Wow. Who called this the worst of Universal's Mummy films? For my money it's the best, entertaining me more than even the 1932 Karloff original. I had a few nice things to say about the last instalment in the series, The Mummy's Ghost, but that was still basically in the context of another amateurish B-movie. However this film has strong acting, a better story and for once feels like the work of professional filmmakers. It's a movie that I'd be happy to show people without apologise for, in other words.
Mind you, it's only fair to note that this isn't a universal opinion. I can acknowledge the flaws here, but I found them endearing rather than otherwise. Consider the comedy villains. Going through in order of merit (or otherwise), we have:
1. The sidekick, Ragheb. It's not a flashy role, but Martin Kosleck makes the most of it. It seems that he was a graduate of Berlin's Reinhardt School of the Theater, with a screen resume that's full of villains. Kosleck is merely the assistant and knife-for-hire of Peter Coe's Dr Ilzor Zandaab, but he acts his master off the screen and is easily the best villain in the series after Karloff. He's sinister. He even manages to make a qualified success of the obligatory scene in which he falls for the heroine on twenty seconds' acquaintance and drags her off to tie her to the railway tracks. Well, it's a ruined monastery, but you know what I mean.
He doesn't look Egyptian, though. For a while I thought this was a clever point which gave the character depth, but no. I think the character's meant to be Egyptian after all.
2. Lon Chaney Jr. as Kharis, despite having nothing to work with. Despite never having had any dialogue or facial expressions throughout this series, The Mummy's Curse still manages to give him less to do than any of the others. Adding insult to injury, the ancient Egyptian flashback scenes with an unbandaged Kharis star Tom Tyler from Hand. Well, apart from the shots that are really Karloff. Chaney doesn't really come into the equation, but I still loved this version of Kharis enough to place him at number two. This movie shows him at his best and his absolute worst.
At his best, he's scary. It occurred to me to wonder if the Mummy might not be the Universal monster with the highest body count, with Kharis in this film getting down to the strangling as soon as he wakes up. He has a couple of shots where he's lumbering towards the camera that are rather shudderworthy. He even demolishes a door and a stone wall to get at his final victim. He's strong, he's dangerous and he's a nasty customer. That was memorable.
Nevertheless he's also goofy as hell. You remember in the last film, I was joking that he'd have been faster in a wheelchair? This film actually mines that for laughs. There's a scene in which he staggers towards a girl, who wanders away unwittingly at the last minute. She gets in a car. He heads for the car. It drives away. He could have caught her if only he'd only accelerated to the speed of an octogenarian cripple on his way to the scaffold. The rest of the movie you'll spend merrily shouting at the screen, "Run! Run! Run! No, not that way! Idiot." Now that's what I call entertainment.
His make-up job isn't impressive either.
3. Dr Ilzor Zandaab, who's a terrible actor but at least looks suitably ethnic. Peter Coe was born in Yugoslavia. I love his pauses. Imagine him working in McDonalds. "Is that a Big... Mac and coke?"
However also worthy of notice is Virginia Christine as Princess Ananka. I'd have loved it if they'd brought back Ramsay Ames from Ghost, but I like Christine too. She had a long career in the business spanning almost half a century, including High Noon with Lon Chaney Jr and the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers. She delivers her dialogue with a crisp British accent and no contractions, which could have been disastrous but she actually pulls off well. She has an otherworldliness about her, but she's charming instead of stiff. She also gets a bravura introduction done entirely through mime, in which her character climbs out of the swamp. That's it. No dialogue. I'm sure it lasts a full minute or two and it's superb, almost up there with Karloff's introductory scene as the Monster in Frankenstein.
Princess Ananka is the reason this film isn't like the others. Anyone who dismisses Curse as a rehash of the others simply hasn't been paying attention to her character. Kharis has always been focused throughout this series on his lost love, but this is the first time she's ever been a protagonist. Other Anankas were always introduced as the film's modern heroine, initially normal but over time falling ever-more under the sway of a long-dead spirit from past millennia. This however is Ananka. No more, no less. She's amnesiac and confused, but she's a wild card in the movie and there's no way of knowing how her story will turn out. Will it be tragic? Will she find happiness? Whichever it is, at least for the first and last time in the series she gets to play a full role in events. Not as a spirit, but as herself.
This is the only script in the series that to me doesn't feel formulaic. It's got all the usual elements, but it's shaken them up a bit. The five-minute flashback info-dump only starts once we're fifteen minutes in and furthermore has all the good stuff with ancient Egypt. The film's romantic leads are barely in the film, to the extent that I was surprised when they showed up halfway through and met Ananka. The villains are introduced with a bit more subtlety than, "You will kill the infidels and here is a twelve-minute flashback." No George Zucco! Yay! There are knife killings. In other words, for once one of these hour-long Mummy quickies feels short instead of padded.
There's some amusing continuity. Let's look at some dates, shall we? The Mummy's Hand = 1940. There's a thirty-year gap between that and Tomb, which is followed a few years later by Ghost. Another twenty-five years pass between that film and this, which takes us up to nearly the year 2000. They've also decided that New England was really Louisiana all along, which I actually loved. This film's setting is great. We have oodles of French, boats on the swamps and a girl in a nightdress drifting through the bayou like a ghost. You want atmosphere? We got atmosphere. Unfortunately there's a "sho nuff" black character, but he's less cringeworthy than in many other films of the period and he gets one awesome line. "The mummy's on the loose, he's dancing with the devil."
This is a film that's going berserk with different accents, yet none of them sound stupid. The only one I thought was even slightly dodgy is from Kurt Katch, a well-known German actor with a Shakespearian background who was also in Abbott & Costello meet the Mummy. He's good too. In fact I was impressed by the actors here. These are proper performances, so for instance I was charmed by the relationship between Betty Walsh and her uncle. Addison Richards has great fun being lovably cantankerous. These performances are genuinely worth your time, except of course for Peter Coe and he makes up for it by being unintentionally funny. I can forgive the odd dodgy line reading.
Further amusement is provided by the "Come Masturbate" song at the thirty-minute mark. I don't know what they thought they were singing, but that's what I heard.
This is a far better film than its immediate predecessors. It lacks the twisted ending of Ghost, but on the upside it doesn't feel like the work of clowns with cameras. The most important things in a movie for me are the writing and the acting and this hits the mark on both counts. Underrated.