October 13, 2008

The Mummy's Ghost (1944)

The decade of the 40s saw the legendary monsters of Universal Studios horror films dwell into B movie territory, with several sequels for their classic stories released to cash in their status as popular franchises. The addition of the Wolf Man (from the popular 1941's film of the same name) to Universal's rooster of creatures of the night significantly helped the "Frankenstein" and "Dracula" series to be more interesting, but the tales of the Invisible Man and Kharis the Mummy, the other two series that Universal kept resurrecting in the 40s weren't that lucky. The saga of Kharis the Mummy, which had found a somewhat satisfactory closure in Harold Young's average yet effective tale of horror and mystery, "The Mummy's Tomb" (1942), was once again brought to life in 1944, with the release of two films that kept the ancient Egyptian mummy roaming the streets of the United States: "The Mummy's Ghost" and "The Mummy's Curse". Both films formed a relatively new story arc, but unfortunately, neither would take the mummy to the top again.

Soon after the events of "The Mummy's Tomb", Andoheb (Geaorge Zucco), High Priest of Arkan, finds that while the Banning family was punished for stealing the body of Princess Ananka, her body could not be recovered because his last herald (Turhan Bey) was killed and the living mummy Kharis (Lon Chaney Jr.) stopped before completing the mission. So, Andoheb once again decides to send a new herald, Yousef (John Carradine), with the mission of recovering both mummies. Back in America, famous Egyptologyst Prof. Matthew Norman (Franke Reicher) deciphers the hieroglyphs detailing how to resurrect Kharis and tries the formula. But Kharis' resurrection also has strange effects in a beautiful woman named Amina (Ramsay Ames), whom in a state of trance follows Kharis. When the ancient mummy kills Prof. Norman, an amnesiac Amina is found near the crime scene, so she becomes the prime suspect. The mystery of the link between Amina and Kharis will be the biggest test for recently arrived Yousef, and for Amina's boyfriend Tom (Robert Lowery).

Once again writers Griffin Jay and Henry Sucher are the ones who conceived a new chapter for the saga, but this time with the aid of Brenda Weisberg in the screenplay's development. While nothing really special, the story is not really bad, and like the previous installment, Jay and Sucher do offer several new ideas in the film's concept. For starters, it's interesting to finally see Kharis as an independent entity, a loose cannon that the Priest cannot control for sure. Of course, this was hinted in the past, but only in this chapter gets fully stated and is essential part of the plot. Like the previous film, "The Mummy's Ghost" is a conscious attempt of making the story a bit darker in tone, and while this isn't completely successful (as the story is also filled with the familiar clichés and dull dialog of the previous film), there is one moment worthy of mention that elevates this film from its mediocrity: it's ending. Bold and atypical, the movie's finale is easily the best among the very few good things in the entire saga of Kharis the mummy.

Director Reginald Le Borg was no stranger to B movie horror when he got the task of making "The Mummy's Ghost", as he had previously done a couple of Inner Sanctum mystery films for Universal (as well as one of the Studio's horror films about jungle women). This experience would be of great help, as unlike his predecessor, director Le Borg was more in tune with what the writers had really in mind for the series, resulting in a better realized film of mystery and suspense (although considering the previous film, this is probably not that amazing). Giving good use to cinematographer William A. Sickner's work, Le Borg creates a film that's creepy and atmospheric, and at several moments almost manages to fully capture the melancholy that the story requires (a melancholy akin to the one of 1932's original film). Still, while Le Borg was an effective craftsman able to get the job done, there is very little originality in his work, and one could say that he just efficiently translated the words to the screen. Although I must say that at least he didn't do it in a dull way.

The cast is in general quite average, as even when some of its members do their best with what they got, others are terribly mediocre at best (and painfully bad at worst). Unfortunately, lead actor Robert Lowery falls in the second category, as his performance as Tom is amongst the worst the series has seen. Unconvincing and stiff, Lowery was a poor choice for lead actor, specially when the antagonist is a scene stealing John Carradine that manages to be the first High Priest that's actually menacing in every way (Zucco was intellectual, and Bey was mysterious, but Carradine is imposing). The impossibly beautiful Ramsay Ames is another nice addition to the cast, although her romance with Lowery's character feels unconvincing. However, since her performance improves when her costar is not in the screen, it's not hard to suspect that Lowery is the one to blame. As written above, the character of Kharis the mummy received a bit more of development in this installment, and Lon Chaney does his best to take advantage of this, in his best performance as the living mummy.

Like "The Mummy's Tomb", this movie suffers from one major problem: the fact that it's first half is essentially a rehash of the previous film, as it includes the by now cliched plot device of a priest sent to America (one could imagine that Andoheb would try a different plan by now) and the obligatory summary of Kharis' tale, which naturally means the obligatory use of recycle footage from the previous movies. While this is obviously done to save money, it's still a lazy and hardly justifiable resource that really cheapens the movie. The film also suffers from a case of poor writing of the dialog, although it's not as bad as the previous film, and in fact, compared to that movie, it is actually an improvement. However, at least the previous film had decent lead actors, because this time Robert Lowery's performance makes it look even worse. Still, to Lowery's favor I must say that writers Jay and Sucher seemed to be more interested in their villians than in the hero, something that gets reflected in the already mentioned film's grand finale, where the dark tone they tried to give to the series finally shines the most.

Again, like its predecessor, "The Mummy's Ghost" is a case of a great concept gone wrong. Watching the films in order, it seems to me that writers Jay and Sucher really had a good idea of where they wanted to take the story, but unfotunatley factors like low budget, short production times, bad directors (Young in "The Mummy's Tomb") or bad actors (Lowery in this one), always conspired against their good intentions, and left the saga of Kharis the mummy as limited as the mummy's mobility. Still, "The Mummy's Ghost" is a nice improvement over the previous film, mainly because of the Carradine and Chaney's performance, and its extremely powerful and meaningful ending which, considering that the following (and final) film in the series is the worst ("The Mummy's Curse", produced that very same year), it's a shame that this remarkably bold way to conlcude the film was not the series grand finale.


Buy "The Mummy's Ghost" (1944)

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