October 20, 2008

The Mummy's Curse (1944)

One of the several horror franchises Universal produced in the 40s, the saga of Kharis the Mummy started in 1940 with "The Mummy's Hand", which wasn't really a sequel to "The Mummy" (1932), but a complete remake with a tone of comedy and adventure akin to popular film serials. Unlike the original mummy, writer Griffin Jay conceived his monster as an imposing undead corpse under the commands of an ancient sect. In the sequel, "The Mummy's Tomb" (1942), Jay brought back the horror elements and moved the story to America, with the mummy returning 30 years later to kill those who stole Princess Ananka's body in a plot that amazingly predates the slasher formula. 2 years later, Jay gave closure to Kharis' saga with "The Mummy's Ghost", a film that included one of the boldest endings in Universal horror: Kharis taking the hero's love interest to the grave with him. It would had been a nice finale, but Universal decided to produce a new Kharis film the same year. Unfortunately, it lacked the only memorable element in the Kharis' series: a story by Griffin Jay.

Relocated to Louisiana, the story begins when more than 20 years have passed since the last film, and the story of the Egyptian mummy that came to America and drowned with a young woman (Princess Ananka reincarnated) in the swamps is considered to be nothing more than a local legend. However, when an industrial project begins in the rural bayous, workers are afraid that the mummy will awake and start a murderous rampage again, so foreman Pat (Addison Richards) must battle his workers' superstition on a daily basis. To make things worse for him, archaeologists Dr. Ilzor Zandaab (Peter Coe) and Dr. James Halsey (Dennis Moore) arrive with the intention of aiding in the excavations with the hope of finding the two mummies. Problems arise when Dr. Zandaab (actually the current High Priest of Arkham) and his servant Ragheb (Martin Kosleck) find the body of Kharis (Lon Chaney Jr.) and start a new killing spree in order to find Ananka (Virginia Christine), who has also been resurrected.

Replacing Griffin Jay and Henry Sucher in the developing of the story are writers Leon Abrams and Dwight V. Babcock, with Bernard Schubert in charge of the screenplay. While it is true that the previous films weren't exactly what one would call well written, at least Jay and Sucher's stories had a sense of direction and a good amount of original ideas (granted, most of their ideas weren't coupled with good dialogs or competent directing, but at least the concepts weren't that bad). The same can't be said about "The Mummy's Curse", as the plot feels like an unnecessary extension of Kharis' saga that once again repeats the same basic plot of the previous films only this time without having anything new to offer. True, the film has a couple of twists that attempt to make the story more interesting, but in the end it's the same monotonous tale, and it never makes an interesting use to its Cajun location (by the way, it's never explained how the two mummies went from New England to Louisiana). And well, the dialogs are probably amongst the dullest of the entire series.

Probably the only redeemable thing in "The Mummy's Curse" is the way filmmaker Leslie Goodwins creates an atmosphere for the film. Of the four directors the series had, Goodwins is probably the one who makes the best use of cinematography (an excellent work by Virgil Miller) and sound. While the story does nothing with it, Goodwins attempts to take advantage of the Louisiana setting to give the swamps of the film an effective and quite appropriate dark, somber atmosphere, almost what now would be called a "Southern Gothic style. Goodwins is also responsible for one of the best scenes in the entire saga: the resurrection of Princess Ananka, a long and wonderfully shot scene in which Virginia Christine awakes from her slumber in the mud and gradually regains consciousness as her body is cleansed by the water. An experienced craftsman of B-movies, Goodwins really knew how to make a low budget film look great, but unfortunately, his hand with the crew wasn't as talented as his hand with the crew, as the acting in the film is easily the worst of the four films.

As Kharis the mummy, Lon Chaney Jr. makes a good monster, but the role of the silent corpse doesn't really go anywhere and often seems that Chaney was bored of it. Peter Coe plays the obligatory High Priest that must appear in the series, however, Coe makes of Dr. Zandaab the most boring of the series' villians, as he just recites his lines without any apparent motivation. Granted, the series never had good dialogs, but at least his predecessors knew how to supply their characters with the personality the writers failed to include. Martin Kosleck, who plays Zandaab's servant, fares a bit better, although his efforts aren't enough to give the film a proper villian. Unfortunately, the heroes' side isn't any better, as Dennis Moore's performance is pretty much irrelevant and Kay Harding (who plays his romantic interest) isn't of much help despite her beauty and natural charm. If there's someone in the cast who truly did a great job, it was Virginia Christine, who overcomes an awful script and makes a sympathetic character of the doomed Princess.

While it seems as if the movie was plagued with problems, many of those are due to the poor quality of the script used for it. The unexplained relocation of the story to Louisiana is just the tip of the iceberg (granted, continuity wasn't one of Universal's main concerns in its horror series, but this time it was exaggerated), as the plot faces the simple yet enromous problem of being boring. Despite the efforts of director Goodwins (although he also falls in the infamously traditional overuse of stock footage from the first "Mummy" films), the plot never rises from being a mediocre rehash of the previous films, and fails to add something interesting to the already tired series. The opportunity of a romantic triangle between Moore, Harding and Christine is hinted, but never explored, and like this one several other plot twists are either abandoned or wasted. It's a shame that the only film that attempts to develop the character of Princess Ananaka transforms her into just another damsel in distress after giving her such a promising introduction in her first scenes.

Considering that despite its problems, "The Mummy's Ghost" had such a powerful finale for the saga, it's kind of sad to see Universal's Kharis say goodbye to the silver screen in a movie like "The Mummy's Curse". I mean, the series never was one of Universal's best, but it had a certain special charm that given the results probably came from Griffin Jay's stories, which despite being a tad repetitive in their elements at least had a sense of direction, something this film lacks terribly. It's not that "The Mummy's Curse" is a bad film, it's just that's so mediocre and unnecessary to the series that one wishes the tale of Kharis the mummy would had ended in "The Mummy's Ghost". Still, while Universal Studios' saga of Kharis the mummy ended with this film, the immortal mummy would be resurrected many years later, in Hammer's 1959 film: "The Mummy".


Buy "The Mummy's Curse" (1944)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think your critique of The Mummy's Curse is one of the most objective I have read up to now. You are right, the one outstanding performance was that of Virginia Christine. Thank you for your blog entry.