October 24, 2011

Countdown to Halloween: "I Want My Universal Mummy!"

HAlloween MoVie rating:
The Mummy Attacks-- Not
for the Faint of Heart
I know that as a classic horror film connoisseur I'm supposed to admire Universal's The Mummy (1932) and turn my nose up at all the so-called sequels that the studio cranked out in the 1940s. Boris Karloff's Im-Ho-Tep is the definitive Mummy, and by contrast, Kharis is just a B movie afterthought (and a crude one at that). When I was a kid and the original film popped up on the late show, I would invariably fall asleep in the middle of it, and at best, only wake up for the last 10 minutes or so of the climax. With subsequent showings, I stayed awake long enough each time to piece together the plot. I don't think I actually saw the whole thing through until I was an adult and got a DVD copy for my birthday (along with the other celebrated monsters in the Universal Classic Monsters collection).

The problem for me with the original Mummy (and one that's been noted by countless critics) is that it's not much more than a remake of Dracula with Egyptian trappings. Like Browning's / Lugosi's Dracula, it starts off with with a great, memorable scene ("The Mummy walks!"), and then immediately settles into a rather moribund drawing room affair, with Im-Ho-Tep, like the vampire Count, stalking a nubile young woman as various chivalrous men, including a Van Helsing-type character, try to prevent her from falling under the monster's spell. Not to mention, Im-Ho-Tep transmutes early on from a spectacular, frightening-looking monster complete with decaying, musty bandages into a fairly ordinary-looking wrinkly old man (albeit with haunting, creepy eyes). Edward Van Sloan and David Manners slip easily from their roles in the previous year's vampire film into this one, featuring a sort of ancient Egyptian vampire (or at least a soul-stealer).

"Now where did I leave those keys to the temple of Karnak?"
Things got a little more interesting (at least for the kids in the audience) as Im-Ho-Tep morphed into Kharis and shuffled around in The Mummy's Hand, Tomb, Ghost and lastly, Curse. Even at a scant 73 minutes, the original Mummy seemed to go on and on and on. None of the Kharis incarnations lasts more than 67 minutes, and predictably, they all move along at a good, crisp pace. Better yet, Kharis is a legitimate 3000-year-old monster:  swathed in dirt-caked bandages, his face a ruined mud mask, he holds out a claw-like hand as he shuffles relentlessly forward, ready to strangle the first thing that comes between him and his precious tanna leaves. No monster-loving kid would have gone for a series of B programmers about a dried up old man with bloodshot eyes.

As an added bonus, '40s Mummy fans were treated to a succession of great character actors -- George Zucco, Turhan Bey, John Carradine, Martin Koslek, and others -- trying to aid Kharis in his pursuit of the beloved Ananka and defend the old Egyptian faith (and letting Kharis and themselves down every time). Great filmmaking? I think not. Great entertainment? You bet! (...especially for hour-long, low-budget quickies designed for the bottom of a double bill).

The Mummy: The Legacy Collection, with all five Universal Mummy movies, trailers, and assorted extras, is like tanna leaves for a mummy maven. Check it out.

#11: The Mummy's Hand (1940)

If your life is so hectic that you can only fit one mummy movie into your Halloween viewing schedule, this is the one. Part comedy, part horror, Mummy's Hand retooled boring Im-Ho-Tep into honest-to-goodness monster Kharis, and threw tanna leaves into the mythos to boot. Affable adventurers Steve Banning (Dick Foran) and Babe Jensen (Wallace Ford) enlist the aid of a stage magician, The Great Solvani (the great Cecil Kellaway) and his daughter Marta (Peggy Moran), in unearthing the ancient Egyptian tomb of Princess Ananka. They run afoul of the sinister Prof. Andoheb (George Zucco), who revives the mummified corpse of Ananka's lover Kharis (cowboy star Tom Tyler) to avenge the desecration.

Pharaonic Phactoid: This would be the last time that the mummy a.) had two good eyes (he emerges in Tomb a little worse for the wear from having been set on fire in Hand); and b.) would be portrayed at Universal by anyone other than Lon Chaney, Jr.

Key Kharis Kollaborator: George Zucco's film career began in England in the early '30s-- his American film debut was in After the Thin Man (1936). His career really took off when he appeared as Prof. Moriarity opposite Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939). Although he appeared in numerous dramas and costumers, at the end of his career he was remembered almost exclusively for the sinister villains he portrayed in B thrillers and horror movies. One of Zucco's co-stars in the 1930s, John Howard, summed him up this way: "George was a strange fellow but awfully nice. Completely different from the characters he played. He wasn't the slightest bit menacing at all. He was a pussycat." (Tom Weaver, et. al., Universal Horrors: The Studio's Classic Films, 1931-1946, 2nd. Ed., McFarland, 2007)

#10: The Mummy's Tomb (1942)

Dispensing with the comic elements of the previous picture, Tomb is all terror as Andoheb (Zucco) and Kharis (Lon Chaney, Jr.) somehow survive gunshots and fire, and after many years, pursue the tomb defilers Banning (Foran) and Jensen (Ford) to their comfortable homes in America. The aging and feeble Andoheb turns the vengeful dirty work over to a new agent of the old religion, Mehemet Bey (Turhan Bey), who screws up his assignment big time (but not before causing the requisite Kharis-based carnage). Tomb's spare 60 minutes is still padded with archive footage from the previous film!

Key Kharis Kollaborator: Born in 1922 in Vienna, Austria, Turhan Bey's parents were very well-off -- his mother's family owned large glass factories and his father was a Turkish diplomat in Austria. He arrived in Hollywood knowing very little English, but by the early 1940s had secured a contract with Universal. By all accounts, Bey's off screen romancing eclipsed that of his big screen roles. After retiring from movies, he ended up back in Vienna as a freelance photographer for soft-core magazines like Penthouse. (?!!) He especially liked The Mummy's Tomb, telling an interviewer, "I guess it's my favorite because it was a part closest to my own nationality-- it was a young Egyptian who believed in something which we couldn't comprehend with our five senses…" (Ibid.)

#9: The Mummy's Ghost (1944)

Yet another high priest, Yousef Bey (John Carradine) travels to America to pick up where the last Bey left off. An idyllic college campus is disrupted in a big way as Kharis tries to reunite with his beloved Ananka, reincarnated in the form of a college co-ed of Egyptian background, Amina Mansouri (Ramsay Ames, filling in at the last moment for one-name bombshell Acquanetta when she fell on the first day of shooting and suffered a concussion). Yousef's own lust for the shapely Amina / Ananka proves his undoing.

Pharaonic Phactoid: In one scene, Lon Chaney got carried away and squeezed fellow actor Frank Reicher's throat so hard that he nearly fainted. According to director Reginald Le Borg, "Reicher was very nearly unconscious! … We massaged his neck and gave him some water. But the next day, when I saw him again, I spied a look at Reicher's neck, and you could see he had spots there, from the strangling!" (Ibid.)

Key Kharis Kollaborator: Around the same time as Mummy's Ghost, veteran B actor John Carradine portrayed a dapper Dracula in two Universal monster rallies-- House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945). According to House of Frankenstein co-star Peter Coe, Carradine hammed up his small role so badly, his scenes had to be reshot. Coe read Carradine the riot act, John toned it down, and they became good friends. In spite of (or perhaps because of) John's affinity for ham, he went on to appear in literally hundreds of low-budget films and TV shows through the end of the '80s. (Ibid.)

#8: The Mummy's Curse (1944)

The last chapter of the Kharis saga takes place in the haunted bayous of Louisiana. For a scintillating synopsis and key facts about the production, see my post at Mr. Movie Fiend.

See also Films From Beyond on YouTube for an amazing clip from Mummy's Curse, as well clips from other films featured in this blog.

1 comment:

  1. I actually preferred The Mummy's Ghost the most of all the Kharis films. Lots of Mummy action without much boredom and a great downbeat ending!

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