October 30, 2008

Top 15 Mexican Horror Films

Last year around this date, here at W-Cinema I posted a brief list of horror films that I considered were often overlooked despite being masterpieces of the genre. This time I decided to make a similar exercise, yet different exercise (and one that I hope won't be relegated only to the days around Halloween): picking 15 horror films from a certain country that were, in my humble opinion, the best from said country's national filmography. In this first attempt, I picked Mexico as the country to explore.

There are three main reasons I picked Mexico, the first and most obvious one was that it is my country of origin, the second was the renovated interest Mexican horror is experiencing (with new Mexican films produced and new releases of excellent DVDs of old classics), and the third and most important was the reading of Saul Rosas Rodriguez' book "El Cine De Horror en Mexico" ("Horror Cinema in Mexico"), where the author seems to conclude that very few good horror films have been done in the country. While I won't detail the many disagreements I have with the book (hopefully, one day I'll write my own), I'll just say that my main intention with this list was to recommend 15 films that to me are the proof that Mexican horror has true gems in its history and that there's more in it beyond the films of Carlos Enrique Taboada (definitely a master, but he wasn't the only one) and the occasional lucky strike.

I wouldn't consider myself an expert of the genre, and there are many films I have not seen (including several classics, such as "Dos Monjes", "La Bruja" and "El Monstruo Resusitado"), but I hope to have made a good, albeit shallow, coverage of the history of horror cinema in Mexico. I also hope to be able of making this exercise in the future for other genres besides horror and of course other countries. In the meantime, here are W-Cinema's Top 15 Mexican Horror Films of all time.

15) Cronos (1993, Guillermo Del Toro)

In his feature length debut, director Guillermo Del Toro gave a fresh twist to vampires in this story about immortality and the price one has to pay for it. Starring Federico Luppi, Claudio Brook and Ron Pearlman, "Cronos" is the tale of an antiquarian (Luppi) who finds an artifact that reinvigorates him and makes him strong and confident again, but also gives him a bizarre need of blood. Claudio Brook is a dying industrialist who has been tracking down the artifact as he sees in it the chance to cheat death and become immortal, so he decides to do whatever's necessary to get it. A great debut that already showed the talent of Del Toro for horror and fantasy.
Buy "Cronos" (1993)

14) Terror y Encajes Negros (1985, Luis Alcoriza)

Directed by Buñuel's frequent collaborator Luis Alcoriza, "Terror y Encajes Negros" ("Terror and Black Lace") is an odd beast in Mexican horror, as it's a film that fuses the very Mexican style of social melodrama with the Italian Giallo, in a very black comedy that satirize the often contradictory modern Mexican urban life: machismo, paranoia, jealousy, infidelity and the paradoxical feeling of isolation while living in a big city. A psycho stalks a young woman in her apartment while her jealous husband is away. Gonzalo Vega is wonderful as the stubborn, chauvinist husband and Maribel Guardia is very good as his beautiful wife.
Buy "Terror Y Encajes Negros" (1985)

13) El Escapulario (1968, Servando González)

An often forgotten gem of magical realism on film set in the time of the Mexican Revolution. A dying woman (Ofelia Guilmáin) calls a priest (Enrique Aguilar), and proceeds to tell him about the effects a scapular has had in the life of her sons. An anthology of sorts (each of the mother's stories is a segment), "El Escapulario" ("The Scapular") is a story that begins firmly grounded in realism but then enters slowly into the realm of horror. Directed by documentary filmmaker Servando González, it features many interesting elements such as an odd bit of animation, and great use of sound and the cinematography by the legendary Gabriel Figueroa.
eMULE: "El Escapulario" (1968) - No Subtitles

12) El Espinazo del Diablo (2001, Guillermo Del Toro)

I was in doubt about counting Del Toro's "El Espinazo Del Diablo" ("The Devil's Backbone") as a Mexican film, mainly because it was a co-production with Spain, shot there with a Spaniard cast. Still, unlike "El Laberinto del Fauno", this movie has a very Mexican atmosphere and sometimes it recalls the Mexican Gothic horror of the 60s. Set in an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War, it's the story of a group of kids who not only have to put up with the harsh consequences war has on their lives, but also with the discovery of an unseen, supernatural presence deeply grounded in the orphanage.
Buy "El Espinazo del Diablo" (2001)

11) Vagabundo en la Lluvia (1968, Carlos Enrique Taboada)

One of the most consistent creators of horror in Mexico was without a doubt Carlos Enrique Taboada, director of several key films in Mexican horror and writer of many more. While most of his films deal with the supernatural, "Vagabundo en la Lluvia" ("Vagabond in the Rain") was his attempt at a more realistic style of psychological horror, and while not without shortcomings, he succeeds in creating a haunting story of horror and suspense. During a storm, two women spend the night alone in the country house of one of them. Stalked by a mysterious man who's outside in the woods, they'll have to face their own demons to survive the night.
Buy "Vagabundo En La Lluvia" (1968)

10) El Vampiro (1957, Fernando Méndez)

In the film that started the Mexican "Golden Age of Horror", director Fernando Méndez successfully adapts Gothic horror to a Mexican setting in the story of an European vampire decided to establish his reign of terror in a Mexican hacienda. Adding a good dose of sensuality and classy eroticism to the vampire myth (coincidentally, Hammer Studios would do the same in the U.K. the following year) in the persons of Carmen Montejo and specially Germán Robles, Méndez created a thrilling story that would become iconic. The beautiful cinematography by Rosalío Solano shaped the visual look that Mexican horror would follow in the near future.
Buy "El Vampiro" (1957)

9) El Espejo De la Bruja (1962, Chano Urueta)

Director Chano Urueta and writer Carlos Enrique Taboada conceived here one of the most original stories in Mexican horror: a powerful witch (Isabela Corona) faces a mad scientist (Armando Calvo) in order to avenge her godchild (Dina de Marco), who was married to the scientist. What makes the film really interesting is not only its unusual storyline (which could be read in many ways, the most obvious one, as women's fight against oppressive machismo and excessive male control), but the fact that it's practically a homage to Gothic horror cinema with clear nods to movies like "Eyes without a face" (1960), "Mad Love" (1935) and many more.
Buy "El Espejo de la Bruja" (1962)

8) El Fantasma del Convento (1934, Fernando De Fuentes)

Years before the Mexican "Golden Age of Horror", the genre flourished in the 30s, during a brief period that produced several good films. Amongst them, De Fuentes' "El Fantasma del Convento" ("The Ghost of the Convent") was the best, as it perfectly adapted the classic Mexican style of horror legends about ancient monasteries to cinema, in a very atmospheric movie that explored the theme of adultery in a quite interesting fashion. Director of many classics of Mexican cinema, De Fuentes showcases an excellent use of Max Urban's music and Ross Fisher's cinematography to achieve the movie's haunting mood. The surreal climax is definitely a highlight of Mexican horror.
Watch "El Fantasma del Concento" (1934)

7) Hasta el Viento Tiene Miedo (1968, Carlos Enrique Taboada)

Probably the most famous Mexican horror film of all time (and not without a reason), Taboada's movie about the haunting of an exclusive girl's school is still a powerful tale of horror. Forced to remain in school during vacations as a punishment, a group of girls will discover the secrets that the walls of their school has hidden when the ghost of a deceased student begins to manifest. With a remarkable use of atmosphere (naturally, the wind has the main role) and a great script (with subtle lesbian undertones), Taboada handles mystery, horror and suspense wonderfully, creating a timeless classic.
Buy "Hasta el Viento Tiene Miedo" (1968)

6) Misterios De Ultratumba (1959, Fernando Méndez)

Also known as "The Black Pit of Dr. M", this remarkable tale of mystery and horror is, in my opinion, the crowning achievement of director Fernando Méndez. Two doctors make a pact, that the first one to die will return to prove that life after death exists. Naturally, things go awfully wrong when men try to discover what's beyond their understanding. Filled with an ominous atmosphere of dread, "Misterios De Ultratumba" is a powerful horror film that mixes Gothic horror and film noir with a noticeable touch of Lovecraft. It is also one of the most beautifully shot horror films of all time, in my humble opinion.
Buy "Misterios de Ultratumba (1959)

5) El Esqueleto De la Señora Morales (1960, Rogelio A. González)

One of the best black comedies ever made, this movie tales the story of a taxidermist (a terrific Arturo De Córdova) who has lived 15 years of tortuous marriage with his wife (Amparo Rivelles). While he loved her very much, her annoying antics and general lack of love and respect for his person have finally made him to be tired of all. So he begins to plan the "perfect crime". Weird and insanely funny, this very original comedy with touches of horror is enormously enjoyable due to the witty and irreverent script (by Luis Alcoriza) and Arturo De Córdova's unforgettable performance.
Buy "El Esqueleto de la Sra. Morales" (1960)

4) La Tía Alejandra (1979, Arturo Ripstein)

While the 70s weren't the best decade for Mexican horror, Ripstein's "La Tía Alejandra" ("Aunt Alejandra") appeared as an oasis in the desert, being a terrific film that explored horror coming from the dearest of all institutions: family. A middle class family receives aunt Alejandra (Isabela Corona), who has arrived to live with them after the death of her mother. At first everything looks promising, as the old lady has decided to help with the family's financial troubles, but under her apparently harmless exterior is hidden a powerful witch who won't hesitate to kill anyone who tries to stop her plans. Including her own family.
Buy "La Tia Alejandra" (1979)

3) El Libro De Piedra (1969, Carlos Enrique Taboada)
While many regard "Hasta el Viento Tiene Miedo" ("Even the wind is Afraid") as Taboada's best horror film, I find "El Libro De Piedra" ("The Book of Stone") to be his ultimate masterpiece. In the film, Marga López plays a governess hired to teach a young girl (Lucy Buj) in a country-house. The girl always talks about her imaginary friend Hugo, who is actually a statue she found in the woods, but this makes her family think she's losing her mind. However, the governess will soon discover that probably there's more in Hugo than just an imaginary friend. While low on production values, the movie is filled with suspense, something that Taboada handles masterfully through the film.
Buy "El Libro De Piedra" (1969)

2) Pedro Páramo (1967, Carlos Velo)
Based on Juan Rulfo's celebrated novel, "Pedro Páramo" is a very dark and poetic film of magical realism about a young man (Carlos Fernández) who travels to the forgotten town of Comala to find his father, Pedro Páramo (John Gavin). What he discovers is a ghost town, where the spirits of those who lived there tell him the story about the downfall of Pedro Páramo and the town as a whole. With a beautifully haunting photography by Gabriel Figueroa, director Carlos Velo recreates the nightmarish town of Comala and brings to life the very human emotions that fill the novel: cruelty, despair, passion, nostalgia. "Pedro Páramo" may not be a horror film in the strict sense of the word, but it's definitely a powerful experience.
Buy "Pedro Páramo" (1967)

1) El Hombre Sin Rostro (1950, Juan Bustillo Oro)
The years from the late 40s to early 50s are not really a strong period for horror in general (although they were great years for cinema as a whole), but in 1950 Mexican cinema produced what in my opinion is the best Mexican horror film of all time. Written and directed by Bustillo Oro (responsible of a wide variety of classics), "El Hombre Sin Rostro" ("The Man Without a Face") is a crime drama that mixes perfectly horror and film noir, in a tale about a detective (Arturo De Córdova) obsessed with a serial killer that he has been unable to identify and tortured by nightmares where he sees the killer as a man without a face. Very stylish in its visual look, the film finds the equilibrium between the realism of urban drama and the surreal nightmares the detective has. It's very unusual and beautiful look together with its intelligent and original (for its time) storyline make this psychological thriller one of the best Mexican movies of all time.
eMULE: "El Hombre Sin Rostro" (1950) - No Subtitles

October 28, 2008

The Mummy (1959)

1957 saw the beginning of a new era for a small British company named Hammer Film Productions, as that was the year when the release of Terence Fisher's "The Curse of Frankenstein" borough a new style of Gothic horror to the world with great success. After this new version of Mary Shelley's novel came "Dracula", also directed by Fisher and released the following year, fully establishing actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee as the horror icons of a new generation. The great success of Hammer's new Gothic horror (completely in Technicolor) brought the attention of Universal, which granted Hammer Studios the remake rights for their horror films. Once the arrangements were made, Hammer's executives picked three of Universal's films to remake: "The Mummy's Hand", "The Phantom of the Opera" and "The Invisible Man" (which in the end wouldn't be produced). 1959's "The Mummy" was the first of the three to be made, so Kharis the mummy would be resurrected one more time.

The story begins in Egypt, in 1895, when a team of archaeologists led by Stephen Banning (Felix Aylmer), discover the tomb of Princess Ananka. Stephen's son John (Peter Cushing) and John's uncle Joseph Whemple (Raymond Huntley) are also part of the expedition, but John has been resting in his tent due to an injured leg. While Joseph leaves the tomb to inform John about the discovery, Stephen finds and reads the legendary Scroll of Life. But the Scroll awakens an ancient force so terrifying that drives Stepehen insane and leaves him into a catatonic state. John and his uncle decide to return to England with their discoveries in order to take Stephen to a hospital. Three years later, Stephen recovers his senses, and tells his son about what happened that day in the tomb: the Scroll brought to life the mummy of Kharis (Christopher Lee), a priest of Karnak who was sentenced to be the Princess' eternal guardian because of his forbidden love for her. Now Kharis is in England, brought to punish those who awoke him by Mehemet Bey (George Pastell), current priest of Karnak.

In charge of creating the new mummy was writer Jimmy Sangster, who had been responsible of Hammer's previous big hits. Taking the plots of "The Mummy's Hand" and "The Mummy's Tomb" as the basis, as well as elements from Universal's other mummy films (including the 1932's one), Jimmy Sangster conceives a story that rejuvenates the saga of Kharis, updating it to the darker, Gothic style that Fisher and him had been developing at the British studio. In "The Mummy", Sangster places considerable importance to character development, focusing mainly on John Banning, a somewhat arrogant skeptic who is going to discover a force beyond his comprehension. As in the Gothic novels of old, this is probably the film's main theme: the "normal" everyday life being assaulted by an abnormal, supernatural force from outside. While "The Mummy's Hand" had a tone of action and adventure, Sangster's story takes more of the mystery and suspense of "The Mummy's Tomb", elements that are enhanced by the very human traits of the characters, which are less "heroic" and more realistic.

As in his previous films, once again director Terence Fisher makes great use of frequent collaborator Jack Asher's excellent cinematography to create a haunting Gothic atmosphere of dread that goes hand in hand with the story's inherent mystery and suspense. Because unlike Fisher's previous films, the key factor in "The Mummy" is precisely the suspense, in the shape of a hidden supernatural menace roaming the English countryside, hunting for those skeptics who dared not to believe. It is also a very dynamic film, finding the perfect balance between thrilling action and moody suspense, with director Fisher letting the film flow smoothly and the story unfolding nicely at a fine pace (although a certain flashback runs a bit too long for its own good). Despite the low budget, Fisher and his crew did a great job in recreating the exotic atmosphere of mystery and adventure that archaeological expeditions to Egypt had in the late 1800s, which gives the film a very appropriate style akin to pulp novels and other fantasy and horror comic books.

Now, besides Fisher's directing and Sangster's writing, the acting is another thing where Hammer films tended to excel in those first years of their venture in the horror genre, and "The Mummy" is not an exception. As John Banning, Peter Cushing is remarkable, mainly because this time he is neither the ultimate mad scientist (as his Baron Frankenstein) nor the epitome of good (his Van Helsing), but basically a common man from Imperialist Britain whom is about to discover a world beyond everything he believed as real. George Pastell plays his complete opposite, Mehemet Bey, a man for whom the ancient Egyptian traditions are everything. As the exotic, yet elegant Bey, Pastell delivers a subtle, understated performance that works effectively in contrast not only with Cushing, but also with Christopher Lee's physically imposing Kharis, which while not Lee's best performance, really shows the huge screen presence Lee can be. Finally, the beautiful Yvonne Furneaux is really good as John's wife Isobel, although her character, while pivotal, is quite small.

While much less popular than both "The curse of Frankenstein" and "Dracula", Terence Fisher's version of "The Mummy" is yet another gem by Hammer Films' finest filmmaker that's another of those rare films that truly prove that sometimes a remake can be a good thing for a film. Filled with interesting concepts and original ideas, Universal Studio's Kharis films weren't really good but here Sangster and Fisher manage to extract the diamond in the rough that was the saga of Kharis the mummy and create what could be considered as its ultimate version. True, low budget definitely hurts this movie more than Hammer's previous hits (mainly because "The Mummy" was certainly a more ambitious production), and another problems is that, as written above, a certain flashback slows the film dangerously after running a bit too long; however, in my personal opinion, those are minor quibbles on a great film that rescues one of the forgotten icons of horror and literally imbues him with new life.

Often overshadowed by Hammer's "Frankenstein" and "Dracula" films, "The Mummy" is really another success by the team composed of Fisher, Sangster, Cushing and Lee that's almost as good as their best efforts. It may feel slow for modern standards, but it's a remarkable piece of Gothic horror and, despite its noticeably low production values, one of Fisher's best looking films. Kharis the mummy definitely had a difficult time in the movies made by Universal in the forties, suffering from bad directing, bad actors and bad writers (specially in "The Mummy's Curse", when writer Griffin Jay was replaced) in a series of films that never achieved the full potential the concept had; but fortunately, the legendary British studio resurrected him for one great final dance. Sometimes remakes are a great thing.


Buy "The Mummy" (1959)

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)

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)

October 11, 2008

The Mummy's Tomb (1942)

Even when under his lead Universal Studios achieved great critical and commercial acclaim, producer Carl Laemmle Jr.'s risky way of making business (basically to spend a lot in every production) did not survive a strike of bad luck, so after a series of disastrous flops he was forced out of his studio. His departure brought significant changes to the Studio, one of them being the relegation of Universal's horror films to the B-movies division. Without Laemmle, horror was no longer a serious product and a field of experimentation, but a way to produce thrillers able to draw more audiences to win back production costs. This change of mentality wasn't really felt until the 40s, and while this new conception of horror did produce good movies (1942's "The Wolf Man" being the prime example), most of Universal horror films of the decade weren't that lucky, and personally, I think that the two series that got the worst part were the "Invisible Man" films, and the films about Kharis the Mummy.

"The Mummy's Tomb" begins thirty years after the events of the series previous installment ("The Mummy's Hand"), with aging adventurers Stephen Banning (Dick Foran) and 'Babe' Hanson (Wallace Ford) living peacefully in New England after winning fame and glory as archaeologists due to their discovery of Princess Ananka's tomb years before. While his wife Marta has died, Banning has a son, John (John Hubbard), who has followed his father's footsteps and is going to marry a beautiful girl named Isobel Evans (Elyse Knox). However, back in Egypt things aren't as peaceful, as High Priest Andoheb (George Zucco), whom miraculously survived his encounter with Banning and Hanson, has been training a new Priest, young Mehemet (Turhan Bey), in order to send him to America with the mission of killing those who desecrated Princess Ananka's tomb and bring her body back to Egypt. To do it, Mehemet will have the aid of the Princess' immortal protector: Kharis (Lon Chaney Jr.), the living mummy.

While Neil P. Varnick wrote this sequel to Griffin Jay's story "The Mummy's Hand", it was Jay (along Henry Sucher) again who was in charge of the screenplay for this movie. As the story moves away from exotic Egypt to a more familiar New England setting, so the tone and mood of the story moves far from the action-adventure one set in "The Mummy's Hand" to a darker one, focus on horror and suspense, in an apparent attempt of taking the Mummy series back to its roots. Varnick's story has a very interesting point: the way he builds up his story in a fashion similar to Agatha Christie's mystery novel, "And Then There Were None", which gives the film a tone that makes almost a precursor of the "slasher" sub-genre, with Kharis hunting the friends and family of Steve Banning, killing them one by one in order to fulfills his mission. However, unfortunately it also brings back what could be called as the series' infamous trademark: the constantly reused plot device of having the Priest in question fall in love with the hero's love interest.

In the director's seat was Harold Young, whom after having a relatively good start in the British industry (helming 1934's "The Scarlet Pimpernel" for example), spent the late 30s making B movies of almost every possible kind, many of them for Universal Studios. "The Mummy's Tomb" is one his better films, which sadly is not saying much, as his directing is not exactly one of the film's best elements. In fact, it could be said that its Young's dull and unimaginative way of film-making what really brings down what was a good concept with real potential of making a better film. For starters, Young's camera-work is very static, almost stagy, and while cinematographer George Robinson really does a good job in giving a horror atmosphere to a small American town, little is done to take advantage of that. Even worse is the way that Young's lack of touch for suspense suppresses every chance the story has to show its teeth, so while "The Mummy's Tomb" has the right pattern for being an early "slasher", it never really goes for it.

While Dick Foran and Wallace Ford (stars of "The Mummy's Hand") are back, the weight of the film is actually in John Hubbard, who plays Foran's son. Unfortunately, Hubbard lacks the charm of his predecessors and is in fact a very poor lead character, easily overshadowed by practically everyone else in the cast. It's a real shame that neither Foran nor Ford receive the chance to fully take over the show, because their performances as their aged characters is not really bad. However, the real star of the film is Turhan Bey, who makes the best High Priest in the series after John Carradine (who plays the part in "The Mummy's Ghost"). While his character is badly written, Bey gives the Priest that special aura, mix of exotic mysticism and charming class that he always imbued in his roles. The way Bey makes a character as awfully developed as the Priest work relatively good against all odds is a commendable feat in itself. Fresh from his rise to stardom in "The Wolf Man", Lon Chaney Jr. takes over the role of Kharis, but is wasted in a character that only requires him to be big and menacing.

As written above, the concept of "The Mummy's Tomb" was really good and with the potential of keeping the series as a horror tale with credibility. The way it predates many of the conventions of the slasher sub-genre is quite interesting, as it has almost all the basics: a seemingly unstoppable killer roaming the town methodically killing people related by an event of the past. But it just didn't' work out in the end, and director Harold Yound is partly responsible of that. Granted, while the idea was creative, the dialogs are pretty bad and it's clear that it was poorly developed (or at least, done in a hurry) as many things happen without a real reason or motivation. Still, Young's decision of spending almost a third of the film's runtime recounting the story of the previous film employing an enormous amount of footage borrowed from 1932's "The Mummy" and 1940's "The Mummy's Hand" is a major mistake that's difficult to justify (even for a low budget film), as it does nothing but to cheapen the whole effect of the movie.

Still, I must say that surprisingly, despite its many shortcomings, "The Mummy's Tomb" is a film that truly can be enjoyed, mainly because of the important fact that not only it's a very interesting concept for the time, but because it really could had ended up worse that how it did. The film's good acting and Jack Pierce's inimitable make-up truly make up for some of the film's worst elements, and in the end, "The Mummy's Tomb" is a nice conclusion to the story started in "The Mummy's Hand". Unfortunately, Universal didn't think that way and produced another two stories with Kharis the Mummy and priests unable to stop falling in love with the heroes' ladies. I guess that some things just can't be avoided.


Buy "The Mummy's Tomb" (1942)

October 06, 2008

The Mummy's Hand (1940)

During the first half of the decade of the 30s, Carl Laemmle Jr. took Universal Studios to days of great commercial success and critic acclaim. After having received the company as a gift from his father, Laemmle Jr. began to take riskier decisions and to really spend a lot in his productions. The results were some of Universal's greatest success, including what's now known as the Golden Age of Horror, a period in which Universal Horror (starting the classics "Dracula" and "Frankenstein", both from 1931) established the path to follow for American horror of those years. Sadly, those risky decisions took a toll on the company when after spending too much on a couple of disastrous flops forced the two Laemmles to sell the company in 1935. With Laemmle Jr. out, horror was no longer a priority for the studio, and the genre was soon relegated to the studio's B-movies. This gets pretty obvious in the 40s, and the saga of Kharis the mummy, of which "The Mummy's Hand" is the first installment, is a good example of that.

"The Mummy's Hand" is the story of Steve Banning (Dick Foran) and Babe Jenson (Wallace ford), two archaeologists without luck, without work and without money. One day Steve finds real evidence about the burial place of the ancient Egyptian princess Ananka, a legendary tomb that's supposed to be perfectly preserved, which to the pair means fame and fortune. To fund their expedition, the duo convince an eccentric stage magician named The Great Solvani (Cecil Kellaway) to join them and provide the funding, and with Solvani also joins them his beautiful daughter Marta (Peggy Moran). The unlikely team follows the clues and discover Ananka's tomb, but after the discovery they are abandoned by their crew, terrified by the legends about a curse. But the legends will prove to have some truth beneath them, as the archaeologists will have to face the guardian of the tomb, a High priest (George Zucco) decided to employ his most terrifying ally: Kharis the Mummy (Tom Tyler), an undead assassin at the service of Ananka.

Written by Griffin Jay and Maxwell Shane, "The Mummy's Hand" is not really a sequel to Karl Freund's 1932 classic, "The Mummy" (which starred Boris Karloff), as instead it's a remake of sorts that takes the same concept and gives it a completely different spin. Like "The Mummy", it's the tale of a group of archaeologists fighting a living mummy, but there are two key differences: the first and most obvious one is that unlike Karloff's Imhotep, Kharis is a mute, unstoppable killing machine controlled by the ancient sorcery of the High Priest (in a sense, Imhotep's character is divided in two). The second difference is that the movie is no longer a Gothic horror drama, but a horror adventure tale with a good dose of comedy (in a tone akin to that of adventure serials produced by Republic Pictures). Surprisingly, this mix works nicely, mainly because the focus is not in the villain, but in the heroes and the dynamics between them, exploiting their different personalities (serious Steve and wisecracking Babe for example) for comedy effect.

One of the most prolific directors of the silent era, Christy Cabanne made successfully the jump to sound without problem thanks to his skill for making movies with very low budgets and his willingness to work as a director for hire. Sadly, this tendency of his often resulted in mediocre films that were either dull or boring or both (or worse). Fortunately, "The Mummy's Hand" is one of the better films in Cabanne's career, as it's a far more pleasant and entertaining experience than other works by him. The reason of this is not only that the script and cast were better than his usual (specially for his "talkie" years), but the fact that if there was something that Cabanne seemed to enjoy to make, that was stories of comedy and adventure (he discovered Douglas Fairbanks), and "The Mummy's Hand" is all about that. Cabanne understands that this "Mummy" was no longer horror in the strict sense, and so lets the story flow thrill after thrill at an appropriately fast pace that also helps to keep the comedy bits in tone with the film.

Acting in the film is also quite good, or in the worst of the cases, at least watchable. As Steve Banning, Dick Foran is effective and convincing, with a confident attitude and a screen presence good enough for filling the role of the classic All-American adventure hero. Serious and tough, Foran makes an excellent straight man for Wallace Ford's rapid fire delivery of wisecracking comedy. Ford steals every scene he is in, so it's quite an achievement for Foran to avoid being overshadowed by his costar. As Marta Solvani, Peggy Moran is a nice addition to the cast, being not only a real beauty, but also able to convey the naiveté and youthful joy of her character. Cecil Kellaway plays her eccentric father, and he does it with an ease and a charm that makes it seem like he had lots of fun in the role. In the villain's side, the ever reliable George Zucco is quite menacing as the High Priest, almost as menacing as Tom Tyler's Kharis, whose size and stiffness make a frightening sight as a very imposing monster (I guess sometimes stiffness is a bless).

Amongst fans and critics, the saga of Kharis the Mummy is often regarded as a series of cheap, repetitive stories about evil High Priests and a shambling mummy chasing victims through the film until the default hero stops them; but while probably this is sadly true to a certain extent, "The Mummy's Hand" stands out in the series not only for being the first one (and therefore fresher), but because of the touch of adventure that later films lacked. Granted, Cabanne's film is far from being a masterpiece, but I find that while the movie showcases low production values, a predictable storyline and Cabanne's unimaginative directing, the film's worst enemies are in fact the highly bad (somewhat undeserved) reputation of its sequels coupled with the highly good (this one well-deserved) reputation of the original film; which tend to leave "The Mummy's Hand"'s few but remarkable assets forgotten. As written above, this is not great film-making, but a word must be said about Jack Pierce's make-up, which even when it's simpler than the one Karloff used, makes Tom Tyler the scariest of the three Universal's mummies.

While "The Mummy's Hand" is the beginning of a series that seemed to gradually go downhill with each released installment, it has a quality and fun rarely seen in posterior chapters of Kharis' saga (I'm not saying that those films lack good moments, they do have some charm, but the moments of true genius get rarer). As a tale of adventures with a horror touch, Christy Cabanne's "The Mummy's Hand" is quite effective and delivers good fun, as it mixes almost seamlessly what was left of Universal Horror's classic style with that of the adventure serials that were popular at the time. In a way, while Stephen Sommers' 1999 re-imagining of "The Mummy" is a remake of Karl Freund's original film in terms of plot, the whole feeling and atmosphere comes almost directly from this little thriller instead of the 1932 classic. "The Mummy's Hand" may not be a classic of horror, but it's certainly unworthy of the bad name it got after the following films with Kharis the Mummy.


Buy "The Mummy's Hand" (1940)