October 15, 2012

Of Maya and Madmen

Poster for The Mad Ghoul (1943)
Now Playing: The Mad Ghoul (1943)

Pros: One of George Zucco's better villainous performances; An interesting, varied cast
Cons: A mundane monster; Slow pacing and little suspense

How about them Mayans? (Or rather, how about them Maya people?) More than a thousand years after the collapse of their civilization, they're back in the news with that damned calendar of theirs. If there's anything to this end-of-the-world stuff, then life as we know it (and more importantly, this blog) only has a couple more months left-- until December 21st to be exact. Let's hope there's nothing to it, because I want to reach 500 Facebook friends before I die.

It's a damned shame that a civilization that made so many tremendous advances in architecture, mathematics and astronomy is today known only for that stupid calendar and their bloody human sacrifices (thanks a lot Mel Gibson!).  At least this calendar business has led to a greater understanding of our own culture, namely, that so-called educational television like the Discovery channel will pander to the lowest common denominator to sell eyeballs to advertisers. That is good to know. (Maybe, just maybe, the most important issue this election season really is about saving PBS from the chopping block-- I know Big Bird wouldn't try to sell me an apocalyptic bill of goods about the Mayan calendar!)

A slide from Prof. Morris' lecture on Mayan poison gas
A Mayan high priest administers poison gas to a group of
"forty-seven-percenters" who didn't pay any income tax.
So, what then does all this have to do with The Mad Ghoul? Simply this: the film's resident mad scientist, Dr. Alfred Morris (George Zucco), offers an intriguing alternative hypothesis about why the Maya cut the still-beating hearts out of their sacrificial victims… and it's a doozy. The film starts with a very average-looking (for the 1940s) group of college students listening with rapt attention to a not-so-average chemistry lecture delivered by Prof. Morris. Morris shows the class a slide of an ancient Mayan rendering of a masked priest blowing something at a group of peasants, who appear to be writhing on the ground. Morris explains that, according to his research, the Maya discovered a form of poisonous gas that, rather than killing outright, brought "death in life, or if you prefer, life in death!" He also promises to reveal a connection between the poison gas and the elaborate surgical removal of the heart in Mayan ritual sacrifices… next semester (the professor seems to have learned a lot from the cliffhanger serials of the '40s).

After class, he tells star medical student Ted Allison (David Bruce) that he's much farther along in his research than he confided to the class-- that he's discovered how to synthesize the Mayan poison gas, but there's more work to be done before he can make his findings public. Ted eagerly agrees to assist him with his experiments over the summer holiday. Pretty soon, we know why Ted was recruited from among all the other eager-beaver students to assist the great chemistry professor-- he knows his way around a scalpel, a very good skill to have if you're going to be cutting the heart out of assorted living things.

Morris shows Ted a Capuchin monkey that has all the appearances of being dead. When Ted examines him with a stethoscope, he's amazed to discover that the little beast shows vital signs -- outwardly dead, but somehow alive. Morris reveals that the Maya had discovered an antidote for their "death in life" gas by combining the contents of a "fresh" heart from the recently dead with certain herbs and administering the serum to the gassed victim. "I have the herbs… and there's the heart," Morris states coldly, pointing to another cute little monkey in a cage. Ted looks doubtful, but goes ahead with the cardiectomy like a good trooper. Later, as Morris injects the antidote into the first monkey, we get to the blackened heart and soul of all B movie mad scientists:
Ted: I can't help feeling a sense of evil in all this…
Morris: Moral concepts! I am a scientist! To me there is no good or evil, only true or false. I work with one, discard the other.
Prof. Morris (George Zucco) makes a play for Isabel (Evelyn Ankers)
The randy old professor (George Zucco) is ready to teach
Isabel (Evelyn Ankers) how to read the 'book of life.'
The experiment in reviving the zombie monkey is a success, and before you can say "ritual cardiectomy," we get to see just what a mad scientist with no moral center is capable of. Ted makes the fatal mistake of bringing his glamorous fiance Isabel Lewis (Evelyn Ankers) over to the professor's for dinner. Isabel is popular radio singer who is getting ready to go on a tour with her dark-and-handsome piano accompanist Eric Iverson (Turhan Bey). The smooth, devious professor gets Isabel alone for a few minutes, and she confides that she's having second thoughts about the engagement. Ted's a great guy and all, but he's still somewhat immature, and then there's the tour to think about…  The self-obsessed professor mistakes Isabel's hesitation with a budding May-December romance, and starts plotting to remove the competition. "It's perfectly natural now that you should turn to a more sophisticated man," he tells the confused Isabel. "A man who can share your great joy in music… a man who knows the book of life, and can teach you how to read it…" (What a dawg!)

Wearing a gas mask, Morris brews up some of his Mayan poison gas, then sends Ted into the lab on an errand. He calmly plays the piano in the other room as Ted collapses. When Ted stands up at Morris' command, he looks like a med student who's been studying for finals and hasn't slept for days on end-- in other words, a shambling, dead-eyed, pasty-faced zombie. (Of course, along with doing bad things to your complexion, the gas takes away your mind and will, making you a pliable tool for any mad scientist or Mayan priest who might be hanging around.)

When a worried Isabel calls the professor wondering why Ted didn't show up to the train station to see her off on her tour, Morris explains that the young man was too ill from tension and overwork. Morris gives Ted the antidote, thinking that he's effectively sabotaged the engagement. Unfortunately for the dirty old man, once Ted recovers his senses he wants more than ever to see Isabel and get married right away, the concert tour be damned.

Soon, another of the madman's best laid plans goes awry. The monkey they revived has a relapse, and it becomes obvious that the antidote's effects are only temporary. Like the cold-hearted one-percenter that he is, once Ted relapses, Morris has the poor zombie-med student dig up a fresh corpse from the local cemetery all by himself and extract the heart to effect another temporary cure. Back to his old self once again (and completely oblivious to his zombie episodes), Ted insists upon seeing Isabel, even though she's busy with her tour. Morris, knowing that Ted could revert at any time, offers to accompany him.

Confronted by the eager Ted after one of her concerts, Isabel finally lets the callow young man down with the 1940's equivalent of the "it's not you, it's me" routine. The stress of losing the love of his young life sends Ted into a funk… and then into a zombie relapse. At the same time, the oily professor comes to realize that Isabel isn't looking for an older man who can "read to her from the book of life," but rather has eyes for a much younger, much handsomer man in the form of suave, sophisticated Eric Iverson. Rather than bowing out gracefully (something that madmen generally don't do well), Morris decides that he has just the plan, and just the zombified tool, to eliminate this latest competitor for the lovely Isabel's affections. In the meantime, the police and the press slowly but surely figure out that baffling murders and grave desecrations seem to follow Isabel around wherever she's touring.

For a B programmer designed for the bottom of a double-bill (it debuted with the underrated Lon Chaney Jr. vehicle Son of Dracula), The Mad Ghoul boasts an outstanding cast. Sure, there's no one named Bela, Boris or Lon anywhere in the credits, but the Ghoul does quite alright without them, thank you very much. Classically trained George Zucco, who by this time was well into his career as a typecast B movie madman, turns in an understated, nuanced performance that finds a bit of humanity in Morris' madness (more on Zucco shortly). Evelyn Ankers spent much of her Universal career being menaced by a variety of monsters, including Lon Chaney's The Wolfman, The Ghost of Frankenstein (Lon again), Captive Wild Woman, Son of Dracula (Lon yet again), and of course The Mad Ghoul. (In the Inner Sanctum series entry Weird Woman she played against type as a haughty villainess.)

Prof. Morris (George Zucco) helps steady his wobbly, zombified assistant (David Bruce)
A newly created zombie, or just a med student with a very
bad hangover? At this stage it's hard to tell.
Suave Turhan Bey spent a decade or so in Hollywood acting in movies and wooing a considerable number of stars and starlets (and almost marrying Lana Turner!). Turhan passed away recently at the ripe old age of 90. His time in Hollywood was just a small part of a fascinating, richly-led life -- the kind that most of us can only dream about. Contract player David Bruce had the unenviable task of playing the immature, anxious boyfriend and a zombie. The film's concept of a scientifically-generated zombie may have been just a little too clever for this type of B programmer. The first time we see poor Ted under the effects of the gas, he looks more like a frat-boy with an hangover than a loathsome living dead man. Later, after a number of relapses, he looks more corpse-like. Apparently the intent was to show the progressive degenerative effects each time Ted lapsed into his zombie-state.  (Tom Weaver, et al., Universal Horrors: The Studio's Classic Films, 1931 - 1946, 2nd ed., McFarland, 2007).

Unfortunately, the "money" closeup shots of Bruce with the more revolting, parchment-like skin are relatively few and far between. As a zombie, Ted is more pathetic than intimidating. Regardless, Bruce "suffered for his art" under makeup master Jack Pierce (creator of Universal's Frankenstein, Mummy and Wolfman makeups). As he told a Famous Monsters magazine interviewer:
"My makeup was green and it made my hair look red for some reason-- bright red. They tinted me green and combed my hair over my eyes and for the later thing they put the false skin on, which was absolute murder. I wore it for three days and the third time I took it off my skin was bleeding because you had to peel the makeup off. They put on spirit gum and then a layer of cotton and then another layer of gum so this created an entirely false face on top of mine. Then they'd wrinkle it up and the wrinkles would stay in…" (Quoted by Weaver, et al.)
Other cast members to look for are Milburn Stone (best known as Doc Adams on TV's Gunsmoke) as a police detective, tough guy Charles McGraw as Stone's assistant, and King Kong's captor, Robert Armstrong, as an ill-fated reporter. But George Zucco is the main reason to dig up The Mad Ghoul for your viewing pleasure. Zucco gives real, human life to a cliched B movie madman role that others might have been tempted to ham up outrageously. With a glance here and a slight hitch in his voice there, he transforms Prof. Morris from a madman doing evil for evil's sake, to a mere man so overcome by emotions and longing that he's willing to do evil. It's a pearl of a performance in a rough, raggedy oyster of a low-budget horror film.

By all accounts, George was a gentleman's gentleman and a "pussycat." In his opening chapter on Zucco, biographer Gregory William Mank summed up a great and varied career:

DVD cover art - TCM's Universal Cult Horror Collection"With his Old Vic Shakespearean background, Zucco could (and did) play just about everything, at every studio, with everybody: sparking scenes with such great ladies as Garbo, Harlow, Crawford, Colbert, and Bergman; supporting male legends like Gable, Cooper and Boyer; working with an alphabetical Who's Who of great directors, from Dorothy Arzner to Fred Zinnemann. His film career tallied over 90 movies, from England to Hollywood, from the most prestigious MGM productions to PRC six-day wonders. While Zucco's specialty was villainy, he played every human emotion, from the saintly to the sinister-- posthumously winning regard as one of the cinema's most beloved character actors." (Hollywood's Maddest Doctors: A Biography of Lionel Atwill, Colin Clive and George Zucco, Luminary Press, 1998.)

So what are you waiting for? The Mad Ghoul is available on TCM's Universal Cult Horror Collection, along with such other underrated Universal horrors as The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942) and Murders in the Zoo (1933).

Poor Ted's in for a big letdown:

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