Thursday, October 5, 2017

Franchises: Universal's Original Mummy Series. The Mummy's Tomb (1942)

Why the hell is this called The Mummy's Tomb when, a), there is no tomb, and b), it doesn't even take place in Egypt? Why not The Mummy's Revenge or The Mummy Returns (I'm surprised that there wasn't a movie called that before the 2001 film) or other titles that would become real movies, like The Mummy's Curse or Curse of the Mummy's Tomb (the latter of which is a Hammer film)? I think it's obvious that the people at Universal had such an attitude about these movies being nothing more than cheaply-made programmers that they couldn't have cared less what they were called because, when you really think about the plot, The Mummy's Hand is the one that could have been called The Mummy's Tomb. Regardless of its title, like its predecessor, this is another film that can hardly be called a classic on par with a number of Universal's other horror flicks and feels even cheaper than that film, for more reasons than one. Clocking in at just an hour, it still kind of drags at points, mainly because it lacks the interesting characters that The Mummy's Hand did, as the scenes with these people are often very flat. But, at the same time, it also has some things that movie lacked, such as atmospheric sequences with very moody lighting, a creepier look for Kharis, as well as a bit more of a personality, and a climax that, while still nothing spectacular, is bigger and more exciting. So, it's a very weird case of a movie. Ultimately, I wouldn't say it's not as entertaining a B-movie as the previous film but is still one I think people could get something out of in the right state of mind.

It's been thirty years since Steve Banning led an expedition to the Hill of the Seven Jackals and encountered the living mummy, Kharis. Now an elderly gentleman living in the town of Mapleton, Massachusetts, Banning recounts the story to his son, John, and his girlfriend, Isobel, as well as his disbelieving older sister and a family friend one evening at his home. Upon finishing his story, says that he's happy to have been able to destroy Kharis and rid the world of his curse; little does he know that both Kharis and Andoheb, the High Priest of Karnak who watched over him, survived their encounter. Now, just as his predecessor had, the old and dying Andoheb appoints his young successor, Mehemet Bey, as the new High Priest and, after instructing him on how much tana leaf fluid must be used to keep Kharis alive and mobile during the cycle of the full moon, tells him that he must take the mummy to the United States in order to exact revenge on the Banning family for violating Princess Ananka's tomb. Andoheb then dies, praying to the Egyptian gods to give Bey the strength to resist the same temptations that almost destroyed him. Bey journeys from Egypt to America by boat, arriving in Mapleton to use his cover as the new caretaker of the local cemetery to carry out his mission. As the cycle of the full moon begins, Bey gives Kharis the fluid of nine tana leaves and sends him out to begin his revenge, sneaking into the Banning house late at night and murdering Steve, although not without being glimpsed by several townspeople. Soon afterward, Banning's sister, Jane, and his old friend, Babe Hanson, who arrived in Mapleton upon hearing of his friend's death and fails in warning John and the authorities of Kharis' existence, fall prey to the mummy's wrath, while the Banning's employee, Jim, is so frightened by the sight of the monster that he falls into a coma-like state from shock. However, while John and the sheriff try to uncover the murderer's identity, Bey, who has become infatuated with Isobel after spying on her and John, has Kharis abduct her and bring her to him so he can make the two of them immortal as husband and wife.

Just as The Mummy's Hand had been directed by Christy Cabanne, another journeyman director, Harold Young, took over the reigns for the follow-up. Like Cabanne, Young started out in the silent age, working as an editor, particularly on a number of shorts starring George O'Hara. He moved up to director in the early 1930's, with his most notable early work being on The Scarlet Pimpernel, which proved to be quite successful in Great Britain, where it was filmed, and is considered to be his most prestigious film. Among his number of programmers and B-movies throughout the 30's and 40's, another notable one besides The Mummy's Tomb is 1945's The Frozen Ghost, an entry of Universal's Inner Sanctum series and which also starred Lon Chaney Jr., who plays Kharis here. He also directed the live-action sequences of Disney's The Three Caballeros (a movie I watched a lot as a kid). In the late 40's and into the 50's, Young became an occasional actor in films and on television, including a TV series adaptation of The Scarlet Pimpernel. His last credit is directing a 1961 TV movie called Witchcraft. Young died in 1972 at the age of 74.

Besides their lack of depth, a big problem with talking about the characters in The Mummy's Tomb is knowing who to start with, as there really is no true protagonist or hero. The one whom you would expect to be the film's lead, Steve Banning's son, John (John Hubbard), has virtually nothing do that's of significance, except find a piece of Kharis' body-wrapping that leads Prof. Norman to deduce that it came from an Egyptian mummy. Otherwise, all he does is spend time with his girlfriend, Isobel (Elyse Knox), and try to figure out who killed his father, although we don't see him doing much of that other than looking over his records to try to find anybody who could've possibly hated him. As more killings occur, he lends his medical knowledge to the police here and there, determining what's happened to Jim after he goes into a comatose state after his encounter with Kharis, but other than that and a telegram that informs him that his wish to become captain of the medical corps has come true, his profession as a doctor has very little baring on the story. Personality-wise, John is just, if not more, bland as his father, with little to him other than an apparent nice relationship with him and respect for his profession, which Steve feels most medical men don't, and something of a happy-go-lucky personality (a little too much so for somebody whose father was recently murdered!) And as for John's girlfriend, Isobel? I have absolutely nothing to say about her, as she has no character whatsoever. She's nothing more than John's ever-smiling, happy beau, whose beauty and impending marriage to John, which will happen sooner than expected because he's going to take her oversees with him, are the only significant things about her, as they're what prompts Mehemet Bey to go against his mission and have Kharis abduct her to try to make her his bride. Like Marta before, Isobel becomes the damsel in distress that John must save from Kharis during the climax.

Dick Foran returns as the now elderly and widowed Steve Banning (Marta is said to have died year before, the cause of which is never mentioned), who spends most of his brief screentime during the movie's first quarter recounting his encounter with Kharis to John, Isobel, and others his nice house in Mapleton. And yet, believe it or not, as brief as his role is, Steve manages to have a little bit more of a personality here than he did when he was young man, although that's mainly due to the affectionate ribbing between him and his older sister, Jane, and the relationship he has with his son and friends. Too bad none of that can protect him from Kharis, as he has one of a couple of embarrassing deaths in the film when the mummy corners him in his upstairs bedroom. Wallace Ford also returns as Babe (whose last name has been changed from Jensen to Henson, for whatever reason), although his performance here is absolutely serious, with none of the humor he had originally. His more dour personality makes sense, though, given the news of his friend's murder and his suspicions that Kharis has returned, as well as the frustration that he feels when he tries to warn John and the police but they refuse to believe him. In fact, he gets so irritated by it that he tells his story to a bunch of reporters at a local bar, but unlucky for him, Mehemet Bey is there and when he overhears Babe's saying that he knows what's going on, he sends Kharis after him (a death that's more clichéd than Steve's). And as for the elderly makeup Jack Pierce applied to both him and Foran, it's okay but a little too subtle for the desired effect. Plus, I think you can tell that Ford is wearing a not too convincing wig. Finally, George Zucco, despite being shot full of holes and sent tumbling down a flight of stone stairs in the previous movie, returns very briefly as an elderly Andoheb (we're supposed to buy that the only injury he sustained was a shattered arm!) Incidentally, his elderly makeup is much more effective, and probably needed to be more overt since Zucco had a very youthful look, even though he was almost 60 at this point. Andoheb serves the same purpose of Eduardo Ciannelli's High Priest of Karnak in the previous film, in that he bestows upon Bey the responsibility of being Kharis' guardian, instructs him on how to use the tana leaves to keep him alive and mobile, and, most significantly of all, gives him the responsibility of punishing those who defiled Ananka's tomb 30 years before. I don't know why he waited so long to do so (maybe he couldn't find a suitable replacement before then) but whatever. And right before he dies, he asks the Egyptian gods to protect Bey from the same temptations that almost got him killed.

Even though he's referred to as Mehemet Bey (Turhan Bey) in the credits, this character is never actually given a name in the movie but, since he's a major part of the cast, I'm referring to him as such to make it easier. In any case, when I was planning on doing this review, I was originally expecting to say that Bey actually gives the best performance, mainly because of the conflict he feels between his mission and the infatuation he develops for Isobel but, after watching the movie again, I've decided that he's about as bland as everybody else. There's only one part where he see him torn by his desire for a person who, I think, was meant to be one of Kharis' victims, seeing as how he didn't seem to even know of Babe until he overheard him in the bar, and that's when he's praying to his gods after he first sees her. When he gets a glimpse of her again later on, he decides right then and there that he wants to take her as his wife, a decision that he justifies by saying it is to ensure a continuing line of High Priests of Karnak to watch over Kharis for eternity. Ample potential to make Bey an interesting, conflicted character, but this movie, being what it is, isn't concerned with silly things like that. Other than that little plot-point of history repeating itself, as his desire to become immortal with Isobel as his bride costs him his mission and his life, the same as it almost did with Andoheb, Bey is another character who's little more than a prop to move the story along. He does get some memorable, mystical lines, "The moon rides high in the sky again, Kharis. There's death in the night air. Your work begins," but his delivery is pretty flat and while he does have something of an air of charm to him, he interacts with the other actors far too little to make much use of it. Really, the most notable thing about him is his exotic look, which makes him far more believable as an Egyptian than the other High Priests of Karnak in these films (although, Turhan Bey was actually Austrian).

Among some other noteworthy characters, you have Jane Banning (Mary Gordon), Steve's older sister often chides her brother, calling his tales of archeology boring, asking who cares about something that happened 3,000 years ago (which does not amuse Steve) and at one point makes a comment about how he should have been in bed long ago, which happens to be the last time they see each other before he's murdered. But, all that said, it's clearly a friendly and loving type of ribbing. After his death, she encourages John to stop spending so much time torturing himself over who his father's killer was and to spend time with Isobel. Also, her death is the most plausible one, as Kharis sneaks up behind her and strangles her, giving her no opportunity to get away. The local sheriff (Cliff Clark) is a pretty gruff guy in both his looks and in his personality, as he grouchily dismisses a call in the middle of the night over a creepy-looking shadow a couple says they saw outside of their house. However, he's also practical, eventually having to resort to telling the newspaper reporters about the townspeople's claims of seeing a creepy shadow before Steve's murder, feeling that they might be able to give him a lead. Like John, he's initially dismissive of Babe's claims that an ancient mummy is the killer but, when evidence is uncovered that proves it, he has no choice but admit to the townspeople that it's the truth, albeit in a memorably corny line: "A creature that's been alive for over 3,000 years is in this town, and it's brought death with it. We've got to run it down." Frank Reicher, who played the character of Captain Englehorn in King Kong and The Son of Kong, has a brief appearance here as Prof. Norman, whom John takes the piece of Kharis' wrapping that he found to in order to figure out its origin and, upon examining it, verifies that it came from an Egyptian mummy, proving to John and everyone else that Babe was right. Finally, I have to mention the Bannings' dog handler, Jim (Paul E. Burns), who becomes so frightened by Kharis that, after he shoots him three times with a shotgun and it has no effect, he falls into a comatose-like state from the shock and is last seen lying in bed, his eyes wide open and a look of fear on his face. A newspaper clipping mentions that he'll probably die soon, but his fate is left a mystery, as he's never seen again.

For me, the most interesting thing about these later Mummy movies is Lon Chaney Jr., not for his performance but rather all of the behind-the-scenes stories surrounding him. Aside from the Wolf Man, which was a role that he created and maintained throughout the decade, Chaney didn't think much of his turns as the classic Universal monsters, but he loathed the role of Kharis, for a couple of reasons. One was that he and makeup artist Jack Pierce did not get along at all (Pierce, for all his genius, seems to have been a pretty unlikable guy) and he absolutely hated his uncomfortable techniques and appliances. The get-up Pierce created for Kharis, in particular, was one of the most arduous, as Chaney had to be completely wrapped up in gauze and bandages, a process that took up to eight hours. Unlike Tom Tyler before him, though, I think the headpiece here was always rubber mask (it sure looks like it) but even that didn't make it any less unpleasant for him. But, what really got to him about the role of Kharis was how utterly thankless it was. Really, Universal could've had a stuntman or anyone of considerable size playing the character, as all it entails is a bunch of shambling around, strangling people with one arm, and carrying young ladies around. But, because Chaney was their hot new horror star thanks to the success of The Wolf Man, they wanted to get as much mileage out of him as they could. It had to have been a very frustrating and unfulfilling situation for Chaney and, even worse, because of his contract with the studio (which, incidentally, they renewed right before saddling him with the role of Kharis), he would have no choice but to go through it two more times, making it the role he played the most next to the Wolf Man.

Despite how restrictive the role was for Chaney, I think he managed to come out of it better than Tyler did in the previous film. For one, I think the makeup and wrappings work on him better. While Tyler undoubtedly looked good in his full makeup and costume, I've always preferred the way Chaney looked in it, especially in this film. For some reason, I think he looks creepier, a lot of which I think I can credit to his being photographed better than Tyler, with more shadows and contrasts, as well as in spookier environments. The sight of Kharis lumbering through the cemetery and the dark woods around Mapleton on a windy night is much more effective than when he was stalking around a camp in the desert or shuffling through a brightly lit Egyptian temple. And while he certainly couldn't do much acting (he was more expressive in his turn as the Frankenstein monster in The Ghost of Frankenstein, which he did right before this, and even that wasn't exactly Oscar-worthy), Chaney does manage to give Kharis more emotion... not much, God knows, but some. For instance, in the close-up of his face as he closes in on Steve Banning in his bedroom, the murderous look in Chaney's one visible eye is more unnerving to me than Tyler's blacked out eyes, although it's still not as creepy as Tyler's wild eyes in the trailer for that film (again, they should have just left his eyes alone). But the best bit of acting from Kharis is when Mehemet Bey tells him of his plan to have him abduct Isobel so he can make her his wife. His slouching body language upon hearing this shows that he's not happy with Bey's decision at all and he even starts to go for a stranglehold on him, only to relent when Bey reasserts himself as his master and tells him to go, which he does. And when he's carrying Isobel during the climax, if you look closely at his face and watch his movements when the mob comes at him from all sides, you can see that he knows he's trapped and is trying to find a way to escape. It's little moments like that which make this mummy feel more alive, whereas the previous one was a mindless thing who simply did whatever he was told and only to satisfy his desire for tana leaf fluid, which he didn't try to quench completely until after his master was out of the way.

Don't worry if you happen to see this movie before The Mummy's Hand, because the first ten minutes consist of Steve Banning telling his son and other family members the story in an almost complete recap, with extensive footage from the previous film that includes the discovery of Kharis' tomb, the death of Dr. Petrie, and the climax. On the one hand, I can understand why they did it (besides saving money, of course), as there was a two-year gap between films and, since there was no video or television back then, some people might have missed the last one and needed to be caught up. But, on the other hand, it's distracting in that it takes up a sixth of this hour-long movie and goes into such detail about what happened in the previous film that it's easy to forget that what you're actually watching is the sequel, especially if you watched that movie not too long beforehand (as was the case when I first ran through the Universal Legacy DVD set with these films). That's not only the borrowed footage that the movie makes us of, though. If you're a big connoisseur of Universal's classic horror films like me, you may get a sense of deja vu during the climax where the mobs are after Kharis, and that's because a lot of the shots of them are taken from the mob scenes in Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. It's another cost-cutting measure on the studio's part but forgivable given the low budget and the fact that the previous film featured stock footage from The Mummy.

One noteworthy thing about the "Kharis" films is how convoluted their timeline is. Since it's set thirty years after the events of The Mummy's Hand, that would mean that if that film were set in the year it was released, 1940, then this one is set in 1970 and yet, they did nothing to make it look even vaguely futuristic, as the vehicles, clothing, and John Banning's telegram notary of beginning his term in the military proves that this is indeed 1942. You could try to make the excuse that the previous film was set in the year 1912 but, like this one, that was very clearly a 40's era film. However, this is nothing compared to the mistake the last of these films makes, taking place not only a couple of more decades after its predecessor but moving the action to a completely different part of the country from where the one before it ended! Obviously, continuity was not much of a concern for Universal when they were churning out these movies (think of how arbitrarily they matched up the timelines for the Frankenstein movies and The Wolf Man in order to make Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and all their other monster meet-ups).

As I mentioned in the introduction, one component The Mummy's Tomb has that its predecessor was lacking is atmosphere. It's still far from scary and I wouldn't count it among Universal's moodiest films but its cinematographer, George Robinson, shoots it in a much more contrasting, Expressionist-like style, with lots of darkness and shadows in the scenes inside the temples and tombs and especially in the exterior nighttime scenes. Again, Kharis has a creepy feel to him when you see him wandering around old cemeteries (the one here reminds me of the set that was later used in the excellently moody opening of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man; it could be the same one, as a matter of fact) and through the dark woods around Mapleton at night. The scene where Mehemet Bey first sends him out to kill Steve Banning is one of the best in the whole film, in that it's set on just such a dark night, complete with an eerie breeze in the air, and you see the terror that several townspeople feel when they get a glimpse of Kharis' shadow as he passes by them, particularly a woman who sees it pass over her from outside the window in the yard while she's in bed. There's one particularly nice distant shot of Kharis walking down a road, with the dark woods all around him, and his mere presence stirs up nearby animals like horses, wolves, and the dogs at the Banning household. It's a great sequence that the film, unfortunately, never manages to recapture.

Another advantage this film has over The Mummy's Hand is that it doesn't take almost 2/3 of the movie for Kharis to finally get up and start doing his thing (with such a short movie, that couldn't have afforded it) and he does a lot more as well. However, we now get into one of the most laughable clichés of this series, which is how he easily he kills people who can't escape him, despite how slow he is. When he's sent out to kill Steve, he climbs up the trellis on the outside of the house and sneaks in through his bedroom window. Steve sees him almost immediately but, instead of running out the room, he just backs up, letting Kharis corner him and grab him by the throat, slowly strangling him to death. Yeah, Steve's elderly but he still looks like he was in good enough shape to at least try to escape, and while he was admittedly shocked to see that Kharis is still alive and kicking, you'd think he would have done something smarter once he got over it than let the mummy corner him. His second appearance at the Banning household in order to take out Jane is more plausible, as he frightens Jim so much after he takes three shotgun blasts at point-blank range that the guy collapses into a comatose state from the shock and he then sneaks up behind Jane, who's outside on the porch, calling for Jim, and grabs her, giving her no time to escape. But Babe's death is the most laughable in that, when he comes out of the bar in town and sees Kharis shambling towards him, he runs down a dead-end alley and tries to climb up over the wall until the mummy grabs him and flings him to the ground. He tries to fend him off by smashing a big chunk of wood on him but Kharis overpowers him and manages to choke the life out of him. All of the futile struggling to get away and yet, the alley was wide enough that he could have easily gotten around the sluggish Kharis. While Wallace Ford's acting does almost salvage it, it's still an undignified end to a character I really liked. And on top of those scenes, you still have a bunch of scenes where there's nothing happening but characters standing around and talking, and while there was a lot of it in the previous film, need I remind you that these people have nothing to them at all?

The climax to this film is exciting and, given the budget, fairly impressive. When Mehemet Bey is interrupted by the mob before he can inject himself and Isobel with tana leaf fluid, he has Kharis take her away until he can get rid of them, but his stalling and threats toward John result in him getting shot by the sheriff. Once Kharis is spotted, the torch-wielding mob chases him through the woods and countryside, ending up back at the Banning house (during one of these sequences where he's carrying Elyse Knox, Lon Chaney Jr., who was never far from a drink, accidentally whacked her head on a stone support!) Seeing them coming at him from all directions, Kharis climbs up the trellis, onto the balcony, and ducks into the house through the door to Steve's bedroom. John grabs a torch for himself and heads inside with the sheriff and another man, who guard the back stairs. Meeting up with Kharis at the top of the stairs, John is grabbed by the throat and shoved back down the stairs, just barely avoiding landing on top of his torch, and gets knocked unconscious. Kharis walks back onto the balcony with Isobel but when he gets out there, he sees that the house has been surrounded, and the men, following an order John gave them earlier, start throwing their torches up at him. He again retreats inside, only to run into John again as the house starts to burn in various spot both inside and out. He manages to grab John and fling him backwards onto the bed with his torch, dropping Isobel to the floor in order to go in for the kill, when John backs him away with the fire (I remembered seeing an image of this part in one of those Crestwood House books I read as a kid). Fending Kharis off, John gets Isobel to her feet and, after flinging the torch at the mummy, setting the drapes behind him ablaze when he swung it back, carries her outside onto the balcony. Kharis chases after them and catches up to them when they start to climb down the trellis. John tries to fight him off but Kharis grabs him by the neck and almost strangles him, when the sheriff and another man, having gone up the stairs, come out of the bedroom window and shoot the mummy. Distracted, he drops John and goes after them, giving the couple the chance to escape. The sheriff and his partner manage to get the upper hand on Kharis with a torch and get around him in order to climb down the trellis themselves. Kharis tries to follow them down but once the climbers are off, the trellis is set on fire, trapping him on the second story of the burning house, where he eventually succumbs to the flames.

Once again, the music for this film is comprised entirely of music from previous films. Not only do you once again hear cues from Son of Frankenstein, as the leitmotif for the High Priests of Karnak, but a lot of music from The Wolf Man is also heard, most notably the main theme, which is used for the opening credits, and the attack piece, which is used for some of the kills and extensively throughout the climax. Cues from The Ghost of Frankenstein can also be heard in many places, making it an interesting case of the score being comprised of music used in other films that also starred Lon Chaney Jr. In any case, despite being recycled, all of the pieces are used well in their respective spots.

Like its predecessor, The Mummy's Tomb is hardly a classic but, more significantly, it lacks some stuff that even that film had, as it feels even cheaper, with the first part being an overlong recap of the previous movie, the characters aren't as interesting, there are spots where it drags, despite the very short running time, and the kills that Kharis commits, while entertaining, are also often laughable in how easily he gets ahold of his victims despite how slow he is. However, on the flip side, it has more atmosphere in terms of its cinematography and settings, the way Kharis looks and is filmed is more effective, with Lon Chaney Jr. managing to get a tiny bit of personality out of the thankless role, the music, despite being recycled, fits well with the scenes it's put to, and the climax feels bigger and more exciting. In conclusion, I wouldn't go as far to say that it's as entertaining as The Mummy's Hand and, even at this point, things are starting to feel stale, but if you enjoy the Universal horror classics, I'd say check it out at least once if you need to kill an hour.

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