Saturday, October 10, 1970: The Mummy’s Tomb (1942) / Behind the Mask (1932)


Synopsis: Retired archeologist Steve Banning (Dick Foran) is regaling his son John (John Hubbard) and John’s fiancée Isobel Evans (Elyse Knox) with the story of his strange expedition to Egypt thirty years earlier: how he and the members of his expedition found the tomb of the mummy Kharis and, breaking the seal, unleashed a horrible curse that brought the mummy back to life. In a series of flashbacks, we are told how various members of the expedition were killed by Kharis, who was being controlled by the high priest Andoheb (George Zucco). In the end the mummy was destroyed and Steve and the surviving members of his party returned home.
John and Isobel find the story so fantastic that it isn’t clear if they completely believe it, but Banning claims every word of it is true.
Meanwhile, in Egypt, an elderly Andoheb is handing off his mummy-protecting duties to young Mehemet Bey (Turhan Bey). He tells the young man that the defilers of Kharis’ tomb still live; they must be tracked down and killed, and their line must be extinguished. Bey immediately makes plans to sail to Massachusetts, where the Banning family lives.
Once in America, Bey takes a job as caretaker in a cemetery, and from the caretaker’s cottage sets his plan in motion. Each night he gives the mummy the potion derived from nine tana leaves, which brings it to life. He orders the creature to kill Steve Banning. It shambles out to the Banning house and does so. The next night Bey orders it to dispense with Babe Hanson, another survivor of the expedition. This too the mummy accomplishes.


But a mummy’s work is never done, and we learn that young John Banning is on the schedule for the next night. Surprisingly, the ultra-disciplined Bey hesitates. He finds himself captivated by the beautiful Isobel, and disobeys his orders from Andoheb by sending the mummy not to kill John but to capture Isobel, and bring her to him. What he does not know is that the townspeople are becoming suspicious of him, and that Kharis is close to rebelling against his sacrilege….

Comments: While watching The Mummy’s Tomb, I found myself thinking back to the summer of 1999. In those days I lived in Saint Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood, just a few blocks from the 2-screen Highland Theater. Walking along Cleveland Avenue one afternoon I saw two magic words spelled out on the theater marquee: THE MUMMY.
“Oh boy!” I blurted out. “The Mummy!”
A woman walking a few paces ahead of me slowed and threw a quizzical glance back in my direction: grown men are not supposed to say such things in public. I lowered my head guiltily, then jaywalked across to the theater and bought a ticket.
The movie I saw that day was, of course, Universal’s “reboot” of the Mummy franchise, a “reimagining” that played more as an action-comedy than a horror film: louder, busier, more violent and more expensive than the originals — not that there’s anything wrong with that.
This millennial Mummy reboot was certainly entertaining, informed by the same bubblegum sensibility that made Raiders of the Lost Ark go.
Nevertheless, I prefer Universal’s original take, as dull as its later entries sometimes were; as well as the Hammer mummy films that came along a couple of decades later.
Hammer films, it must be said, are an acquired taste. It’s important to encounter them at the right time and under the right circumstances, lest the blood-and-boobs formula obscure their gothic underpinnings. I first saw Hammer’s Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb at age fifteen; and seeing it I sensed that a new world was opening up to me.

Not a world of mummies or the supernatural — that was quite old hat for me. Nope, Valerie Leon had arrived in my life, and she was a different sort than the sugary girl-next-door types who had long inhabited American movies. Leon played a woman who, in spite of having an active sex life, nonetheless still smoldered with unfulfilled sexual longing. It just so happened that when I was fifteen, I was chosen to represent America in the global “unfulfilled sexual longing” competition, so I found her portrayal incredibly compelling; and at the same time I began to realize how prudish American movies were by comparison. We can see ample evidence of that prudishness in any Universal film of the era, but especially in tonight’s movie.
After all, each of the Mummy sequels used sexual hunger as a plot device, but it was always expressed obliquely and never experienced by any of the women in the film. In fact the virginal female leads never display any interest in sex at all, beyond the occasional arch of the eyebrows designed to hurry her love interest along to the altar. The sexual longing in these films is entirely assumed by the hapless High Priests of Karnakh, a secret society so incompetent it can’t even keep track of one fucking mummy, and staffed by members so repressed that the appearance of a single pretty woman sends the most devout of them straight over the edge.
George Zucco’s Andoheb is the first to go bananas in The Mummy’s Hand, as he decides to abandon his vows because he likes the cut of Peggy Moran’s jib. Similarly, in The Mummy’s Ghost, John Carradine’s Yousef Bey decides that he’d prefer to wake up each morning next to Ramsey Ames, rather than a sarcophagus. In The Mummy’s Curse, Peter Coe’s Ilzor actually manages to keep his pants on, but assistant Martin Kosleck can’t. In tonight’s feature Turhan Bey is made the keeper of the tana leaf jar, but he fares no better: one look at John Banning’s fiance Isobel and he becomes a sexually-obsessed wreck, turning Kharis against him when he opts to chuck his part in a 3,500 year-old mission in order to get laid.
This turn of events is foreshadowed early in the movie, when the newly-minted High Priest takes the job of a cemetery caretaker in Mapleton. The retiring caretaker is skeptical: why would a man want to waste his youth among the dead, when there is a whole world of living to be had? But the young man is adamant, insisting that he finds the cemetery peaceful. Like many religious fanatics, Mehemet Bey has drastically narrowed his life experience in order to avoid the temptations of the flesh. But he has outsmarted himself, because avoiding temptation has left him without the strength to resist it when it inevitably appears on his doorstep.
Which leads us to an almost archetypal scene in these movies: the High Priest of Karnakh has betrayed his vows in order to be with a woman, but he forgot to check in with the woman first. He has Kharis retrieve her the same way a black lab retrieves a downed mallard. Isobel wakes up, bound hand and foot, to see a stranger looming over her, delivering the Worst Pick-Up Line Ever*:

It is your destiny to achieve the greatest honor that can come to a woman. You will become the bride of a high priest of Karnakh….for you I am going to forsake the teachings that have been handed down to us for generations without end….the secret that has kept Kharis alive all these years can be ours as well….after I have given you the tana fluid you will be immortal, just as Kharis is immortal.

Aw, what a sweet-talker, this guy.
You’ll note that the tana fluid device, which was never that convincing to begin with (exactly nine leaves to bring the mummy to life? What if the leaves are broken, or of different sizes?) is given a new angle: now if any human drinks the tana leaf fluid, they become immortal too. I can see the ad campaign now — TANA LEAVES: THEY’RE NOT JUST FOR MUMMIES ANYMORE. No word from the High Priests of Karnakh as to how they came by this information, or how mummy-like a human imbibing tana leaf fluid becomes.
I’ll let you know when I hear back from the High Priests of Karnakh’s Chicago office. In the meantime, enjoy the Castle Films version of THE MUMMY’S TOMB.

BEHIND THE MASK


Synopsis: A Sing Sing inmate named Quinn (Jack Holt) is plotting an escape. His cellmate Henderson (Boris Karloff) advises against it, claiming that powerful friends will spring both of them soon if they are patient. But seeing that Quinn will not be deterred, Henderson tells him how to get in touch with his associate on the outside, a man named Arnold (Claude King). Quinn’s escape is successful and he travels to Arnold’s mansion in the country. Arnold seems afraid to assist Quinn, but is too frightened of his employer, the mysterious drug kingpin Mr. X, to refuse. He employs Quinn as his chauffer, and Quinn becomes enamored of Arnold’s beautiful daughter Julie (Constance Cummings).
Soon enough Henderson is released and makes contact with Dr. August Steiner (Edward Van Sloan), who runs the Eastland Hospital. We learn that Steiner is also an agent of Mr. X , and he tells Henderson that Mr. X arranged for him to be incarcerated so long because he was displeased with him.
Henderson suggests Quinn as the perfect man to deliver the next drug shipment for the organization. But as soon as Steiner sees Quinn he knows the man is an undercover federal agent. Henderson is shocked and angered by this revelation.

But the plan to have Quinn to pick up the shipment via seaplane goes forward. After Quinn delivers the drugs to a ship at sea, Henderson instructs Quinn to take off and then bail out – the boat, he says, will come to his location and pick him up. Quinn, sensing that this is an attempt to dupe him, quickly “rigs a dummy”, attaches it to the parachute and tosses it overboard so that Henderson will think it’s him.
But before long Steiner captures Quinn himself. He plans on disposing of the federal agent in his usual manner – by getting him admitted to his hospital and subjecting him to an unnecessary – and fatal – operation…
Comments: Behind the Mask is the sort of movie where crooks start off every speech with phrases like, “Now get this, you mug!” The warmed-over gangster patois doesn’t wear particularly well because Behind the Mask doesn’t take it seriously, or at least not seriously enough. Without any particular knowledge or interest in the lives of blue-collar criminals, the screenwriters focus on the brains heavy, whose white-collar sensibilities must have seemed more familiar. Thus we have Edward Van Sloan playing Dr. August Steiner, a bearded and bespectacled doctor whose sinister mien is shorthand for Jewishness in an era when such stereotypes were still considered acceptable. This Columbia offering differs from Warner’s underworld pictures of the time because of the uncertainty of its approach as well as the zany hardware and tactics the mysterious Mr. X employs. This is a movie so melodramatic even Mr. X’s taunting notes to the police come with their own dramatic pauses.


In fact so numerous are the high-tech gadgets (Cyclotrons! Telephones! Wire recorders!) that Behind the Mask might have worked better as a serial. Believe me, it could have used two fistfights and a cliffhanger every fifteen minutes.

_____________________________
*Having tried this speech out a few times in my youth, I can personally attest that it is indeed the Worst Pick-Up Line Ever.

Advertisements

4 comments

  1. THE MUMMY'S TOMB- well, at least he goes out in a blaze of glory, while the high priest is unceremoniously gunned down (it really takes guts for the hero to burn down his own ancestral home, but since he was going off to war, I suppose he approached it in the most logical fashion that his dimwitted mind could conceive…the perfect husband for the ultra bland heroine). BEHIND THE MASK is interesting, as both it and THE DEATH KISS allow Edward Van Sloan to portray the villain opposite first Karloff, then Lugosi (venerable Holmes Herbert later did the honors in THE BLACK DOLL and THE MYSTERY OF MR. WONG).

    Like

  2. I did feel sorry for the mummy, getting burned up for the second movie in a row. As for Mehemet Bey, he got off lucky: George Zucco took four slugs at point-blank range, rolled down a couple of hundred stone steps, and still came back for the next picture. Robert Ryan wasn't that tough.

    I wonder how many viewers at the time recognized that the mummy in the flashback sequences was slimmer and more athletic than the mummy they got for the rest of the movie.

    Like

  3. I neglected to mention that luscious Valerie Leon (nice photo!) appeared in 1971's BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB, while 1964's THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY'S TOMB featured the much less memorable Jeanne Roland, with her French accent. The 1959 original stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and 1966's THE MUMMY'S SHROUD toplined Andre Morell (all 4 were broadcast on TCM last October, along with Hammer Draculas and Frankensteins).

    Like

  4. And it's kochillt for the win!!

    Ouch! You are correct, sir — I did indeed confuse the two titles. I was definitely thinking of BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB. Thanks for the correction.

    Funny, I don't remember THE MUMMY's SHROUD. Andre Morell was my favorite Professor Quatermass, FWIW

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s