Saturday, December 3, 2011

Listomania!: Will's November Universal THE MUMMY marathon

Growing up as a kid, I caught most of the Universal horror classics (DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE MUMMY, THE WOLF MAN, and all the CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON flicks) but missed a lot of the sequels. In October, I decided to fill in quite a few of the gaps and watched all of the films in the FRANKENSTEIN series.  In November I decided to start filling in the holes on another classic monster series. I saw Universal's THE MUMMY (1932) as a kid, but never really got into it. Mostly because the title creature in the form I best knew him (from countless horror film books) was only in one scene at the opening. As an adult, I appreciate it more (mostly for Karloff's performance) but still think it has some really bad pacing issues. Regardless, I never went further in the exploits of Universal's bandaged baddie until last month.

THE MUMMY'S HAND (1940) - Down-on-his-luck archaeologist Steve Banning (Dick Foran) and his annoying sidekick Babe Jenson (Wallace Ford) find a vase for sale in an Egyptian market that they believe has clues to location of the tomb of Princess Ananka. They take it to Dr. Petrie (Charles Trowbridge) of the Cairo Museum who agrees, but his colleague Andoheb (George Zucco) deems it a fake. Of course, Andoheb is doing this because he is also moonlighting as the new high priest of Karnak, whose job it is to protect this sacred burial ground. Not to be deterred, Banning convinces a Brooklyn magician (!), Solvani (Cecil Kellaway), to finance his trip. They find the tomb rather easily and discover the mummified body of Kharis (Tom Tyler), who was buried alive for trying to resurrect Ananka. Andoheb arrives on the scene and, using magical tana leaves, resurrects the mummy to kill everyone.

More of a semi-remake than a sequel, this new decade's mummy movie is pretty rough stuff. The film's worst problem is that the title creature doesn't appear until the 43 minute mark. Not good for a film that runs 67 minutes. Also, that mummy-less time is filled with some reaaaaally bad comedy, from Brooklynite Babe to the embarrassing Solvani (there is an actual bit where the tries to locate his contract and pulls everything from oversize cards to mountains of scarfs from his pockets). Coming from westerns, Tyler is a good mummy and I like the effect of his eyes being blacked out. One interesting thing is they use footage from the THE MUMMY to tell the history, but edit in Tyler in for Karloff.

THE MUMMY'S TOMB (1942) - 30 years have passed since the events of THE MUMMY'S HAND (so this is set in 1970?). Andoheb (Zucco again) survived the events of the first film and now places Mehemet Bey (Turhan Bey) in charge of getting revenge on the members of the Banning expedition (what did he do in the 30 years between?). Bey travels to Banning's home of Mapleton, Massachusetts with Kharis (now Lon Chaney, Jr.) in tow and takes a job as a cemetery caretaker. This gives him the perfect cover to send out the mummy to get revenge. It does so rather quickly as Banning (Foran again) is dispatched of by the 20 minute mark. Babe (Ford again; although is character's last name is inexplicably changed to Hanson) comes into to console his friend's son, John Banning (John Hubbard), but he gets offed too. Bey is a revenge master, but then gets sidetracked by Isobel (Elyse Knox), John's fiance. Beautiful white women - foiling madmen for ages! So he uses Kharis one more time to kidnap this hottie, which finally causes John to spring into action.

I watched this one right after THE MUMMY'S HAND and was glad I did because it is a direct sequel. Well, a 30 years later sequel. I prefer this one to its predecessor because it dispenses with the comedy and gets right down to the mummy mayhem. Running just 60 minutes (with 9 minutes of it being summary footage from HAND), it hits the ground running and rarely stops. Poor Chaney went from spending hours being made unrecognizable in THE WOLF MAN (1940) to spending hours being made unrecognizable in this. I really like Jack Pierce's design in this one with the attention to the previous film's mummy demise (he is slightly darkened from being burnt and missing an eye). The end is actually a great set up as the mummy once again attacks the huge Banning home and the villagers set fire to the place (during the town rally, the sheriff even says, "Pass out the clubs and torches!”).

THE MUMMY'S GHOST (1944) - Taking place a few years after the events of THE MUMMY'S TOMB, this has Yousef Bey (a young John Carradine) becoming the Egyptian high priest heir who is now charged with bringing Kharis the mummy (Lon Chaney, Jr. again) back to Egypt. He travels to Mapleton, Massachusetts to revive and retrieve the creature. Local college kids Tom Hervey (Robert Lowery, as a college "kid" in his 30s) and Amina (Ramsay Ames) soon find themselves targets as Amina just happens to be Princess Ananka reincarnated. Of course, the villain again finds his plans sidetracked by a certain weakness for the opposite sex. What is with these guys getting weak kneed at first glance of a woman?

Third in this MUMMY reboot series, it seems like Universal's only demands were "give us a mummy movie and make sure it runs 60 minutes." I do like that they continued on the chronology of the small town besieged by the mummy menace (newspaper headlines scream of the monster's return). The filmmakers do cheat a bit as they never explain how the mummy survived being burnt to a crisp as he appears just as before (no joke, his first scene is just him walking out of the woods looking no worse for wear). Carradine gives his all to the performance, but Chaney seems a bit stiffer than usual. The film’s best attribute is a major downer of an ending.  I kept looking at the counter and wondering how they were going to wrap up everything in a happy ending so quickly.  Turns out they didn’t and I’m grateful for that.  This is one of the bleakest endings in any monster movie.  One other memorable (and amusing) scene had the mummy roughing up a museum security guard.  When I watched this, I immediately thought that wasn’t supposed to happen.  Afterward, I read in Universal Horrors that indeed that Chaney got a bit carried away and cracked the glass that no only gave his co-star a headache, but gave Chaney a sliced arm.  Here’s the clip:

THE MUMMY'S CURSE (1944) - Arriving just 5 months after THE MUMMY'S GHOST, this was the final Universal entry in the Kharis mummy series. Set 25 years after the events of GHOST (we’re in the late 1990s now!), this has the drainage of a swamp spooking the local workers due to their fear of the mummy legend (there is no explanation as to why primary location Massachusetts is suddenly Louisiana; even odder is the foreman has a picture of the mill from the climax of the last film behind his desk). Dr. James Halsey (Dennis Moore) and Dr. Ilzor Zandaab (Peter Coe) arrive to look for the mummy during the excavation and, of course, the Egyptian of the pair has ulterior motives. Also rising from the swamp is Amina/Princess Ananka (Virginia Christine), who is rejuvenated by the suns rays but is still the object of Kharis' (Lon Chaney, Jr. one last time) affection.  For once, the Egyptian is impervious to a woman’s charms and…oh, what’s this…his henchman is digging her.  Oh jeez.

With the series as tattered as the mummy’s bandages, it is fitting this is the last one in the series.  The plots seem pretty unchanged for these last three sequels (mummy chases people), so I can understand why Universal buried the mummy after this one. Despite the unmentioned extreme location change, the screenwriters surprisingly didn't include any voodoo stuff in the proceedings. The film also features a really embarrassing "yes massa" character, which I found surprising since the other entries avoiding anything like this. It is too bad we never got to see him throw down in one of their monster rallies.  This entry does feature one of the best sequences in the series though when Ananka rises from her muddy grave.  It is really a haunting scene that poor mud-covered Christine, who is quite stunning, managed to get in one take.

So with the mummy series officially put to rest, this month I will focus on THE INVISIBLE MAN series.  I mean, if I can see him.

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