Sunday, 6 October 2013


Every year I spend a week at an inn just inland of Land's End and most mornings I get up at 5 and enjoy the lonely cliff walk to England's most southerly point as dawn rises. It is eerily quiet, the whistling wind the only sound, and dozens upon dozens of rabbits the only living things in sight.

I’d like to say I spend most of my time on these walks pondering the deep mysteries of existence and the universe, and it’s true, when the first rays of the sun hit those timeless rocks, standing now just as they have through the whole history of human life in this most primitive and inspiring of lands, I do have my moments. But by and large, I’ll be honest, I’m thinking about The Ghoul.

I really can’t decide if it’s that I can’t leave this film alone, or that it can’t leave me alone, but I seem to have written more about it, and more often, than any other movie. A review of the mid-nineties video release was my first ever professionally published piece of writing. (Where did those two decades go?) And I still watch it several times a year, with undimmed pleasure.

Why the obsession? On the one hand, I am one of those people who tend toward the less well-travelled byways of the British horror film. I love the Hammer classics as much as anyone, but apart from the footnotes, that work’s been done. I prefer to scratch beneath the surface of the more obscure or underrated branches of the family tree. I’ve always thought the Tyburn story, for instance, should be of interest to anyone interested in Hammer or British horror, regardless of whether they think the films themselves were great, okay or terrible, yet it remains curiously overlooked.

That said, there’s also the very simple fact that The Ghoul really is my favourite British horror movie of them all. And ever since the opening scene scared the life out of me and sent me scampering out of the room as a little boy, it has seemed to me the quintessential British horror movie, so crammed with things to love.

I’ve never really got to grips with why so many seem to have at best little regard for it, and often a belligerent dislike. But while hardly anyone in print seems to have a good word to spare, I know from experience that it has a huge following among fans, who clamour for a DVD or BluRay release, and love its unique mixture of old-fashioned shivers and forward-looking mayhem. Why the published authorities fall so squarely in one half of the love/hate divide is a question worth considering, but what is in no doubt is that they are certainly misrepresenting their constituency.

I have already done my best to make a case for the film elsewhere on this site, (as well as detailed my thwarted attempts as an undergraduate to get Kevin Francis to discuss it with me in detail). This time I want to do something different, and take you back to those Cornish cliffs, not to attempt to persuade the undecided as to its merits, but to elaborate on a few of the questions the film throws out to those of us who already love the movie.

Most of them would never occur to the casual or first-time viewer, but they nag incessantly if you’re a devotee. The central mythos itself is incredibly vague: we know that some unholy sect ‘corrupted’ Cushing’s son Simon, and that he is now the Ghoul as a result, but we don’t know if this was achieved by supernatural means, or disease, or merely moral corruption. We don’t even know if the Ghoul is compelled to eat human flesh by necessity or choice.
Our first instinct, I would guess, is to assume that it is by necessity, but the more you ponder that the harder it becomes to square with the events of the film. Does the household rely purely on stranded travellers to provide him with food? (There seems to be a reasonably large collection of undergarments under Tom’s pillow, after all.) Would that really be a frequent enough occurrence, and wouldn’t suspicion soon fall upon them? Would his system really know the difference if they brought him pork chops? And does he eat only women – if not, why leave the body of Billy in his crashed car?

One must conclude that, as the Ayah forbids meat in other circumstances, his cannibal feasts are purely ceremonial and occasional, and it cannot be the case that he needs human flesh to survive, like a post-Romero zombie. This then raises the question of why Lawrence is so spineless in his handling of the problem…

Of course, for many fans, the real mystery of The Ghoul is why it’s so damned hard to see these days. Mired in copyright hell, the entire Tyburn back catalogue is officially out of bounds, with audiences having to rely on poor quality imported dupes, old tapes or off-air recordings. That mid-nineties VHS release marked the last time it was ever made officially available to the home market, and while it was a late-night horror staple in my television childhood (and even on one occasion made the cover of the Radio Times) it has not been seen on British TV since 2007.
Strange, given the interest that would surely greet its reappearance today, to recall the relative lack of excitement when it was last issued on tape, even though to my surprise and delight it turned out to be an extended cut with several minutes of footage not present in the official edit issued to British cinemas and used for all earlier video releases and broadcasts. (How and why the longer cut came to be assembled, and belatedly released, is another question for Kevin Francis when he decides the time is right!) 

For those who may only be familiar with one version, the differences are all in the first half. Several trims have been restored to the party scenes, with the biggest surprise for those who, like me, knew the original version by heart being when the opening prank scene continues for another minute after Alexandra Bastedo’s scream. But the most significant extra portions occur in the scenes with Veronica Carlson’s Daphne after her arrival at Lawrence’s house: it is this version and this only that includes her famous bath scene. (Stills from this sequence were used extensively in promotion and front of house materials, yet it would seem the sequence had never actually been seen by audiences before the mid-nineties.)

To make the fog even thicker, the longer version is itself missing one of the film’s most striking shots (probably accidentally, as it seems to occur at a reel change), in which we cut abruptly to Carlson’s eyes staring through Cushing’s stereoscopic slide viewer, as if locked in some medieval torture device: one of the film’s many charming 1920s touches.

That 20s setting is one reason why I love the film, and not just because it happens to be an era that entrances me anyway; it’s also bafflingly underused as a backdrop to traditional horror, and I’d be interested to know how early in the project’s gestation it was settled on. It’s often stated (including by me in my earlier piece on this site) that it was adopted somewhat arbitrarily, to make use of sets from The Great Gatsby left over at Pinewood, but now I’m not so sure. For one thing, the post-war ‘lost generation’ theme is central to the thematic structure in a way that doesn’t feel at all grafted on, and for another, only the opening scene actually uses roaring twenties settings, and that’s all filmed at Heatherden Hall, a real and permanent building on the grounds of Pinewood. Doubtless spare set dressings and costumes were gratefully received from Gatsby, but surely not deemed valuable enough in themselves to influence something so fundamental to the movie a priori.

Another vexed issue for hopeless obsessives like me is just where the film is set.

Now, some films tell you where they are set and some films don’t: no big deal. But The Ghoul is intriguing because it has two very clear and distinct locations: a fashionable society party and a fog-shrouded moor, neither of them actually named, and one named landmark: Land’s End, the ultimate destination of the car race that lands the four heroes in the Ghoul’s lair. I had always lazily assumed that it was indeed in the vicinity of Land’s End that they meet their fates (and always liked to think that the large, somewhat eerie, strangely melancholy white house I pass on my Land’s End walks, all alone in extensive but featureless grounds, was the abode of Mr Lawrence and his oddball household!) I also assumed, even more lazily as it turns out, that they started from London, and was frankly amazed, when I double-checked, to learn that both assumptions are completely unsupported by anything in the film itself. The only assistance we are given is the observation that Land’s End is “over a hundred miles” from where they begin, immediately corrected to “more like two.” 

So we can have some fun here: Four people in the 1920s are attempting to drive to Land’s End. Let us suppose that they live in a reasonably large town, given their wealth, awareness of fashions in an age of limited media, and the large number of like minds attending their parties. Their destination is between one and two hundred miles from the start point, and somewhere, along the shortest and most reasonable pre-motorway route, they pass through boggy moorland and become stranded. (Since both cars separately end up there, it is reasonable to suppose that neither took a wrong turning.) So where do they end up, and where have they probably started from?

Not London, surely? Land’s End is around 264 miles from London as the crow flies, and at least 300 miles (and five hours) by car, even with modern roads and speeds. Now, if you draw two circles on a map, one representing 100 miles from the radial point of Land’s End and the other two hundred, and assume that the start point must be a large-ish town somewhere within those two circles, the range of possibilities is surprisingly small. The most likely candidates (from a shortlist that also includes Bournemouth, Yeovil and Salisbury) are Southampton, Bristol and Bath. (Since I live there, I prefer to opt for Bath.)

Now, where do they end up? The moors on that route are Exmoor or Dartmoor if they don’t even get to Cornwall, Bodmin Moor or Goss Moor if they do, and Bodmin Moor  (substantially larger than Goss Moor and an appropriately misty, marshy and mysterious place steeped in folklore and legend) would I think be the more likely to have a secluded country mansion in the middle of nowhere within it. (Not sure that any of its inhabitants needed to sleep inside mosquito nets, even in the 1920s, but we’ll allow Anthony Hinds that much dramatic license.)

So that was my official guess: Bath to Bodmin, and with the film not telling, I assumed I was safe enough from dissent. But when I presented all this hard-thought reasoning in a blog post last year, a reader reminded me that there is also a novelisation of the film by Guy Smith, and that it has a little more detail on these matters. Having at last obtained my own copy, I took it with me to Land’s End this year. The good news is that it does indeed go into this and other of the film’s enigmas in greater detail: the bad news is that it makes them even more confusing.

First, and despite all of the above, there are several references that suggest the characters are indeed from London. Even though Smith replaces Geoffrey’s mere guess of two hundred miles with Daphne stating it as a certainty, he later has both Daphne and Angela wishing to themselves that they were “back in London”, and includes two dialogue references: Lawrence suggests that Daphne “will be able to journey back to London” after she has rested, and Geoffrey speculates that Angela might “try and walk it back to London out of sheer cussedness.” 

So on the face of it, it’s all looking rather bit bleak for my deductive reasoning! Or are there grounds for thinking that this was Smith’s own invention rather than derived from the original script? After all, hardly any of Smith’s dialogue has no parallel at all in the dialogue of the film, and the greater part of it is verbatim - but it’s a fact that both Lawrence’s and Geoffrey’s spoken references to London occur only in the book. Even more tellingly, a later exchange that does occur in both has been subtly altered by Smith: when Geoffrey is enquiring as to Daphne’s whereabouts, Lawrence tells him that she said “she was going to return to London”, to which Geoffrey replies, “It’s likely.” Smith normally sticks closely to the film, as I said, but in the film Geoffrey asks Lawrence where she had gone and Lawrence replies, with some diffidence, “She did say London.” In other words, far from knowing she would be intending to return there, it is as if he is nervously making a Westcountry recluse’s best and most obvious guess as to where a dazzler like Daphne might have originated from, and hoping he hasn’t given himself away in the process. And rather than “It’s likely”, Geoffrey’s reply is an incredulous “London?” - implying that it is, on the contrary, somewhat unlikely. It seems reasonable to speculate that the pinpointing of London is all Smith’s work, and he has tinkered with this exchange so as to accommodate it.

As to where they end up, again Smith has a surprise in store, though this time he only states it once: “Dawn was breaking as the Vauxhall reached Dartmoor.” But Dartmoor is in Devon, a long way from where they had hoped to arrive, and therefore it seems unlikely that both cars would have ended their journeys there. Once again, with its Hound of the Baskervilles connotations, Dartmoor would be an understandable casual choice for someone who was simply wanting to come up with a likely Westcountry moor: again, it feels more like Smith than Elder.

As well as definite locales, we are additionally given a definite date of 1923 – just a tad early, I’d have thought, for the twenties to be quite as roaring as we see them in the first scenes (especially in the provinces). It also makes Daphne considerably younger than we might have assumed from her conversation about faking her age so as to drive ambulances during the First World War.

So where did Smith get all this inside info? The absence in the book of any of the material in the extended video cut, and in particular the compression of time that follows from the deletion of Daphne’s bath and surrounding sequences, hints that he may even have been working to viewings of the film itself. (A coincidence, otherwise, given that all those scenes were scripted and shot, that both he and the film editors made the same cuts independently.) On the other hand, his omission of Lawrence’s lines about he and his late wife “still being together” (an ill-fitting addition to the scene that is obviously the work of Cushing himself) suggests he is working to the script.

If so, is the most substantial chunk of new material in the book – a grim sequence detailing the removal and dismembering of Daphne’s body after her murder, to be found in no extant version of the movie – Smith’s own invention, or a discarded fragment of an earlier script? It reads like Smith consciously upping the gore quotient a little, but Elder was surprisingly fond of such outré flourishes, and often had to be held in check by censors both internal and external.

The only thing to do was check with Guy N. Smith himself, so I got in touch with the venerable horror author – whose tales of deadly crabs were as familiar a component of the locker rooms of my school days as unwashed PE kits and packets of Monster Munch – to put these matters to him.
“I was approached by Sphere Books and Pinewood Studios,” he recalled; “I went to Pinewood where a showing of the film was arranged and was given a film script. I wrote it in three weeks, delivered the finished manuscript to Kevin Francis and that was that.”

And while, with forty years distance between him and the project, he could sadly no longer confirm if the locations were settled by him or not, he was adamant that there was no room for him to have any major narrative input: “I was not free to add elements of my own: the novel had to follow the film throughout, so the (dismemberment) sequence you mention would have been supplied.”

If Smith is really not to be credited with any improvisation at all, then the book very usefully sheds light on some of those questions of plot and logic I mentioned earlier.

For instance, the impression I got from the film was that the main instigator was Cushing’s Lawrence, bound by an oath to his late wife, reluctantly but nonetheless actively enticing victims to the house. The Ayah, though the one tasked with the job of preparing the carcasses and feeding the Ghoul, seems devoted principally to Lawrence, and both appear to be acting only under compulsion.
In the book, however, there is a much stronger sense that it is the Ayah who is in control of the weak-willed Lawrence, and that she engineers the deaths willingly and even with pleasure. She is a much more sinister figure than in Gwen Watford’s portrayal, with an expression of “utter malevolence” and “fingers like talons”. (Unlike the film, which ends with the Ayah impotently crying, as much for Cushing as the Ghoul we might assume, the novel ends with her committing suicide in the hope of being reunited with Simon: was this also derived from the original script?)

True, there is one line in the film where she says that is her prayers that brought Daphne and Angela to the house, but it is much clearer in the book that she really does mean this, and even more strikingly, there is the clear implication that Lawrence is to some extent left in the dark as to exactly what goes on, and would react more forcefully in opposition were it otherwise:

Every so often she stopped and listened. Each time she breathed a long sigh of relief as she heard the violin music in the study. Mr Lawrence would not tolerate her rites. Her prayers would be interrupted, and, today of all days, that must not happen.

There is of course that one moment in the film where Lawrence makes a big show of disrupting her ritual, but the clear implication of that, surely, is that he is putting on an act for Geoffrey, to imply that it has nothing to do with him. The book, by contrast, seems to want us to think his anger and surprise were genuine. But how could they be?

There seems to be a suggestion that he succumbs periodically to the power of the Ayah’s prayers, and is unable to stop himself acting as she wishes while under their influence, as when his playing of a Bach sonata gradually mutates into something else while she is chanting:

It was an Oriental theme, so much in keeping with her own mood, almost as though she was in telepathic contact with her master. The gods were on her side. They were exerting their powers over Lawrence. Surely now he understood what had to be done. He would not stand in her way.

A couple of minutes later she peered cautiously round the kitchen door into the hall. It was deserted. It was necessary to move with even greater stealth now that a new day had dawned. The study door was open. She glanced in, and then drew back swiftly as she saw Lawrence. Her heart pounded madly. If he should come into the hall, and catch her with this in her hands…

So what does he think happens to the people he knowingly brings into harm’s way, and conspires with both Tom and the Ayah to prevent from leaving? Unless my reading of it is an extremely idiosyncratic one, none of this comes across in the movie at all. His behaviour never seems controlled externally; though tormented he seems nonetheless plainly devious and culpable.

So is all this a clearer reflection of Elder’s original idea or a spin on it by Smith?
Just another mystery for us to ponder!

(Thanks to Guy N. Smith for indulging me.)

Written by:Matthew Coniam
Images: Marcus Brooks 


  1. Superb article. Thanks for the wealth of information on a great favourite of mine.
    I didn't realise Guy N. Smith had written an adaptation, despite being a fan of his also. I'll certainly be seeking that one out.


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