him to the nearby train station. That evening, Broughton has a meeting with Ralph Morlant, the professor's nephew, who isn't at all happy about not being informed of his uncle's death, seeing as how he and his estranged cousin, Betty Harlon, are the sole heirs. Despite Broughton's warnings, Ralph decides to head to his uncle's house, and that night, Betty receives a letter from Broughton, telling her of her uncle's death. When she heads out to telephone him about a meeting, Laing approaches her and gives her the note, but just as she can read it, Broughton, who followed Laing after being informed by Davis of his whereabouts, attacks Betty, gets the note away from her, and tears it up. Little does he know that Dragone is nearby and finds the discarded pieces. Betty meets up with Ralph, tells him what the note said about something valuable being hidden at Morlant's house, and, despite their disdain for each other, they decide to go to there, along with Betty's roommate, Kaney. As everyone assembles at the house, it seems like, unbeknownst to them, Morlant's vow to return from the grave on the night of the full moon and kill who took the jewel has come to pass, putting them all in serious danger.
As you can see, the makeup created for Karloff, by Heinrich Heitfield, is very well-executed, as it truly looks like he's a gaunt, decrepit, dying man, with his face looking not unlike his legendary Frankenstein monster makeup. The fact that Karloff was a pretty thin guy helps immensely, as his chest, when he opens shirt up to cut Anubis' symbol into himself near the end, looks hideously skeletal and malnourished. But, the makeup and the performance that Karloff manages to elicit are about the only noteworthy aspects of Morlant, because after he seemingly dies at the beginning, he doesn't come back for quite a while and when he does, he's little more than a shambling zombie. Moreover, he has almost no significance to the plot that's unfolding, which is all about how all of these characters are either out to get their hands on the priceless Eternal Light or find themselves caught up in their plots. That's where the comparison to Morgan in The Old Dark House comes from: in that film, Morgan, despite how menacing and sinister he is, is really separate from the true meat of the plot and only pops up now and then to threaten the protagonists. This was still fairly early in Karloff's career as a horror star and not that far removed from Frankenstein, so the studios probably didn't yet grasp how talented he was, but, regardless, he deserved better. It would have been interesting to see how he would have played Morlant in a more faithful adaptation of the book, as that character seemed to have a lot more to him. Either that, or at least keep things as supernatural as they appeared to be, which I think would have been a bit more interesting and enable the movie to deliver more on what it seemed to promise.
Aga Ben Dragore (Harold Huth) is introduced at the very beginning of the movie, having been the Arab man who first acquired the Eternal Light and sold it to Prof. Morlant. He's followed back to his apartment and threatened at knife-point by an Egyptian, Mahmoud (D.A. Clarke-Smith), who demands he return it, only for Dragore to inform him of Morlant's purchase and that he is going to die soon. Knowing the ritual, they both deduce from this fact that the jewel will be buried with Morlant. Mahmoud is then later shown watching Morlant's funeral procession, as well as Laing and Broughton afterward, while later Dragore comes across the pieces of the torn up note Laing slipped to Betty Harlon. When all of those involved gather at Morlant's house, both Dragore and Mahmoud arrive there, with the former going outside while the latter lies in wait at the treeline, though he's ultimately killed by Morlant when he seemingly returns from the grave. Whether or not Mahmoud forced Dragore to become part of the plot is never made clear but it is clear that Dragore is as interested in the Eternal Light's material value as anyone else. Telling them of how he met Morlant in Egypt some years ago, he says he has come to have a look at his tomb before leaving England, as he believes that's where the jewel is, but relents his desire to do so when Nigel Hartley decries it as paganism. Dragore spends most of the latter half of the film dealing with the unwanted attention of Kaney, whom he humors for the most part and tries to impress as much as he can for her to do what he says. When the two of them witness Laing barging in, scared out of his mind, Dragore tries to follow him but Kaney prevents him from getting anywhere with it, prompting him to separate himself from the group under the pretense of going outside to warn his "chauffeur" of what's going on. He later sees Morlant with the jewel and tries to shoot him but Kaney, again, thwarts his plan. Making her walk with him across the grounds, he manages to give her the slip by asking her to close her eyes for ten seconds, which she does, allowing him to get the jewel from Hartley and leave him, along with Ralph and Betty, to die in the now burning tomb. However, after shoving Kaney out of his way, he realizes too late that he dropped the jewel out of his pocket and he and Broughton chase after her when they see that she now has it. They both try to get it back from her but are arrested when the doctor arrives with the police.
Nigel Hartley (Ralph Richardson), a supposed parson, first appears early on when he arrives at Morlant's house on the night of his impending death, saying that he hoped the professor would repent for his "wicked" ways now that he's so close to dying. When he's told by Laing that there's no hope of that happening, he leaves, but reenters the story later when Ralph Morlant, Betty Harlon, and Kaney meet him right outside the house's gates when they arrive there. He comes off as a decent and cheerful man, albeit one who's very staunch in his beliefs, decrying Morlant's personal faith as blasphemous and refusing to allow Dragore to visit the tomb, an act that he says is paganism. After that, he mainly acts as little more than somebody who's simply along for the ride, so to speak, but when Ralph tells him at one point to mind his own business when he tries to get everyone to get a grip on themselves, saying that they're not in Sunday school. With that, Hartley decides he's not wanted and seemingly leaves, but when Ralph and Betty later find Morlant in the tomb, making his offering to Anubis, it's revealed that Hartley had his hand in place of the idol's, where the professor placed the Eternal Light, per the directions of the ceremony. Simply a thief rather than a parson (how he knew about the jewel is never explained), Hartley tries to make off with it, threatening Ralph with a knife, but he's easily dispatched with a pot to the head. However, Dragore then shows up, takes the jewel, and manages to fight off Ralph and seal them all inside the tomb, which catches on fire from a falling lamp. As the flames spread, Hartley tries to stop the flames from reaching some dynamite that he placed in the tomb's walls from the outside earlier (that's what he'd been doing when they first met him there) but it ultimately blows open a large hole, killing him but creating an exit for Ralph and Betty.
Aside from plenty of good performances, the best thing I can say about The Ghoul is that it's dripping in Gothic atmosphere. As you've probably gleaned from the images I've shown up to this point, the cinematography by Gunther Krampf is very dark and expressionistic to a T, with lots of shadows and contrasts (Morlant's bedroom is given an eerie shimmering effect from the burning fireplace), and it feels as if the entire movie takes place at night. Even Broughton's meeting with Ralph Morlant, the one scene that's possibly meant to take place in the daytime, given how Broughton tells him, "Good afternoon," when he leaves, is filmed in such a way that it still looks as if it's dark outside, and it helps give the film a very gloomy and kind of depressing air to it, although it can sometimes make it hard to tell who you're looking at in a given scene when you first watch the movie. The exteriors of Morlant's creepy old house benefit greatly from the dark cinematography and there's also a scene in the streets that's shot in thick fog, with shafts of light streaming out of the windows of the houses and streetlamps glowing in the darkness, all of which is right out of a Jack the Ripper type of story and makes it come off as especially striking and foreboding. And they also manage to convey the feeling of it being rather chilly outside, with the darkness and the thick clothes that the characters often wear.
In addition to the cinematography, the film's art direction, by A. Junge, also creates a Gothic vibe that's very palpable, particularly with the interiors of Morlant's house. It's your classic dark, dreary old mansion, where the only source of light seems to be from candles and oil lamps, despite the fact that the film does take place in the earl 30's, alluding to just how old and ancient a place it is. It's also a rather dusty and rundown place, hinting that Morlant never truly lived there, and that Laing has maintained it to the bare minimum of livability. Its most notable rooms are the foyer, the very large library, Morlant's upstairs bedroom, and the downstairs kitchen, all of which are often lit as darkly and creepily as possible. Besides its Gothic feel, there's also the hint of Morlant's obsession with Egypt and its beliefs, with the statue of Anubis up in his bedroom and especially the tomb on the grounds, a stone crypt that's adorned on the inside with hieroglyphics on the wall, a coffin for Morlant that's more akin to an Egyptian sarcophagus, a snake-shaped gas lamp hanging from the ceiling (the gear that works it is found on the hillside in back of the tomb), and the Anubis statue, which is moved in there after his death.
While the film takes place in England, there are a few sets that actually remind me of something that you'd see in a German expressionist film, particularly Broughton's office, which you see in the scene where Ralph Morlant calls on him. The primitive way it looks, being a fairly small room with a high ceiling, adorned with a desk for Broughton and shelves behind it that are stacked to the brim with boxes and papers, reminds me of what you'd see in a movie set in an earlier time and made in Germany; specifically, it reminds me of a similar set in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Caligari's office at the asylum (though not nearly as bizarre and warped in how it looks). Also, maybe it's because they're meant to be very low-rent but the apartments that Dragore and Betty Harlon are shown to be staying in also makes me think of sets you'd see in those types of movies, with how primitive and small they are, with almost everything made out of old wood. I don't know why but I expected the decorum and upholstery in 1930's England to not remind me of something older and foreign. But what do I know?
None of these compliments, however, change the fact that I don't find the story to be that interesting. While it is unique to see how the main plot is The Old Dark House with a bit of the Egyptian mysticism of The Mummy sprinkled in (you're not likely to see many movies where an Egyptian-style burial takes place on the grounds of an English estate), what I was expecting was Boris Karloff's character returning from the dead and going on a killing spree, not this game where the Eternal Light finds itself being passed from one person to another. That's really all that you're watching for the better part of the film's second half, with Laing and Broughton insisting that they saw the resurrected Prof. Morlant, Dragore sneaking around as he tries to get his hands on the jewel, Nigel Hartley trying to get everyone to take hold of themselves, and Ralph and Betty trying to figure out what's going on. As I've said before, despite the title, the eponymous "ghoul" doesn't emerge from the tomb until near the 50-minute mark in this 80 minute movie and when he does, he comes off as little more than an afterthought, doing nothing but stalking around the grounds and menacing those who come across him as he tries to get the Eternal Light back. He's never portrayed as that much of a threat, especially since many of the characters are oblivious to his presence, and he only kills one person before he recovers the jewel and tries to get Anubis to grant him immortality, shortly after which he dies and is revealed to have never been undead to begin with. Once he's all wrapped up, you have a double climax involving the jewel and the new couple of Ralph Morlant and Betty Harlon, with the latter becoming trapped in the tomb by Dragore, who takes the jewel from them and, after a fight with Ralph, grazes him across the head with a bullet. As Ralph and Betty try to find a way to get out, Dragore attempts to escape with the jewel, only to be faced with Broughton, who demands that he hand it over, and they then both discover that he dropped it and that Kaney now has it. Inside the tomb, a falling oil lamp from the ceiling sets the place ablaze (how could it set fire to a tomb that's made completely of stone?) and they try to extinguish it before managing to escape just in time, thanks to the dynamite that Hartley had attempted to use earlier. At the same time, Kaney is pursued by Dragore and Broughton, leading to a standoff where they have her trapped and she threatens to toss the jewel down a well if they come any nearer to her. Ultimately, she's saved when the police arrive and arrest both men. Neither climax is satisfactory or that exciting, as by this point, I was ready for the movie to end, and couldn't care less about Ralph and Betty managing to escape the burning tomb, the film ending with Ralph carrying her in his arms to safety.
The music score, which was done by Louis Levy, who went on to work with Alfred Hitchcock on his films The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, and Under Capricorn, along with an uncredited Leighton Lucas, isn't great but it's certainly not bad. The opening main theme is pretty good, though not as memorable as those of other horror films of the time, and the same goes for the music that plays during Morlant's funeral procession, which has a creeping, rhythmic sound feel to it, along with a forlorn aspect. That rhythm is used again in some of the more suspenseful scenes, like when Morlant is prowling around the grounds; there is some subtle, ethereal music for the more atmospheric scenes; and the music that plays when Morlant emerges from the tomb and sees that the Eternal Light has been taken from his hand definitely alludes to how his wrath has now been unleashed. The score for the more exciting scenes also accentuates them well, rounding out a score that, if nothing else, is suitable for the movie it accompanies.