Friday, October 07, 2011

“The mummy’s on the loose and he’s dancin’ with the devil!”

Closing the week out while also closing out the Universal Mummy series. Curiously, this sequel is also from 1944. That means Universal released two mummy movies in one year. That’s a lot of mummy. Anyway, here’s The Mummy’s Curse, the last of the Universal mummy franchise and its got the biggest continuity headscratcher of them all.

We start with a musical number in Louisiana. Huh. 25 years after The Mummy’s Ghost, a government-sponsored work crew is draining some swamplands in Louisiana when the workers start getting real suspicious since a generation ago a mummy disappeared into the swamp. Yes, the movie blatantly moves the entire setting from Mapleton, New England, to the bayou. Why? I don’t know. Maybe they wanted to put a mummy in Cajun country.

Anyway, an academic from the Scripps Museum comes down and asks the foreman for cooperation in letting them dig around after they’ve drained some swampland when the work crews find a dead laborer and a mummy-shaped hole in the ground. Kharis is out there, somewhere. Later, some earth gets loosened and the Princess Anaka digs herself out of the dirt as well. She ends up washing the dirt and crud off and returning to normal human form and the workers and archeologist try to help her out, but her memory’s foggy and she knows an awful lot about Egyptian history. There’s a new High Priest of Arkan in town looking to get both mummies back home and Kharis really wants his woman back.

Pat Walsh: Addison Richards plays the skeptical and flustered foreman trying to get part of the swamp drained. Mostly around to provide a voice of grumpy cynicism about the possibility of a mummy being in the area.

Betty Walsh: Kay Harding is Pat’s daughter and secretary. She’s there to provide a love interest for…

Dr. James Halsey: Dennis Moore is the archeologist sent by the Scripps Museum to try and recover the mummies if he can. He develops a thing for Betty.

Princess Ananka: Virginia Christine is our real protagonist. Ananka is actually Amina who was killed at the end of the last movie, now revived and psychologically messed up because she’s got the memories of two people in her head and she still swoons into trace-like states when Kharis is near. The most sympathetic character who gets the most character work, she’s actually rather interesting.

Ilzor: Peter Coe is our resident fez-wearing Priest of Arkan, and unlike every one of his predecessors, is actually focused on the mission and not subject to temptation. He’s also kind of a jerk to Halsey after Ananka is revived, constantly decrying the search efforts for her (she tends to wander off a few times) as futile and hopeless.

Ragheb: Martin Kosleck is Ilzor’s henchman and embedded in the work crew. He ends up desiring Betty and ultimately betrays his vows. He’s a stab-happy goon and probably the most outright villainous character in the whole series.

Cajun Joe: Kurt Katch plays a veteran of the swamps who’s a kind of unofficial leader among the work crew. He’s the first person to find the revived Ananka and tries to take care of her. He learns that shotguns don’t impress Kharis at all. He, like most of the crewmen, is painted in broad, stereotypical strokes.

Goobie: The awesomely named Napoleon Simpson is another member of the work crew and also happens to be a black guy who survives a horror movie. Goobie’s quite likable actually, being funny and observant when he’s around, though he too is fairly stereotypical.

Kharis: Lon Chaney Jr. one last time as the mummy. Kharis is quite a bit darker in this movie, strangling a surprising number of innocent people who just wanted to help Ananka. He also seems to have greater strength in this movie, being able to topple some ruins at the end of the film as a kind of avenging agent hell-bent on punishing Ragheb.

Directed by Leslie Goodwins, the film actually does pull off some neat techniques. Kharis appears several times as a backlit silhouette against a tent, which hasn’t really been done since the 2nd movie. The mummy effects by Jack Pierce continue to be good, but Kharis' face isn't quite as good.

However, the most impressive scene for me was Ananka’s resurrection. First she kind of digs her way out of the dirt, her skin completely covered in dirt and looking mummified. She stumbles out of the ground and her eyes are pretty much closed as she shambles through the swamp, but she’s not slow like Kharis. They played with the film speed too because her movements are just jerky enough to be inhuman without being grossly exaggerated (and you can tell from the way the leaves on the trees move). That coupled with the music yielded a surprisingly melancholy and creepy scene that worked really well, I thought.

Oh yes, and they recycle footage like crazy during flashbacks, so that tradition continues.

So Original Story credits to Leon Abrams and Dwight V. Babcock (and uncredited Ted Richmond), adaptation by Leon Abrams and Dwight V. Babcock (and uncredited Oliver Drake), and Screenplay by Bernard Schubert. So, the elephant in the room is the drastic shift in location. Going from New England to Louisiana is really difficult to swallow and really breaks the suspension of disbelief.

But once you get past that, it IS interesting setting a mummy movie in the bayou just because that never happens. The movie also really highlights for me a major feature of the Universal Mummy series. While there’s a definite pulpy feel to the stories, Kharis also straight up kills good/innocent people. Sure Kharis usually kills off a bad guy or two, but most of his victims are nice people who either get in the way accidentally, are searching for knowledge, or, in the case of this movie, just trying to help an amnesiac woman out of sheer human kindness. Rather interesting when you compare it to, say, 90s horror movies where just about all of the victims of the monster are unlikable jerks. Another notable element is that the movie ends on a downer again.

Original music by (uncredited) William Lava and Paul Sawtell. The music continues to work well with appropriate cues for action, suspense, and melancholy.

So The Mummy’s Curse actually takes the series out on a high note in my opinion. Despite taking the biggest liberty with continuity yet, they do some really cool stuff with Ananka and the setting eventually works.

Now, as for the series of films, the Karloff one stands alone, both as its own story and the best made. The Kharis films are about 50/50 for me in terms of quality, with the middle two being the weak ones. However, as a whole they provide an interesting experience, with a slower, more deliberate pacing than other Universal horrors from the 40s. The Kharis films are also a bit more coherent than the “House Of…” monster mashes with Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man, but at the cost of being way less batty.

Contradictorily I am going to recommend the Mummy series as a whole but not the individual films as stand alones. Because the story generally makes more sense if you follow Kharis along from the start despite the heavy retcons they make with each subsequent film. They're just more fun as a whole.

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