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The Curse of ‘The Mummy’ Franchise: Part 2

Click here to read Part 1.

 

The Mummy’s Ghost (1944)

Evidently the previous two Mummy installments performed admirably enough for the studio to green light further episodes of Kharis’ never ending waking death and quest to reunite with princess Ananka. Much like in the modern cinematic landscape, tepid critical reception did not deter a studio like Universal from squeezing all of the tana leaf potion it could out of its cash cow. 1944 was something of a banner year, with not one but two Mummy pictures produced and released a few months apart.

Director Reginald Le Borg (which is a fantastic name if one is a Star Trek fan) throws his hat into the ring with the latest effort, The Mummy’s Ghost. Keeping up with the storyline that commenced two films ago in The Mummy’s Hand, Ghost has the high priest of Arkam abdicate from his position (again), bequeathing the responsibility of finding Kharis (Lon Chaney Jr. returning for mummy duties for the 2nd of 3 films) to younger hopeful Yousef Bey (John Carradine). That’s right, magic tana leaves and perhaps even the ancient gods themselves with nothing better to do have kept the titular monster alive, although he is still in Massachusetts following his last failed mission. It is there that professor Norman (Frank Reicher), Sheriff Elwood (Harry Shannon), history student Tom Hervey (Robert Lowery), and his girlfriend of Egyptian decent Amina Mansori (Ramsey Ames) will have to contend with Yousef and Kharis’ new shenanigans. But a cruel twist presents itself: Amina may be Ananka reincarnated, much to Kharis’ insatiable delight.

None of the subsequent Mummy pictures are gifted with the wonderful craftsmanship of the 1932 original. Each falls short in some capacity. While this holds true for Ghost, there seems to be a modicum of intelligence at the seams, at least as far as the screenwriting is concerned. This ray of light has nothing to do with what Kharis or Yousef do in the movie, or the overarching plot, but rather subtle hints that the filmmakers have intentionally injected a subtle layer of self-referential humour into the proceedings. In one of the funnier moments of the entire franchise, upon learning from the aging high priest of Arkam that Kharis still roams in the United States, Yousef, flabbergasted and wide-eyed, exclaims “Kharis still leaves?!?”. The moment is a perfect encapsulation of in-world and meta humor extrapolated from potential drama. One almost hopes that the high priest will retort “I know, right?”.

Little drops of humor continue when the sleepy New England town learns of Kharis’ return when someone is inevitably murdered. Whereas in Tomb the authorities and townsfolk were justifiably skeptical about stories of the undead perusing their streets looking for a 3,000 year old lost love, this time they acquiesce, very, very quickly to form posses and hunt down their unwanted guest. No debate, no annoying naysayers, just get the pitchfork and fire. This is a refreshing change of pace, one that works both as a new avenue for the filmmakers to pursue as well as providing a sense of in-world evolution: people are catching on to the priests of Arkam and their infuriatingly annoying attempts at killing people for the sake of an antiquated belief system.

Sadly, one of the aspects director Le Borg and company cannot improve on are the murders themselves. The franchise sees its hapless victims practice the fine art of not calling for help when assaulted by the mummy, but rather visibly express fear by facial contortions without uttering any sound. What’s more, Kharis is content to strangle his targets. Strangulation is grisly the first time, less by film four.

In one final, rather bold story decision, Ghost ends on a much different note than its predecessors when Kharis, having seemingly, finally accomplished his mission of reuniting with whom he believes is Ananka, takes her to a nearby lake and drowns himself and his lover. Abrupt, emotionally dark, cynical, Tomb at the very east leaves viewers taken aback, unapologetically so.


The Mummy’s Curse (1944)

Curse was given the rush treatment in order to capitalize on the box office success of its predecessor, Ghost. Hollywood history is filled with stories of movies that were rushed into production at the behest of studio executives with their gaze concentrated on more dollars to fill their pocket books with than any inclinations towards artistic endeavors. Few such projects result in respectable final products. All too often it is abundantly obvious that little care or thought was put into the filmmaking process. Such is the fate suffered by The Mummy’s Curse.

New film, new director, with Leslie Goodwins accepting to guide this fifth chapter in the franchise that has officially begun its trip down the one-way road towards diminishing returns. In one of the most inexplicable examples of loopy continuity, Curse opens in Louisiana, where a company is trying in vain to drain a local swamp. Much to the chagrin of project manager Pat Walsh (Addison Richards), several members of his unit believe the problem to be a mummy’s curse that haunts the grounds.

Wait, wait, wait. Hold on a second. A mummy’s curse? In a Louisiana swamp? Didn’t the previous picture conclude with Kharis (Lon Chaney Jr.) taking his princess with him to drown in a lake in New England? Words cannot express…

Anyhow, Kharis lives! This time he is assisted by Dr. IIzor Zandaab (Peter Coe), a secret member of the Arkam sect posing as an employee of a museum wanting to investigate the situation, along with Dr. James Halsey (Dennis Moore), although the latter is oblivious to his colleague’s ulterior motives. What’s more, Ananka, previously Amina Mansouri in Ghost, also resurrects from the swamp, now looking completely different because Virginia Christine plays her. It should probably be pointed at this time out that each new chapter transpires several years after the event of Hand. Tomb apparently happens 30 years later, Ghost 20 years after that. Since Hand was in the early 1940s, simple mathematics dictate that Curse is in the 1990s, the good old days when Bill Clinton was president.

Discussing this film’s and the franchise’s many inconsistencies and the head scratching decision to constantly have each new film occur far into the future in relation to the years when they were made is a more engaging, stimulating exercise than The Mummy’s Curse itself. Further to the point made earlier, the entire production is hampered by a nauseating sense of laziness and ineptitude. There is nary a spark of inspiration to be found in Curse. As interesting as the mummy’s curse may be, it most certainly does not require 5 films (or 4 if one is only including the chapters of this particular storyline) to be told, if mostly because the filmmakers are rarely adding anything new to the series following the 1932 movie that started it all, with the exception of Ghost in which the screenplay happily inserts suggestions that the characters themselves have come to agree that their predicament is utterly nonsensical.

At the risk of sounding artificial, the only bright spot is Virginia Christine, who is drop dead gorgeous, and genuinely gives it her all as a version of Ananka that doesn’t quite remember that she is a powerful Egyptian princess, walking through the picture as a lost, confused soul. It isn’t a great performance per say, but Christine appears to be the only cast member that cares at all.

The mummy’s curse is real after all; it killed the storyline.


Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955)

The franchise remained dormant in the immediate aftermath of Curse’s lackluster effort. No new Mummy film was made until 11 years later when, in 1955, audiences witnessed yet another resurrection in the form of a Bud Abbott and Lou Costello mashup. The two iconic comedians, immensely popular in the 1940s and 1950s, had already made several films in which their bumbling exploits took them to the hallowed grounds of Universal Studios’ revered monsters. In 1948 they ‘met’ Frankenstein, then the Invisible Man in 1951. The time had come for the lovable duo to come face to face with the most famous of ancient Egyptian creatures.

Directed by Charles Lamont, Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy sees the two American jokesters stranded in Egypt, desperate to get back to the United States. In a restaurant they come to learn of a coveted medallion belonging to the mummy Klaris, who guards the Tomb of Princess Ara. Dr. Gustav Zoomer (Kurt Katch) is planning an expedition to locate said jewel and bring it stateside, with Abbott and Costello eager to offer their services and hitch a ride back home. But the doctor is not the only one interested in the medallion. A sect known as the Followers of Klaris, led by Semu (Richard Deacon), as well as ne’re-do-well Madame Rontru (Marie Windsor) prove worthy adversaries in a wild game of mystery, mistrust, and wits…or lack thereof.

The titular comedians were already a beloved pair by the time Meet the Mummy arrived in cinemas. Part slapstick act, part inane back-and-forth repartee, one of their most famous acts is the ‘’Who’s on first?’’ routine. Their film career was quite successful, although from many accounts their comedic penchant began running out of steam by the time Meet the Mummy was in production. Their strengths, from their energy to the obvious chemistry they shared, is on display in Lamont’s picture. There is no denying that virtually nobody else other than the two stars matter at all. In fact, Abbott and Costello take precedence over the mummy Klaris himself, who barely registers as a supporting player. Then again, no one heading into this movie should expect any scares.

The amount of mileage one will get out of the film greatly depends on what wants out of a comedy. If one is content with a series of 3 to 5 minute sketches, some banking on the hilarity of visual gags, others involving silly quick fire questions and answers, then the film will probably end up being one’s cup of tea. For those that enjoy their comedy with a bit of story, or a modicum of dramatic backbone, Meet the Mummy can be a slog at times. With so many jokes tossed at the audience per minute, the most obvious argument one can make is that not everything will stick. The utter lack of a compelling story doesn’t help matters either. To be honest, its inclusion as part of Universal’s DVD and blu-ray Legacy Collection is somewhat perplexing. It strikes more as a marketing ploy than a decision that has any real thematic basis behind it. It would be as though a James Bond set featured Goldfinger, The Spy Who Loved Me, Casino Royale circa 2006, and the 1967 Casino Royale spoof. In any event, Meet the Mummy is a mildly amusing diversion, and who could blame the studio for having run out of good ideas after 5 recent attempts at telling relatively straight-laced Mummy adventures.


Final Curse

Say what one will about the lack of creativity that occasionally hampers a character such as the mummy, the fact remains that Universal managed to crank out no less than 5 movies in a 12-year span, then a spoof a decade later. In 1999, the franchise was given new life by director Stephen Sommers and star Brendan Fraser, with two more sequels in 2001 and 2008. Clearly there is an appetite for this sacred antagonist. Lo and behold, the mummy is about to wake from it slumber once more with a new blockbuster hitting theaters this summer, the monster this time incarnated by rising star Soufia Boutella, with none other than Tom Cruise trying to foil her nefarious desires. The studio lusts for profit, the mummy lusts for its lost love, and the fans lust for new chills and thrills. Whether it’s due to the potency of tana leaf potion, the clumsiness of archaeologists, or the will of the gods, the mummy’s wrath seems to stand the test of time. It will never stay asleep forever.

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