Sunday, 8 April 2012


Peter Cushing (Dr Lawrence), Alexandra Bastedo (Angela), Veronica Carlson (Daphne Wells-Hunter), John Hurt (Tom Rawlings), Gwen Watford (Ayah), Stewart Bevan (Billy), Ian McCulloch (Geoffrey), Don Henderson (The Ghoul)

Director: Freddie Francis. Screenplay: John Elder [Anthony Hinds], Producer:  Kevin Francis. Photography: John Wilcox. Music:  Harry Robinson. Makeup:  Roy Ashton. Art Direction: Jack Shampan. Production Company – Tyburn. (1975) 

The mid seventies were a troubled time for the once mighty British horror movement. By this point in time the glory days of the late fifties and the sixties seemed but a distant memory as the genres once affluent forbearers Hammer had fallen on black days due to their refusal to move with the times. While certain independent faces (most notably director Pete Walker) attempted to valiantly lead British horror in fresh directions, others foolhardily clung to the misguided belief that what had worked before would work again and persisted in recycling the Hammer patented gothic motifs long after they had become passe.

Tyburn Films was a production company established by the enthusiastic and horror film mad Kevin Francis. Himself the son of the great Freddie Francis who had in previous years directed numerous classic British horror pictures for Hammer, their closest rivals Amicus and others. Tyburn’s meagre horror output was characterised by its steadfast dedication to the antiquated stately gothic horror format, which despite capable direction from Freddie Francis (keeping it in the family) was essentially the work of a company foolishly moving towards what everyone else still involved with the flagging British horror genre was astute enough to be moving way from. Both the merits and failings of Tyburn’s output are readily exemplified by their 1975 effort The Ghoul, which remains perhaps the most memorable of the small clutch of chillers that Tyburn would unleash on an unwilling public during the mid seventies.

Set in 1920’s England, The Ghoul commences at the scene of a swinging, boozy high society get together. With the champagne flowing freely bravado and posturing rear their heads when four of the plucky young revelers agree to participate in a foolhardy motorcar race to Lands End. After pairing off into two couples the inebriated racers speed off southbound and inevitably the occupants of both vehicles soon get hopelessly lost en route to their destination.

One by one the lost racers find themselves at the isolated Cornish manor house of defrocked clergyman Mr Lawrence (played by Peter Cushing) located slap bang in the middle of a treacherous expanse of fog enshrouded marshland. Having spent the majority of his life living in India, Mr Lawrence has now returned to his English home where he is served by brutish gardener Tom (a young(ish) John Hurt) and his stern, sinister housekeeper (played by a blacked up Gwen Watford) whom he bought back from India with him.

As Lawrence’s unwitting guests make their way through the hazardous bogs and up to the manor house itself, they are soon unfortunate enough to discover their hosts terrifying secret. During his time in India it appears that Mr Lawrence incurred the wrath of a diabolical cult devoted to the worship of the goddess Kali. As a result Mr Lawrence is now left with something very nasty in one of his back rooms, something with an insatiable hunger for human flesh!

Had it been released perhaps seven or eight years earlier then the chances are that The Ghoul could have been a modest success story. However, by the time The Ghoul did surface, its cinematic style was unceremoniously out of vogue and considered by both critics and audiences alike to be old hat. By 1975 the momentum, as regards to screen horror, had swung to the other side of the pond where William Friedkin’s box office monster The Exorcist (1973) had shocked audiences worldwide and the surprise success of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) had ushered in a new age for the horror genre. Up against such contemporary and wildly popular shockers neither The Ghoul nor Tyburn’s similarly solid yet archaic Legend Of The Werewolf (released the same year) could hope to compete. Critics were almost unanimous in their unimpressed “seen it all before” approximation of these efforts and more importantly neither picture registered little in the way of commercial impact. In fact both actually turned out to be money losers, thus signifying that Britain’s long running love affair with the period gothic chiller was finally over. Incredibly Tyburn would recover and continue to operate well into the nineties, moving onto various television projects following their brief flirtation with horror which had almost bankrupted the company.

However, taken purely on its own merits The Ghoul is a much easier film to enjoy now in retrospect than it probably was back at the time of its original release. While the end results never come close to setting the world on fire, director Freddie Francis is undoubtedly one of the old masters of the Hammer Horror style gothic style and directs with both pace and aplomb resulting in a proficient and atmospheric little chiller. The script written by Francis’ fellow old hand Anthony Hinds (under his familiar John Elder pseudonym) may be mighty familiar stuff, but in Francis' capable hands it unfolds satisfyingly onscreen. In many respects Hinds’ script can be looked upon as a subtle reworking of the one he had penned almost a decade earlier for the excellent Hammer film The Reptile (1966), which served up a similar yarn concerning an oddly sinister middle-aged gentleman forced to cover up the existence and true identity of a man beast spawned as the result of an Eastern curse. This plot, it should be noted, was also blatantly “borrowed” by writer Peter Bryan in his script for Vernon Sewell’s atrociously poor British horror effort The Blood Beast Terror (1968) which, funnily enough, also starred Peter Cushing.

Of course The Ghoul is nothing the British horror fan hasn't seen before as expendable protagonists wade through the murky bogs of Pinewood Studios wherein the prop men have once again overdone it a bit with the trusty old smoke machine. After dodging their way past the slavering ex-soldier turned violent simpleton groundskeeper who lurks in the fog waiting to waylay any passing maidens, our plucky young things finally make it to the old manor house. Once there it soon becomes readily obvious to anyone whose seen a few films of this ilk before to realise that the cordial but evasive Peter Cushing (who could act his way through this sort of stuff in his sleep) is harbouring a dark secret. Meanwhile from the amount of ominous shots of the back room door creaking open you just know something ghastly is behind it waiting to be revealed, but only once every disposable cast member has been gorily killed off in the interim. If that doesn’t give the game away then the very suspect pots of raw, bloodied meat Lawrence’s barmy Indian housekeeper keeps leaving outside the door certainly do.

Yet whilst totally predictable The Ghoul breeds a certain warmth (as opposed to contempt) in its familiarity and is seldom anything short of brisk and richly atmospheric as Francis uses the ominous foggy marshlands and eerie interiors of the Lawrence household to pleasingly creepy effect. Meanwhile, The Ghoul also benefits from a wonderful performance from Peter Cushing as the benevolent yet obviously tortured Mr Lawrence. Fortunately Cushing is on something nearing his best form here and beautifully conveys his character's underlying sense of familial loss and sorrow. Particularly memorable is one moment in which for Cushing his art becomes intermingled with the tragedy of life. With Mr Lawrence relating the death of his wife he picks up a framed photograph of her. The woman in the said photograph is in actual fact Peter Cushing’s own wife who had died just a couple of years earlier and the tears we see shed by the veteran star are actually genuine.

Additionally Cushing receives capable support from a pre-fame John Hurt as Mr Lawrence’s ruffian gardener Tom Rawlins and an effortlessly sinister Gwen Watford as his fanatical Indian housekeeper. Elsewhere regular Hammer starlet Veronica Carlson is as attractive and capable as always in her role as the most headstrong of the films fetching young femmes, but by contrast a young Ian McCulloch seems somewhat awkward as the apparent hero of the hour. As most horror buffs will no doubt be aware, McCulloch would later return to the genre via leading man appearances in a trio of Italian made shockers, namely Lucio Fulci's classic Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979), Mario Girolami's dopey Zombie Holocaust (1980) and Luigi Cozzi's cheap and cheerful Alien knock-off Contamination (also 1980).

While a lesser filmmaker would struggle to milk much mileage out of such an essentially tired, recycled premise, Freddie Francis draws upon his vast experience to generate some well judged and proficiently executed shock moments amidst the scripts seemingly bottomless bag of British horror cliches. The memorable, suspenseful opening scene in which a young party reveler is discovered hanging by a bloodied hook through his neck in a dusty back room, whilst essentially a silly false scare, opens the film in a stylish and suitably macabre fashion. However, by far the films most effective moment comes in the form of the sudden, shock butchering of a female protagonist who, up until that point at least, had been the primary focus of the film and seemed to be its apparent heroine. The parallels between this and the legendary demise of Janet Leigh in Hitchcock’s classic Psycho are obvious and no doubt intentional.

Not quite so effective however, is the final revelation of “The Ghoul” itself, which when unveiled turns out to be a pretty feeble offering it must be said. Up until the conclusion Francis had thus far kept things tight by conveying the monsters presence through creepy shots of the fiends scarred, sandal-clad feet thudding along corridors and down staircases in pursuit of his human prey. So when the viewer is finally greeted by the less than terrifying spectacle of British character actor Don Henderson bald-headed and wearing a loincloth with his face painted a sickly shade of green it is something of an anticlimax to say the least. Therefore, despite Cushing’s suitably tortured lamentations, The Ghoul fizzles out on something of a flat note, which is a bit of a shame I must say.

All in all no one should be under any illusions that The Ghoul is a fully fledged classic by any stretch of the imagination. What The Ghoul certainly is however, is a film that has gained immeasurably from the gift of retrospect. Despite being hideously behind the times back in 1975 and rejected accordingly, viewed now The Ghoul fails to make any real lasting impression but is nonetheless an extremely well made and enjoyable British gothic that holds up just about as well as any other formula British horror effort from the sixties or seventies you might care to mention.

For some The Ghoul might prove an unnecessary trudge down a path walked down more than one too many times already, but if one can look past the blatant over familiarity of the material then The Ghoul, thanks in no small part to a strong, impassionaed starring turn by Cushing and Freddie Francis' expertly atmospheric direction, registers as nothing less than a professional job well done. I'd struggle to see any true blue fan of British horror films not enjoying it.

'The Ghoul' is recommended.

REVIEW: Jack Smith
Original Posting: HERE
IMAGES: Marcus Brooks


  1. When oh when oh when is The Ghoul going to be released on dvd in the UK? Just like I have with Legend of The Werewolf, I have waiting so long for this movie to come out on DVD here. Will it EVER?


  2. I agree a DVD of this under-rated film has been overlooked for far too long!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...