Saturday, October 7, 2017

Movies That Suck/Franchises: Universal's Original Mummy Series. The Mummy's Curse (1944)

According to the book, Lon Chaney Jr.: Horror Film Star, 1906-1973, a critic from the New York Times had this to say about the ending of The Mummy's Ghost: "Oh, please, Universal, do not disturb their rest!" It's obvious that by this point, film reviewers were growing very weary of the continued antics of Kharis the Mummy, as was Lon Chaney Jr., but, unfortunately for both of them, there would be one more film before the character was mercifully laid to rest. As for my own first viewing of the film, it happened the day after I watched all of the other movies in the series in the Universal Legacy DVD set, as I had other things to do by the time I got through The Mummy's Ghost the previous evening. Needless to say, after those others, I wasn't expecting anything amazing; just another cheap but entertaining B-movie. Little did I know that I was about to watch what was, by far, the worst of these movies. While none of the other movies were classics by any means, all of them were at least entertaining in some ways and had genuinely good notes to them, especially The Mummy's Hand and The Mummy's Ghost. There is almost nothing redeemable about The Mummy's Curse: the characters are blander and less memorable than ever, Chaney has nothing to do except go through the motions, the story and concept have been stretched so thin that they've been virtually broken, and, most disparaging of all, this one, more than any of the others, has the biggest air of, "We don't give a crap. We're just trying to squeeze a couple of more bucks out of this." In short, it's a very tired, "by the numbers" movie, and one of Universal's weakest by far.

The swamp where the living mummy Kharis and his reincarnated, ancient love Princess Ananka disappeared into 25 years before is being drained by an engineering company but the superstitious Cajuns who live in the nearby town believe that the mummy still prowls the area at night, causing problems for Pat Walsh, the head of the project. One day, two scientists from the Scripps Museum, Dr. James Halsey and Dr. Ilzor Zandaab, arrive at the scene in order to find both mummies and taken them back to the museum, which further irritates the disbelieving Walsh. One of the workers, Goobie, arrives to tell Walsh that another worker who's recently disappeared has been found murdered in the swamp, stabbed in the back with a knife. When the scene is examined, the large imprint of a human body is found in the mud near the body, convincing Halsey that whoever killed the man also found Kharis and removed him. Later that night, Zandaab heads deep into the swamp and meets up with one of the workers, Ragheb: Zandaab is actually a High Priest of Arkham and Ragheb his disciple. Ragheb leads him to an abandoned monastery atop a large hill, where he took Kharis after killing the man who discovered him. Once up there, Zandaab instructs Raghed on the use of the tana leaves, tells him of Kharis and Ananka's history, and tells him of their mission, which is to help Kharis find Ananka so they can return to Egypt together. Kharis is revived by the fluid and immediately begins killing again, taking out the old caretaker of the monastery who discovers them. The next day, the excavation of the swamp manages to free Ananka, who emerges from the muck and, after wandering through the swamp, washes the mud away in a pond, revealing herself to be a very lovely young woman. A local, Cajun Joe, comes upon her and takes her into town, as she calls out for Kharis, which Ragheb overhears. Joe takes her to the local pub to be cared for by its kindly owner, Tante Berthe, but that night, Kharis, who knows that his beloved has risen thanks to Ragheb's telling Zandaab, tracks her down there and kills Berthe, although Ananka manages to escape. She's later picked up on the side of the road by Dr. Halsey and Walsh's niece, Betty, who are able to nurse her back to health. Although she regains her senses, Ananka suffers from amnesia and also displays incredible knowledge of ancient Egypt. Because of the latter, Halsey plans to use her as an assistant, unaware that he's putting himself and everyone else in the camp in danger of Kharis' wrath.

The final director for the Kharis Mummy series was English director, Leslie Goodwins, another journeyman would have nearly a hundred films to his credit by the time he was through. He started out writing and directing a number of theatrical shorts, particularly comedic ones, one of which, 1936's Dummy Ache, was nominated for an Oscar. He would continue making shorts on a regular basis up to 1938 and would return to the format in the late 40's and early 50's when his feature directing career began to slow down. Speaking of which, he began directing features in 1936, working mainly at RKO and, again, specializing in comedies; from what I can tell of his filmography on IMDB, The Mummy's Curse seems to have been his only foray into the horror genre. Speaking of which, it doesn't seem like that was the most harmonious of shoots for Goodwins, as he had problems with Lon Chaney Jr.'s drinking and former silent film actor William Farnum, who found it difficult to remember his lines of dialogue in his one scene. Virginia Christine, who plays Ananka here, once said that Goodwins was a nice guy but didn't help her at all when it came to her acting. Goodwins not only went back to directing shorts when his feature career hit a bump but he also, like many directors, began taking to television. He would occasionally go back and do a movie but television would dominate the remainder of his career, as he directed a good number of shows, some of the more notable of which were Lassie, Maverick, Sugarfoot, Cheyenne, My Favorite Martian, and Gilligan's Island. His last film was 1967's Tammy and the Millionaire, starring Debbie Watson and Frank McGrath and which he co-directed with Sidney Miller and Ezra Stone. He died in 1969 at the age of 69 from a combination of pneumonia and the Hong Kong flu.

James Halsey and Betty Walsh on the left; and yes, this is the
best image I could find of either of them. Pat Walsh is the
man on the left but there's a better shot of him down below.

It's like The Mummy's Tomb all over again, in that the cast is not only very bland (even worse here than before) but there's no true protagonist, as the film's focus jumps from one character to another as it progresses. And you want to talk about forgettable? Cardboard cutouts have more to them than these people, and finding images of them was such a nightmare that I had to resort to a bunch of group shots. The ostensible, and even that's a generous adjective, lead, Dr. James Halsey (Dennis Moore), does nothing meaningful in the plot except fight off Ragheb when he tries to have his way with Betty Walsh at the end of the film. Other than that, he's nothing but the typical bland scientist character who's trying to find Kharis in the swamp, running afoul of the grouchy Pat Walsh in the process, and trying to make the revived Ananka, whom he and Betty unknowingly save from Kharis, an assistant, which endangers everyone in the camp. Speaking of Betty (Kay Harding), her and Halsey's relationship comes out of thin air. The first time you see her is when the two of them first meet at the beginning when Halsey arrives and the next time you see her, they're driving together. And like him, her personality is virtually nothing, as the only significant things she does are refuse to send the telegram to revoke Halsey and Ilzor Zandaab's permit that her uncle orders her to and ending up as the damsel in distress when Ragheb takes her up to the monastery so he can force himself on her. She's nice enough to allow Ananka to stay in her tent when she shows back up after her disappearance but that's all I can say about. Her uncle, Pat Walsh (Addison Richards), is nothing more than a disbelieving grouch who thinks the stories of Kharis and the Cajuns' fear of him are nonsense and is sick and tired of them slowing up his work. His attitude doesn't improve when two archeologists searching for said mummy arrive on the scene, impeding his work even more. Betty, who has enough guts to call him out when she feels he's out of line, insists early on that her uncle is actually a pretty nice guy but you could've fooled me, as all we see Walsh do for the rest of the film is continue to snarl at Halsey, try to revoke his and Zandaab's permit to search for the mummies, and continue to disbelieve in the story even at the end since he never saw Kharis himself. His anger is understandable, given that he's got a job to do and things keep getting in the way, and he does show genuine concern for Betty's welfare when he's told she's been abducted, but, still, it's like, "God, man, chill!"

I've heard some praise for Virginia Christine's performance as the resurrected Princess Ananka (and it appears that she really is the princess, as no mention is ever made of her previous identity of Amina Mansori) but I don't see what there is to praise. She's definitely a lovely girl but I don't find her performance to be any better than Ramsey Ames' in the previous film: it's another bland performance that doesn't get me at all invested in the character. In fact, I find some of her line delivery to be very overdone and hammy, such as when she tells the doctor who treated her, "It's as though I were two different people. Sometimes it seems as if I belong to a different world. I find myself in strange surroundings with strange people. I cannot ever seem to find rest! And now Kharis!" Maybe you could chalk it up to Leslie Goodwins not giving her any direction or the way it was believed you had to perform in these types of movies back then but her acting is not much better than nearly everyone else's in my opinion. Maybe if more time was spent on watching her deal with the fear and confusion she has about who she is, where she is, and where she comes from, I could care about her more, but that's not possible in an hour-long movie that's not interested in that to begin with. And ultimately, there's no resolution with her either. After chasing her throughout the movie, Kharis finally manages to catch her and bring her to the monastery, where Ilzor Zandaab gives her the tana leaf fluid, which causes her to mummify again when the characters enter her chamber after Kharis has been vanquished. Honestly, the only memorable think about Ananka here is the scene in which she first emerges from the mud; otherwise, she's a very disappointing continuation of a character who made for an interesting and unexpected ending to the previous film.

A couple of the Cajun townspeople are the most memorable and likable characters in my opinion. One is Cajun Joe (Kurt Katch), a happy-go-lucky guy who is introduced at the beginning of the film when he's hanging out at Tante Berthe's pub, jokingly hitting on her and telling her husband he's not worthy of her. He doesn't believe in the stories of Kharis haunting the place at all, reminding everyone that it's been over twenty years since he sank down into the swamp, but he is serious enough about his job in working for the operation to drain the place, saying it'll mean good money for everyone involved and rushes to the sight when he hears that one of the workers has been found murdered. He's shown to be a really nice guy as well, as he takes the confused Ananka to Berthe's room in back of the pub after finding her roaming around the swamp and tries to get a doctor for her, but he and the doctor arrive to find that Berthe's been killed by Kharis. He himself is killed by the mummy when he looks for her after she disappears from the camp. Tante Berthe herself (Ann Codee) doesn't have much screentime but she definitely leaves an impression as a very happy and energetic old broad, always singing and dancing around her pub and trying to make everyone smile. Like Cajun Joe, she's also kind enough to try to help Ananka when he brings her to her room, but she isn't able to do much for her except try to stop Kharis from taking her, which gets her killed but gives Ananka enough time to escape. One last memorable townsperson is Goobie (Napoleon Simpson), an African-American who's really frightened of the legends of Kharis and is typically heard saying, "The devil's alive and he's dancing with the mummy!" or the other way around whenever he's onscreen.

If nothing else, at least this time, the current High Priest of Arkham, Ilzor Zandaab (Peter Coe), doesn't fall in love with the female lead, be it Ananka or Betty, and tries to become immortal with her. His disciple, Ragheb (Martin Kosleck), kind of fills that subplot but only in the sense that he tries to satisfy his lust by coming on to her when they're by themselves in the monastery. It's also noteworthy that this time, instead of the current High Priest passing on the title to his disciple and sending him on a mission involving Kharis, they both undertake it, Zandaab continuing to teach Ragheb the ways of the order along the way. So, if nothing else, they do change things up a little bit, but it doesn't make them any more interesting. Coe wasn't a bad actor but his performance as Zandaab is not as memorable or as entertaining as John Carradine's as Yousef Bey in the previous film. He's a pretty standard bad guy, without much charisma, and does little more than tell Ragheb of the history of Kharis, send the mummy out to find Ananka, and try to discourage any interference from the search parties who are looking for her. There is, however, something of an interesting dynamic between him and Ragheb, as the latter is on the inside, posing a workman for the drainage project, and is the more brutish one who gets his hands dirty by murdering anybody who comes close to discovering the secret, while Zandaab comes in from the outside and does nothing but give orders. Also, while Zandaab is firmly committed to his mission and the responsibilities of his position, Ragheb betrays them in order to satisfy his urges with Betty (something that comes quite out of left field and basically a case of opportunity for him). This angers Zandaab, who damns Ragheb for both betraying his duty and for putting their mission in jeopardy, saying that he'll pay with his life when Kharis learns of it. He orders him to kill Betty but Ragheb murders him instead and then tries to force himself on Betty, only to be interrupted by Dr. Halsey and killed when Kharis chases after him and smashes his way into a cell he's locked himself in, bringing the walls down on them both.

Although he was able to create sporadic instances of performance in the previous two films, Lon Chaney Jr.'s final bow as Kharis is the one where you can truly say he's nothing but a lumbering monster. Except for a moment where you see him react to Zandaab's news that Ananka has risen from the swamp, Chaney is unable to do anything but awkwardly shuffle around on his one good leg, with his left arm stretched out, strangle people, and whisk Ananka away up to the monastery. It's the most robotic of his performances and also the most undignified, as not only are the deaths as clichéd as ever, there's even a moment where Dr. Halsey and Betty Walsh never even see Kharis as he tries to grab them from behind as they place the unconscious Ananka into their car, even when he's a mere few inches away from them! That's like something you'd see in a parody of these types of movies, including Abbot and Costello Meet the Mummy nearly a decade later, but this is in a real one! And what's more, Kharis goes out by doing himself in when he causes the crumbling walls of the monastery to cave in on him when he's trying to get ahold of Ragheb at the end. Laughable stuff like that is what makes you feel so bad for Chaney being forced to play this role so many times. The outfit and the makeup (a mummy face mask that Jack Pierce made for the film is owned by prop collector Bob Burns and is the only surviving example of Pierce's work), which are both virtually the same as the previous movie's, still look nice but they don't compensate for what an uninteresting, forgettable monster Kharis is here.

I think we can all agree that the real Mummy's Curse came
from a bottle rather than a tomb.
According to Don G. Smith in his book, Lon Chaney Jr.: Horror Film Star. 1906-1973, as he had on the previous films, Chaney was never shy about making his displeasure in being forced to play Kharis known. While Peter Coe said that he stood up for William Farnum when Leslie Goodwins began to grow his impatient with his problems in remembering lines (Farnum had been friends with his father) and producer Olive Drake insisted that his drinking never interfered with his acting, other cast members begged to differ. Virginia Christine said that Chaney, whom she compared to Errol Flynn in regards to his drinking, was absolutely plastered when he had to carry her up the steps to the monastery near the end of the film and that it was so apparent he was going to fall on top of her that Goodwins had to replace him with a double. She also mentioned an instance where Goodwins asked Chaney not to drink so much before filming, to which he replied, "Why? I have no lines, and I have to drag my butt through the mud." Martin Kosleck, who didn't like Chaney at all after having worked with him before on the Inner Sanctum movie, Frozen Ghost, got whacked in the face by him when he, drunkenly, turned around to face him too rapidly in one scene and claimed that Chaney loved stalking and threatening him during the climax, saying, "Why they had him as a star is beyond me. He was roaring drunk!"

The continuity errors continue in The Mummy's Curse and now, they're downright ridiculous. We're now back to boiling three tana leaves each night to keep Kharis' heart beating and nine lives to give him mobility... although apparently now, both quantities have to be given to him each night during the cycle of the full moon. I guess by this point, that warning from The Mummy's Hand not to give him more than nine leaves' worth of fluid has long expired. And instead of giving eternal life to others like they did before, they now cause Ananka to become a mummy again, with no explanation as to why that is other than the plot needs it to. Also, Kharis' history is back to the way it was originally given in the first movie, with no mention of his and Ananka's love being forbidden or their being buried together. The priests that protect and guide him are still referred to as the order of "Arkham" rather than "Karnak," so something from The Mummy's Ghost stuck, which is more than I can say for the setting. How in the name of God could Kharis and Ananka sink into a bog in New England and come out of one in Louisiana?! Did they get caught in some underground stream that carried them to the other side of the country over the years? I guess not, since they all talk about the account of him carrying her into that very swamp. And if your mind isn't already blown by that massive error, think about this: if it's been another 25 years since the events of The Mummy's Ghost, that means we should now be into the 1990's, but we're still clearly in the 40's, just as we still were after the thirty year skip between the first two films. The expression, "We just want to make money," comes to mind here.

That's the film's major problem: there was no care or thought put into this other than the desire to get a little more money out of this dying series. The previous films were certainly meant to be nothing more than programmers to fill up movie houses but you could still see a little bit of effort in them, despite their repetitive nature and continuity errors. This one, which I've read was shot in just twelve days, not only had no effort put into continuing on the story from its predecessor or creating characters that you could give a crap about but it also does nothing new with the concept at large. You're just watching the same basic set-up, setpieces, and climax that you've seen before, only much more stale and with little thrown in to break up the monotony. The film's cheapness is clear as well, as the bayou setting is uninspired and leaves much to be desired for, and the only major set, which was probably borrowed from another movie like the big temple in The Mummy's Hand, is the monastery where Zandaab and Ragheb keep Kharis hidden. There, the cinematography and lighting manage to evoke some semblance of atmosphere that the rest of the movie is sorely lacking, save for precious few nighttime shots here and there. And like The Mummy's Tomb, a good bit of the first twenty minutes are spent telling us stuff we already know when Zandaab tells Ragheb of Kharis' history. Here, we get a rare case of stock footage within stock footage, as we see the flashback from The Mummy's Hand that itself made use of shots from the flashback sequence in the original Boris Karloff film. The film also uses the foggy woods from The Wolf Man as the background for the opening credits, as far removed from the Cajun swamps as they are.

The most memorable scene in the entire movie has nothing to do with Kharis himself: it's the scene where Ananka emerges from the mud of the swamp after enough of it has been cleared away by a backhoe. It's the most well-crafted part of the movie by far and is the epitome of what you expect to see in old horror films like this. It starts off with a close-up of her hand emerging from the mud before she completely works herself out of it, unbeknownst to the workmen, who are leaving the site for the day. Covered from head-to-toe in the stuff, she struggles to get to her feet, apparently spurned on by the warmth of the sun on her face (later on, she tells Dr. Halsey that she loves the sun), and when she finally does make it up, she stumbles away into the swamp until she comes across a small pond, which she wades into in order to wash the mud off of her. After that is when Cajun Joe comes across her and takes her to town for help, as she calls out for Kharis. I used to be confused because I thought she was still mummified when she first emerged and became young and beautiful after washing the mud off, although I think now I thought that because of how the mud makes her look and the disoriented way in which she moves. In any case, while not an iconic scene of classic horror at all, it's still definitely a memorable one in an otherwise very forgettable movie.

I don't know what more I can say about the mummy kills in this film that I haven't said about the identical ones in the others: they're clichéd and it's often embarrassing to see how incompetent these people are at escaping such a sluggish monster. The first one happens shortly after Zandaab gives Kharis the tana fluid he needs to be revived. Michael (William Farnum), the old, torch-wielding caretaker of the monastery, catches them in the act and demands that they leave, citing what they're doing as sacrilegious. He obviously thinks Kharis is wrapped up in bandages as part of whatever "pagan" ceremony they're performing, as he can see him fine but pays no attention to him. As you can guess, this proves fatal for him, as Kharis lumbers up to him and chokes him, much of the murder shown by their shadows on the wall (not a bad touch, I might add). The second death is that of Tante Berthe in her bedroom in the back of her pub as she looks after Ananka. Kharis, sensing her location, silently slips in through the door behind Berthe as she's taking care of Ananka. Ananka senses that he's nearby and sits up in bed before looking behind Berthe and seeing him. As Kharis shambles toward the bed, Ananka quickly gets off it and runs to the corner of the room, prompting Berthe to turn around and see Kharis. She tries to stop him but screams in pain when he grabs her by the throat and chokes her as she struggles with him, giving Ananka a chance to escape (the people in the pub are singing and dancing, so they don't hear this commotion). Later on, when Ananka is staying at Dr. Halsey's research camp, she again senses Kharis approaching and runs to Dr. Cooper's (Holmes Herbert) tent, asking him for help. She tries to make him understand, when they hear the sound of footsteps outside. When Cooper looks, he sees Kharis approaching and ducks back in, backing up slowly as the mummy steps into the tent. Seeing Ananka, Kharis lurches towards her and Cooper tries to stop him by grabbing a chair to smash over him but Kharis is able to grab him before he can do so. Like Berthe, his slow strangling of Cooper gives Ananka a chance to escape. Kharis' last murder before the climax is that of Cajun Joe. While out searching for Ananka like everyone else, Joe spots her on the shore while he's rowing his boat out on the bayou. Coming ashore, he tries to get her attention, when he sees Kharis emerge from the bushes behind her. When he sees Joe, he lumbers straight for him, shaking off the blasts from his shotgun, and Joe, instead of running, stands there and yells, "No!" He appears to try to smack Kharis with the gun but he grabs it and tosses it aside. Now, Joe tries to run but Kharis quickly grabs him from behind and chokes the life out of him.

The last eleven or so minutes of the film make for a pretty slow and uninspired climax, the worse of any of these films. Kharis tracks Ananka down to Betty Walsh's tent, picks her up, and carries her out, knocking over the pole that's holding the tent up (Betty does nothing to help, by the way). Ragheb, who's been outside watching the whole time, takes the opportunity to get Betty alone up at the monastery and has her follow him, saying that he'll lead her to Dr. Halsey. Soon after. Halsey returns from the search to find the destroyed tent and Goobie, who tells him that there's no sign of Betty. Halsey tells Goobie to tell Pat Walsh what's happened, while he follows Kharis' trail, knowing from a piece of bandage that he found that he was there. Kharis arrives at the monastery with Ananka and places her in a coffin, while Zandaab pours some tana leaf fluid into her mouth to "free her" from her mortal form. Shortly afterward, Betty and Ragheb arrive, and when he tells her that Halsey is not there and the place is abandoned, he prepares to force himself on her. Zandaab, hearing the commotion, enters the room and, after cursing Ragheb for his betrayal and making it clear that Kharis will kill him for it, orders him to kill Betty to preserve their secret. Ragheb, instead, stabs Zandaab in the back and goes after Betty again, when Halsey arrives. A fight breaks out between the two men as Ragheb tries to stab Halsey as well but he manages to fight him off and knock him unconscious, making him drop the knife. Halsey is about to leave with Betty when he's distracted by the sight of Zandaab's dead body. Ragheb regains consciousness and attacks Halsey again, this time with a club. After a struggle, Ragheb shoves Halsey against the wall and is about to club him to death, when Kharis, having entered the room and obviously sensing his betrayal, grabs the club and drops it to the floor, before lumbering towards him. Ragheb backs away, trying to make Kharis stop by telling him that the secret of the tana leaves will die with him, but the mummy ignores him and pursues him towards an old cell, which Ragheb locks himself in. Unable to reach him through the door or the bars, Kharis tears right through the old, weak walls and the door, causing the ceiling and the walls to falling down on top of him and Ragheb. You must be a real loser of a monster to do yourself in, particularly in such an undignified manner.

I barely remember the music score which, this time, is mostly original material, even though you do still hear that same theme from Son of Frankenstein occasionally. It was composed by Paul Sawtell, who already had a good number of films to his credit and would musically involved with nearly 500 by the time of his death, and William Lava, who's better remembered for his television work and scoring the last batch of Loony Tunes cartoons in the 60's (which is not a good sign, as the music in those cartoons was really repetitive), but there's nothing I can really say about it, as it's so generic and forgettable, although I can say I don't care for the overly cheerful piece that plays at the very end of the movie. Even worse than the score itself, though, are the songs heard at Tante Berthe's pub. While I like the character, she opens the movie by singing a very corny and monotonous song called, "Hey, You!" to the hoards of people hanging out there. However, that song is nothing compared to this annoying tune that you hear in the pub when Kharis shows up and kills Berthe while trying to get Ananka. It can be heard during the entire scene, killing what little suspense there might've been, and continues even when Kharis chases Ananka outside. You have to hear it for yourself in order to understand why it's so bad but let me sum it up this way: it's one of the first things that come to mind when I think about this movie, making me dislike it even more than I already do.

There's no denying it: The Mummy's Curse sucks, plain and simple. Aside from a few characters I kind of like, one memorable set, a couple of instances of good camerawork and lighting, and a stand-out scene of Ananka emerging from the swamp, there is nothing redeemable about it. The cast is mostly forgettable, Lon Chaney Jr.'s last performance as Kharis is the most lifeless of them all, the kills are as predictable and embarrassing as ever, there's a moment that feels like it belongs in an Abbot and Costello-type parody rather than a serious movie, the movie does little new with this tired material, the film is pretty dull, even for how short it is, with a lackluster climax where Kharis does himself in, the music is forgettable, the pub songs are annoying, and, most of all, the feeling of the studio not giving a crap at all is plainly obvious, especially with the glaring continuity errors, chief among them the unexplained switch from New England to Louisiana and the screwed up timeline. No one would ever accuse the other movies of being high art but at least they had aspects that made them worth watching at least once, whereas The Mummy's Curse is the one Universal mummy movie, and one of their few old horror films period, that I can safely say I don't recommend unless you're a completionist.

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