"Shed your light upon the darkness of my groping."
Sorry, couldn't resist quoting that.
Probably my favourite Universal Mummy film, although obviously it's still rubbish. Of the four shoddy 1940s sequels, it's best described as the least bad. Obviously the Karloff one is an infinitely classier piece of work, but it doesn't have this film's ending.
Obviously with 1940s Universal Mummy movies, the first thing to discuss is the flaws. The last thing to discuss is also the flaws. Hell, anything that isn't a flaw in these films is mere connecting tissue. For a while I thought the performances were going to be the big howler, following on from Hand's direction and Tomb's script, but then the actors improved and became merely bad. Admittedly some of them would have looked risibly poor in a 1980s slasher film. They'd have embarrassed Hammer, that's how poor they are. However at least everyone here seems to have watched a film in their life even if they've never acted in one before, which is more than I can say for Turhan Bey in Hand and at times pretty much everyone in Ghost.
There's even a good performance. He's a jovial museum caretaker who appears at the 27 minute mark and gets killed three or four minutes later. I should also spare a little praise for Lon Chaney Jr, who's miming his socks off even if the results can be unintentionally amusing. Amazingly Chaney manages to turn Kharis into a character. He gets pissed off. He knows love and has motivation. The problem is that he'd have moved faster in a wheelchair and is frequently shown in unflattering long shots, the funniest of which has him crossing a road. At that walking speed, he's in real danger. Imagine if a car had come along. Look out, Mr Mummy!
While I'm talking about the cast, I should mention John Carradine. Yup, it's my least favourite Universal Dracula as Yousef Bey. He's good by the standards of this series, but I still don't like him. His greatest asset as an actor is his face. On a purely visual level he's looked wonderful in every role I've seen him in... but unfortunately he knows it and seems to think that making a face is an acceptable substitute for acting. However that said, he's better here than as Dracula and has the odd virtue of looking vaguely Egyptian despite being nothing of the sort.
In fact despite being set in America, this film has four characters who are supposedly of Egyptian descent and all somehow sort of approximately look it. Ramsay Ames for example was half-Spanish and in addition gets lots of heavy Egyptian-looking eye make-up. I appreciated all that. Nice one, Mr Casting Director. It's nice to get a Universal mummy film that you could hope to show to an Egyptian audience without having to wear a bulletproof vest.
There's something weird going on with Ames's hair, though. She's being possessed by the ghost of Kharis's long-dead love Ananka, represented visually by huge white streaks in her hair like the Bride of Frankenstein. These stripes grow and recede as Ananka comes and goes, eventually turning all her hair snow-white. The film was almost over by the time I realised it wasn't a deranged continuity error.
The direction is mediocre, especially if you're comparing it to previous Universal horror classics. Reginald Le Borg was a music video director, you see. No, really! His CV around then is all one-reelers with titles like Swing Frolic, Merry Madcaps and Jivin' Jam Session. However the thing I'm going to spend a little while discussing is the script, which is a blatant retread of its predecessors and I was ready to dismiss as worthless until its ending turned around and surprised me. Its underlying problem of course is the length. An hour is the rule for Universal's mummy sequels, which isn't long enough to make anyone feel they need to bother with a proper story, yet too padded to be an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There's a nine-minute version of this film from 1966, edited to almost nothing for the pre-VCR 16mm home movie market. I wouldn't go so far as to recommend that, but this thing's natural format is undoubtedly that of a TV episode.
Most of this script is without merit. The characters are underdeveloped and/or not given a proper introduction, as with the police inspector who comes across like a TV game show host. The exposition-laden opening manages to be even clunkier than the twelve-minute recap that kicked off Hand, although at least this time they don't rely on stock footage. However it does manage to fix some of the more stupidities of its predecessors, with for Ramsay Ames being possessed by Ananka and so the baddies have a reason to focus on her this time.
However then comes the ending. To cut a long story short, the baddies win. Well, one of them. There's a dumb hiccup with Carradine's obligatory "High Priest falls in love with the white woman" scene, but it ends enjoyably with a Kharis-Bey falling out and someone getting thrown to their death. Meanwhile Ames's boyfriend is getting a Lassie moment. "She's in trouble? Take me to her!" "Woof!"
Soon a mob is charging up the steps to the villains' lair, hilariously missing Ames getting carried away at exactly the same time. That's all done in one shot, incidentally. I'd swear Le Borg was deliberately going for the comedy there. After that we see a beautiful girl transforming into a mummy while she's being carried along, until she's nothing but this dried-up withered thing going down into the swamp. The waters close over her head. The end.
Wow. How cool is that? Clearly the best ending of any Universal horror movie, it's good enough to leave me feeling positive about what is, let's face it, another substandard piece of hackwork in a thoroughly forgettable series. Apparently Le Borg had to fight for that finale, which leaves me with a better opinion of him too.
Overall, I could only recommend an edited-down version of this film. Forty minutes or so. That's its natural length. However if you cut out the worst of the flabby direction, worthless story and risible acting, you might have a pretty damned watchable TV episode on your hands.