12 January 2009

Movie Review: The Mummy’s Curse

The Mummy’s Curse (1944)
Directed by Leslie Goodwins. Starring Lon Chaney Jr., Peter Coe, Kay Harding, Martin Kosleck, Virginia Christine, Dennis Moore, Kurt Katch

Now, O Ra, Sun God, look down in favor upon this, your humble servant’s review of the last of the classic Mummy films from Universal. And beknowst, O Ra, I invoke “classic” only in an era-defining sense, not as a cry of praise—which I reserve only for You and Karl Freund.

The mummy of Prince Kharis didn’t stay down in the swamp for long. The Mummy’s Curse came out only nine months after The Mummy’s Ghost, and it spelled the end of Kharis series. By the mid-‘40s, Universal’s top brass stood ready to ditch its old monster franchises. After cramming their frightful stars into movies with each other in the famous “Monster Rally,” Universal then dutifully marched them before Abbott and Costello, and finally tossed them into the celluloid dumpster until the late ‘50s, when TV syndication packages revived interest in the classic horror days.

But I shouldn’t sing the funeral song yet. I’ve got a final mummy film to ponder. And to my relief, The Mummy’s Curse marks a vast improvement over The Mummy’s Ghost. I think it’s the best of all the Lon Chaney-starring mummy sequels, and a nice surprise coming at the tail-end of a franchise that the studio had churned out without much enthusiasm.

Right away, Universal declares that it doesn’t give a damn about continuity any more. Twenty-five years have passed since the last film, which means it’s probably the year 2000 or 1997 or something—take your pick, since it still looks exactly like 1944. But even stranger, the swamp where Kharis sank in the conclusion of The Mummy’s Ghost has drifted from Massachusetts to Cajun bayou country.

I don’t mind the switch at all—and don’t care much about continuity in these classic horror films anyway, except as a talking point—because the damp swamp-culture is a great change from the previous few films. The atmosphere is sometimes alien and dream-like, and it meshes surprisingly well with the Egyptian theme. The denizens of the swamp towns also allow Universal’s stable of character actors to toss around their Cajun accents and odd dialects.

A large company is currently draining the swamp under the supervision of crotchety Mr. Walsh. Dr. Halsey (Dennis Moore) and Dr. Ilzor (Peter Coe) from the Scripps Museum come down to recover the mummies of Kharis and Ananka. The museum must feel plenty annoyed that the swamp leaped a thousand miles to the south, but at least they can wrack up frequent-flier miles.

However, Dr. Ilzor is secretly the newest High Priest sent to revive Kharis. He and his servant Ragheb (Martin Kosleck) have set up headquarters in an abandonded monastery, which alone is more atmospheric than anything seen in The Mummy’s Ghost. They recover the mummy from the drained swampland and resurrect Kharis with more of the endless supply of tana leaves always on hand for the priests of Karnak Arkam.

Because the last film lacked a heaping of stock footage played as a flashback, The Mummy’s Curse puts in double-time to make-up for it. We watch footage from The Mummy’s Hand, which contains footage from The Mummy, making this a double-dip of stock footage. Bizarrely, both Boris Karloff and Tom Tyler appear as Kharis in the flashbacks. I wonder if Lon Chaney appreciated this. Coe’s performance as Ilzor is super-imposed over the footage for a hypnotic effect—it’ll put any audience to sleep. The Mummy’s Ghost is a pretty lousy film, but at least it didn’t have one of these long re-cyclings, and it’s one of the places where The Mummy’s Curse stumbles. If saving some money here means they can film in the more atmospheric marshes, I’ll allow it and then some.

Ananka bursts up from the cracked mud of the swamp in the film’s finest sequence—probably the best moment in any of the Kharis films. Virginia Christine’s physical work here is remarkable, and Pierce’s make-up as it goes through stages under the heat of the sun shows that Universal could still summon some of the old black magic.
Actress Virginia Christine makes an enormous improvement over Ramsey Ames, who played the Ananka reincarnation in The Mummy’s Ghost. She’s beautiful, exotic, but also unreal; not since the 1932 Mummy has anyone given a performance that seems as if it could have risen from Ancient Egypt itself. Christine’s acting skill gives back the mystery of a lost world that the Kharis films desperately need.

The amnesiac Ananka ends up in the company of Dr. Halsey and his camp excavating in the swamp. Ilzor realizes that this strange woman is Ananka’s re-incarnation and sics Kharis on her. He could have just chloroformed her and carried her off himself, or had the lustful Ragheb do it, but he has a servant mummy around, so I guess he has to make use of it.

The film reaches its climax in an exciting confrontation in the rotting monastery, which is the best set since the temple in The Mummy’s Hand (which was re-dressed from another film, as I imagine this one is as well). The finale even brings closure to the Kharis story, making another sequel unnecessary. Which is good, since there wasn’t one.

If there’s a serious problem with The Mummy’s Curse, it’s that Kharis still isn’t that scary. He gets to do more graphic on-screen killing than the almost invisible deaths in the last film, but this lurching bundle of frayed bandages no longer inspires any fear, dread, or awe. Kharis never had much of these things to begin with, but at this point the filmmakers and Lon Chaney just don’t have anything to do with the rotted Egyptian. A girl casually putting on her coat manages to outrun Kharis in this film, for Ra’s sake!

Peter Coe makes the least interesting high priest yet. He is up against stiff competition from the previous high priests like Zucco (this is the first Kharis film without him), Carradine, and Bey, but even if none of those actors had ever gotten near a mummy film, Coe would count as a disappointment with his flat and bored delivery. Martin Kosleck, a frequent supporting actor in ‘40s horror films, steals away all of Coe’s scenes. With his weasly handsomeness and intriguing accent, Kosleck generates a lot of presence in the film. He’s actually scarier than the Mummy and poses almost as much danger to the hero and heroine in the finale as Kharis does.

Aside from Kosleck and Christine, the film has a number of colorful bit parts to add Cajun and Creole flavor to the gumbo: Cajun Joe (Kurt Katch), singer and hotelier Tante Berthe (Ann Codee), and swamp worker Goobie (Napoleon Simpson). But the romantic couple of Dennis Moore and Kay Harding is almost non-existent as part of the plot. They get to finish out the movie, but it seems as if the screenplay forgot to set up the relationship.

British director Les Goodwins helmed many films in a long career, most of them comedies and musicals. He directed a number of the “Mexican Spitfire” films of the early ‘40s. His musical background might account for the strange musical number performed by Ann Codee that opens the film. But Goodwins rises to the occasion of horror, and it’s unfortunate that Universal didn’t tap him to do any of the earlier Mummy flicks.

Now it’s time to seal the sarcophagus lid on Kharis, and Imhotep, as this film closes out the DVD set The Mummy: The Legacy Collection. May it have a safe journey to the otherworld, and may Osiris be merciful in his judgment on it.