05 January 2009

Movie Review: The Mummy’s Ghost

The Mummy’s Ghost (1944)
Directed by Reginald LeBorg. Starring Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, Robert Lowery, Ramsay Ames, Barton MacLane, George Zucco.

A year and a half passed between The Mummy’s Tomb and this next installment, but five passed in the Mummy’s universe. Time for a new priest of Karnak to bring the speed-inhibited mummy of Kharis back to life to wreck slow-moving vengeance.

From the first scene of The Mummy’s Ghost the continuity already goes completely kablooie. George Zucco plays the same elderly High Priest Andoheb who died in the last movie. And in the one before that. He had passed on the high priest mantle in The Mummy’s Tomb, but it turns out he didn’t need to because he wasn’t dead. He starts to explain the story of Kharis once more for the new new High Priest, Yusef Bey (John Carradine, yeah!), but instead decides not to bother and lets a dissolve to Professor Norman (Frank Reicher) at Scripps University to take over the re-hash of the last movie. At least it means no more re-played footage. (Although the image of Carradine walking up the steps of the temple is actually footage of Zucco from The Mummy’s Hand. Reduce, recycle, re-use.)

Should I really try to explain the helter-skelter timeline? If we take the progression of time at face value as the movies state it, it’s currently 1975. But it sure looks like 1944 to me.

In other words, never mind. I’m sure I’ll bring up this taffy-pull of time when I review the next movie, which nominally takes place in 2000. Again, face value interpretation.

Professor Norman finishes up his scare-tactic lecture with his students, telling them a real mummy wandered around Mapleton, Massachusetts and slaughetred people; then he tells them to forget all about it. Just doing some exposition, if you don’t mind. Jolly college boy Tom Hervey (Robert Lowery), heads over to see his sweetie, Amina Mansouri (Ramsay Ames), who is of Egyptian descent and gets the heebie-jeebies any time someone mentions Egypt.

We return to John Carradine getting his instructions from the indestructible George Zucco. The mission this time is to find Kharis and the body of Princess Ananka and return them to Egypt. But wait, Kharis was incinerated, right? No, Andoheb tells us, “Kharis lives.” How? Never mind. Go fetch us a mummy and a princess. Here’s your tana leaves, have them back before midnight with a full tank.

(Bizarrely, the High Priest seems to have switched godly allegiances since the last film, because now he and Yusef Bey invoke “Arkam” instead of Karnak. Perhaps this Arkam fellow isn’t so demanding.)

Although Princess Ananka has gotten extensive mention in the previous two Mummy movies, this is the first time in which her re-incarnation will play an important role in the film, an element most subsequent Mummy-interpretations have borrowed. (In fairness, the idea originates with the 1932 Mummy.) Guess who the re-incarnation of Ananka is?

Professor Norman decides to brew up his own set of tana leaves by the light of the full moon, which summons Kharis immediately from where he was in hiding all the years: right off the main road. Kharis immediately goes to strangle the professor. Sheriff Elwood (Harry Shannon) finds it suspicious that Amina was found unconscious in the area of the murder, but the audience is already ahead of everyone else on the point of Amina as a re-incarnation of Ananka. It will take Police Inspector Walgreen (Barton MacLane from the 1941 The Maltese Falcon, “G” Men, and TV’s I Dream of Genie) to start to piece that together.

The countryside prepares for another mummy-assault, and Yusef Bey slips into the neighborhood to perform his own tana-leaf summons to bring Kharis to him. But when he discovers that Ananka has been reborn in a living woman’s body, his task becomes much more complicated.

The movie has almost no atmosphere at all, and director LeBorg executes the mummy murders so casually that sometimes you wonder if Kharis is actually killing anyone, or merely “cornering” them to death. Chaney doesn’t help proceedings with his complete auto-pilot performance. The finale takes place in one of the sunniest nights I’ve ever seen, and the countryside around Mapleton looks suspiciously like the exurbs of Los Angeles, or a mining set from a recently completed B-Western. I will give the screenplay credit for going for a bleak ending, where the hero doesn’t rescue the girl, but the build-up is dull and the yapping dog pursuing Kharis is almost as annoying as the repetitive library music from Hans J. Salter and Frank Skinner that was used in every low-budget Universal film from the period.

Among this tedium, there is one sequence that works. Yusef Bey holds a ceremony over Ananka’s mummy in the Scripps Museum with Kharis in attendance. The museum set is as close to Egyptian splendor as the movie achieves, and the script provides an interesting counterpoint of the night watchman in the next room taking a break by reading a detective pulp magazine and listening to a horror program on the radio—meant to be Inner Sanctum, I imagine, since Universal was producing a series of “Inner Sanctum” tie-in films at the time. Director LeBorg had helmed three of them, Calling Dr. Death, Dead Man’s Eyes, and Weird Woman. For a ‘30s and ‘40s culture lover like me, it’s hard to resist this sort of scene. As a bonus, the actor playing the night watchman is Oscar O’Shea, legendary to fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 as the hateful old grocer in The Brute Man. (“Creeper, Creeper, Creeper . . . you give me the creeps!” “God is dead? Good!” “Dear God I hate you! I hope you die!”)

There’s a lot of convivial ‘40s college life in the movie, which isn’t what you might want from Egyptian horror, but it’s historically interesting to see. Nominal hero Robert Lowery and his fellow collegians look too old for undergrad work, but this is stylistically typical of movies of the period. No one mentions the War, and the college seems fully stocked with young males who would otherwise be in uniform overseas, so the weird “Mummy Timeline” must be in full operation. Maybe this really is 1975? Better fashions at least. But what about ‘Nam?

I’ve got to stop thinking about this.

John Carradine is the film’s strength, and that shouldn’t surprise anybody with an interest in genre film. Here was a charismatic character actor who gave each role his full attention, whether it was Stagecoach or Night Train to Mundo Finé. Tall and imposing, and with a voice that says “LISTEN UP!”, Carradine is one of cinema’s most watchable actors.

The last of the original Universal Mummy series would arrive later the same year, so come back to this spot in an upcoming Monday when I seal the tomb on Kharis, Ananka, the High Priests of Karnak Arkam with The Mummy’s Curse.