Friday, May 12, 2017

Worth Mentioning - They Dared the Curse of the Ancients

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

The original Mummy franchise, featuring Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., Bud Abbott, and Lou Costello.

THE MUMMY (1932)

For anyone under the age of 85, the mummy - risen from the dead, shambling and wrapped in bandages - has always been one of horror's cornerstone icons, up there with vampires, werewolves, and the rest of them. We take it for granted that mummies have always been scary characters. It's easy to overlook the fact that the movie which firmly established this horror icon was actually inspired by real world events in the early 20th century.

In 1922, the tomb of pharaoh Tutankhamun, who died around 1323 BC, was discovered in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. The discovery, and the eight years that it took to study and remove the items with the tomb, captured the world's imagination - especially since at least ten people involved with the excavation died during those eight years, stirring up rumors that there was a "curse of the pharaohs" upon anyone who would disturb their tombs. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author who created Sherlock Holmes, even played a part in fueling these rumors.

This was prime material for a horror movie to deal with. Universal saw the potential and put a film inspired by the discovery of King Tut's tomb into development. The studio had major success in 1931 by adapting novels from the 1800s into horror movies with Dracula and Frankenstein, but since no suitable mummy stories could be found to adapt The Mummy was built from the ground up. Richard Schayer and Nina Wilcox Putnam came up with a story inspired by the antics of 18th century occultist Alessandro Cagliostro that would have had an immortal magician wreaking havoc in modern day San Francisco, but it was screenwriter John L. Balderston - who had co-written the Dracula play that the movie was also based on and had contributed to the crafting of Frankenstein's script - who came along and made The Mummy a fully Egyptian-based tale. Balderston had some knowledge of this sort of thing, since he had worked as a journalist and had covered the opening of King Tut's tomb for the recently shuttered newspaper New York World. It was Balderston who chose to name the eponymous character Imhotep, after an Egyptian historical figure who was considered to be the first architect, engineer, and physician.

Directed by Karl Freund, The Mummy begins in 1921, when an expedition in Egypt that's sponsored by the British Museum and led by Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron) has unearthed and emptied out a tomb belonging to a man called Imhotep - but this isn't the same Imhotep as that aforementioned historical figure. This man was High Priest of the Temple of Karnak, and he was wrapped in bandages and buried alive as punishment for sacrilege. Not only was he executed in a terrible manner, his soul was also damned by his prosecutors, as they chipped the spells that are meant to protect the soul during its journey to the underworld off of his sarcophagus.

As the film goes on, we'll come to find out that Imhotep received this punishment because he fell in love with one of the temple's vestal virgins, the Princess Anck-es-en-Amon, daughter of Amenophis the Magnificent. When Anck-es-en-Amon died from some kind of illness, Imhotep sought to resurrect her with the magic words written on the Scroll of Thoth. For attempting to bring the dead back to life, Imhotep was sentenced to death in our world and the next.

The Scroll of Thoth was locked away in a casket that was found with Imhotep, along with a warning that it's cursed: "Death, eternal punishment, for anyone who opens this casket." But Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher), a member of the expedition, opens the casket anyway, and as he reads the scroll the bandaged-wrapped corpse of Imhotep begins to stir. His eyes open, he steps out of his sarcophagus and walks out of the room. The sight of this man who has been dead since 1730 B.C. getting up and walking around breaks Ralph's mind. He begins laughing hysterically, and continues laughing until he dies.

Imhotep is played by Boris Karloff, one year after his career-defining role as Frankenstein's Monster. In this opening sequence, Imhotep has the iconic mummy look - shriveled skin, filthy bandages - but if you put on The Mummy expecting to see Karloff sporting that look for the whole movie (as I was the first time I watched it), you might be sorely disappointed (as I was). This scene is the only time we'll see a bandage-wrapped mummy walking around. After this, Imhotep ditches the bandages and takes on a different identity.

The story jumps ahead to 1932, when Whemple's son Frank (David Manners) is on his own British Museum-sponsored expedition in Egypt. An odd local man named Ardath Bey points out the location of Anck-es-en-Amon's tomb, which is quickly dug up and emptied out. Ardath Bey is played by Karloff and is actually Imhotep, and if you're wondering why Imhotep didn't just dig up Anck-es-en-Amon's tomb himself, it's because the Egyptians are forbidden from digging up their own ancient dead. That's a job for foreign museums.

As soon as Anck-es-en-Amon's mummy has been placed in the Cairo Museum, Imhotep goes back to work trying to resurrect her with the Scroll of Thoth. This guy is afflicted with a love that has lasted thousands of years. His attempts to contact Anck-es-en-Amon in the afterlife have a strange effect on a young woman named Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann) elsewhere in Cairo. She fans into a trance and feels uncontrollably drawn to Imhotep.

Helen is in Cairo as the guest of Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan), who spends every winter in the city. Muller is an expert in the occult and an associate of Sir Joseph, who has just returned to Egypt for the first time since he lost the Imhotep mummy to celebrate Frank's discovery of Anck-es-en-Amon. As Helen falls under the spell of Imhotep, it's these men who fight to save her from the ancient man, who believes she is the reincarnation of his long lost love. Imhotep wants to kill Helen, mummify her, and then resurrect her as the reborn Anck-es-en-Amon. You see, he can't just resurrect the Anck-es-en-Amon mummy he already has because her soul has moved on to Helen. I suppose he wasn't reincarnated himself due to the curse put on him in the afterlife. 

In one of the most baffling screen romances I've ever seen, Frank takes a personal interest in saving Helen because he falls in love with her pretty much at first sight. During his first meeting with her, Frank tells Helen that when he was unwrapping the Anck-es-en-Amon mummy, he sort of fell in love with the dead woman when he saw her face. Then he realizes that Helen looks just like her, and boom, he's in love with her, too. This isn't a one sided love, either. Frank and Helen have only been in each other's presence for minutes before they're kissing and tossing around the word "love". There is no rational thought to their romance at all, just pure, inexplicable passion.

But that passion doesn't keep Helen from going off with Imhotep and putting herself in danger...

There's no debating The Mummy's status as a classic or the fact that it had a lasting impact on the horror genre. Setting aside any historical baggage, I would rank it as a decent entry among the Universal Monsters offerings of the '30s - '50s, but it's not one of my favorites. The concept is terrific, but the execution isn't all that thrilling to me, and there are leaps in logic to overcome.

Karloff really elevates the film with his performance as Imhotep / Ardath Bey. He is fantastic, as you would expect, and makes the love sick villain a great character. Imhotep is also one of the most powerful villains among the monsters, since he has ancient spells at hand that allow him to turn people into mindless servants or cause them to die from heart failure. He doesn't have to be anywhere near a victim to cause their death. 

When I first watched The Mummy, I just wanted to see a bandage-wrapped member of the walking dead attacking people, but Imhotep is much more than that. More than anything, it's the way that Karloff brings this character to life on the screen that makes The Mummy worth watching.


If I were tasked with coming up with a title for a Mummy movie, I'm not sure I would ever get around to The Mummy's Hand. It has always astounded me that Hand was the title chosen for the second Universal Mummy film - not a sequel far down the line, after they had exhausted more obvious options like Tomb, Ghost, and Curse, but the second movie.

The Mummy's Hand is not a sequel in itself, as it has no connection to the story or the characters of The Mummy. It does draw inspiration from The Mummy, though, basically retconning the back story presented in that film to build the back story for its own separate story, which features a completely different mummy. The back story, which is brought to the screen through the use of some stock footage from The Mummy is similar to the story of Imhotep and Princess Anck-es-en-Amon, daughter of Amenophis, but here it's the story of Kharis, a prince of the royal house, and Princess Ananka, daughter of King Amenophis. Characters who lived and died in Egypt over 3000 years ago. When Princess Ananka died, a heartbroken Kharis attempted to resurrect her - not with the Scroll of Thoth, but with the forbidden Tana leaves. Kharis was caught before he could bring Ananka back to life, and for the sin of trying to resurrect the dead he was condemned to be buried alive... and before he was wrapped in the bandages he would be buried in, his tongue was cut out so the gods wouldn't hear his unholy curses.

Unlike Imhotep, Kharis never actually died. The Priests of Karnak have kept him alive for thousands of years with brewed Tana leaves - but only enough leaves to keep his heart beating. Three leaves do that trick, and the brew is given to Kharis once every full moon. The mummy is being kept alive to guard the tomb of Ananka, and if that tomb is desecrated he will be given a brew of nine leaves, which will give him life and movement. The vengeance of Kharis will fulfill the curse of Amon-Ra: "For who shall defile the temples of the ancient gods, a cruel and violent death shall be his fate." However, the priest giving Kharis the brew has to be careful not to give him more than nine leaves. Any more than nine will cause the mummy to become "an uncontrollable monster, a soulless demon with the desire to kill and kill."

All of that information is delivered to us right up front, so when we meet archaeologist Steve Banning (Dick Foran) and his comic relief assistant Babe Jenson (Wallace Ford), a pair who are on the path to locating Princess Ananka's tomb, we know they're about to get themselves in deep trouble. The current High Priest of Karnak, a man named Andoheb (George Zucco), tries to use his position at the Cairo Museum to dissuade the archaeologists from their expedition, even warning that two other expeditions have vanished while searching for Ananka's tomb, but he's not able to stop them.

Steve and Babe are somewhat hindered by the fact that they're not respected in their field, and thus can't secure funding from any museums, but they're ultimately able to finance their expedition by bringing on a partner - Solvani the Great (Cecil Kellaway), the "world's most amazing magician", who has been performing in Cairo and mostly serves to provide the film with another comic relief character. The tone of this movie is much lighter than The Mummy's.

The expedition is "stuck with a dame" when Solvani's daughter/assistant Marta (Peggy Moran) decides to come along and supervise things, since Andoheb has put it in her head that Steve and Babe may be thieves. These tension among the group at first, but Marta proves to be a valuable member of the team. Not to mention a love interest for Steve (and for Andoheb) and a damsel in distress for the climax.

All of this set-up takes up the majority of the film. Once the expedition actually sets off into the Egyptian desert, they quickly locate a tomb - although it's not Ananka's tomb, but Kharis's. The mummy is removed from his sarcophagus... and that's when Andoheb shows up to drip the brew of nine Tana leaves into his mouth. 42 minutes into this film, which has a running time of less than 67 minutes, the mummy Kharis finally rises and begins killing people.

The mummy's rampage (even that would be a better title than The Mummy's Hand) is packed into the last third of the movie, but The Mummy's Hand does deliver the sort of mummy action I expected to see when I first watched the original movie. This mummy doesn't ditch his bandages, Kharis remains a wrapped-up, shambling zombie for the entire time he's an active participant in the story. While the search continues for Ananka, Kharis stalks around the desert, creeping up on people and strangling them to death. And, of course, never saying a word, since his tongue was removed.

Kharis is well played by Tom Tyler, a former weightlifter and a star of Westerns who mainly landed the job because the movie was being made fast and cheap, with a budget of $80,000 and a two week shooting schedule. As mentioned earlier, the studio had director Christy Cabanne cut corners by filling out some sequences with stock footage, and Tyler was cast because he looked enough like Boris Karloff that the mixture of his close-ups with far shots of Karloff stock footage wouldn't be too jarring. Tyler shambles and strangles with the best of them, and he's deserving of more recognition than he gets, since he's partly responsible for the iconic image of the mummy most people have in their minds. He looks really creepy with his blacked-out eyes, too.

Scripted by Griffin Jay and Maxwell Shane, The Mummy's Hand doesn't aim very high, but this short and cheap franchise reboot is an entertaining movie to watch. The characters are likeable and fun, things move along quickly, and the mummy is exactly the sort of mummy I really want to see when I watch a mummy movie. I just wish he had been given a bit more time to do what he does. Luckily, he'll be back for three sequels.


Directed by Harold Young from a script crafted by Neil P. Varnick, Griffin Jay, and Henry Sucher, The Mummy's Tomb is a direct sequel to The Mummy's Hand, but if you missed out on its predecessor you don't have anything to worry about. Tomb spends its first 13 minutes (although, to be fair, that also includes the title sequence) recounting the events of Hand, complete with copious amounts of stock footage. The story is being told by Hand hero Steve Banning, with Dick Foran reprising the role, and Steve has aged thirty years since he fought Kharis the mummy, even though Tomb was released just two years after Hand. Since the makeup was done by the great Jack P. Pierce, the twenty-eight extra years added to Foran's face are actually rather convincing.

Since the events of Hand, Steve had a son with the late Marta Solvani and now lives with his older sister Jane (Mary Gordon). It's for the benefit of Isobel Evans (Elyse Knox), the girlfriend of his adult son John (John Hubbard) that Steve is going over the old story of his encounter with the living mummy. The story is the most amazing thing Isobel has ever heard. She'll be having her own experience with the mummy soon enough.

Kharis failed to guard Ananka's tomb, the princess's corpse and her belongings became museum property, and Steve's only regret is that he wasn't able to bring the Kharis mummy back to America with him as well. But Kharis is coming to America now. Like Hand began with Andoheb (George Zucco) being named the new High Priest of Karnak and caretaker of Kharis, this film has Andoheb naming Mehemet Bey (Turhan Bey) the new High Priest while revealing that Kharis wasn't burnt to ashes like the ending of Hand may have had you believe. The mummy is back and bandaged, living off the Tana leaf brew, and now played by horror icon Lon Chaney Jr. - adding the mummy to an acting filmography that also includes the Wolf Man, Frankenstein, and (the son of) Dracula.

Bey takes Kharis to Mapleton, Massachusetts, home of the Bannings, to carry out a mission of vengeance thirty years in the making. Exactly why the filmmakers decided to set this film thirty years after The Mummy's Hand is really beyond me. Why would Andoheb wait that long to put the revenge plan in motion? Why bother to bring back Hand actors and bury them in old age makeup? Hand had seemed to be set in the year it was released, which would mean The Mummy's Tomb should be happening in 1970, but it's clearly 1942. So the time jump is pointless.

The plan is for Kharis to wipe out the Banning bloodline, and the film makes up for the lengthy recap at the beginning by making sure Kharis is shambling around and killing people early on. He claims his first victim with the first 25 minutes of the 60 minute running time. That's a relief after the long build-up in Hand.

As Kharis whittles down the cast and John and Isobel emerge as the new hero and heroine, another Hand cast member returns in old age makeup: Wallace Ford as Steve's buddy Babe. In Hand, Babe had been a total goofball, almost to the point where you'd think he was auditioning to be the next Lou Costello. Reprising the role in Tomb, Ford plays the aged Babe totally straight and serious. He does fine, but it's quite a turn around for the character.

There are plenty of things you can nitpick and question about The Mummy's Tomb, but they don't really take away from my enjoyment from the film. They're just window dressing on a movie that allows the franchise to continue giving me more and more of what I want to see. When compared to The Mummy, The Mummy's Hand gave more more of what I wanted by keeping the mummy in his bandages while he went after people. The Mummy's Tomb continues down that path and drops the villain into a setting more appealing to me than the Egyptian desert - small town America. I love the image of the mummy moving through suburban yards and past cemetery gates.

Like the film before it, The Mummy's Tomb is pure B-movie material. It's cheap, fast, short, and a wonderful piece of classic horror entertainment.


It has been said that Lon Chaney Jr. hated playing the mummy and, understandably, didn't like having to endure the eight hour process of getting the Kharis makeup put on and the bandages wrapped around his body. And yet, after going through all that to work on The Mummy's Tomb, Chaney signed up to do it all over again for The Mummy's Ghost. It probably didn't hurt that the sequel only had a nine day shooting schedule.

Directed by Reginald Le Borg, this sequel begins much like Hand and Tomb did, with a scene in which the High Priest of Karnak brings in a younger priest to serve the needs of the mummy Kharis, and George Zucco (still buried under old age makeup) again plays the High Priest Andoheb - but wait, he's not the High Priest of Karnak anymore. Inexplicably, he is now the High Priest of Arkam. I know Universal didn't give much thought to the concept of continuity when they were making these old monster movies, but why would they make a change like that in the middle of a franchise? Did Karnak threaten to sue or something?

The new young priest on the job is legendary character actor John Carradine as Yousef Bey, who is tasked with going to America to retrieve Kharis, who is somehow still walking around the Mapleton, Massachusetts countryside (you'd think fire would be the perfect way to dispose of a dried-out corpse wrapped in bandages, but it has twice proven to be completely ineffective), as well as the 3000 year dead body of Kharis's lost love Princess Ananka, which is on display in the Scripps Museum in Mapleton, and bring them back home to Egypt.

But, of course, this retrieval job isn't as simple as Bey might expect. The priest and the mummy discover that the essence of Princess Ananka is no longer within her body, which explains why local college girl Amina (Ramsay Ames), who is of Egyptian descent, has such strange reactions when Kharis roams the yards of Mapleton at night, falling into a trance and feeling uncontrollably drawn to the mummy. She is Ananka reincarnated. You see, reincarnation can happen when a body has been taken out of its tomb. And since Amina is Ananka, that means she'll have to be the one taken back to Egypt by Bey...

If that plot element sounds familiar, it's because it's a take on the story of The Mummy, with Kharis and Yousef Bey in the place of Imhotep. Although the foundation is the same, screenwriters Griffin Jay, Henry Sucher, and Brenda Weisberg make their version of the concept different enough from the original Mummy that it doesn't feel like too much of a retread. The intense emotion Kharis feels over the Ananka / Amina situation also allows Chaney to add some extra layers to his performance here - the mummy isn't only shambling and strangling this time, he also has drama to deal with. Since the mummy is unable to speak, Chaney effectively gets his feelings across through body language and eye acting... and by smashing things.

More trouble arises when Bey starts plotting to take Amina for himself rather than letting Kharis be reunited with his Ananka. Whether these priests serve Karnak or Arkam, it's quite clear they are some very horny fellows, because in all three of the Kharis movies to this point the priest has taken a shine to the leading lady and tried to turn her into his own immortal beloved. Andhoheb, Mehemet Bey, Yousef Bey, no matter who tries it the result is pretty much the same.

Things are starting to feel a bit repetitious at this point in the franchise, but the repetition doesn't have a major impact on my enjoyment of The Mummy's Ghost (there is no ghost, by the way.) This is another entertaining, simple, and short - clocking in at 60 minutes - creature feature. Although I'm left wondering why it has certain continuity issues and why the filmmakers kept re-using certain plot points, I have too much fun watching the movie to let its shortcomings bother me. This is one of those movies where you just need to switch your brain off when it begins, then sit back and let its old school atmosphere envelope you.


The Mummy's Ghost ended with residents of Mapleton, Massachusetts pursuing the mummy Kharis into a swamp, where the bandage-wrapped killer sank into the mud with the decomposing corpse of his beloved Princess Ananka in his arms. As it turns out, that climactic sequence featured the most epic foot chase in history, because The Mummy's Curse picks up from the ending of Ghost and tells us that the swamp Kharis and Ananka disappeared into wasn't in Massachusetts, it was in the Louisiana bayou.

Of course, I don't really believe that the film is telling us the foot chase stretched across the United States - the fact that Curse is set in Louisiana is just another sign that nobody involved with these films had any interest in continuity.

Directed by Leslie Goodwins from a screenplay by Leon Abrams and Dwight V. Babcock, Curse doesn't pick up immediately after the events of Ghost. Instead, the series takes another large time jump, saying that twenty-five years have passed since Kharis and Ananka sank into the swamp. Adding that twenty-five year jump to the thirty year gap between The Mummy's Hand and The Mummy's Tomb, that means Curse should be set around 1995 or '96 - but no effort was made to make this look like it's set in any other time than 1944.

Legend has it that Kharis and Ananka walk the swamp when the moon is high, which makes a government-sanctioned sanitation project to drain the swamp a scary experience for the superstitious among the workers. Eventually the mummy Kharis is unearthed, and before Dr. James Halsey (Dennis Moore) of the Scripps Museum can collect the body, two priests of Arkam - Peter Coe as Dr. Ilzor Zandaab and Martin Kosleck as Rahheb - swoop in and take Kharis into their care, giving him the Tana leaf brew that gets him back on his feet again.

But Kharis isn't the only long-dead Egyptian who rises from the mud of the swamp. Without even the aid of Tana leaves, Princess Ananka has also come back to life, and the image of this mud-caked zombie rising from the ground, her eyes held shut by the wet earth, is rather creepy and a bit gross. Although The Mummy's Ghost had showed us that Ananka was reincarnated as a character played by Ramsay Ames, Ames did not reprise the role for this film. Instead, the living dead Ananka is played by Virginia Christine.

In contrast to her ancient beau, Ananka is not a murderous monster. She's actually a pleasant young woman who needs help, as she's struggling with amnesia and is terrified of this mummy who is relentlessly pursuing her. Kharis wants to be reunited with his lost love whether she likes it or not, and will kill anyone who gets in his way - unless he's too slow to reach them and they walk off before they even realize there was a mummy sneaking up on them. Kharis is far from nimble, which has made him the butt of many "too slow to be scary" jokes over the decades.

Ananka receives assistance from several people, including Halsey (who is unaware of who she is), but it's not enough to keep her from being carried off by Kharis in the climactic sequence, just like every other female lead in the Kharis series.

Lon Chaney Jr. returned to play Kharis for the third and final time in this film, which ends the series not necessarily on a high note, but on a note that's consistent with those that came before it. There's not much fluctuation in quality among the Kharis sequels, it's pretty much a straight line across. If you like one, chances are good that you'll probably like another. Universal found a formula that worked and stuck with it, as you can see from the fact that the same basic things happen in almost all of them, and three of them - Tomb, Ghost, and Curse - have the same running time of 60 minutes.

The Kharis movies may not rank up there with the greatest of Universal's classic monster movies, but they're nothing to scoff at. Their brand of good, simple fun still holds up perfectly well more than seventy years later, and that's quite an accomplishment.


The Mummy's Curse brought an end to the Kharis saga, but it wasn't exactly the end of the classic Mummy franchise. Eleven years after the release of Curse, the series got a bit of an addendum with the horror/comedy Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy, a film which I wrote about very briefly back in 2011.

Not only did Meet the Mummy mark the end of the Mummy series, it was also the end of an era for the comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello - it was the last movie they made for Universal, the studio that had made the majority of their films. To be exact, this was the 28th Universal Abbott and Costello film. After their time at Universal came to an end due to contract disputes, the pair only made one more movie together before dissolving their partnership in 1957. Lou Costello then passed away in 1959.

In Meet the Mummy, Abbott and Costello play characters apparently named after themselves (although the credits call them Pete Patterson and Freddie Franklin), a couple of American guys who are hanging out in Cairo for some reason or another when they hear that an archaeologist is looking for someone to accompany the recently unearthed mummy Klaris, the Prince of Evil, when it's shipped to the United States. Abbott and Costello decide to volunteer for the job... and immediately find themselves in a whole lot of trouble.

Not only does the bandage-wrapped Klaris (Eddie Parker, who did stunt work on The Mummy's Tomb) rise from his sarcophagus and start shambling around Cairo, but Abbott and Costello also find themselves in possession of a medallion that is a clue to the location of the tomb of Princess Ara. This medallion is wanted by a cult led by Semu (Richard Deacon) and called the Followers of Klaris, and by unscrupulous fortune-seeker Madame Rontru (Marie Windsor). So our hapless heroes have a whole lot of dangerous people and things on their trail.

Directed by Charles Lamont from a script by Lee Loeb and John Grant, Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy is a highly entertaining film that has absolutely nothing to do with any of the other movies - there are no connections here to either Imhotep or Kharis, even though the mummy's name is quite similar to Kharis's. What it does have are a lot of amusing comedy routines and a story with more going on than most of the Mummy movies that came before it.

I'm an Abbott and Costello fan and I love that they got to "meet the monsters" during their career, so this is a great goofball addition to the franchise in my book.

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