Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Mummy’s Ghost (Universal, 1944)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I recorded the 1944 Universal horror film The Mummy’s Ghost, either the third or fourth film in the Mummy cycle (depending on whether or not you count the original 1932 film, The Mummy, which starred Boris Karloff and Zita Johann, was subtly directed by Karl Freund and had a literate script by John L. Balderston that resorted to supernatural intervention for an ending but otherwise actually made dramatic sense within the limitations of the form — but in that one the mummy’s name was different and there wasn’t the gimmick of tana leaves supposedly needed to keep him alive). The Mummy cycle of the post-Laemmle, pre-International Universal extended to four films: The Mummy’s Hand (1940), The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), The Mummy’s Ghost (1944) and The Mummy’s Curse (also 1944, and reportedly padded out with outtakes from the earlier films — I wouldn’t know because it’s the one film in the sequence I haven’t seen).

While at least they didn’t stick the Mummy into the middle of the multi-monster fests they also made during this period (Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula), they made the Mummy a considerably less interesting character than he’d been in the Karloff film, in which he doffed his bandages, put on Arab street clothes and spent most of the film as the mysterious “Ardath Bey,” with a wizened old face (thank you, make-up genius Jack P. Pierce) and the Karloff voice. In the later Mummy films he had a new name (Kharis, instead of Imhotep — the true identity of the Karloff character and actually a real person in Egyptian history, though far from dying in disgrace the real Imhotep was the architect who designed the pyramids and was the only human being other than the Pharoahs whom the Egyptians later declared a god), was mute, and was the creation of the cult of Arkhan, which kept him alive with tana leaves (a tea brewed from four of these leaves would keep him in suspended animation, while a tea brewed from nine leaves would allow him to move).

The original Mummy’s Hand, with cowboy star Tom Tyler playing the Mummy, was actually quite entertaining, accurately described by Leslie Halliwell as “start[ing] off in comedy vein [not the campy black humor of the James Whale films, but charming boob humor and slapstick], but the last half-hour is among the most scary in horror film history.” The Mummy’s Tomb introduced Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Mummy (Chaney was actually the only actor to play all four of the big Universal horror characters: the Frankenstein Monster in Ghost of Frankenstein, Dracula in Son of Dracula, the Mummy three times and the Wolf Man, which he originated, five times if you count the spoof Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein). It was pretty tacky — Wallace Ford and Dick Foran, in unbelievably sloppy old-age makeup that Jack Pierce should have been embarrassed to take screen credit for, reappeared in a story that took place 20 years after The Mummy’s Hand and got killed for their pains, before the Mummy himself was burned to death (presumably) in an old haunted-house set on the Universal backlot that Alfred Hitchcock would use, much more famously, 18 years later as the home of Anthony Perkins and his “mother” in Psycho. Halliwell calls it a “shoddily made sequel to The Mummy’s Hand, with much re-used footage; astonishingly, it broke box-office records for its year, and provoked two more episodes.”

The Mummy’s Ghost (we actually got there!) was the first of these, and though Halliwell calls it “a slight improvement on its predecessor” it’s actually a pretty dreary film, with Robert Lowery (a future Batman!) pretty dumb and hopeless as the romantic lead and Ramsay Ames reprising Zita Johann’s role from the Karloff Mummy as a modern Egyptian woman who is the reincarnation of the Princess Ananka, Kharis’ main squeeze back in his days as an ordinary person in ancient Egypt until they were caught together and sentenced to death by being buried alive in a tomb (screenwriters Griffin Jay, Henry Sucher and Brenda Weisberg borrowed this gimmick from Balderston’s script for the Karloff film, and I suspect Balderston in turn ripped it off the Mariette Bey/Camille du Locle/Antonio Ghislanzoni libretto for Verdi’s Aïda). Though she’s hardly in Johann’s class as a screen presence, she’s just about the only person in this movie who even attempts to act — and there’s an odd gimmick with her makeup; early on in the film she develops a grey streak in her hair (as if she’s become a regular patron of the Bride of Frankenstein Salon), and in the climax (when John Carradine, who took over from George Zucco as head of the cult of Arkhan, has decided he wants the girl for himself instead of giving her to the Mummy) she gets a matching streak on the other side of her face, and by the time the film has ended (in a surprisingly bleak final scene in which the Mummy kills Carradine, carries the girl into a swamp — a surprising phenomenon given that until the swamp appears we’ve been told this film takes place in a college town in New England — and drowns both her and himself) her hair has gone stark white and her face is all crinkled and grey to suggest instant old age. With mediocre direction by Reginald LeBorg (Stuart Timmons mentions him in his Harry Hay biography as one of Hay’s 1940’s boyfriends, but as a Gay horror director he’s as far from James Whale as Ed Wood was from Orson Welles as a straight director — only LeBorg’s access to a major-studio infrastructure kept this film from achieving a truly Woodian tackiness), generic photography and a really overbearing musical score, The Mummy’s Ghost was far from Universal’s best in the horror field. — 10/22/98


Last night’s “Schlock Cinema” entry at the San Diego Library was The Mummy’s Ghost, a 1944 series entry from Universal (actually filmed in the fall of 1943 but not released until June 1944) that depending on how you reckon it was either the third or the fourth in Universal’s original Mummy cycle. I say that because the first entry, The Mummy (1932), was very much an outlier: it was as much a reworking of Dracula as a mummy movie (as David J. Skal wrote in The Monster Show, “virtually every plot element as well as key performers [notably David Manners and Edward Van Sloan] … were recycled from Dracula,” as was the Swan Lake-derived theme music which opens both films), though I regard it as a superior film to Dracula, partly because of Boris Karloff’s almost romantic intensity in the title role (after the famous opening scene of the mummy coming to life, he’s in “drag” as a normal human, Egyptian mystic Ardath Bey, throughout the rest of the film) and also Zita Johann’s deep, rich performance as the modern-day woman (a half-British, half-Egyptian girl) whom the mummy realizes is a reincarnation of his long-dead forbidden love, far superior to Helen Chandler’s wooden acting in the counterpart role in Dracula. Written by John L. Balderston and directed by Karl Freund, The Mummy is much more a romantic fantasy with a supernatural element than an out-and-out horror film, and Karloff is not only fully articulate but he has some of the best dialogue of his career — when he pleads with Johann to join him in eternal (mummified) life, his line readings are so heart-rending one practically feels for him.

The later Universal Mummy cycle really started with the 1940 film The Mummy’s Hand, which liberally used footage from the 1932 film (the actor who played the Mummy, Western star Tom Tyler, was even cast largely because he was the same height and build as Karloff so his footage would match the stock from the older film) and set up the rules and character names for the subsequent three: the mummy’s name was Kharis, he’d been sentenced to living mummy-hood as a result of his forbidden love for the Princess Ananka, and a cult of Egyptian priests who were keeping Egypt’s old pagan religion alive (one could watch all these movies and have almost no idea that contemporary Egypt was a mostly Muslim country!) maintained Kharis’ mummy in a permanent state of suspended animation by repeatedly giving him a tea brewed from four tana leaves — coming from a shrub long since extinct — while if they used nine leaves to brew the tea, the mummy would regain the power to move but not the power to speak (which disappointed me when I first saw these films — though given how much less talented the writers on these were than John L. Balderston, maybe it’s just as well these mummies didn’t have any lines).

The Mummy’s Hand did well enough (and it’s a charming film in its own way, emphasizing campy comedy in the first half and effective horror in the second) that Universal did a sequel in 1942, The Mummy’s Tomb, though this time out they put Lon Chaney, Jr. into the mummy’s wrappings and mask-like head. The Mummy’s Tomb was supposedly set 20 years after The Mummy’s Hand and showed two people from the earlier film’s cast, Wallace Ford and Dick Foran, in heavy age makeup; it posited the King Tut-derived idea that there was a curse on the mummy’s tomb and that Kharis was marking for death anyone who had been involved in the expedition that opened the tomb of his former beloved Ananka, and as a result Ford and Foran were both murdered by the mummy before it was supposedly burned to death along with a house whose exterior became far more famous 18 years later when Alfred Hitchcock picked out the standing set for Norman Bates’ creepy old house in Psycho.

The Mummy’s Tomb was an even bigger hit than its immediate predecessor, so of course Universal and particularly its head horror producer, Ben Pivar, naturally commissioned another series entry. It opens in Egypt, where the high priest of the cult of Arkham (did writers Griffin Jay, Henry Sucher and Brenda Weisberg deliberately appropriate the name from H. P. Lovecraft?), Andoheb — played by George Zucco in heavy age makeup in what’s the best performance in the movie: though he disappears after the first reel, Zucco is absolutely convincing, literally shaking as he speaks and convincing us he’s really a palsied old man — commissions his assistant, Yousef Bey (John Carradine in “Egyptian” makeup that looks like he just got back from a six-week course at a tanning salon — why, when Universal had an authentic Egyptian, Turhan Bey, under contract, they didn’t use him is a mystery, but Carradine is at least effective in a sort of role he’d already played quite often and would eventually run into the ground), to go to the U.S., bring back the mummy of Ananka and also get Kharis back out of the land of the infidels and home where he belongs. Yousef asks how he can lure Kharis out of wherever he is, and Andoheb tells him that the mummy will scent out the tana leaves as soon as Yousef — or, it turns out, anybody else — brews them and come a-running.

The scene then shifts to Mapleton College in New England, where professor Matthew Norman (Frank Reicher) is holding forth to a rather bored-looking undergraduate class about Kharis and how he menaced their town some years before, until he burned up in the house — only, of course, he didn’t really burn up. That night, Norman looks at the box in which Kharis’ stash of tana leaves were found way back when and finally deciphers a hieroglyphic that had previously eluded him, annoying his wife (Claire Whitney) who naturally wants him to call it quits for the evening and come to bed with her, realizing it represents the number nine (number nine … number nine … number nine) and that’s the correct number of tana leaves to brew the tea that will revivify the mummy. He brews the leaves in a similar crucible to the one Zucco was using back in Egypt (it almost certainly was the same prop!) and sure enough the mummy scents it — exactly how the mummy survived the fire and kept alive during the intervening years are details the writing committee doesn’t bother even trying to explain — comes into Norton’s room (through a conveniently open outside window), kills him and drinks the tana-leaf tea.

The police immediately catch on that the mummy is loose again from the mold around Norton’s neck where the mummy strangled him — as the third entry in the series this isn’t one of those movies that was going to waste a lot of time having the characters initially doubt the monster’s existence — and from then it’s a series of chase scenes with the police and the townspeople (an intriguing adaptation of the “angry villagers” scene to an American setting) are trying to catch the mummy and the mummy, which is impervious to bullets, keeps eluding them. The writers also borrow the reincarnation schtick from the 1932 film; when the mummy breaks into the museum of Egyptology in which Ananka’s mummy is being displayed and reaches for it, it crumbles to dust at his touch and all that’s left is a bunch of dirty bandages. It turns out Ananka’s soul is now housed in the body of Egyptian exchange student Amina Mansouri (Ramsay Ames),whose boyfriend Tom Hervey (future Batman Robert Lowery) is naturally put out at her discomfort whenever anyone around her mentions Egypt or mummies.

Every time Kharis comes near her, a little more of Amina’s hair becomes grey and it looks like she’s been having highlights done at the Bride of Frankenstein Salon — though, astonishingly, none of the other characters in the movie seem to notice! Supposedly the influence of Kharis is prematurely aging her and fitting her to join him in living-mummydom, though in the middle of all this Yousef Bey decides that he has the hots for Amina and instead of injecting her with tana fluid to make her a mummy again, he’s going to give her the drinkable form of the tana tea, render both of them immortal and keep her for himself. (He decides this in a rather odd structure that consists of a shack on top of a long series of sloped tracks that seem like a low-tech grain elevator — I’ve seen this movie many times and I’m still unclear what was the original function of this bizarre-looking building.)

It ends with Kharis realizing that Yousef has double-crossed him, killing him, kidnapping Amina — who’s turning into an old hag, with fully white hair and a wrinkled old face that’s much more frightening, actually, than the mummy himself — and carrying her into a bog, where Tom wants to go in after her but is warned by the cops that to enter the bog means certain death. (I joked that at this point Tom should have said, “If I were Batman I could rescue her!”) As often as I’ve seen this movie before, I’d quite forgotten that Amina dies at the end — I was expecting a resolution in which Tom rescues her, Kharis dies and as he expires his influence over Amina ends and she turns back into a normal young person again — instead the mummy at least temporarily drowns in the cranberry bog, only with the next film in the cycle, The Mummy’s Curse, the bog has turned into a bayou and the mummy has somehow floated under about 1,500 miles worth of the U.S. to end up in Louisiana.

Stiffly directed by Reginald LeBorg — whom Universal kept giving horror assignments to even though his “straight,” non-supernatural thrillers are consistently better and more convincing movies — The Mummy’s Ghost isn’t much of a movie, and Kharis isn’t much of a monster either: he has a paralyzed arm (except when he picks up Amina, when it suddenly re-acquires normal strength), a slow, staggering walk (one would think his human victims could just out-run him) and one permanently closed eye, and Jack P. Pierce’s makeup is so thick there’s no way Chaney or anyone else behind the mummy’s mask could do the subtle, nuanced acting Karloff did inside Pierce’s makeup for the Frankenstein monster. Seeing this on the big screen, after so many years of knowing this movie only from TV and video, made it look surprisingly “fake” — the join line around Kharis’ one working eye where Pierce’s makeup left off and Lon Chaney, Jr.’s real skin began was all too obvious, and so were the lines on the breakaway fence rails when the mummy bursts through a fence in an early scene: I knew where the rails were going to break and, sure enough, they did exactly where I thought they would.

The Mummy’s Ghost is a product of Universal’s horror cycle in its later, most decadent form (in terms of quality, not content), at a time when aesthetic leadership in U.S. horror had decisively shifted to Val Lewton’s unit at RKO — in the next film, The Mummy’s Curse, one could see the Universal-ites making some half-hearted attempts to incorporate Lewtonian touches, including a visually rich Louisiana setting and a street singer used as a sort of Greek chorus, but these didn’t gel with a big old ugly monster roaming around the film — and part of the problem with these movies is that their makers seemed to equate “ugly” with “frightening” and also they’d forgotten the art Universal had once mastered in the early 1930’s of keeping the monsters powerfully off-screen at first and then introducing them with careful, suspenseful buildups instead of just having them walk around with no buildup at all — though the box-office returns of these films indicated that they were at least giving their audiences what they wanted to see, just as what today’s horror audience wants to see is rivers of blood gushing across the screen, never mind suspense, thrills, terror or any degree of imagination and subtlety! — 10/28/10