IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1942)

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This is a reprint from 2013:

 With apologies to Michael Myers, Kharis the Mummy just might be the scariest monster who can’t outrun a turtle ever to lumber across a movie screen!  And he’s never been more frightening than in today’s SPOOKLIGHT feature, THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1942).

THE MUMMY’S TOMB has always been my favorite Kharis MUMMY movie.  The make-up here on Kharis by Jack Pierce, the man who created most of the iconic Universal monsters, including Boris Karloff’s Monster in FRANKENSTEIN (1931), is by far the best MUMMY make-up of the Kharis series.  

It’s also my favorite due to nostalgic reasons, as I owned an 8mm Castle Films copy of it when I was a kid.  The film also boasts the most exciting ending of any MUMMY movie, period.

Kharis the Mummy was featured in four Universal Mummy movies, and in the Hammer Films remake THE MUMMY (1959) starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee as Kharis, but it was Lon Chaney Jr. who played the definitive Kharis, appearing in three Universal Mummy movies, the first being THE MUMMY’S TOMB.

THE MUMMY’S TOMB opens with a comprehensive synopsis of the previous film in the series, THE MUMMY’S HAND (1940), so if you’ve missed this first movie, no need to worry!  The initial ten minutes of THE MUMMY’S TOMB brings you up to speed on previous events quite nicely.  You can almost hear the voice-over narration, “Previously on THE MUMMY’S HAND.”

Stephen Banning (Dick Foran) the main character from THE MUMMY’S HAND recounts his adventures in that first movie to his son John (John Hubbard) and his future daughter-in-law Isobel (Elyse Knox), and his story is shown via flashbacks.  Little does Stephen know that over in Egypt the high priest he thought he killed, Andoheb (George Zucco) still lives, albeit he’s now an old man, as thirty years have passed since the events of THE MUMMY’S HAND.  Hmm.  With this timeline, shouldn’t THE MUMMY’S TOMB be taking place in 1970?  Where are all the hippies?

Andoheb now turns over the Mummy-caring duties to his young protégé, Mehemet Bey (Turhan Bey) because Kharis the Mummy didn’t die either.  Not only is Kharis still alive, but he’s put on some weight!   Has he been eating too many tanna leaves?  No, he’s just being played here by the husky Lon Chaney Jr. rather than Tom Tyler, who played him in THE MUMMY’S HAND.

Chaney has been criticized over the years for being too big and thick to look like an authentic Mummy, but I’ve always liked this look, as it made him scarier.  I mean, Chaney isn’t flabby and overweight.  He’s solid and huge, like he could crush a man with his fists.

Mehemet Bey brings Kharis to the United States, to Massachusetts to be exact, to hunt down and kill the members of the Banning family.  

And that’s pretty much it in terms of plot.  The screenplay by Griffin Jay and Henry Sucher is pretty standard.

The strength of THE MUMMY’S TOMB is not its plot but its visuals.  The movie contains some really neat scenes, and Kharis has never looked creepier.  Shots of Kharis closing in on his victims still make me shudder, and some of the murder scenes in this one are downright brutal.  Director Harold Young, not known for his genre work, really deserves a lot of credit for making a very chilling monster movie.

Young also makes good use of shadows here.  Many times we see Kharis only through his shadow.  In fact, when Kharis creeps across the countryside at night, he is unseen except for his shadow which falls upon several unsuspecting townsfolk.  The shadow is used so frequently I’ve often wondered if the shooting script was entitled THE SHADOW OF THE MUMMY.

There’s a curious moment in the movie in the scene where Kharis attacks Babe (Wallace Ford), another character from THE MUMMY’S HAND.  After Babe shouts out Kharis’ name, Kharis’ lips move as if he’s saying something in response.  It looks almost as if a scene of dialogue has been cut from the film.  I’ve never read anything to support such a cut, and it wouldn’t make sense in terms of the story anyway, since Kharis had his tongue cut from his mouth in the previous film, and is mute.  But if you watch this scene, you definitely will see Kharis’ mouth move, and a cut does appear to have taken place right at this moment.  Interesting.

The ending is exceedingly memorable.  The torch-wielding villagers, in a chase scene reminiscent of the ending to FRANKENSTEIN (1931)- in fact, some of the footage from FRANKENSTEIN is used here— chase Kharis, who’s carrying an unconscious Isobel, and trap him inside a large house.  John Banning, the sheriff, and another man run inside the house to rescue Isobel.  The climactic battle on the second story porch between John, the sheriff and Kharis, while the villagers fling burning torches from below, is pretty exciting.  I can’t think of another MUMMY movie that has a better ending than this one.

The cast is standard, and other than Lon Chaney Jr. as Kharis, no one really jumps out at you.  However the beautiful Elyse Knox who plays Isobel is notable because she’s Mark Harmon’s mother.  Ms. Knox only recently passed away, in 2012 at age 94.

Lon Chaney Jr. actually does a stand up job as Kharis the Mummy.  Chaney played all four main movie monsters:  The Wolf Man, the Mummy, Dracula, and the Frankenstein Monster.  While he’s most famous for his portrayal of Larry Talbot aka the Wolf Man, and rightly so, his three performances as Kharis the Mummy are more effective than his work as either Dracula or the Frankenstein monster.

He makes Kharis damned scary.  His look is such that when he enters a room, he almost paralyzes his victims with fear, which is a good thing for him, because with his limp, he’s not going to catch anybody.  You can outrun Kharis running backwards.  But Kharis always seems to corner his victims, and once he’s blocked the exit, his prey is as good as dead.

Very few of the old Universal monster movies are frightening.  I would argue that THE MUMMY’S TOMB featuring Lon Chaney Jr. as Kharis the Mummy is one of the scariest.  

I dare you to watch it alone this summer without having nightmares of Kharis the Mummy breaking into your bedroom in the middle of the night.  

Over there, by the wall!  Is that the Mummy’s shadow I see?  

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE MUMMY’S GHOST (1944)

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Lon Chaney Jr. as Kharis in THE MUMMY’S GHOST (1944).

I have a soft spot for the Universal movies featuring Kharis the Mummy.

They’re not widely considered Universal’s best, but I’ve always enjoyed them, and even though Kharis might lose a foot race to Michael Myers, I’ve always found him creepy and frightening, especially when played by Lon Chaney Jr., which he was in three of the four films to feature the character.

All this being said, THE MUMMY’S GHOST (1944), the third film in the Kharis series and the second to star Chaney, is probably my least favorite of the series, which is funny, because for a lot of folks it’s their pick for the best of the bunch. But not for me, and the main reason for my lack of love for this one— don’t get me wrong, I still like this movie—is it’s just not as memorable as the other films in the series. It just sort of goes through the motions. THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1942) contained one of the best endings in the entire series, and THE MUMMY’S CURSE (1944) took place in the Louisiana swamps which added a unique flavor and made Kharis even creepier as he lurked in and out of the bayou.

But THE MUMMY’S GHOST does have Lon Chaney Jr., and that’s a plus.

THE MUMMY’S GHOST opens with the so-old-he’s-going-to-keel-over-any-second Egyptian high priest Andoheb (George Zucco) giving instructions to yet another high priest Yousef Bey (John Carradine). Bey’s mission is to travel to the U.S., specifically to Massachusetts, and there retrieve the bodies of Kharis the mummy and the mummified princess, whose remains are inside a museum there. Even though we saw Kharis supposedly perish in a fire at the end of THE MUMMY’S TOMB, it’s hinted at in this film that he can’t really die, which is convenient, because the first time we see Kharis (Lon Chaney Jr.) in this movie, he just sort of emerges from the woods, with no explanation as to how he escaped the fire in the previous movie.

In Massachusetts, the story revolves around two college students, Tom (Robert Lowery) and his girlfriend Amina (Ramsay Ames), who we learn is part Egyptian. Cue dramatic music! Yousef Bey arrives, finds Kharis, brews the all important tana leaves, nine to be exact, to keep his favorite Mummy fit and strong, and together they plan to steal the mummified body of the princess Ananka, which makes Kharis happy since he’s finally going to see his long lost girlfriend again. But alas, when they attempt to remove the body, it crumples to dust, which infuriates Kharis, and he reacts by nearly tearing down the museum!

But not to worry, it’s discovered that the spirit of Ananka is now living inside Amina! And so, Kharis and Yousef Bey change their plans and go after Amina, and all is going well for them too, until once again the high priest messes things up. Yes, Yousef Bey falls in love with Amina and decides he wants her for himself. I can just see Kharis rolling his eyes in disgust: every time a high priest is sent to help him, the result is the same, the priest falls in love with a woman and screws up the mission. It’s true!

THE MUMMY’S GHOST does have one of the better casts in the series, and it’s loaded with veteran character actors, including Frank Reicher, known to horror fans as Captain Englehorn in both KING KONG (1933) and SON OF KONG (1933). Reicher plays a college professor named Norman who is an Egyptian scholar, a role he reprised from the previous film, THE MUMMY’S TOMB. He has a bit more screen time here in GHOST, and gets to enjoy one of the better scenes in the film. It’s just a small bit, where he converses with his wife after a long night of researching, but it’s such a sincere loving moment, it makes his death at the hands of Kharis moments later all the more frightening and sad.

Robert Lowery play the male romantic lead Tom, and he’s decent enough. A few years later Lowery would play Batman in the serial BATMAN AND ROBIN (1949). Ramsay Ames plays Amina, and she’s okay but her performance has never really wowed me.

Likewise the great John Carradine is just meh here as Yousef Bey. It’s still fun to see him though. And George Zucco makes the most of his brief scenes early on as the aged Andoheb.

This is the second time Lon Chaney Jr. played Kharis, and I think it’s his least effective. The make-up simply isn’t as spooky looking as it was in THE MUMMY’S TOMB, and Kharis simply doesn’t have all that many memorable moments here. In fact, in this movie, Kharis seems to be slower than ever, as there are too many scenes where we just see him walking. Walking. And walking. He’s much scarier when he’s murdering. Now, that does happen here in THE MUMMY’S GHOST, but for some reason these scenes don’t resonate as well as similar scenes in the other movies.

Sadly, director Reginald Le Borg just doesn’t really craft many scary scenes here.

Also, when the hero of your movie is a dog, that’s not a good thing. Kharis steals the body of Amina, and Tom and the authorities are clueless, until Tom’s dog barks to him and leads him and the police on a chase to hunt down Kharis!

Where is he, boy? Where is Kharis? Take us to him!

Er, no.

But that’s sort of what happens in this one.

The screenplay by Griffin Jay, Henry Sucher, and Brenda Weisberg does contain the interesting element of the princess Ananka’s soul entering Amina’s body, and does set up a somewhat memorable conclusion where Kharis carries Amina into the swamps as her body undergoes a frightening transformation. In fact, this is the part of the movie that most fans cite as being their favorite. For me, it’s too little too late. Hammer Films would borrow heavily from this conclusion for their Peter Cushing/Christopher Lee remake THE MUMMY (1959) only without the frightening transformation.

Sucher and Jay also wrote the screenplay to the previous film in the series, THE MUMMY’S TOMB. and Jay wrote the screenplay to one of my favorite Bela Lugosi movies, THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE (1943). Both those screenplays are better than the one for THE MUMMY’S GHOST.

And while it’s not explicitly said in the movie, the ghost in the film’s title probably refers to the ghost of Ananka whose spirit takes up residence inside the body of Amina.

At the end of the day, THE MUMMY’S GHOST is still an opportunity to see Kharis the Mummy strut his stuff, and for me, especially during the lazy hazy  days of summer, that’s a good thing.

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