When Dr. Morris (George Zucco) experiments with a poisonous gas first used by the ancient Mayans in their sacrificial rites, he discovers that it produces a 'death in life' state in the subject. It also has severe, irreversible side effect of advanced decomposition that can only be temporarily halted by a potent mixture of herbs and fresh human hearts. Grave-robbing, corpse desecration, murder and total madness follow.
It’s entirely possible I am over-familiar with Universal’s better known horror films from the 30’s and 40’s, so watching one for the first time is a doubly pleasurable experience. Tremendous actors like George Zucco, Evelyn Ankers and Turhan Bey often play supporting characters, but in this they take centre stage without a Chaney or a Karloff to share the limelight with. And it impresses what a huge amount of dialogue they are given in each scene, and how convincingly they convey it. Lesser-known David Bruce is the titular creature here, playing Ted Allison, who becomes a slow thinking, shambling zombie-like henchman for Zucco’s Alfred Morris and his nefarious activities, a ghoul who is reliant on the life-force from human hearts to avert his death.
The film itself is slim, never designed to be a blockbuster, and comes complete with typical wisecracking cops and journalists, luckily only featuring briefly. And so it is Morris we are captivated by, and his machinations. His idle playing of the piano waiting for his student to fall under the power of the deadly steam in the next room is a good example of his evil – he craves the love of Isabelle (Ankers), Allison’s disillusioned beau. The 32 year gap between them was more acceptable then than it seems to be now – and Allison is a likeable character, not saddled with the bland smugness of hero-types of the time. However, when Morris discovers Isabelle has eyes only for her pianist Eric (a slick and fascinating Turhan Bey), he instructs Allison’s alter-ego to kill ‘the Turkish delight’, as Bey had been dubbed due to his suave ways (at only 21 years old, he was the baby of the picture).
‘The Mad Ghoul’ is reminiscent of ‘Man-Made Monster’ from a couple of years earlier, wherein Lionel Atwill conducted similarly debilitating experiments on Lon Chaney.
The finale, when it comes, is solid and includes just desserts for Morris, who succumbs to the lethal Mayan gas. He transforms into a shambling ghoul and is last seen clawing at a grave in a bid to find a vital life-giving heart, but runs out of time. His death is cut off too quickly by the over-zealous end credits.