In present-day Boston, Eliot Blackman invites his friend Larry Rand to the 19th century loft that he has purchased recently when he found himself low on funds. Inside the loft he found a rare Pickman painting of a ghoul lurking in a cemetery. Larry is confident that the painting is worth at least $100,000, and that Richard Upton Pickman disappeared 75 years ago, leaving no living relatives to inherit the painting. Eliot concludes that Pickman, a destitute artist at the time of his disappearance, must have lived in the same loft and left the painting there. Before he disappeared, Pickman was giving art lessons to the daughters of the city's richest men, and that he always wore gloves for a reason that no one knew.
Seventy-Five Years Ago
Pickman, wearing his gloves, is giving a lecture and demonstration to his class, and shows them his most recent painting, Ghoul Preparing to Die. One of the students, Mavis Goldsmith, is intrigued by Pickman. The artist explains that the controversial nature of his painting enraged the city elders. When Mavis comments that he said he told them to draw what they knew, Pickman explains that he saw the monster in his mind's eye. He looks at her painting and discovers that she's drawn him, looking at a vase of dead flowers. Mavis compliments him on his personal magnetism and then explains that she bought one of his paintings, View From an Artist's Window, and shows it to him. Pickman dismisses it as a lesser work, one he made before he had his own self-discovery and moved on to more monstrous works. He tells her that the painting isn't an authentic Pickman, and then finishes her painting, adding the face of the ghoul over his own. As the class concludes, Pickman warns the students to beware of self-portrays lest they reveal one's own soul.
After the class, Mavis listens in as Mrs. Dewitt, the headmistress, comes to tell Pickman that he has failed as a role model and as a teacher of real-life paintings, and fires him. She gives him payment until the end of the money and leaves, and Mavis approaches Pickman to insist that the headmistress is wrong. Pickman brushes off her concern, saying she's the spoiled daughter of a rich man, and storms off.
Mavis tracks down Pickman to a tea room and sits with him. He isn't interested in her company or her sympathy, but she insists on sitting with him. She explains that she painted the flowers as her own self-portrait, and asks why sees himself as a ghoul. Pickman refuses to answer and tries to leave for his studio apartment, and Mavis insists on coming with him. He warns that no one has ever come to his studio, and the girl says that's part of his mystique. When she asks why he hides his quarters, Pickman explains that he does his work entirely in private because an artist's work is exclusively their own until it is finished. He says that he is working on a series of related works that will turn any viewer to stone, and Mavis asks what they are about. Pickman talks of an eldritch race of beings that dwell in the caverns beneath the earth, stealing women for breeding purposes and multiplying their numbers until they're ready to conquer the surface world. As he starts to go, Mavis calls him Richard and says that she loves him, but he warns her to set aside her feelings because nothing good can come of them. The artist leaves, forgetting his painting of the cemetery, and Mavis picks it up.
At home, Mavis talks to her Uncle George. He examines the View painting and identifies the North End neighborhood where it was painted. He warns his niece that it's an unsavory part of town, and that there were a number of disappearances of women and corpses several years ago. When Mavis remembers what Pickman told her about the ghoul legends, George explain that some men tried to hunt down the men or creatures that abducted their wives, but never found anything. They bricked up all of the underground tunnels that they found in an attempt to permanently lock away the creatures in their underground warrens.
A determined Mavis goes to the North end to try and find Pickman's studio. She locates it from the view and knocks on the door, but gets no response. Lurking in the shadows, something watches her from behind the drapes. Mavis tries the door and finds it unlocked, and goes inside. The unseen watcher closes the door behind her and scurries off into the shadows, and the lamp light goes out. Mavis finds her way up to the studio and discovers Pickman's paintings. Each one shows the ghoul like creatures, ravaging women and feeding on corpses.
Pickman storms in and finds her there, and she explains how she located him. The artist tells him that she must go and never return, despite her entreaties. They hear footsteps on the steps and Pickman realizes that it's too late. He grabs a poker and tells Mavis to stay in the studio, and then goes out to confront the newcomer. As Mavis looks around, she finds one more painting. It's a self-portrait of Pickman as a child, standing with his mother and a ghoul. Outside, Pickman yells at the intruder to return to the cellar. There are the sounds of a scuffle, and the ghoul creature itself smashes into the studio. It attacks Mavis, who faints. As it carries her to the stairs, an injured Pickman renews his attack. The two of them struggle, and Pickman's gloves are ripped off in the fight. Beneath are clawed ghoul hands. When she wakes up, Pickman tells Mavis to run, and then sacrifices himself to throw the creature over the balcony. Artist and ghoul land on the floor, and Mavis runs out the door. The ghoul picks up Pickman and carries him away to the cellar.
Later, Mavis (dressed in black) returns with her uncle. There is no sign of Pickman and the creature. Mavis has bricklayers come in to seal off the cellar entrance, and then collects Pickman's ghoul paintings. As they leave, George wonders how Pickman created such monstrosities, and Mavis says that the artist painted what he saw... and what he was.
The Present Day
Eliot and Larry search the building for more of Pickman's paintings. In the cellar, they find a bricked-over cistern, and suspect that the paintings are hidden inside. As they go to work, a ghoul lurking in the shadows looks up eagerly.