Monthly Archives: February 2019

The Mummy’s Curse (1944)

*. The initial run of Universal Mummy movies, of which this is the last, weren’t very good individually and made for an incoherent serial. The Mummy’s Curse appears to be set in Louisiana, which is the only bayou Cajun country I know. However the previous films had been set in the New England town of Mapleton, which is where Kharis had last been seen walking into the swamp with his decaying bride. A bride who was also played by a different actress.
*. Even Ananka seems confused by all this. I guess it’s her split personality, but I was wondering why she was running away from Kharis at the start, since I thought her transformation had been complete. She’s really mixed up. But she does look good strolling through the swamp in her brilliant white-silk nightgown.
*. The worst thing about the bayou setting is it seasons the script with all kinds of grotesque accents and people speaking pidgin English. I really can’t stand listening to that. I mean, I could be offended by it for playing to racist stereotypes (like the black worker named “Goobie” who says things like how the lady is “done gone!”), but mainly I just think it sounds stupid. The creole here is awful.
*. The only time the series went for broad comedy was with the introduction of the character of Babe in The Mummy’s Hand, and it’s telling that when Babe reappears in The Mummy’s Tomb he’s not a comic figure at all. In this film, however there are a couple of scenes that seemed to me rather funny, whether that was intentional or not. The way Betty, totally oblivious to Kharis’s lumbering presence, keeps Ananka out of his reach before escaping in her car is worthy of Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy. And the way the tent collapses on top of Kharis when he finally does get Ananka is almost as good.
*. Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy would in fact be the next Universal offering. Otherwise the Mummy (at least this mummy) was going to be allowed to rest for a while. A good thing too. The four sequels to the 1932 original were saddled with some really stupid monster mythology (like the tana leaves and the priests of Karnak/Arkam) that they couldn’t escape or work around. This left each of these movies basically playing out the same script in ways that managed to be both obscure and awkwardly contrived. The genre needed a new mummy free of this tired back story. And they’d get one, but it would take a while.

The Mummy’s Ghost (1944)

*. Things get off to a better start. Not a great start, but better than the other Kharis films (The Mummy’s Hand and The Mummy’s Tomb), both of which wasted ten minutes or more replaying highlights from previous films in order to explain their back stories.
*. Here the background is presented in a more interesting way — as part of a college lecture — and it’s done quicker. But there is still a prologue set in Egypt introducing us to John Carradine, who is going to be the man on the ground for the priests of Arkam.
*. Yes, the high priests of Arkam now, not Karnak. Because Karnak is a real place and someone found its use here offensive?
*. Originally the film was just going to open with Kharis walking out of the woods without any explanation, which would have been even more abrupt. I guess they needed to do a bit of filling in for audiences who missed the last two instalments in the franchise, but it’s too bad they stuck to the same damn plot, with the flunky priest using Kharis to get revenge on those who desecrated the temple, before falling in love with the female lead themselves and trying to shoot her full of immortality serum. This is the same story they used in all the previous Mummy pictures!
*. Not that it really needs to be said, but Kharis here is not a ghost. It’s explained that he was just injured at the end of the previous film. The title, as per usual with this series, means nothing.
*. I’d thought they’d give Kharis a bit more to do, but his character remains a cipher. He obviously wants to be reunited with his lost love the Princess Ananka, but beyond that he’s hard to read.
*. It’s a weirdly designed script. We’re made to think that Barton MacLane’s Inspector Walgreen is going to be the guy to solve the case. And he comes up with a damn good plan. He realizes right away that those tana leaves are catnip to the Mummy and so he brews a pot of them while digging a concealed pit for the creature to fall in. And then . . . nothing happens. The Mummy decides to grab Amina instead and the trap is never used.
*. Meanwhile, it’s up to the little dog to lead young Tom and then the angry mob (at least without torches this time) to where Carradine and Chaney are hiding. This played out as being rather silly, and left me wondering why they hadn’t used hounds to track the Mummy right from the beginning. The mob of villagers in Frankenstein had tracking hounds. Kharis is leaving as clear a trail as you could imagine, with footprints and smashed fences and walls left in his wake. How hard would it be to track him down?
*. OK, so it’s all silly stuff. Still, I think it’s more entertaining than the previous two entries, even if it does come to a rather anticlimactic and depressing conclusion, including the death of the innocent leading lady. It wouldn’t be long at all, however, before the Mummy would surface again.

The Mummy’s Tomb (1942)

*. What’s in a name? Not much.
*. The Mummy, notoriously, never showed us the Mummy in action. What we mainly got was the resurrected Ardeth Bay moping about while controlling others with his occult powers. As for The Mummy’s Hand . . . well, sure enough, the Mummy has a hand. Two of them in fact. But the title was a throwaway.
*. Which brings us to The Mummy’s Tomb, which is the first film in the franchise to not take us inside the Mummy’s tomb (except in flashbacks from the second movie). Instead the series has moved to the U.S., which is where Kharis is brought by another of the priests of Karnak in order to wreak his vengeance on the Banning family.
*. The film is only an hour long and the first twelve minutes are spent recapping The Mummy’s Hand. It’s fun seeing the stars from that film reappear, apparently some years later, in old-man makeup, but the intro plays pretty dull and seemed unnecessary to me. Then when Babe shows up he’s not comic relief any more but feels like a totally different character.
*. I had the sense they really mailed this one in. The story is just a re-run of The Mummy’s Hand, with the creature’s handler falling in love with the female lead and having the Mummy kidnap her so that he can make them both immortal together by drinking tana leaves. She is abducted while sleeping (the shadow of the monster falling over her bed), then carried off when she faints unconscious. She is later bound to a plinth. All of this is stock material. Hell, in this film we even get villagers with torches chasing after the creature.
*. Today The Mummy’s Tomb is probably best known for being Lon Chaney Jr.’s first appearance as the Mummy. I don’t see why this means very much to anyone. Chaney was a big guy and he moves well, but really: so what? This isn’t a star turn.
*. Indeed, the Mummy is a diminished thing. From being the mysterious mastermind of the first film he has become little more than a shuffling automaton doing the bidding of the priests of Karnak. There is one point here where he shows some sign of rebelling against his handler Mehemet Bey (Turhan Bey), but in the end he has no agency or purpose of his own. In itself this wouldn’t be a fatal flaw, but the Egyptian villains pulling his strings aren’t that interesting either and the business with the tana leaves and the full moon is too complicated and silly to follow. Given how pedestrian these movies were it’s surprising the franchise kept going. But another couple of movies were still to come.

The Mummy’s Hand (1942)

*. Bold. It’s not a long-delayed sequel to The Mummy, or a remake of that film, but it steals a bunch of footage from it and gives the characters different names and slightly different roles to play. Joe Dante calls it a “re-imagining.” I guess they thought nobody would notice the borrowing-without-continuity. And perhaps no one did.
*. I found the plot of The Mummy awkward and hard to follow in places, but it stands as a model of clarity compared to the chaos we get here. Kharis (the Mummy) has some plan to bring the Princess Ananka back to life with a concoction of tana leaves but before he can do so he is put to death. There is, however, a cult that keeps him alive with low doses of tana. I think the idea is that he’s supposed to guard the princess’s tomb. When some archaeologists (and a comedian with a daughter) find the tomb an Egyptian fellow named Andoheb (George Zucco) revives Kharis. Kharis doesn’t seem much interested in Ananka, but will kill for tana leaves. Meanwhile, Andoheb wants to make himself immortal along with the comedian’s daughter, who he seems to have fallen in love with at some point.
*. I feel awful just having typed all that out. It’s actually a lot less interesting than it sounds, and I hope it doesn’t sound that interesting. It’s an altogether lighter affair than the 1932 film, with the hero even having a comic sidekick named Babe. Perhaps they figured that the Mummy just wasn’t very scary and decided to go in another direction.
*. At least we do get the classic monster in action this time out. You get to see him in all his stiff, shambling, bandaged glory as he shuffles about the camp looking for his next tana hit. He does, however, take a while before he first appears, and this is a short film. That we have to begin with such a prolonged passage of exposition, which doesn’t help explain much anyway, is a serious flaw.
*. As you may recall from my notes on The Mummy, I’m not a big fan of that film. And The Mummy’s Hand marks a considerable drop off. One wonders how such a creature became iconic given these uninspired beginnings. Perhaps it was just the lure of the exotic. In any event, it was going to be a while before the Mummy became an interesting character again. Universal, however, still had a few movies left with this bag of bones.

The Mummy (1932)

*. Curious, and disappointing. A monster movie without a monster.
*. This should be a good thing because it gives us more Karloff and not just another inarticulate barely ambulatory corpse stumbling around. But not seeing the titular figure wrapped in bandages, looming over his victims before choking them out — all the moments, let’s be honest, that are what you came in for — leaves the film with a not inconsiderable hole in its middle.
*. Audiences must have felt somewhat cheated. The posters and trailer all highlight Karloff’s one brief appearance in full mummy make-up and bandages. This comes in the first ten minutes of the movie, after which the creature is never seen again. Meanwhile, his later incarnation as Ardeth Bay (which is how he appears throughout the rest of the film) was either omitted entirely from the promotional material or played down.
*. Today I think the Mummy’s status as one of the classic Universal horror franchises of the period inflates a lot of expectations. Expectations that are, as I began by noting, disappointed. Not only is there no monster, this is distinctly third-rate work.
*. Critical opinion has been all over the place. Pauline Kael went in to raptures over The Mummy, I think mainly as an homage to Karl Freund, whose first feature as director this was. I think it’s nicely shot, but what Kael says is going too far: “No other horror film has ever achieved so many emotional effects by lighting; this inexpensively made film has a languorous, poetic feeling, and the eroticism that lives on under Karloff’s wrinkled parchment skin is like a bad dream of undying love.” That’s nice, but over the top for such a flick.
*. Consulting David J. Skal’s The Monster Show I was surprised to see that The Mummy only receives the briefest of mentions, written off as only a “remake” of Dracula. “The picture is a good example of the kind of creative conservatism the studio system fostered; virtually every plot element as well as key performers (not to mention some props and set decorations) were recycled from Dracula.”
*. It’s hard to disagree. Not only do David Manners and Edward Van Sloan both reappear, they’re basically playing the same parts as they did in Dracula. They might as well be named Harker and Von Helsing. And the story really is the same, with Imhotep as the Count using his powers of hypnotism to seduce the young man’s girl and make her his deathless bride. Not surprisingly the script was written by John L. Balderston, who had also adapted Dracula. He was just sticking to a formula, and originally he wanted the Mummy to be even more like a vampire, returning to his casket during the day.
*. How strictly he was sticking to formula can be seen from the opening vignette, where Imhotep is awakened by Norman. For some reason the appearance of the Mummy sends Norman into hysterics. This struck me as really sounding a false note, unless you see it as merely meant to echo Renfield’s madness in Dracula.
*. Joe Dante calls The Mummy “an improved remake of Dracula.” I’m not so sure (and I’m not a huge Dracula fan). The rest of the script strikes me as not just formulaic but awkward and sloppy. It was adapted out of a source story that was in turn suggested by the figure of Cagliostro, not a mummy. Paul M. Jensen’s synopsis of the Cagliostro story on the commentary is bewildering, and he concludes by calling it a “tangle of arbitrary events and contrived relationships.” Balderston was called in to add coherence.
*. Take that opening scene. Somehow it has to be arranged that Whemple and Muller will leave Norman alone so he can open the chest and read the scroll. (Why does he want to do this? Just because he’s an idiot.) So Muller says to Whemple “I cannot speak before a boy. Come out under the stars of Egypt.” So smooth.
*. Then, on the level of plot, I was never entirely sure what Imhotep planned to do with Helen. As I understand it the plan is to kill her and then bring her back as a mummy-person. But does that make sense? Why not just possess Helen and cut out the other steps? He says something about making her experience passing through the gates of life and death but that seems like so much mumbo-jumbo to me. The only reason they stuck it in is because Helen has to be physically threatened before being rescued. I think the main point is that she has to die first in order to become immortal, but you have to admit that it’s left kind of vague.
*. Not all of the inconsistencies are the script’s fault. As Jensen notes in his commentary, the script explained why Imhotep hadn’t taken the scroll from the museum guard he killed (he was interrupted and didn’t have time), but this was left out of the film for some reason.
*. Speaking of things left out, you may be wondering where the character billed as “Saxon Warrior” in the cast list appears. This was part of a historical collage representing Zita Johann’s various reincarnations that was cut.

*. I mentioned the immediate source of the story being a script based on the character of Cagliostro. But where did the Egyptian stuff come from? Mainly from the fact that Balderston was familiar with the story of Tutankhamun’s tomb and its curse. But there was actually a silent film from 1911, now lost, that dealt with a revived mummy. And before that there was Bram Stoker’s 1903 novel The Jewel of Seven Stars. So the Mummy wasn’t a wholly original horror creation.
*. The work Jack Pierce did on the other Universal monsters was more memorable, but his Mummy may be better for being more subtle. Karloff’s face seems to have been transformed into a dry scrollwork of lines that’s all the more effective for seeming real. His skin looks as though it might tear if you stuck a finger in it.
*. So it’s a movie full of talk (there’s little action on screen, in keeping with what Jensen identifies as Freund’s German background), and much of the talk is confusing. It is, however, fun to listen to the dialogue in old movies and see how much more literate they were. I was grinning when Helen, in her Egyptian princess identity, says “It is my coffin, made by my father against my death.” I doubt many modern viewers will recognize that use of “against,” but it’s perfectly valid.
*. Another fun bit of usage comes in the trailer barking about “the amazing, incredulous, unbelievable story.” Incredulous is here being used to mean incredible, which is a historical usage that I don’t think you’d ever see today.
*. It’s a weird film. Karloff’s Imhotep has what Jensen describes as an “aura of fragility.” We never see him killing anyone except from a distance by use of his occult powers. He may be so desiccated that he’d crumble at any contact (note how he has to tell the older Whemple not to touch him). Meanwhile, Zita Johann is a striking but unorthodox leading lady. Apparently she was difficult on set (from the stories related in the Mummy Dearest documentary it sounds like Freund was mostly to blame) and she didn’t do many movies after this.
*. Well, I’ve said I don’t care much for this one, but with Freund behind the camera and Karloff in front it’s certainly watchable. I particularly like the wonderful shot where Imhotep and Helen sit by the magic pool and the camera both lifts and then corkscrews slightly before descending into the mists. That’s beautiful, and really striking for the time. I also have to say that compared to the follow-up Universal Mummy movies that came out in the 1940s (The Mummy’s Hand, The Mummy’s Tomb, The Mummy’s Ghost, and The Mummy’s Curse), this one really does feel like a classic. But judged on its own I still find it disappointing.

Quiz the sixty-third: Chalk talk (Part one)

Ah, chalkboards. Another everyday feature of twentieth-century civilization now vanishing into obsolescence. These quizzes have had a few such items (remember headlines? phone booths?). This week it’s chalkboards. Class is now in session, so see how many of these movies you can identify.

See also: Quiz the one hundred-and-seventy-second: Chalk talk (Part two).

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Suburbicon (2017)

*. This movie has to rate way up there on the “what were they thinking?” index.
*. It has a lot, really almost everything, going for it. The cast is solid, with Matt Damon and Julianne Moore backed up by a collection of wonderful character actors. Noah Jupe turns in a great child performance in a lead part with almost no lines. The production and design are nearly flawless (I’d only mark them down for a really lousy hospital set in the early going). The photography is beautiful. George Clooney does a professional turn directing.
*. But then there’s the script. Or really two scripts. It doesn’t just feel like two stories unhappily stitched together, it is two scripts unhappily stitched together. One was a typical Coen Brothers black-comedy crime thriller which had been sitting around for twenty years, the other a historical drama about a black family that faced racism in the Levittown community they moved into in the 1950s.
*. What do these two stories have to do with each other? Nothing. Even thematically or tonally: nothing. Critics were mystified. Not only were the stories unrelated, they were scarcely connected in terms of the plot. They didn’t even belong in the same movie. So: what were they thinking?
*. I can’t answer that question. But in terms of pacing and structure it throws the entire film out of whack.
*. Sticking with the main (white family) plot, what we get is the usual Coen Brothers tale of mistakes leading to misunderstandings leading to bloody ironies. Matt Damon plays William Macy playing Gardner Lodge, who is involved in a sordid (and wildly improbable) scheme to get rid of his wife and run away with her sister. Of course things go wrong, since the scheme is so complicated it has no chance of success. The usual violent chaos results.
*. Even by itself I can’t say this would have been terribly interesting, especially given the slow first act. Also, the idea that the suburban America of the Leave It to Beaver era was actually a facade (see what horrors lurk in the basement!), with Suburbicon itself being a Potemkin village, is such a cliché that it should have been retired twenty or thirty years ago.
*. No point in saying anything more. I was bored and mystified. Perhaps with so much attention to detail and the actual craft of filmmaking nobody noticed or was able to take a step back and realize that the project as a whole was so incoherent. That’s the best I can do in coming up with an explanation.

Dick Tracy (1990)

*. Given the current hegemony of superhero movies at the box office it would be easy to see Dick Tracy as a forerunner, a taste of things to come. But it wasn’t. Instead, it was more like the last gasp of the old guard.
*. There had been comic book movies before Dick Tracy. The Christopher Reeve Superman movies, most notably. And Batman (which provided the publicity and merchandising template) had just come out the year before. But there was a big difference between these movies and what we’d get in the twenty-first century, bigger even than the difference between DC and Marvel superheroes. The real gamechanger was CGI.
*. It was CGI that gave filmmakers the ability to create comic book worlds that were real. Before that, blue screen made it hard to believe that someone could fly. With the aid of computer graphics anything was possible.
*. With its studio-bound and consciously artificial look, built out of powerful blocks of primary colours, Dick Tracy is the opposite of a machine-made movie. It’s the product of a style of craftmanship that would soon be obsolete. It still looks beautiful today, but in a way that’s become very much the look of the past. A past, I might add, that we’re unlikely to ever see again.
*. It’s lucky it does look so good, because Dick Tracy‘s appearance is pretty much all it has going for it. There’s an impressive collection of talent both in front of and behind the camera (with a lot of the all-star cast unrecognizable in make-up), but the story is thin and uninvolving. We never really feel as though anything is at stake and the one twist is easily deduced just through a simple process of elimination.
*. But I’m not sure they could have done much more. When you get right down to it, Dick Tracy isn’t that interesting a character is he? How would you give him depth? He’s a square guy and that’s about it. A sequel was originally being considered but there were squabbles over rights and it never got off the ground. This was probably for the best, as I just don’t see where they could have gone with such a franchise. Superman was square too, but at least in his case something could be made out of his not being of this world, a stranger in a strange land. Tracy is a dead end, with no past and no possibility of development.

*. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that rock stars don’t make great actors. Madonna comes off better than most here, perhaps as the role of the night-club vamp was pretty close to her persona at the time anyway. The rest of the cast, including Beatty, seem to be having fun playing caricatures of roles they were familiar with. But I also got the sense that they were having more fun than I was. Pacino in particular doesn’t strike me as all that funny despite going way over the top.
*. Roger Ebert: “The Tracy stories didn’t depend really on plot – they were too spun-out for that — and of course they didn’t depend on suspense — Tracy always won. What they were about was the interaction of these grotesque people, doomed by nature to wear their souls on their faces.” This sounds so good I wish it were true. I don’t think it is. The prosthetic faces just seem like a line-up of grotesques. Few of the baddies have any lines, much less a soul we can peer into.
*. The music. I like Stephen Sondheim’s show tunes. “Sooner or Later” won an Academy Award and has managed to stick in my head just a bit. Danny Elfman’s score, on the other hand, sounds a lot like his Batman score. Maybe that’s what Beatty wanted.
*. In 2010 Keith Phipps wrote a retrospective piece for Slate that asked “”Where did it go? It’s not that the movie has been unavailable; those so inclined can easily pick up the feature-free DVD released without fanfare in 2002. But who thinks about Dick Tracy today?” Five years later, writing in Vanity Fair, Kate Erbland had a piece titled “Dick Tracy Turns 25: Why Has Everyone Forgotten the Original Prestige Comic Book Movie?”
*. So, where did it go? Why has it been forgotten? I think for much the same reason that all the early superhero, comic book movies have been largely forgotten. They were washed away by the Marvel tsunami. Also: they really weren’t that good in the first place. I think those of us who saw them when they first came out will always have some fond memories of them, but they’ve become a bit embarrassing. As far as Dick Tracy goes, I still love the look of it and think it deserves to be seen on a big screen. Aside from the visuals and the one song, however, the rest of it is very forgettable.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017)

*. This is almost a guilty pleasure. Which means I like it a lot more than I know I should. I can’t say I like it enough to make it a true guilty pleasure though.
*. The story picks up right where Kingsman: The Secret Service left off. And by that I mean that it’s non-stop video game action stuffed into a whacko plot that is vulgar, juvenile, violent, and stupid but also endearingly surreal. Poppy’s ’50s Americana-style jungle hideout is just one of the crazy locations that I really enjoyed. But it’s when we see inside the sports stadium and its giant warehousing of cages that I really started to like the movie. It’s all so wildly over-the-top you have to give in.
*. The cast is filled with surprising supporting characters, and I think most of them work pretty well. Elton John is fine, but I think he was given a bit too much to do seeing as he isn’t an actor. Halle Barry, on the other hand, is underused. Unless they were just saving her for the next film in the series.
*. Julianne Moore’s Poppy seems to have divided people. I thought she was an original creation that fit the psychadelic-psychotic tone of the proceedings well. Director Matthew Vaughn wanted a “Martha Stewart on crack . . . a kooky, sweet, Stepford Wives-style villain,” and he got it.
*. My heart initially sank a little when I saw the running time of 2 hours and 21 minutes. And the original cut was apparently an hour and 20 minutes longer!
*. I think they could have cut even more, as there are some bits that don’t work, like the use of the “Take Me Home, Country Roads” song. But this is a movie that’s all about taking everything too far and being too much. Its virtues and its vices are excess. And when it’s over . . . pfft.