THE GHOUL (1974)

"I thought, well, surely – surely the truth must be there somewhere, to inspire such devotion.
Surely…. But I found only filth and degradation…."

Director: Freddie Francis
Starring: Peter Cushing, John Hurt, Veronica Carlson, Alexandra Bastedo, Gwen Watford, Ian McCulloch, Stewart Bevan, Don Henderson
Screenplay: John Elder (Anthony Hinds)

Synopsis: England, the 1920s. During an all-night party at a country house, Daphne Wells-Hunter (Veronica Carlson) goads her two admirers, Billy (Stewart Bevan) and Geoffrey (Ian McCulloch), into racing their new cars to Land’s End. Geoffrey is dismayed when Daphne not only chooses to travel with Billy, but also insists upon driving. He is further disheartened when Billy’s sister, Angela (Alexandra Bastedo), forces her company upon him. The race begins, and both men are astonished to realise that Daphne is an excellent driver. Briefly, Geoffrey manages to take the lead, but is forced to pull up when Angela becomes carsick. Daphne is enraged when a dense fog causes her to lose the road. Shortly afterwards, the car runs out of petrol. Angrily, Daphne sends Billy to find some more. He sets out, only to discover to his horror that the car stopped only feet from the edge of a ravine. While Billy is gone, Daphne dozes, unaware of the presence of a strange man who watches her through the fog. Waking suddenly, Daphne is unnerved. Leaving a message for Billy, she walks through the woods, gasping as she encounters the stranger, Tom Rawlings (John Hurt). Seeing the gates of a house, Daphne tries to enter. Tom grabs her, telling her the house is empty. Daphne breaks away, but Tom knocks her unconscious. When she recovers in his cottage, Tom tells Daphne not to go to the house. After a struggle, Daphne escapes. Suddenly, she finds herself face to face with the owner of the house, Dr Lawrence (Peter Cushing), who invites her in. Over tea, Daphne explains her predicament. Lawrence tells her the fog may last for some considerable time, and asks his Indian servant, the Ayah (Gwen Watford), to prepare a room. Daphne observes some photographs of Lawrence’s family, and learns that his wife is dead, and that he does not see his son. Daphne insists on looking for Billy. Lawrence says he will send his gardener to the car. The gardener is the mysterious Tom, who finds Billy asleep in the car. Silently trapping Billy’s coattail in the car door and releasing the handbrake, Tom pushes the car into the ravine…. Back at the house, Tom says that Billy wasn’t there, but left a note. He hands Lawrence a piece of paper, which is blank. Nevertheless, Lawrence tells Daphne that the "note" reads, "Gone home – Billy." In the kitchen, Tom takes the credit for Daphne’s presence in the house, while the Ayah insists that it was her prayers that brought her. Lawrence shows Daphne photographs of India. She comments on the Maharajah’s son, and instantly Lawrence becomes distressed, telling her that the young man was completely depraved, corrupting both Lawrence’s wife and his son, and driving the former to suicide. Another picture reveals to Daphne that Lawrence was once a clergyman. Lawrence tells her that he went to India seeking faith, but found only evil. Later, Daphne finds Lawrence at a strange, elaborate altar, praying to be released from his vow. After lunch, the Ayah takes Daphne to the room prepared for her, where she goes to sleep. The Ayah then prays before an altar of her own before unlocking the door of an upstairs room. She sits on the floor near the room, and before long a strange, misshapen figure emerges. As the Ayah watches in despair, the figure moves towards Daphne’s room, an elaborately decorated dagger clasped in its hand….

Comments: A considerable number of British horror films, good, bad, and indifferent, take for their starting point the inevitable, often violent clash of cultures that occurred with the spreading of the British Empire. The Ghoul, unfortunately, must be classified as indifferent bordering on bad. Of all the film’s flaws – of which there are many – the most damaging is a lack of sufficient back-story. In contrast to Terence Fisher’s startlingly violent The Stranglers Of Bombay, which sets its action in India and depicts its warring factions as, spiritually, mirror images of one another, or to The Reptile, or even The Oblong Box, which show arrogant Englishmen being punished for their exploitation of indigenous cultures, The Ghoul gives its audience no way of judging the relative guilt or innocence of its various parties. All we have to go on is Dr Lawrence’s sudden outburst against the "filth and degradation" that confronted him in India. Given what we learn of his experiences, one would naturally expect Lawrence to be possessed of a furious, passionate hatred for the people, even the place, that destroyed his family; but it seems to me that there is something more going on here. When Lawrence expresses his views on India and the Indian people to Daphne, there is every indication that he is speaking of before the tragedy. It is simple enough to deduce that as a missionary, Lawrence was a complete failure. His words reveal not just his frustration, but his utter lack of understanding of the people he was sent amongst. Even more than this, Lawrence displays an intense loathing of the Indian people simply for their unEnglishness; and it is here that The Ghoul begins to skate on very thin ice indeed. While it is entirely likely that as an Englishman of the 1920s, Lawrence would feel and express just this kind of unthinking, almost innate racism (anyone read any Agatha Christie lately?), the problem here is that the film-makers seem to share his attitude; worse, that they expect the audience to share it too; to be disturbed by the mere thought of a nice white family out there amongst the nasty Indian people. Now, I might be over-reading the evidence here (and there is one subtle indication that the film-makers don’t entirely agree with Lawrence’s point of view – I’ll get to it later on), but we are given so little to go on that it is hard to do anything else. It may be that, quite understandably, Lawrence’s views have been warped by the tragedy that struck down his wife and son, but yet again, it is impossible for the viewer to tell. In fact, we never do get any clear idea of what exactly did befall the Lawrence family. We learn only that the Maharajah’s son, a "completely depraved" young man, "corrupted" first Lawrence’s wife, and then his son. It is easy enough to interpret the first half of this statement, but what are we to make of the second? What kind of "corruption" turns a healthy young Englishman into a shambling, cannibalistic maniac? It is tempting to stick with a sexual reading of the text here, and infer that the hideous creature that the younger Lawrence becomes is simply a visual metaphor for his unmasked homosexuality; that he comes not so much out of a "locked room" as out of a closet. As for his taste for human flesh---well, perhaps someone connected with The Ghoul had been re-reading their Tennessee Williams….

In any case, the what of the Lawrences’ situation seems to me a less compelling issue than the why? What was it about this missionary and his family that drew such a hideous retribution? There are some obvious possibilities, of course – too much meddling in the local religions (inevitably, Lawrence refers to the locals as "fanatics" – funny how non-Christianity is always "fanaticism", isn’t it?), too little respect for custom, too little tact in dealing with their reluctant flock. Or, to be fair, perhaps it was nothing the Lawrences did that brought tragedy upon them, but simply what they were. Perhaps the Maharajah’s son was indeed completely depraved, and saw in the earnest clergyman and his family the perfect victims for his evil games. The biggest problem with The Ghoul is that we simply do not know – we’re not even given a hint. In the end, the whole Indian back-story is nothing more than an elaborate excuse for the film’s scenes of violence, making this one of the least interesting of all the "colonial" British horror films.

It is not only thematically that The Ghoul has shortcomings, but in structure and character as well. The film’s overall lack of substance begins to make itself felt during the opening sequence, which goes on easily ten minutes longer than it needs to, contributing little of substance to anything but the film’s running time. The only possible justification for the first twenty minutes of The Ghoul is the delineation of the character of Daphne Wells-Hunter. (Warning: I am about to reveal and discuss a major plot point here, so if you don’t want to know, skip to the next paragraph). When we first meet Daphne, she is busy proving her courage by not screaming at the sight of a "dead body" – an apparition that proves to be a cleverly made up Billy. As the film progresses, we find that there are various ways of describing Daphne: "headstrong" would be the polite way of putting it. She drives like a demon, and when her road map is lost (in a nice reversal of the usual sexual stereotype, Billy proves hopeless at map reading), she calmly announces her intention of navigating by the North Star. Captured by Tom Rawlings, she rescues herself without male assistance, and keeps her head when confronted by increasingly strange events in the Lawrence household. She’s impetuous, bossy, spoilt and wilful; but nevertheless has brains and quite a lot of guts. Sadly, however, the qualities which, a decade later, would have all but ensured that Daphne would still be standing when the credits rolled prove to be no use to her whatsoever. Apparently determined to out-Psycho Psycho, the film-makers leave their "heroine" unscathed for over two-thirds of the running time – then let their monster slaughter her. (The killing, too, is decidedly Psycho-esque – much screaming, and flailing arms, and flashing blades, but very little blood.) Now, it may be that this twist was included purely for its shock value; or perhaps it was just another instance of post-Night Of The Living Dead nihilism, so common in the horror films of this era. Whatever the reason, the bloody disposal of our apparent identification figure leaves the film itself almost as damaged as Daphne herself. From here on in the focus of The Ghoul shifts to Angela, and the viewer is given a rather unnerving lesson in what constitutes "acceptable" female behaviour. Angela is – to put it mildly - the weak, helpless, fragile kind. Far from driving like Daphne, she doesn’t drive at all; she joins a night race wearing the lightest clothing, then complains continually about the cold; and she holds up proceedings by getting sick. We’ve had just about enough of Angela by this time, and it is with considerable reluctance that we accept her company again after the discovery of Billy’s body brings her and Geoffrey back into the story. First seen recoiling from the prospect of identifying her brother’s body (just because it’s so gross to look at, it transpires – five minutes later she’s whining to Geoffrey about how hungry she is), Angela soon follows in Daphne’s footsteps by falling victim to Tom. The contrast between the two girls is nowhere clearer than in their responses to their capture: slapped and knocked down by Tom, Angela simply lies there whimpering; Daphne, treated similarly, springs to her feet in a towering rage and fells her assailant with an expertly delivered knee to the groin. Angela does not escape from Tom, as Daphne does, but eventually is brought to the house, and comes face to face with the dagger-wielding ghoul – and the audience learns that there is no justice in the cinematic world. Daphne is smart, courageous and self-reliant – and she is butchered without being given the slightest chance of defending herself. Angela, on the other hand, is a whiny, snivelling, spineless pain in the butt – and she escapes without even a scratch. There’s a message there somewhere, but I really don’t want to think about what it might be.

The overall pacing of The Ghoul is also a major problem. As already mentioned, the opening sequence goes on far too long to no good purpose. There’s also an awful lot of talk before there’s any action; while Angela’s encounter with Tom swiftly becomes a fairly dull repetition of Daphne’s experience. Still, unsatisfactory as the film is as a whole, parts of The Ghoul are enjoyable enough to prevent it from being a total failure. Peter Cushing is always a pleasure to watch, of course, and his performance here is quite impressive considering the standard of the material he has to work with. Initially, his Lawrence seems unthreatening, if rather nervous; and we are not at all surprised when Daphne allows him to convince her to walk into his parlour. (Veronica Carlson, on the other hand, should have known better: she and Cushing had met before, unforgettably, in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed.) Cushing allows the extent of Lawrence’s agitation to emerge only gradually, so that it is some time before we realise that he himself is the source of the danger that clearly lies in wait for Daphne. The Ghoul also contains an interesting performance from John Hurt, then a year away from finding international fame in The Naked Civil Servant and I, Claudius. Although his role is underwritten, so that we never do find out the reason for his willing involvement in Lawrence’s doings (or why he initially tries to warn Daphne off), Hurt throws in enough bits of business to make Tom Rawlings rather intriguing. Another performance of note comes in what is unfortunately the film’s smallest role, with Dan Meaden contributing a charming cameo as an unusually sensible village copper, who refuses to search the marshlands for the missing Daphne on the grounds that it’s too dangerous and he’s too scared. "The army used to use it as a training ground," he explains to the enraged Geoffrey, "but they lost too many men." With this, he climbs back onto his bicycle and peddles out of the story. In contrast, Veronica Carlson excepted, the film’s putative victims cannot overcome the script and fail to make their characters either likeable or believable. Ian McCulloch does at least get a spectacular death scene, forcing his way into "the locked room", only to stagger back with a cry of horror and his hands over his face. We assume that this is in response to what he has seen – until he turns to reveal a dagger buried in his forehead.

The ultimate irony of The Ghoul, however, given the dubious tone of the film as a whole, is that the character of the Ayah is easily the most interesting thing about it – and this in spite of the fact that the role is perhaps the least developed in the story. We learn next to nothing of her part in the Lawrences’ tragedy (she was the child’s nurse), or of her motivation in catering for her charge’s unfortunate dietary requirements, beyond a vague suggestion that it forms part of her religion (presumably, the Ayah is one of Lawrence’s "fanatics"). Nevertheless, with minimal dialogue and much eye-acting, Gwen Watford contributes memorable moment after memorable moment, helping to flesh out the rather poorly written tale and to suggest that something profound is going on after all. Nearly all of the film’s best scenes involve her: her sudden, blazing anger when Tom unthinkingly uses the expression "silly cow" in front of her; the cut from Lawrence’s explanation of her strict vegetarianism to the Ayah laying out an impressive set of butcher’s knives; her calm, professional butchering of the titular creature’s victim. Most importantly of all, it is through the Ayah that the film gives its one and only indication that the film-makers do not entirely endorse Lawrence’s views on "foreigners". As Lawrence shows Daphne his pictures of India, he launches into an increasingly hysterical diatribe, branding India and the Indian people as "evil", "degraded" and "vile". In the midst of this there is a brief, wordless cut to the Ayah, standing motionless and with eyes downcast on the other side of the door, rigid with hurt and anger as she listens to her country and her culture being vilified. We know already from the Ayah’s body language that she blames Lawrence for what befell his family; that, and this single scene, are the film’s only suggestions that the story’s underlying tragedy may have been the result of more than just the "natural" corruption of a foreign land. However, even if we do give the film-makers the benefit of the doubt here, it has to be said that any good intentions they may have had are severely, even fatally undercut by having the Ayah played by a white actress – the impeccably British Gwen Watford – who, of course, wears brownface….