For my inaugural post on Mr Movie Fiend, I thought I’d skip the usual introductions with all the boring personal details and instead give you a glimpse of the deepest, innermost recesses of my movie-obsessed mind. (Well, maybe not the very deepest and innermost recesses — that would be too scary — but at least give you an idea of how my mind works… mainly, how easy it is for me to find an excuse to watch a good movie.)
I live in Arizona. You may recall that a few weeks ago Phoenix was enveloped by a massive, mile-high wall of dust (some pretty impressive photos and videos have been circulating on the internet ever since). The next day I was watching TV coverage in my dust-free house (fortunately, I live well north of Phoenix). One of the local Phoenix stations had prepared a tongue-in-cheek feature comparing footage of the Arizona desert storm with the CGI-enhanced storm-with-a-giant-face in the 1999 version of The Mummy. As the anchors were chuckling over it, I was thinking, “That Brendan Fraser so-called remake was a deplorable piece of dreck, but I haven’t seen a classic Mummy movie in a long time, and I know my Legacy Collection is around here somewhere…” And that’s how this review came to be.
So, now you know one of my darkest secrets– that I’m old enough to remember and appreciate classic pre-CGI horror, sci-fi, and fantasy flicks. One of my favorite activities is to get my hands on a good classic genre film– one I haven’t seen in a long, long while (or even at all) — take a look at it with fresh eyes, and write about it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a nostalgic snob who rejects every big-budget, effects-laden movie made in the last couple of decades — I’m as anxious as anyone to see The Deathly Hallows, Part 2. But I will never forget being awed by the Frankenstein monster, Dracula, the Wolfman, the Mummy and other assorted creatures as I sat cross-legged in front of the family’s one black-and-white TV in the deluxe wood cabinet (you can guess how long ago that was).
Genre films these days, especially fantasy and science fiction, are weighed down with enormous expectations to do blockbuster business on day one, be the perfect vehicles for various product placements and merchandising schemes, set the stage for a franchise of profitable sequels, and not challenge audience expectations. Under those conditions, it’s hard for filmmakers to be imaginative or creative, and their products, in spite of the kick-ass effects, all seem to blend into one homogenous mess. B movie makers of the past in some ways had it worse (minuscule budgets, short schedules, primitive effects), but low expectations also freed them to be more expressive and creative and take a chance or two. Stories and characters had to get the job done, because the producers didn’t have the money to hire name actors or do state-of-the-art effects.
Many is the time I’ve started watching an old B movie with a “been there, done that” attitude, and then been pleasantly surprised with a small bit of business, some lines of dialog, a surprising optical or make-up effect, or an unexpectedly good performance from a complete unknown. There are definitely rewards for those of us who have the desire and fortitude to track down the golden oldies.
So, enough sermonizing. I picked The Mummy’s Curse because even by low-budget, B movie standards this one’s an underdog. It was the last of Universal’s Mummy series, released toward the tail end of Universal’s second horror cycle as the public taste for horror movies was ebbing. Critics often cite it as the least of the Universal Mummies, a half-hearted, low budget end to a series that started so well with Boris Karloff’s creepy, low-key portrayal of the title character. And yet, and yet…
Curse features one of the weirdest, most hair-raising resurrection sequences in all of classic B horror cinema. After an excavating crew unwittingly disturbs her resting place in Louisiana bayou country (where she had been dragged into quicksand by her eternal lover Kharis), Ananka (Virginia Christine) mysteriously rises from the dead. First one hand, then another breaks the surface of the ooze and muck, then a dirt-caked head breaks free. With only her head and torso exposed, she falters, then falls over sideways, awkwardly turning her head and blind, mud-covered eyes toward the warmth of the Louisiana sun. Blind, twitching, scarcely able to get her arms and legs to work properly, she finally manages to pull herself out of the muck and shamble toward a pond, her horrible, golem-like face still turned to the warm, life-giving sun.
This sequence is so well-conceived and executed, and Ms. Christine’s physical, wordless acting so expert and creepy, that it never fails to amaze me. (Baby boomers may remember a much older Virginia Christine as the homespun Mrs. Olson in the Folger’s coffee commercials of the ’60s and ’70s — “Mountain grown is the richest kind!”). In Universal Horrors: The Studio’s Classic Films, 1931-1946 (McFarland, 2nd edition, 2007), Tom Weaver and the Brunas brothers relate that the producers had planned a fairly elaborate scene with complicated effects, but out of concern for Miss Christine’s safety (and to avoid any possible lawsuits), they shot it straight with no tricks, simply relying on Virginia’s extraordinary miming skills to carry it off. It’s hard to imagine how it could have been done better.
With a 62-minute running time, Curse has to keep it pretty simple in the plot department: Mummy loses his 3000-year-old Princess, Mummy finds his Princess, Mummy loses his Princess again under the rubble of an abandoned monastery. Along the way the requisite Egyptian high-priest and villainous henchman revive Kharis (Lon Chaney Jr.) with tana leaves in order to pay back the infidels for their transgressions and then hightail it back to Egypt where all good mummies belong. The infidels who suffer Kharis’ wrath include colorful Cajuns and clueless excavators hired by the government to drain the swamps.
Another attraction of Curse is the presence of one of the better “man-you-love-to-hate” character actors of the era, Martin Kosleck (playing the treacherous henchman Ragheb). Martin perfected his oily, unctuous, weaselly act long before weaselly even became a term. Kosleck made a virtual career out of playing perfidious Nazis in the 1940s (he portrayed Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, no less than five times!). He also popped up time and again in lowly Universal B horror-thrillers like Curse, The Frozen Ghost, House of Horrors, and She-Wolf of London, usually stealing the show.
This lowly B-programmer delivers exotic locations, colorful characters, moldy monsters, and chilling no-budget effects in a neat, efficient, 62-minute package. Curse is not hard to find, so there are no excuses for avoiding it. Check it out if only for Princess Ananka’s hair-raising resurrection.
- The Mummy’s Curse (1944)
- Universal Studios
- Directed by: Leslie Goodwins
- Screenplay by: Bernard L. Schubert
- Starring: Lon Chaney Jr. (Kharis), Peter Coe (Dr. Zandabb), Virginia Christine (Princess Ananka), Kay Harding (Betty Walsh), Dennis Moore (Dr. Halsey), Martin Kosleck (Ragheb)
- Check-out: The Mummy – The Legacy Collection (DVD set), Universal, 2004.
Fun factoid: The original screen treatment of Curse (titled The Mummy’s Return) had an inert Kharis being mistaken for a mannequin by backwoods types and used as a scarecrow; at the climax, Kharis and Ananka are swept up by a tornado!! (Weaver, et. al., Universal Horrors).
For more reviews of obscure but worthwhile B horror and sci-fi films, see my blog, Films From Beyond the Time Barrier.
See also Films From Beyond on YouTube.