The Ghoul (1975) ****


Lush compendium of second generation horror cliches; in effect the ultimate Hammer film, made by assorted old boys (and girls) for a rival studio intent on reversing the direction it had taken, to its peril, in the 1970s.

While others bemoaned Hammer's traditionalism and timidity, and counselled radical innovation, Tyburn's take was refreshingly reactionary, urging a return to the generic blueprint of the original Bray Studios films. The result is what a 'pure' Bray film would have looked like in the seventies.
It's basically a revision of John Elder's script for The Reptile, with an unusual and irresistibly stylish 1920s setting and a less wacky, more grisly monster.
Peter Cushing, in one his most nuanced and effective performances, plays Dr Lawrence, a tormented ex-clergyman in a permanently fog-shrouded (and marsh-encircled) Cornish mansion, who keeps the diseased cannibal son he cannot bring himself to destroy locked in his attic. While he and Veronica Carlson (along with Elder's script, Freddie Francis's direction and Harry Robinson's splendid score) all play as reassuringly traditional, other aspects of the film seem positively anticipatory, not least the cannibalism, and a rotting, green-skinned monster that would be more at home in a later Fulci film than at Hammer.
Coincidentally, Ian McCulloch, later the star of Fulci's Zombie Flesh Eaters is the male lead here; nice also to see Stewart Bevan, a familiar face to Pete Walker fans. Odd, too, to note the similarities with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which emerged the same year and is usually cited as exactly the kind of horror film that was making the Hammer sort obsolete.
(Both films begin with four young travellers getting lost in the middle of nowhere; some look for assistance in a nearby house and end up slaughtered and eaten by one of the inhabitants. Meanwhile John Hurt, as Cushing's weird gardener, leaps about maniacally in the road in a manner uncannily reminiscent of Edwin Neal's hitch-hiker. And while Cushing's well-appointed house and civilised tastes seem leagues away from the home life of the deranged chainsaw family, Hurt's shed, with its caged animals, general chaos and relics of earlier victims, in this case the purloined underwear of the Ghoul's shapely victims, is not at all dissimilar to their abattoir-like dwelling.)

Since my first nervous encounter with it as a young boy, The Ghoul, despite a very low critical standing generally, has always seemed to me the quintessential horror film: richly coloured, flesh-creepy, with spooky music, blood, thick fog, quicksand, something unspeakable locked upstairs, and pretty girls running and screaming.Especially well-judged is the decision to delay a full sighting of the Ghoul until the end, forcing us in the meantime to build our own picture based solely upon repeated shots of his feet, green skin, weeping sores and sandals.
Francis, a director not always comfortable with the subjects he was handed, was never so confident and in control, his prowling camera seeking out every dark corner of the imposing house and fog-blanketed moors.