Saturday, May 6, 1978: The Mummy (1932) / House of Horrors (1946)

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.

House of Horrors

Synopsis: A spectacularly unsuccessful sculptor named Marcel De Lange (Martin Kosleck) is dining on bread and cheese by candlelight. It’s bread and cheese because he doesn’t have anything else to eat; and it’s by candlelight because the electricity in his loft has been shut off. But he is in good spirits because a wealthy patron of the arts is coming over soon to buy his latest creation for $1,000.

But when the patron arrives, he is accompanied by a supercilious art critic named F. Holmes Harmon (Alan Napier) who insults the work and implores the buyer not to go through with it. The sale is ruined.

Despondent, De Lange walks down to the river bridge. He is about to throw himself in when he sees a half-drowned man surface near the riverbank. He goes down to help the large, ungainly fellow out of the water, and returns to the loft, where he nurses him back to health.

He sees this man as “the perfect Neanderthal” and is inspired to create a new sculpture of his primitive cranium. It turns out that the stranger is an escaped murderer called The Creeper (Rondo Hatton), and his m.o. is to snap his victim’s spines. The police believe he is dead, and at first it isn’t clear to De Lange what sort of man he’s taken into his home.

But it becomes clear soon enough: The Creeper murders a streetwalker in the neighborhood (because “she screamed”, as the Creeper succinctly explains), and when De Lange angrily reads Harmon’s snarky write-up of his foiled sale, The Creeper gets up and leaves.

Meanwhile, reporter Joan Medford (Virginia Grey) visits her colleague F. Holmes Harmon. She is upset that Harmon plans to write a savage review of her boyfriend Steven Morrow (Robert Lowery) and his planned exhibit of commercial illustrations (pinups, which appear to be Morrow’s speciality). Harmon finds pop art in general to be contemptible, and Morrow’s work particularly vulgar; he is determined to ruin Morrow with another poison-pen letter to the art world.

Enter the Creeper. He kills Harmon and slips away. Because Harmon was working on a hit piece against Morrow when he died, police suspicion falls on him.

De Lange realizes that all he need do is express contempt for an art critic — or anyone, really — and hey presto, he reads that person’s obituary in the next day’s paper. Bringing the Creeper into his life has given him an incredible feeling of power, and if that weren’t enough, his sculpture of the Creeper is going well — in fact, we suspect it’s the first decent piece of art he’s ever created.

As the body count rises, Medford visits De Lange’s loft. She says she is looking for a story for her Sunday column — but is she? Why does she steal a sketch of the Creeper that De Lange has hidden? And what will happen to her when he –and the Creeper — find out?

Comments: House of Horrors is a distinctly minor film, but in a bargain-basement way it toys with some interesting themes: the root causes of victimhood, the nature of power, and the price of outsourcing your dirty work to somebody else.

These two movies will probably never be mentioned in the same sentence again, but while watching House of Horrors I was reminded of the 1980 high school flick My Bodyguard, with Martin Kosleck standing in as the picked-on teen and Rondo Hatton the bully who becomes the instrument of his deliverance.

The character of De Lange, after all, is living in a perpetual state of adolescent victimhood: he is downtrodden, ignored, cut deeply and constantly by the taunts of the art critics who delight in humiliating him. He burns with a teenager’s need to have his inner talents recognized. And like a teenager, his rage is as palpable as his frustration. “If I was big and strong,” he says to the Creeper at one point, “I would tear them apart with my bare hands”. He clenches his hands fitfully when he says these lines, imploring his powerful friend to act on his behalf.

And of course the Creeper does act, though he doesn’t do anything that De Lange couldn’t have done for himself. De Lange clearly lacks the strength to snap the spines of his adversaries, but murder by other means was always an option. It was the will to commit murder that De Lange lacked, the willingness to pay the moral price for an act of savagery.

Similarly, he blames Harmon and the other hostile critics for the grinding poverty he endures — even though Morrow, held in equal contempt by Harmon, does quite well financially. In fact Harmon dismisses Morrow’s success, on the grounds that “dollar signs don’t equal talent”.

We know De Lange doesn’t have money; but looking around his studio, it isn’t clear that he has much talent either. The sculpture he nearly sells, “Surcease From Toil”, really is dreadful.

The bust of the Creeper, by contrast, is quite good; there is a classical grace as well as a brooding power behind it. It isn’t exactly clear why the Creeper is willing to kill for De Lange. The sculptor has almost nothing to offer except, perhaps, his friendship. That the Creeper craves the friendship of another human being may seem unlikely. Nonetheless it is touching when the Creeper, surprised that De Lange isn’t afraid of him, extends his hand: “You’re my friend. Shake.” This childlike quality is engaging, but we see too little of it in House of Horrors; mostly the Creeper skulks around and kills the people De Lange wants dead, as though he were a personification of the sculptor’s id. That’s an idea just arty enough to appeal to De Lange and I’m surprised he didn’t suggest it himself.

Martin Kosleck appeared as nutty wax sculptor Rudi in The Frozen Ghost, and in spite of Robert Lowery’s top billing, his Marcel De Lange is the closest thing we have to a protagonist. Kosleck doesn’t disappoint in this film; as always his soft, accented voice works as a perfect counterpoint to his razor-sharp gaze, which can convey anger or madness — or both.

Rondo Hatton doesn’t get top billing either, but this movie was designed as a vehicle for him and his peculiar physiognomy. Hatton suffered from a glandular condition called acromegaly, the symptoms of which weren’t apparent until he was well into adulthood. The condition gradually altered the shape of his head and distorted his body and facial features, giving him a coarse, brutal appearance.

Virginia Grey rattles off snappy dialogue throughout (when her boyfriend complains that she works too many odd hours, she replies, “You should get yourself a nice fireside type. She’ll bore you to death, but you’ll always know where to find her”). Her performance isn’t particularly memorable, though she parades through the movie wearing a dizzying array of hats, which seem to grow more and more outrageous as the movie goes on.

The character of Harmon is played by Alan Napier, a talented and versatile actor who inexplicably found his greatest fame playing Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred, on the TV series Batman.

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