*. I’ve made notes on several mummy films, most of them dreadful, but with this one it might be worth taking a step back and looking at one of the earliest instances of mummy horror in the literature: Bram Stoker’s widely unread 1903 novel The Jewel of Seven Stars.
*. I can honestly say I have read The Jewel of Seven Stars, and it wasn’t easy. Not quite as tough a slog as Dracula (which is a truly terrible book), but difficult in its own way. That way being an incredibly awkward plot involving a bunch of different characters falling asleep or into trances or under hypnotic spells. It doesn’t take long before you start wondering what is going on, which is a mystery that is never entirely explained.
*. The reason I bring the Stoker novel up here is because Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb is loosely based on it and also because the novel makes a big deal out of a strange element that, for reasons I can’t explain, mummy movies have had a tendency to retain. This is the way the female lead is usually seen as the reincarnation of the mummy’s ancient love, with the same actress usually playing both roles.
*. I say I can’t explain why this is a plot point so regularly adopted from The Jewel of Seven Stars because when you think of it (1) it’s a huge stretch that usually makes no sense at all, and (2) there’s no particular need for it. I mean, the cast could just accidentally wake a mummy up and defile his tomb and become victims of his curse without all of the trappings of an ancient romance and the transmigration of souls being roped into it. But instead, mummy movies keep going back to this same stupid idea.
*. The Jewel of Seven Stars is, as I’ve said, a tough read. It’s also unfilmable, which is yet another reason I wonder why studios have bothered going back to it. They could have a scary mummy come to life and not bother with a jewel that somehow contains within it an astrological map. But here we are.
*. As a title, The Jewel of Seven Stars was never going to fly, and it was jettisoned here and in subsequent treatments of the same material (The Awakening and Bram Stoker’s The Legend of the Mummy). Screenwriter Christoper Wicking explains the process used to come up with Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb as a title: “we just took all the words associated with the mummy genre . . . and that combination came up.”
*. This is later Hammer so it’s set in the present day and it’s a little sleazier and has more blood. The first shot after the credits run is of Valerie Leon’s heaving bosom as she writhes in bed. Then we go back in time and we’re introduced to her in her guise as Tera, wearing another very revealing top. As she describes her role: “I used to show an enormous cleavage, everything but the nipple, but I was never ever nude.” She had a body double in the scene where she gets out of bed naked and we see her bum.
*. Also typical of a Hammer production is the solid cast of veterans with a young couple thrown in as the love interest. What’s interesting this time out is the way Margaret’s young man is killed off, leaving her alone with her father and the last surviving archaeologist. This is especially odd given that her young man (named “Tod Browning” here) is the sole survivor who lives to tell the tale at the end of the first edition of the novel (a subsequent edition has Margaret surviving as well so that she can marry her beau).
*. It’s a talky film, and no easier to follow for all of its talk. They did what they could to make the novel comprehensible but could only get so far. The idea of there being three relics that have to be acquired from the other tomb raiders makes for a good storyline, even if the scenes where the relics come to life and tear the throats out of their victims have to be rendered through crazy editing and camera tilts and wild reaction shots that do nothing to disguise how ridiculous it all is.
*. I wonder why they introduce the ambiguously gendered fellow at the end for the death of the female archaeologist. He doesn’t seem to have any purpose in the story at all except to surprise us with his fingernails before disappearing.
*. In the end I find this a hard movie to rate. It’s a mess, but not nearly as big a mess as the novel it’s based on. The blood-and-tits sleaziness gives it a cheap and tawdry flavour. It’s fun to see the old guys chew the scenery and emote for the ages but in the end none of it adds up to much. I imagine Hammer fans will enjoy its retro Brit-horror vibe, but for me it was only another underwhelming chapter in a genre (the mummy film) that rarely fails to disappoint.
*. 1967? Too late, far too late, for a movie like this.
*. It’s a Hammer production that came out when the bloom (or blush) was off the rose for that studio. Hammer’s mix of stylized violence and titillation just seemed out of date by the late ’60s, and the British accents didn’t help. Perhaps most damning of all, there seemed to be a lack of energy surrounding these productions.
*. None of these pitfalls was avoided in making yet another mummy movie. Not only are mummies not terribly interesting in themselves — being basically just zombies wrapped in ancient bandages, albeit with a romantic back story — but the plot of a mummy movie doesn’t allow for a lot of variation. The mummy’s tomb is disturbed. He awakes and wreaks vengeance because of some curse, usually while under the control of some priestly handler.
*. The mummy doesn’t even provide interesting kills either, as he usually just strangles his victims. One of the cursed graverobbers in this film gets wrapped up in a sheet and thrown out a window, which was at least different without making sense.
*. It’s a good cast. I particularly enjoyed John Phillips as the authoritarian-coward fiancier, and Michael Ripper as his toadie Longbarrow (Ripper had also appeared in a comic part in Hammer’s The Mummy). Catherine Lacey gets one killer line as the fortune teller. Unfortunately Elizabeth Sellars just looks wan.
*. But in the end this is just another cheap mummy movie. The plot is formulaic and awkward at the same time, with a number of out-of-place elements. Studio bound, with virtually no effects and a lousy-looking mummy to boot. Indeed, he only looks like a guy in a jumpsuit wearing a mask. He does get to crumble into dust quite nicely at the end though, as mummies are wont to do.
*. I like the work Something Weird Video does in keeping drive-in trash in circulation, and I especially like the DVD commentaries their releases come with. In fact, a lot of the time the commentaries are more fun, even a lot more fun, than the movies.
*. This is the case with the films of Herschell Gordon Lewis. Though only a few of his movies repay a second viewing, Lewis’s commentaries are always bright and entertaining. William Grefé is a step down from Lewis both in the directing and the commenting department. There are fun spots when listening to Grefé, like when he remarks during one of his signature booty-shaking dance scenes that “the girls in the ’60s had a little meat on them. If I shot them now they’d be skin and bones.” But overall you get the sense that he’s a bit surprised that anyone should care about any of this.
*. Grefé’s movies are definitely not worth watching twice, so when I came back to this one I just plugged it in and listened to the commentary. I knew I wasn’t missing anything.
*. By the way, in case you’re wondering, if you take another step down from William Grefé you get Andy Milligan, whose movies aren’t worth watching at all. And since he died in 1991 there aren’t any commentaries. But Something Weird have done what they can for them.
*. So, Death Curse of Tartu. Grefé needed to make a movie quick and he had the funding so he took the old story of the mummy’s curse and transplanted it to the Florida Everglades, changing Tutankhamun to a more Native American-sounding Tartu. Though I don’t think Tartu is a Native American name. It’s actually the name of the second-largest city in Estonia and a residence at the University of Toronto (which is named after the city in Estonia). I lived there for a couple of years. The residence, not the city in Estonia.
*. The mummy idea wasn’t bad, and the way the mummy can turn itself into different swamp critters was kind of original. I wonder what the first film to do this was. Not just something like Cat People where you have a character who may be turning into a particular spirit animal or familiar, but one with the power to be all kinds of different animals. I can’t think of an earlier example of this, though I’m sure it had been done before.
*. Grefé wrote the script in 24 hours and then shot the whole thing in a week on a budget of $27,000. So the only response to complaints about how awful it looks is “What did you expect?” Or as Grefé himself puts it on the commentary track: “You know when you read some critics they’ll compare a movie like this with a fifty-million-dollar horror movie and you know my saying is let the guy who directed the fifty-million-dollar film and had six months, let him try to shoot a picture in seven days and see how good he does on $27,000.”
*. This is a strong defence, and up to a point unanswerable. The point being where Grefé no longer gave a damn precisely because of his limitations. Does it make sense to have Tartu take the form of a shark when (1) there’s no way a shark could crawl out of the tomb as we see the snake doing; (2) Grefé could only intercut stock footage of a shark swimming around with a guy flailing madly in the water in order to depict a shark attack; and (3) there are no sharks in the Everglades? No. But as he says, “”When you write a screenplay in 24 hours what the hell do you want?”
*. There have been low-budget auteurs who have done more with less. Death Curse of Tartu is only functional given its budget, and that’s not nearly enough. It’s just painful to watch the actors struggling through the swamp and reacting to animals that aren’t there. As a movie, it feels like we’re stuck with them in a kind of endurance test. Throughout the commentary there’s joking about how characters who are killed off have been set free. Despite its promising premise and the semblance of a structure to its nonsensical script, it was hard for me not to feel a similiar sense of release at the end.
I’ve never had a bird, but I’m told they actually make quite affectionate pets. They don’t often have much of a role to play in movies, but here are some notable appearances.
*. Universal’s classic monsters were creative milestones and box office hits in their original incarnations, but went into decline throughout the 1940s before finally petering out entirely. Hammer only momentarily revived some of their energy and glory with garish colour and low-cut dresses before they too experienced a steep decline. But if you really want to see the nadir of what happened to Dracula, the Wolf Man, and the Mummy you need look no further than Orgy of the Dead.
*. The film’s only claim to fame is that it was based on a screenplay by Edward D. Wood Jr., though there’s little here in the way of a story. (Oddly enough, it was apparently based on a novel Wood had written. I can’t imagine what that was like.) Instead of a well-made plot there’s only a Halloween-themed floor show where the MC Criswell (playing someone called the Emperor) introduces various topless-dancer routines. Apparently they’re all sinners being punished in some way, with a pair of unlucky motorists being forced to watch. But not to belabor the obvious: the audience is in the same position, so are we being tortured as well?
*. The film’s limitations are evident right from Criswell’s introduction. When he is first revealed lying in his coffin I think we all assume the camera is going to zoom or dolly in before he begins speaking. But the camera doesn’t move. Instead there’s simply a cut to a closer shot. One would expect to see little inventive camera work in what’s to come, based on this. Those low expectations are met.
*. The script will sound familiar to fans of Wood’s oeuvre. The opening narration by Criswell is even taken nearly verbatim from Wood’s previous film Night of the Ghouls. Was it worth keeping? Hardly. And Criswell still hadn’t learned the lines, as he clearly has to drop his eyes and read them from cue cards that Wood himself reportedly held up.
*. Wood gets cut a lot of slack because he was true to a such a quirky and intense personal vision. Some might call it an obsession. But how interesting or original were his fetishes and hang-ups really? Not very. And his writing is downright dreadful. It’s not just that his actors can’t deliver the lines with any naturalness; the lines as written are entirely unnatural. Wood had no idea how dialogue worked and everything that comes out of his character’s mouths sounds like some ridiculous speech written by a highschool student for an unmountable play.
*. The upshot of all this is that it’s hard to tell what is worse: the dancing or the play-by-play. As soon as the one starts you want to go back to the other, without ever enjoying what’s happening on screen.
*. So there’s Criswell. And Vampira (or at least a part that was written for Vampira). And a girl who gets painted gold because Goldfinger had just come out a year before. And there’s a mummy and a guy in a werewolf mask and furry gloves to provide some stand-up comic relief. Yes, this is what the classic monsters had been reduced to: the Monster Mash with tits. The whole thing is just a riff on the nudie cuties, and indeed the script’s original title was Nudie Ghoulies. Whatever it’s called, it’s unwatchable.
*. The Mummy introduced the third of Universal’s initial triumvirate of monsters, and was the third to be adapted by Hammer in their profitable exercise in movie graverobbing. But after the success of their Dracula remake (Horror of Dracula) they had entered into an agreement with Universal-International so at least they had a permit this time.
*. It’s been said that this is less an adaptation of The Mummy than it is a reworking of later films in the series like The Mummy’s Hand and The Mummy’s Tomb. I guess they borrowed the names (the Mummy is Kharis not Imhotep, and his lost love is Ananka), but aside from that there’s little connection at all. At the end of The Mummy’s Ghost the Mummy sinks into a bog, which is what also happens here, but in that earlier movie he took Ananka with him. It’s also the case that the priests are again worshippers of Karnak and not Arkam and there’s none of the stupid business involving tana leaves. So really it’s a very different movie.
*. They got rid of the tana leaves but were still stuck with the awkward business of having to relate a lot of information through flashbacks. And as much fun as it looks like everyone is having with the costumes and the sets, the historical material stops the film dead in its tracks. Then there is another flashback later in the film to show us stuff that happened at the beginning. All of this should have been tightened up.
*. The Mummy isn’t much of a role for an actor, but Christopher Lee is really good just working with his eyes. You feel sympathy for Kharis’s lonely fate. Lee also makes the most of his towering physical presence, which apparently led to him taking a beating during filming. All-in-all he may be my favourite movie mummy, or at least near the top of the list.
*. In the original Universal films southern California stood in for Egypt, which I don’t think fooled anyone. (I’m not sure, but 1981’s Dawn of the Mummy may be the only mummy picture actually made in Egypt.) In this film we’re even further removed from anything that feels like a real location, as it’s an almost totally studio-bound production. The archaeological dig might as well be Gilligan’s island, and even the bog was a giant tank on a set. It all looks artificial as can be, but I didn’t mind. There’s a consistency in the film’s look that’s maintained throughout, which is the important thing. Once you get over that first jungle set you’ll even buy into the tidy and well-lit tombs.
*. It was going to be a more shocking movie, as the scene where Kharis has his tongue cut out had to itself be cut out. Too bad. But they did keep the scene where Banning (Peter Cushing) spears Kharis and Kharis does a back-breaker move on his priestly handler Mehemet Bey. I was getting tired of the same old strangulation routine.
*. As you know from my notes on them, I don’t care much for the Universal Mummy series. I did, however, like this picture, so it may be one of the few cases where I actually prefer the Hammer version to the original. Sure there isn’t much chance for interplay between Cushing and Lee, seeing as the Mummy can’t speak, but then Lee’s Dracula had hardly any lines in Horror of Dracula either. I think they both do a great job with what they have to work with, and the design of the film is very nice. There’s even one somewhat scary scene when the elder Banning is killed in his padded cell (conveniently forgetting for a moment that he’d just been told to ring the bell in case of emergency).
*. In short, it’s classic Hammer horror in the house style of the house that dripped blood. It’s not all that lively (Terence Fisher just didn’t have that gear), but compared to other work in the genre both before and after I think it holds up pretty well.
*. Please. A movie that clocks in at just a few minutes over an hour spends the first twenty-five minutes recapping the previous two Aztec Mummy films (The Aztec Mummy and Curse of the Aztec Mummy). That doesn’t leave a lot of time for original material!
*. Nor is the original material all that original. You will not be surprised to know that the evil genius Dr. Krupp escaped from the rattlesnake pit he was tossed into at the end of the last film (“and, strangely, I don’t think he’d been bitten”). What’s more, he’s still after that Aztec gold! Luckily (for him) Flor remains under his hypnotic control so she can lead him to the cemetery where Popoca (that’s the mummy) is now at rest. And this time he actually has a plan for getting the golden breastplate and bracelet, the possession of which will then be used to fund the creation of a robot army.
*. Aside from all the time spent on recapping, another disappointment is that the character of The Angel, the masked wrestler from Curse of the Aztec Mummy, has disappeared. Indeed, it’s like he never existed. I guess since his secret identity had been revealed at the end of the previous movie there was no point in keeping Pinacate in his costume any longer, but it was always fun seeing him getting beaten up. And while his presence here would have been awkward there are plenty of other things in this serial that make even less sense.
*. Really the only attraction here is the “human robot” of the title. And by attraction I mean something so silly that it’s good for a laugh. On the outside it’s just the usual cardboard box with arms and legs but on the inside it’s apparently some kind of animated corpse, making it a mechanical Frankenstein’s monster.
*. Actually, the Universal source for the story here is far more Frankenstein than The Mummy, especially during the scene in the lab where the robot is brought to life. This is in fact the only part of the movie with any energy at all, as it gives Dr. Krupp a chance to chew the scenery with some hammy lines. “No one can possibly imagine how hard I worked. When I dug in the mud with these hands and entered tombs! I tortured many animals — with pleasure! — to find the answers, the answers to man’s existence!” That sort of thing.
*. Despite having a special radium power that is supposed to be capable of disintegrating anything, the robot turns out to be no match for Popoca, who swiftly dismantles it before being sent shuffling back to the graves of his ancestors with his treasure intact.
*. Well, it’s not nearly as much fun as the title would lead you to believe. If you’re in a rush I’d recommend just watching the last ten or fifteen minutes. Or even if you’re not in a rush. The rest of it is a waste of time.
This week you’re invited into the lab to view a selection of slides that have been submitted for your close perusal and proper classification.
*. Curse of the Aztec Mummy is the second of three Mexican films all shot at the same time and released as a mini-serial. The first film was The Aztec Mummy and the next The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy. Just for the sake of completeness, The Aztec Mummy was recut with additional footage with an American cast included for U.S. release and retitled Attack of the Mayan Mummy (1963). A fourth instalment, Wrestling Women vs. The Aztec Mummy (1964) isn’t related to these films at all.
*. In any trilogy — and the same holds true for novels as it does for films — the middle work is usually the weakest, being just a way of marking time after the first instalment and the conclusion. Curse of the Aztec Mummy very much fits into this scheme, though it’s not without some redeeming features.
*. The story picks up where The Aztec Mummy left off. Criminal mastermind Dr. Krupp (a.k.a., The Bat) is in police custody but his gang soon bust him loose. Then he kidnaps Dr. Almada’s girlfriend Flor and hypnotizes her again into leading him to the mummy’s tomb. There the mummy (his name is Popoca) is let loose and foils the gang’s plans.
*. It’s a hopelessly cheap, ineptly made film that only has entertainment value for laughs today. I did say it had some redeeming features though, so here goes.
*. In the first place, it correctly realizes that the mummy himself isn’t a very interesting figure. He rarely is in a mummy movie. So they’ve built a story around him here involving a whole lot of other nonsense, including a long-range radio wristwatch and a death room whose floor withdraws to reveal a pit of snakes beneath. In fact, Popoca doesn’t even put in an appearance here until the last ten minutes of the film.
*. The ludicrously stiff dialogue is another source of fun. When the evil Dr. Krupp is slapping the nobel Dr. Almada, who is tied to a chair, around he forcefully rebuts the accusation of cowardice. “I don’t doubt for a second that you’re plenty of man. I’d be glad to try you out, I have a pair of fists that could break your head. But right now I want to get something that’s more important. After it’s mine I promise that you and I . . . I want to fight you, doctor. Alone!”
*. Probably the best (meaning the most wonderful and ridiculous) element added is The Angel: a crimefighting figure decked out like a professional wrestler, complete with a mask and cape. It’s a costume that’s both silly and impractical, as it keeps getting in his way when he’s trying to throw punches. In one fight scene it even gets pulled all the way around so that he’s forced to wear it like a bib.
*. I’m not sure why this figure has been so popular in Mexican pop culture. El Santo is the seminal figure but I think his first movie actually came out a year after this one. Nevertheless, he was already a famous personality on the wrestling circuit so the Luchador enmascarado (masked pro wrestler) as hero wasn’t that big a breakthrough.
*. The Aztec Mummy trilogy have since gone on to achieve a kind of cult status, which they probably deserve. They really are odd. But despite being only an hour long with quite a bit of plot to get through I found Curse of the Aztec Mummy to really drag in places. We get some stuff borrowed from the first movie explaining who Popoca is and then some dull passages relating to Flor’s hypnosis and Dr. Almada’s translation work. Meanwhile, The Angel gets beaten up and captured so many times it’s almost humorous in how repetitive it becomes.
*. An oddity then, and not without some laughs, but not a good movie. Only conoisseurs of trash will want to seek it out.
*. Pharaoh’s Curse is a B-picture that was shot in six days. A team of archaeologists dig up a tomb in Egypt, setting free an ancient evil. It’s a mummy movie where the mummy comes to life by possessing the body of one of the team’s native grunts and turning him into a blood-sucking creature that ages at an advanced rate. He looks like an old man wandering around, apparently lost, in his night clothes.
*. That’s it in a nutshell. There were, however, a couple of things I found interesting that might be worth teasing out.
*. In the first place, the love interest, Sylvia (Diane Brewster), is a married woman who has grown tired of her archaeologist husband and is more than ready to step into the strong arms of Captain Storm (the kind of military stud whose uniform stays clean and neatly pressed even after crossing Death Valley). I thought that rather progressive for 1957.
*. What struck me the most however was the resemblance to The Thing from Another World and Carpenter’s The Thing. I’ll admit it’s not a close resemblance, but still the group of (male) scientists digging up a monster that proceeds to possess and then kill them off one by one does register as echo. Or maybe it was just the image of the team standing around the empty sarcophagus like it’s the giant block of ice that’s brought back to the base camp. Was The Thing really a mummy movie then?
*. Bad enough that the doctor is given a name like Faraday, but he also has to deliver some truly groan-worthy lines. “As a doctor, as a man of science, my knowledge is limited to things physiological. I’m afraid superstition is out of my field.” “You can fight known things. But I don’t know how to fight the unknown.”
*. I’m not sure I ever understood the plot that well. Simira (Ziva Rodann) is a cat goddess in human form, so does that mean Numar was never her brother? Does her brother become the new guardian of the tomb? Does he die at the end or just go back to sleep?
*. Questions like this may not be fair given how slapdash and cheap a production it is. There have been movies that cost a lot more that made a even less sense. There also isn’t much of a climax, and what we do get comes with another seven minutes of film left to run (which is a lot given the conventions of the time and the fact that it’s only just over an hour long). Still, the story manages to get Sylvia’s husband out of the way so we can at least feel better about who she’s going home with.