Saturday, May 17, 1975: The Mummy’s Tomb (1942) / Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

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 the Highland Park neighborhood in St. Paul, 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 a light-hearted action romp 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. I first saw Hammer’s Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb at age 15; 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 Universal horror movies. Leon played a woman who smoldered with unfulfilled sexual longing, and 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 Universal 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 attractive 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 sex-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.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Synopsis: Called home early from a medical conference, small-town physician Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) meets his nurse Sally Withers (Jean Willes) at the Santa Mira train station.  Sally tells him that there are an unusual number of patients waiting at his office.  All of them urgently insist on seeing Bennell personally, and none of them want to see the doctors who have agreed to take Miles’ patients in his absence.

As Miles and Sally drive into town they narrowly avoid hitting a local boy named Jimmy Grimaldi, who charges into the road, fleeing from his own mother.  Jimmy is distraught and takes off into the woods. His mother says the boy doesn’t want to go to school.  Miles notices that the Grimaldi family vegetable stand, usually thriving at this time of the year, is shuttered.

At the office, Miles discovers that all of the patients who had been so insistent on seeing him have cancelled their appointments.  But one person does come to visit him: Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) , a high school sweetheart who, like Miles, has been recently divorced.  Becky asks Miles to talk to her cousin Wilma Lentz (Virginia Christine), who seems to be suffering under the strange delusion that her uncle Ira is an imposter.

Later that afternoon, Jimmy Grimaldi’s grandmother brings the boy to Miles’ office.  Jimmy is suffering from a similar delusion; he believes that his own mother is not his mother, and he becomes hysterical whenever anyone suggests she be called.  Miles tells the grandmother to keep the boy at her house for a few days, and prescribes sedatives to keep him calm.

Bothered by the similarity between the two stories, Miles decides to go to Wilma’s house directly and talk to her.  Wilma seems perfectly rational — except for the fact that she is certain Ira isn’t her uncle.  Miles tries to reason with her, pointing out that if Ira were an imposter, there would be countless differences that friends and family could easily spot.  She concedes that the man seems like Ira in every way, and even knows things that only Ira could know.  Nevertheless, she says, this person is an imposter who possesses no emotions – -only, she says, the pretense of emotions.

Puzzled, Miles keeps a dinner date with Becky.  Arriving at the restaurant the two bump into Miles’ friend Danny Kaufman, a psychiatrist.  Miles mentions that he has two patients he’d like to refer, and Kaufman immediately guesses that they are people who believe close relatives are imposters.  Over the last two weeks, Kaufman says, there has been an epidemic of such cases in Santa Mira.

Minutes later Miles’ answering service tracks him down with an urgent call from Miles’ friend Jack Belicec (King Donovan), asking Miles to come over right away.  Miles and Becky arrive to find there is a body lying on the Belicec’s pool table; but it doesn’t appear to be a dead body.  Rather, it seems to be a body that was never alive.  The face is blank and featureless, and there are no fingerprints.  Miles speculates that if he were to perform an autopsy all the internal organs would be in perfect order, as if they had never been used. 

Jack’s wife Teddy (Carolyn Jones) asks Miles to estimate the body’s height and weight.  Miles says that the man on the table is perhaps 5 foot 9, and about 140 pounds.  Teddy replies fearfully that Jack too is 5 foot 9 and 140 pounds.

Miles tells the Belicecs to keep an eye on the body, with instructions to call the police if nothing happens by morning; if however the body changes in any way they should call him.  Miles takes Becky home, where she is surprised to find that her father has been working unusually late down in the cellar.  Meanwhile, at the Belicic house, Jack falls asleep while sitting at the bar — just as the body on the table opens its eyes….

Comments: Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a superbly-crafted thriller, building suspense steadily throughout.  Director Don Siegel sells the unlikely premise by introducing us to a perfectly ordinary American town and adding strange events so gradually that at first we hardly notice them.

That town, the fictional Santa Mira, is vividly presented to us as an ideal slice of America, an oasis from the cares of the world.  Its inhabitants are uniformly warm and decent people. In this we see the hand of Jack Finney, who wrote the novel on which the movie is based.  While the screenplay stripped down and focused Finney’s narrative, the heart and humanity is still here.

Humanity, and the imminent threat of its extinction, is of course what makes the movie go; but the whole thing would have collapsed if we were given protagonists we didn’t care for.  Fortunately Miles Bennell is carefully rendered: as portrayed by Kevin McCarthy he is friendly, good-natured and eminently likable.  We get the impression that Miles became a doctor not out of sense of overweening ambition but because helping others is something that comes naturally to him. In an unusual touch for a movie of this era, his sense of humor is on display from the beginning of the film, but it’s gentle, never coming at the expense of others.  “Maybe I clown around too much,” he says to Becky Driscoll at one point, but it’s clear that she doesn’t think so. There is something touching about watching these two reconnecting in their own small town, unaware that the orderly world they inhabit is about to be turned upside down.

Becky is less clearly drawn (as is often the case with women characters, even today) but her innate gentleness and decency is vividly shown.  Dana Wynter does well with the relatively few scenes she is featured in, though her British accent is distracting.

The decision to set the story in Santa Mira was an important one, because in a small town anonymity is impossible to maintain, and trust is the most important currency.  Suddenly Miles and Becky can’t walk openly in the streets because they are known by everyone and can trust no one.  The invaders have turned all the advantages of small-town life against them, and this ratchets up the feeling of isolation and dread that the protagonists feel.

The fact that Miles and Becky are both divorced is an unusual detail for a movie of this era, and it seems to have been added for reasons other than simple verisimilitude.  Rather, it greatly heightens the emotional argument that the film is making: that pain and failure are parts of even the best-lived lives.  What the invaders seek to impose is a new and perhaps more sensible order, one in which the futile triumphs and follies of human existence are smoothed over.

When Miles protests that the love he feels for Becky would cease to exist, he’s confronted with a hard truth.  “You’ve been in love before,” the pseudo-Jack says to Miles.  “It didn’t last.  It never does.”  While this argument doesn’t win us over, it gives us an uncomfortable sense of how the invaders see us: as a feckless and volatile species, endlessly engaged in a chase for things that can’t be attained.

By all accounts Don Siegel was quite pleased with this film, and rightfully so. It’s the director’s best work, better even than Dirty Harry (1971), a very different movie with a similar emotional hook.  Harry, after all, was surrounded by “pod people” — those so emotionally dead inside that they refused to even acknowledge, let alone do anything about, the disintegrating world around them.

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 )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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 )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.