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Friday, 26 May 2017

THE MUMMY'S GHOST (1944)

July 1944 saw a forlorn, shuffling presence dragging its sad carcase into view. Once belonging to an exotic, terrifying dynasty that terrorised all in its wake, it was now reduced to demeaning servitude, a weak and humiliated force. It was Universal’s horror department. Having profited immensely from a first wave (1931 to 1936) that introduced the celebrated icons of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and The Invisible Man to modern audiences, the studio lost courage in its second cycle that began with World War Two. Despite an upsurge in cinema attendances, Universal only added the new blood-line of Lon Chaney Jr’s The Wolf Man (1941) into the family. As the Forties rolled on, their flagging inspiration was evident in the demotion of their pure horror movies to B-movie level, meaning that the voltage being pumped into the franchises was only enough to keep the engine ticking over, not to reinvigorate it. All five of the brand-name monsters were endlessly re-presented in increasingly shoddy and ill-considered sequels.

The same could be said of their human resources. Now Universal had brought Chaney’s career to life as a horror actor, they didn’t know what to do with him either. Unlike the post-Millenial ‘franchise viagra’ effect of Dwayne Johnson, his unique position of appearing in four of the iconic series (all bar The Invisible Man) did nothing to expand Chaney’s range or the life of the franchises. Ironically, invisibility was the main problem in the worst of these, The Mummy follow-ons. As we saw with 1942’s The Mummy’s Tomb (reviewed here), it could have been anyone staggering along mutely under the rotting bandages. After attaching him to more unappetising franchise leftovers such as Son of Dracula (1943) and the Inner Sanctum potboilers, the studio entombed Chaney in two more deathless Egyptian tombs.

The first of these was The Mummy’s Ghost (1944), which like Chaney’s return as the mummified Kharis is a weak and dull creature hampered by lame limbs – an obviously miniscule budget and slapdash script quality by the returning Griffin Jay and Henry Sucher. Directed by Reginald Le Borg, (resistance e futile?) a further call-back to the previous entries was the return of George Zucco as the almost indestructible High Priest. By now his nine lives seemed to be running out though as this was the last time he would pass on the mantle of servant of Amon-Ra to another fallible, fez-sporting disciple. White-haired and doddery under Jack Pierce’s subtly aging make-up, Zucco gives the poison chalice this time to John Carradine of all people, with whom he’d recently worked on Monogram’s Voodoo Man. Being of naturally pale complexion, Pierce ensures Carradine’s Yousef Bey has a swarthy tan which accentuates his penetrating blue eyes when giving the evil eye later. Bey’s mission is to bring Princess Ananka and her eternal lover Kharis back to Egypt.

Meanwhile in Mapleton (USA), location of The Mummy’s Tomb, Frank Reicher reprises his role of college Professor Norman from that film. His Egyptology students disbelieve Kharis’s previous rampage through the town as the work of an imposter in costume. The most vocal class sceptic is Tom Hervey (a relaxed Robert Lowery), a few years before donning his own disguise as the Caped Crusader in Columbia’s Batman and Robin (1949). Tom’s buddy asks him to inquire about the legend from his girlfriend Amina (Ramsay Ames) who happens to be Egyptian. Although Tom is still dismissive about the events, he is intrigued by Amina’s haunted distraction whenever he mentions her homeland. “Something happens to me when I think of Egypt” she says. This is hard to detect as Ames is a pitifully inexpressive actress. Originally Acquanetta was cast as Amina (Universal’s exotic beauty whom we saw in 1943’s Captive Wild Woman and the upcoming Jungle Woman) but she had to be hurriedly recast when she suffered concussion from a fall on set. As her replacement, Ames acts as though she has concussion herself. Amina is to be a vessel for Ananka’s reincarnated spirit; on the evidence of Ames’s line delivery there is plenty of room as her own soul has already vacated possession.

There’s more tea brewed in this move than on a British building site. Before Bey boils the sacred
Tana leaves to summon Kharis, Professor Norman beats him to it after translating an inscription on a box of leaves. The hapless mummy suddenly appears, lumbering out of a forest with no clue as to his hiding place. (Where has he been all this time?). Amina goes walkabout in a hypnotic trance just as a black cat crosses her path – an artful, understated omen. There’s a foretelling of doom in those tea-leaves as well. Kharis bursts in on the unwitting Norman, fatally throttles him and slurps the tea before exiting.

While the Sheriff (a monotone Harry Shannon) and the Coroner (Emmet Vogan) later ponder over the post-mortem mould on Norman’s neck, Amina comes to, now sporting the Nefertiti white temple streak as worn famously by The Bride of Frankenstein. ‘MUMMY BELIEVED TO BE BACK IN NEW ENGLAND’ blazes the newspaper headline, even though he apparently never left. At least someone is surprised by the bandaged behemoth. When Bey concocts a cupful, he shows no reaction at all at seeing the 3000 year-old Kharis despite this presumably being the first time he’s ever witnessed a walking mummy.

Master and servant head to the Scripps Museum where Bey instructs Kharis to pick up Ananka’s body from her sarcophagus. It is too late. Upon touching her body, the wrappings disintegrate. “By thy will, her soul has entered another form” intones the Tea-boy of the Nile, acknowledging the mighty Amon-Ra.  A cut to a shrieking Amina answers the audience’s next question. Kharis kills the gun-toting security guard before he and Bey search for their mistress’s new body.
In the meantime, Inspector Walgreen is on the case - a terse portrayal by Barton Maclane who gave similar grittiness twice under director John Huston in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1949). He has no time for the supernatural theorising by Coroner Dr Ayad (Lester Sharpe) as to how Ananka’s body could vanish leaving her shed bandages uncut. “Sounds like a lotta apple sauce to me”, grumbles Walgreen.

A much greater reverence for the occult can be witnessed in Bey’s unintentionally funny plea to Amon-Ra for clues to the Princess’s host. “Shed your light upon the darkness of my groping”, begs Carradine with {ahem} feeling. Fortunately, a mystic light curtails that and signals where they can find Amina. They abduct her and set us up for a climax that makes the paucity of budget and ideas glaringly obvious. Far from the elaborate temples in The Mummy or The Mummy’s Hand, or even the Banning mansion aflame in The Mummy’s Tomb, what we get here is a shed. Perched atop a train track on a dirt road, it is a dismal effort at a set-piece. Even the locals’ vigilante march has its threat level neutered by being led to the location by Tom’s dog, Lassie-style.

Running on fumes now, the formula at least has the residual sparks of personal greed that can be relied upon to seduce every acolyte just as they are about to hand over the Princess to their gods. Bey’s inner demon dares to suggest the blasphemous “What about your destiny as a man?” As he grows more avaricious, Amina becomes more mummified, her hair turning vivid white and her skin deteriorating into wrinkled parchment. Envious Kharis senses that once again the High Priest has backed the wrong horse and sends Bey to an amusingly dummy-substituted death. After a grapple with Tom, the mummy carries Amina (now lost to Ananka) into the swamp.

As distraught Tom watches his girlfriend submerged into reincarnated reunion with Kharis, there is a chilling reprise of Zucco’s priestly warning: “The fate of those who defy the will of the ancient gods shall be a cruel and violent death”. We can only surmise this refers to Bey since poor Amina didn’t deserve her holy hijacking.

At the end of the year, The Mummy’s Curse would appear to put the last nail in this franchise’s sarcophagus - that is until Abbott and Costello’s comedy writers used the rejuvenating power of laughter…

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