Saturday, January 10, 1975: The Mummy (1932) / Weird Woman (1944)

Synopsis: On a 1921 expedition to Egypt, archeologist Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron) and his team have unearthed a sarcophagus containing a mummified body, and near it a small ornate casket. Expert on the occult Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan) notes that the mummy did not have its internal organs removed before burial, as was customary in ancient Egypt; furthermore, hieroglyphs on the inside of the sarcophagus that were meant to ensure life after death had been chiseled off. From this Muller deduces that their subject had been buried alive as punishment for some act of sacrilege.

From an inscription upon the casket, the archeologists learn that it contains the legendary Scroll of Thoth. This is the scroll that Isis was said to have used to raise Osiris from the dead, and it bears a warning: any who dare to read it will fall prey to a horrible curse. Whemple and his assistant Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher) are eager to proceed, but Muller warns them not to. As Muller and Whemple discuss the matter outside, Norton opens the scroll and begins to read aloud. The mummy comes to life, takes the scroll from a now-hysterical Norton, and disappears into the night.

Ten years later, Whemple’s son Frank (David Manners) is taking part in another Egyptian expedition. This one meets with little success until a mysterious Egyptian named Ardeth Bey (Boris Karloff) appears at the site, offering to show the men the way to the lost tomb of Princess Ankes-en-Amon.

The archeologists are skeptical, but astonished when it turns out that Ardeth Bey was right — the tomb, undisturbed for 3,700 years, is precisely where the Egyptian said it would be.

Later, the contents of Ankes-en-Amon’s tomb are on display in the Cairo museum, and Ardeth Bey returns — this time staring, hour after hour, at the mummified body of the princess herself. After the museum closes, he kneels beside the mummy. Reading from the Scroll of Thoth, he attempts to raise Ankes-en-Amon from the dead. He does not succeed, but without intending it, his incantations have an effect on a family friend of Dr. Muller, the young half-Egyptian Helen Grovener (Zita Johann). Helen is strangely drawn to the Cairo Museum. Soon it becomes clear that Helen carries the reincarnated spirit of Ankes-en-Amon, the woman for whom Ardeth Bey suffered unspeakable torment 37 centuries earlier. When Ardeth Bey realizes this, he becomes determined to revive the memories Helen carries of her past lives, and thus reclaim a love that death itself could not extinguish….

Comments: The Mummy isn’t what most people think of as a classic mummy movie. There are no scenes of a man wrapped in bandages chasing people around. Rather, this first foray into mummy lore essentially retells the story of Dracula: a powerful undead creature tries to ensnare an innocent woman’s soul, but is foiled by a modern expert in the occult. In both films David Manners plays the young woman’s love interest; and in both films Edward Van Sloan plays the paranormal expert.

These coincidences weren’t intentional, or at least not at first; there was no hint of them in the early drafts of the script (which was then titled Cagliostro) by Nina Wilcox Putnam and Richard Schayer. It wasn’t until John Balderston was brought in to rework the story that the elements from Dracula were introduced, and little wonder — Balderston had previously adapted Dracula for the screen, from a stage play by Garett Fort.

In spite of the similarities in story, the movie never comes across as a Dracula knock-off. Willy Pogany designed some stunning Egyptian sets for the film, and the Jack Pierce makeup for Boris Karloff is remarkable. Freund’s careful choices in camera and lighting lend a brooding atmosphere that prevents the stagebound feel to which Browning’s film eventually succumbed.

Zita Johann and Edward Van Sloan bring enormous credibility to their respective roles. The astonishingly beautiful Johann is particularly effective in her final scene, when she has finally recalled her past life as Ankes-en-Amon, and implores the goddess Isis to free her from Ardeth Bey’s grotesque obession.

But it is Boris Karloff’s performance as the sinister Ardeth Bey that really makes this movie go. Karloff manages to imbue his character with both an air of physical frailty and psychological menace.

In the early 1930s Carl Lamaelle, Sr. worried that the horror pictures were tasteless fare, and not the sort of thing that Universal Studios should dabble in. But he couldn’t argue with the money these movies brought. Nevertheless it is to the Lamaelle’s credit that the studios’ early horror output wasn’t dreck thrown out for shock value. In the main, these were solidly-crafted pictures, and sometimes — as on this occasion — they were great ones as well.

Weird Woman

Synopsis: Norman Reed (Lon Chaney, Jr) is a professor at Monroe College, specializing in the study of ancient cults and superstitions. While working at home on his book on the subject, Superstition vs. Reason and Fact, he gets a phone call from his neighbor Evelyn Sawtelle (Elizabeth Russell) who says she just saw his wife Paula (Anne Gwynne) walking home in the bitter rainstorm raging outside.

Reed says it’s not possible, because Paula had gone to bed some time ago. He goes upstairs to look and finds Paula in bed, and she says she hasn’t been up. Reed notices a pagan charm she has placed on the nightstand and angrily removes it, admonishing her for falling back to the pagan rituals she practiced in her native land. Reed later discovers mud on her shoes, indicating that she’d been out and had lied to him about it.

We learn that Paula is a native of the South Sea islands, and that she was seen as a powerful witch by the natives of her home island. In a flashback sequence, Reed meets Paula while is on the island doing research. He had met her a number of years earlier while a graduate student, and they hit it off again immediately. But when Reed steps across a line of charms against evil the islanders had set up, he is seized and nearly killed; only Paula’s intervention spares his life.

When Reed returns from the island to Monroe college, it is with Paula as his bride. This greatly upsets Nona Carr (Evelyn Ankers), who had believed she and Reed had been getting serious. Reed brushes this off, telling her it was nothing more than a “flirtation”.

Superstition vs. Reason and Fact is finally published to great acclaim, and Reed becomes something of a celebrity in the academic world. This is greatly concerning to Evelyn Sawtelle, who had been pressing her husband Millard (Ralph Morgan) to complete his own book in hopes that publication might help him secure the position of department chair. But the weak-willed Millard had only been pushed into completing the book by Evelyn. Nona, sensing an opportunity in his weakness, goes to Millard and tells him she knows he plagiarized large portions of his book from a student’s thesis. She convinces him to kill himself, then convinces Evelyn that Reed must have driven Millard to suicide in order to eliminate his competitor for department chair.

At the same time, knowing that Reed’s assistant Margaret (Lois Collier) is infatuated with him, Nona tells Margaret’s jealous boyfriend David (Phil Brown) that Reed has been taking advantage of her. She also spreads the rumor that Reed’s exotic wife is a witch.

Secretly following Paula on one of her late-night excursions, Reed discovers she has been visiting a graveyard, where she has been conducting strange rituals from her homeland. Confronting her, Reed destroys the charms she has been using, telling her that it’s all superstitious nonsense. But Paula insists that the charms were for his protection, and now that they’ve been destroyed, there’s nothing to keep evil away from either of them….

Comments: This is only the second Horror Incorporated broadcast of Weird Woman, one of the better entries of the Inner Sanctum series (we’ve seen all of them on the show save Strange Confession). Weird Woman sports all the best-known hallmarks of the series: whispered stream-of-conciousness passages, a protagonist being aggressively courted by numerous women, and supernatural happenings that turn out to be just a red herring.

The movie is based on the Fritz Leiber novel Conjure Wife, which was something of a satire on the backstabbing world of academia. Weird Woman undercuts the satire and shoehorns the witchcraft subplot into the Inner Sanctum template: it offers the promise of the supernatural just long enough to get the audience interested, then retreats to a conventional murder plot and an explained-away ending.

Norman Reed is a typical Inner Sanctum protagonist in that he’s a respected and self-confident professional who doesn’t seem to notice the gaggle of beautiful women who are inexplicably in love with him. Reed is apparently an anthropologist (it’s never stated explicitly) who travels the world to study the religious beliefs of technologically backward cultures; yet he has no respect for them, dismissing their beliefs as foolish superstition, something they should wise up and reject.

We’re told that Paula was a native of the island Reed was studying, and that she has abandoned her home and family in order to marry him, traveling halfway around the world to be a housewife in what must be to her a strange culture. Yet this sacrifice isn’t enough for him; he demands that she shed any trace of the culture she grew up in. The woman Reed demands she become is indistinguishable from Nona Carr or Evelyn Sawtelle or any of the other backbiting wives on campus, and it isn’t clear what attracted him to Paula in the first place. We don’t catch the slightest glimpse of Paula’s interior life, assuming she even has one; in fact, her decision to carry out pagan rituals turns out to be out of devotion to him, in order to protect him from the predations of others.

So vaguely identified is the south seas island Paula comes from that the screenwriters don’t bother to give it a name, and in fact “Paula” is her handle on the island as well as in the bucolic campus town she ends up in. Even by the standards of the 1940s Anne Gwynne could not be regarded as “exotic” in her looks, and she fortunately doesn’t attempt to adopt any sort of foreign accent.

I must pause for a moment to praise Inner Sanctum veteran Evelyn Ankers, whom I have derided many times for her forgettable performances. She is actually quite good as the conniving Nona Carr, and seems to be greatly enjoying driving men to suicide and plotting to ruin careers. It’s a shame she didn’t do more of that during her time at Universal.

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