Saturday, June 9, 1973: Scream of Fear (1961) / Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964)

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Synopsis: Penny Appleby (Susan Strasberg) returns to her family estate in France after a 15-year absence. She has been confined to a wheelchair since a horseback-riding accident some years before, and has returned in response to a letter from her father.

Arriving at the airport in Nice, she is disappointed that her father is not there to meet her. She is greeted instead by her father’s young chauffeur Robert (Ronald Lewis) who tells her that her father had to leave on business suddenly. He mentions a Dr. Gerrard having been at the house, and lets slip that her father has been ill.

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At the house Penny is greeted by her father’s second wife Jane, whom she has never met. Penny is pleased to find that Jane is friendly and welcoming, and has had done what she can to make the house more accessible to Penny’s wheelchair. She also meets Dr. Gerrard (Christopher Lee) who is outwardly friendly but seems to have a sinister agenda.

Late at night she goes out to the courtyard and sees what looks like her father’s dead body inside a guest house on the grounds. Panicked, she wheels her chair too close to the edge of the swimming pool and topples in. Luckily, Robert hears her cries for help and saves her.

Penny’s father is still absent, and Jane suggests Robert take her to the seashore and other places that might help occupy her mind. But she again sees her father in the guest house, dead — yet when she brings others the body is gone.

With Robert’s help, Penny begins to formulate a theory: under the terms of her father’s will, she will inherit everything if her father dies, with Jane receiving only a small trust fund. But if Penny is proven to be incompetent — insane, for instance — the inheritance with go to Jane. So maybe Penny’s father is already dead, and Jane and Dr. Gerrard are conspiring to drive her mad so that they can gain control of her father’s estate…..

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Comments:  In spite of being the undisputed champ in slick-looking Gothic horror, Hammer decided in 1961 to rip off somebody else — namely, Alfred Hitchcock and his  black-and-white smash hit Psycho.

Hammer wasn’t alone in doing this. Any number of producers eagerly leaped onto the Psycho bandwagon, promising shock violence, improbable plot twists and absurd takes on Freudian psychology.  The result here is somewhat better than many of the Psycho imitators that popped up in the early 1960s (it’s far better, for example, than William Castle’s Homicidal, which we saw just a couple of weeks ago). Written by Jimmy Sangster, Scream of Fear is a smartly-paced little thriller, and while glaring plot holes inevitably emerged from trying to engineer shocking, last-minute twists, it works pretty well.

Audiences today will probably find some of the surprises predictable, but others are still quite effective, even if they strain credulity to the breaking point.

As a woman entering a situation she doesn’t fully understand, Susan Strasberg needs to carry a lot of the movie herself, and she is fully up to the task. The daughter of Lee Strasberg, she was active both on stage and on film, though cinephiles might know her best for a performance they’ve never seen: she played the snide Pauline Kael-esque film critic in Orson Welles’ still-unreleased final feature The Other Side of the Wind.

 

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This is the rare film in which Christopher Lee plays a red herring, and he’s quite good at  it. He manages a passable French accent but I think director Seth Holt should have asked him to drop it; it’s impossible not to hear his rich British baritone even when he’s pretending to be French. He brings a good deal of gravitas to a movie that sorely needs it, and we’re always glad when he’s on screen.

Ronald Lewis was a handsome leading-man type who never quite hit the big time. He had a respectable pedigree in live theater but that never seems to come across in his screen performances – he doesn’t embarrass himself here, but seems consistently underwhelming as Robert. Perhaps this is because despite the character’s hidden agenda, Lewis’ performance is distinctly lacking in nuance.

Ann Todd does better as Jane, the unexpectedly disarming stepmother. Todd had a distinguished screen career, playing the female lead opposite Gregory Peck in The Paradine Case (1947) and three number of movies with her third husband, director David Lean. She had an extremely durable career, and was active on the screen well into her seventies.

Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb

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Synopsis: An archeological expedition in 1900 uncovers the tomb of the ancient Egyptian Prince Ra. The lead archeologist, Sir Giles (Jack Gwillim) makes plans to transport the numerous artifacts and Ra’s mummy itself to a museum. But he is overruled by the financier of the expedition, Alexander King (Fred Clark), an American with a lack of taste but a great zeal for showmanship. King envisions a traveling exhibit that will make far more money, and he decrees that London will be the first stop on a lucrative world tour. He is undeterred by a warning from Hashmi Bey (George Pastell) that such an act would be an act of sacrilege, and would bring a curse down on the members of the expedition.

King’s decision is also too much for Sir Giles, who resigns from the expedition in disgust. Reluctantly stepping into his shoes is Giles’ protege John Bray (Ronald Howard). He, along with his girlfriend Annette Dubois (Jeanne Roland), return to England via ocean liner. Along the way they make the acquaintance of Adam Beauchamp (Terence Morgan), an amateur archeologist. Annette is clearly intrigued by Adam, especially when he saves her from an attack by Egyptians who apparently want to prevent Ra’s mummy from being desecrated through public exhibitions.

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Beauchamp invites John and Annette to stay at his mansion in London, and they accept — Annette eagerly, John with some trepidation. And with good reason: it is clear that Annette is falling for Adam.

But John has little time for jealousy: Alexander King’s great unveiling of the Egyptian relics is spoiled when the mummy is shown to have vanished from its sarcophagus. And before long the various members of the expedition end up dead — killed by the reanimated mummy. The only question is, how was it done, and who is controlling it?

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Comments: Borrowing props, musical cues and plot points from 1959’s The Mummy, Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb is an uncharacteristically lackluster outing from Hammer — so lackluster, in fact, that there’s no question why it occupies the bottom half of tonight’s Hammer studio double bill. In fact, the movie served as the bottom of a double-bill at the time of its U.S. release as well, playing second fiddle to The Gorgon.

The first hint of trouble is in the opening credits: no Christopher Lee, no Peter Cushing, no Terence Fisher and no Jimmy Sangster. Instead, we get a b-squad checking in for this entry. Michael Carreras simply lacks the keen eye and steady hand of Terence Fisher, who helmed the best of Hammer’s Gothic horror productions.

Ronald Howard is the serious-minded young archeologist in this one, essentially playing the Peter Cushing part from The Mummy.  He’s perfectly serviceable in the role, but it doesn’t take him long to convince us he’s no Peter Cushing. Terence Morgan plays Adam Beauchamp, the wealthy and dashing amateur archeologist who is hiding a terrible secret. I suspect this role was originally written with Christopher Lee in mind, but like Howard, Morgan simply doesn’t stand out.  Jeanne Roland, though beautiful and in possession of a fetching French accent, is in completely over her head as the romantic lead, though perhaps her limited skills as an actress aren’t entirely to blame.

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Her Annette Dubois is supposed to be sweet and irresistible but she might be the dumbest leading lady in Hammer history. Annette’s main purpose is to be the center of romantic triangle between John and Adam, but even that fizzles (John Bray is too distracted to realize she has already decided to leave him for Adam). Her secondary and tertiary functions (eye candy and a convenient person to rescue, in that order) could be fulfilled by any number of actresses, and in fact were more successfully pulled off by most of the “Hammer Glamour” squad over the years. Like the two leading men she works with, there’s nothing wrong with her, exactly, but you always expected more than “nothing wrong with her” from Hammer. Ingrid Pitt or Valerie Leon would mop the floor with this woman.

The only bright spots in the cast are Fred Clark, who plays Alexander King, and George Pastell as Hashmi Bey. Clark was mostly a comic actor, and it shows in his performance as King — he’s perfect as the grasping, slightly ridiculous American. Pastell was far better as Mehemet Bey in The Mummy, but it’s always good to see him.

By their very nature, story options in mummy films tend to be limited. Universal sidestepped this problem simply by using the same plot over and over (high priest of Karnakh sends mummy out to kill defilers of the tomb; high priest falls in love with leading lady; mummy turns on high priest) but Hammer clearly didn’t want to go this route. You can’t blame them, and they should be applauded for their greater ambition, but they went two wins and two losses on their mummy series. This wasn’t one of the winners.

One comment

  1. None of Hammer’s other mini Psychos equaled SCREAM OF FEAR, though THE NANNY was right up there (Ann Todd later played the psycho’s mother in 1971’s THE FIEND). THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB was designed as a second feature, as indeed all of Michael Carreras’ directorial outings turned out to be, appearing once on Pittsburgh’s Chiller Theater in 1966.

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