Friday, October 29, 2021

Monsterpiece Theater: The Creature from the Black Lagoon

by Rustbelt

Yes! Oh, yes! We’re back! They said I was crazy! They said I was mad! Well, regardless of how right they absolutely were, it’s finally happened! We’ve reached the conclusion of our Universal Monster Mash!

Now, before we (literally) dive into the most original chapter of Universal’s class monsters, I want to share two things with you regarding the subject of today’s article. First, when I originally proposed this series to Andrew back in 2018, I suggested not including the Gillman (the Creature from the Black Lagoon’s common nickname), as his sci-fi nature didn’t seem to fit with the Gothic/supernatural feel of his Universal brethren. I can only conclude that Andrew must have thought I was nuts. He replied, declaring that this was- and I quote- “THE classic monster film,” adding that, “the film was so smart and well done compared to so many others where the monster was just a rubber suit with no motivation.” I believe this is where members of the legal profession then say: “lawyered.”

Now picture, if you will, nine-year-old Rustbelt, who, upon having reached the school’s second floor and the ‘big kids’ library, has come across a set of ‘monster books’ on a shelf in the back. Gleefully, he grabs one about Godzilla, and, just for curiosity, one about the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Of course, he reads and looks at them voraciously in the library, during lunch, and on the bus ride home. Now, imagine that, after being told to finish his homework (ugh) and then go to bed early since it’s a school night (also ugh), in a trick of fate, the heavens open outside and turn a calm evening into a genuine dark and stormy night. Imagine. There’s nine-year-old Rustbelt lying on the upper of the room’s two bunk beds (his brother sleeping soundly below), the room is dark, some light from the hallway seeps in under the door and creates otherworldly shadows on the walls, and thunder and lightning put on an unwanted show outside. Rustbelt pulls the covers up, nervously looks behind around, and jumps at every thunderbolt, rumble, and shadow because all he can think about is the head of the Gillman popping up at the top of the ladder to the bed and his clawed hand coming down from above!

The Creature from the Black Lagoon (Universal, 1954) proud. However, the Gillman blocks the river with logs, kills Williams, and then abducts Kay that night. The rest of the group follows the Gillman into his lair in a Mist-Enshrouded Underwater Cave. Reed rescues Kay and the others open fire on the Gillman, who walks laboriously to the water, slides in, and sinks to the bottom.

Thoughts and Background: Oh, my. Had to hold back on some details to prevent that part from going on too long. But this is such an important film in the history of silver screen monsters that I felt it warranted a little more attention.

‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’s’ origin started as far back as 1941 when producer William Alland attended a party held by Orson Welles while the latter was filming ‘Citizen Kane.’ (Alland played a faceless reporter in that film.) At some point, Alland met Gabriel Figueroa, a Mexican-born cinematographer who told him about a south-of-the-border legend concerning a race of half-men, half-fish creatures. Alland then wrote a story called ‘the Sea Creature’ that was eventually picked up by filmmakers at Universal. The rest, as they say, is history.

It can be hard for this film to be seen as the groundbreaking movie it was back in 1954. This is mainly due to its plot template being copied so many times over the years. We’ve come to expect naive scientists bent on discovery putting themselves in an obviously dangerous situation- despite eerie omens and warnings from locals- that is going to end in disaster. But unlike all that B-movie fodder, CFTBL, even after all these years, doesn’t feel like schlock at all.

Everything that happens in this film feels organic, logical, and natural. The scientists, of course have no reason to believe that a living version of the fossil they found would be encountered. There are plenty of things in the jungle that could’ve killed the Expendable Assistants. And you can hardly fault them for trying to find the Gillman once they know he’s there. The very heart of science is the search for knowledge, after all. But their eagerness also reveals that they’re flawed human beings. They throw caution to the wind in their zealous efforts to catch the Gillman, only realizing the danger he can present when it’s a little to late. And speaking of which… Ben Chapman/Ricou Browning as the Gillman: Easily one of the most recognizable monsters of all time. The design itself was created by former Disney animator Millicent Patrick. However, in a classic act of backstabbing Hollywood politics, she was fired from Universal after the release of the film when Bud Westmore, the head of the studio’s makeup department, became jealous of Patrick’s success with the Gillman design. It literally took decades for Patrick to receive widespread credit for her work on the costume.

The Gillman was portrayed on land by professional dancer Ben Chapman and by professional swimmer Ricou Browning in underwater scenes. Normally, I would discuss how the actors played the role, but there was little Chapman or Browning could do. Aside from the gills, the costume’s face didn’t move. Instead, the Gillman’s strength comes form the story.

Alland had based his original idea on ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ and that part survived into the final script. The filmmakers portrayed the Gillman as lonely and curious. He observes the humans with as much interest as they observe him. When he sees Kay swimming, the creature becomes enraptured and mistakes her for a creature like himself (since she swims without diving equipment). At the start, at least, the Gillman’s motives are completely benign. It’s only when he’s threatened that the Gillman becomes violent. He attacks the Expendable Assistants only after they attack him when he came to see what was going on. He only went after the crew after being attacked with a spear. All of his actions, from defending himself to his desperate desire to have Kay for a mate, are both understandable and relatable. This makes the Gillman more than just a rubber suit; he’s an actual character with motives, personality, and soul.

Octaman (Heritage Enterprises, 1971)

Have you ever thought that if an idea for a story was good enough that even bad filmmakers couldn’t possibly ruin it? If you did, then you’re WRONG! This little number from the 70’s (which also appears briefly during the first ‘Grampa Fred’ scene in ‘Gremlins 2’, shows just how badly a good concept can be mangled. It’s not worth a full review. Suffice to say, except for forced 70’s ecology messaging, it’s a direct remake of CFTBL. Hell, it was written by Harry Essex- the co-scriptwriter of CFTBL! Consider:

-CFTBL: Two Expendable Assistants are killed when left behind / Octaman: One Expendable Assistant is killed while examining the title creature’s offspring.
-CFTBL: The Gillman is captured after being stunned and injures a crewmember while escaping / O: Octaman is captured by passing out in a ring of fire(?) and kills while escaping.
-CFTBL: The Gillman blocks the river with debris / O: Octaman blocks a road with debris.
-CFTBL: The Gillman is shot and sinks after trying to abduct Kay / O: The Octaman is shot and sinks after trying to abduct the female lead.

Okay, that was more than enough. Moving on…

Revenge of the Creature (Universal, 1955) Trailer

“Between the times when the water swallowed Rondo, and the rise of the sons of Rami, there was an age undreamed of. (Drive-Ins, mostly.) And unto this, Agar, destined to wear the moniker of Ex- Mr. Shirley Temple upon a caveman’s brow. It is I, this blogger, who- at the moment- can alone can regurgitate his saga. Let me tell you of the days of truly awful sequels!”

Plot: A year after the previous expedition, another group of scientists arrives at the Black Lagoon, brought again by Captain Lucas who tells them they should also turn back. (So, why exactly did he return? Food for thought.) These guys waste no time using dynamite to blow up the lagoon from beneath and stun the Gillman into submission. It works, BTW, and the Gillman is quickly taken to an aquarium theme park in Florida for study.

What follows is about 40-45 minutes of padding as super-smug Professor Clete Ferguson (serial B-movie offender John Agar) and ichthyology student Helen Dobson (Lori Nelson) perform chemical-bubbling experiments in a lab and subject the Gillman to obedience school training.

This fails, of course, when the Gillman breaks out, terrorizes the park, and heads for the beach. But instead of swimming back to Brazil and ending the movie, he hangs around to stalk and ensnare Helen…despite her being well inland somewhere on the Eastern Seaboard and there being plenty of other blondes to choose from and… oh, forget it! Gillman captures Helen and moves her up and down the beaches. Eventually, a Pitchforks-and-Tor…er, uh…Rifles and Flashlights Mob corners him, rescues Helen, and shoots the Gillman, who stumbles into the water and sinks.

Thought and Background: What is there to say? This is one of the worst sequels I’ve ever seen. First, this film makes the characters form the first film look like fools by having the next team capture the Gillman with little to no effort. Then, we’re subjected to merciless padding. Just long and drawn-out scenes of the Gillman being moved from boat to truck to receiving tank and then newsman-delivered exposition while the Gillman is slowly revived in the tank. Then comes all the underwater tests where the scientists teach it to avoid electric prongs and to only accept gym balls with food. The final twenty minutes- where things actually start to happen- feel like someone hit the fast forward button. It only reveals how little plot this film had from the start.

And, of course, there’s John Agar, the Bruce Campbell of the 1950’s. Only without the charm. And comic timing. And charisma. And roguish likability. And boomstick. As people who have seen too many bad films know, Agar has only two modes: mugging and dull surprise. And he uses both to no effect here. Plus, his character develops an overnight relationship with Lori Nelson’s character, (despite a complete lack of chemistry), which is quite uncomfortable. Agar is 34 years old and looks about ten years older. Nelson is 21 and looks like a little girl who broke into her mom’s makeup drawer. Personally, I think the censors felt the same way. During expository radio broadcast near the end- which was almost certainly filmed in post-production- Nelson is referred to as Agar’s fiancée, despite the two never taking their relationship to any believable level. Tim Hennesy/Ricou Browning as the Gillman: I can’t really evaluate the stuntmens’ performance here for the same reason as above: the costume only allowed to move from point A to point B. And due to both the boring nature of the script and the shameless recycling of the ‘Kay storyline’ from the original, there’s nothing that could be done with the character. Seriously, the Gillman feels like a supporting character in his own revenge film. And just to show how lazy the production was, try this: In CFTBL, Ricou Browning had to hold his breath for up to four minutes so that no bubbles would show and break the illusion of the Gillman breathing water. In this film, nobody cared and you can Browning’s breath streaming out of the top of the Gillman’s head.

This film is a waste. No legacy. Nothing. Well, except for some guy starring in his first on-screen role

Mystery Science Theater 3000: Revenge of the Ceature (Sci-Fi Channel, Episode 801, 1997)

Okay, I’m gonna get something good out of this! In 1997, movie-mocking show ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’ moved from its old home at Comedy Central to the Sci-Fi Channel (before it was the SyFy Channel). Mike Nelson and his robots, Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot, again found themselves trapped aboard the Satellite Of Love and being forced to watch bad movies. And what was their first film of Season 8, you ask? Why, it was ‘Revenge of the Creature,’ of course! This episode holds a special place in my heart because it was the first episode of MST3K I ever saw. My introduction to the series, in other words. (And also why I prefer Mike over Joel.) For our purposes, there’s no need to review the episode. Instead, I’m just gonna list some of my favorite riffs from it. And here we go!

The Creature Walks Among Us (Universal, 1956)Trailer

Plot: An unspecified time after the end of the previous film, another expedition is put together to find and capture the Gillman. Dr. Thomas Morgan (Rex Reason) believes the purpose is simply to study the creature. However, resident Mad Scientist Dr. William Barton (Jeff Morrow) reveals an ulterior motive: he walks to experiment on the Gillman to improve upon its strength and other natural abilities; ultimately, he claims, this will lead to research to make men capable of entering space! (Don’t ask how; it’s never really explained.)

After finding and tracking the creature, the expedition corners the creature in a (not Black) lagoon. After the group lights their skiff’s torches with gasoline(!), the Gillman attacks, accidentally pours gas on himself, and set ablaze when attacked with a torch. He passes out on a log, covered in third-degree burns. In an operating room on the boat, Morgan, Barton, and ship’s physician Dr. Borg (Maurice Manson) discover that the Gillman has hidden lungs and they operate to make them dominant. (The fire burned off the creature’s gills.) Barton declares they will now “turn a sea creature into a land creature.” The extent of this transformation is revealed when, later during a party, the Gillman tries to escape by jumping into the water and nearly drowns before being rescued.

The expedition arrives in California and the Gillman is placed in an enclosure. At this point, Grant (Gregg Palmer), who has been hitting on Barton’s wife, Marcia (Leigh Snowden), amidst the couple’s disintegrating marriage, decides to make a move on Marcia while she swims at night. Grant is interrupted when a mountain lion climbs a tree over the Gillman’s enclosure, attacks sheep inside (put there as the Gillman’s food), and is killed by the Gillman. Everyone runs out to see what happened. Barton, who has had enough after catching Grant going after Marcia, forces Grant out of the building and then kills him in a jealous rage. Realizing what he’s done, Barton tries to put the body in the Gillman’s enclosure and blame the creature for the murder. However, the Gillman breaks out, kills Barton, and escapes.

Later, the group gets together and waxes philosophical at Barton’s funeral. Shortly afterward, the Gillman reaches his beloved sea. The camera fades to black as walks toward it, presumably to his death.

Thoughts and Background: After the garbage fire that was ‘Revenge of the Creature,’ I have to admit that this film was a much better follow-up. It seems to be more of philosophical, Golden Age of SciFi style film, as opposed to an action or horror film. Rather than trying to make a mindless rubber-suit-monster movie, this film tries to pose questions concerning mental, emotional, and moral evolution as opposed to just physical evolution. (Reminds me of Ray Bradbury’s old saying, “science faction is about advances in science and how we react to them.) This is borne out by the discussions between Morgan and Barton.

(The Golden Age connection is made even stronger by the reunion of Reason and Morrow, who both starred in the classic “This Island Earth’ the previous year.)

Morgan, the more cautious one, is against Barton’s plans. As noted, Barton starts wanting to adapt human bodies for space travel, but soon thinks that through scientific manipulation of biology including controlling the Gillman’s metabolism and brain functions, he can literally turn the creature into a human being.

A subplot I only barely touched on is the marital issues between Barton and Marcia. Though it seems like a soap-opera-ish cliché, I see it as a good extension of Barton’s professional behavior. He seeks to control life at all costs. As a person, he’s controlling over his wife and often paranoid when she talks to other men, resorting to attacking her when drunk. His em-shambled personal life is thus a reflection of his twisted morals as scientist. It allows him to be more than a typical mad scientist. As Morgan observes, Barton is ‘disturbed.’ Makes me wonder if a degree of madness is thus necessary to advance scientific knowledge in such a way. And if madness is required, how can the outcome beneficial?

The movie’s answer is that it isn’t. Barton may have changed the creature’s physical features, but he failed to alter the Gillman’s mind. It still behaves in the fight-or-flight style it did back in the original film. In the end, he changed little and brought destruction on himself for his failure. It’s actually quite poetic, IMHO. It’s one answer to what would happen in such a situation. But is it the only one? We just don’t know.

Don Megowan/Ricou Browning as the Gillman: The final act in the Gillman’s tale is a genuine tragedy. As the suit doesn’t allow the actors to do very much, the strength of the Gillman’s story once again rests on the script. After losing his gills and other fishy features in the fire, the creature’s head is moved slowly on the operating and we see actor Don Megowan’s real eyes. It’s like the Gillman is saying “why?”

The rest of the film shows the Gillman walking slowly, as if subdued or morose. And he often gazes longingly at the sea. While his body has changed, his soul hasn’t. He’s still same animal he always was, with his instructive desire to return to the water. The final scene, with him walking laboriously over some rocks and his mouth hanging open as if he was about to cry, (a nice touch on the mask!), his body ruined by the fantasies of a lunatic, and about to go kill himself even though he doesn’t realize it, is actually quite heartbreaking when you think about it.

Well, after four years and six categories (Silent Era, Dracula/Frankenstein Sequels, Invisible Man, The Wolf Man, The Mummy, and the Gillman), we’ve made it to the end of our Universal Monster Mash.
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Sunday, October 25, 2020

Monsterpiece Theater: Universal Monster Mash- The Mummy

by Rustbelt

And we’re back! After a yearlong delay, (for a variety of reasons), our October block party, otherwise known as the Universal Monster Mash, is back on! The good news is that there’s plenty for us to cover this month, including some films that are just a bit off the radar. The bad news is that we’re starting with the Mummy... the red-headed stepchild/black sheep of the Universal Monster Canon. The former member of the Egyptian household reduced to the aftermath of modern-day frat hazing. The walking, untalking advertisement for the identity-concealing powers of Ace bandages. Yeah, it’s the Mummy.
Two years ago, we discussed some Monsters who started off strong, only to lose their staying power as the sequels piled on. The Mummy, by contrast start off…okay. And then fell off a cliff steeper than the façade at the temple of Abu Simbel. (And for a reason that will show you that Hollywood was just as insane then as it is today.) So, with all that in mind and without ado, I give you Universal’s first attempt at a featured creature not based on a work of literature. (The Wolf Man came nine years later.)

The Mummy (Universal, 1932) (Trailer)

Plot: It’s 1921 and British archaeologist Sir Joseph Wemple (Arthur Byron) is examining an unusual mummy, that of a high priest named Imhotep. His colleague, Dr. Muller (Edward van Sloan), arrives and deduces that the mummy- whose coffin was damaged and had been buried with a manuscript called the Scroll of Thoth- is cursed and should be avoided. However, Wemple’s foolish young assistant Ralph (Bramwell Fletcher) opens the scroll and reads a life-giving incantation which causes the mummy to awaken, take the scroll, and leave. The Doc and the Sir arrive to find the mummy gone and Ralph laughing himself into insanity.
Fast forward ten years to 1931 in Cairo, where the younger Wemple, Frank (David Manners), and his boss, Professor Pearson (Leonard Mudie) are about to wrap up an unsuccessful dig. Just then, an Arab-ish-looking man with a skull-like face, broad shoulders and a Fez! named Ardath Bey arrives and directs them to find the tomb of Princess Anuk-es-en-Amon. The discovery makes them famous. But Bey has other plans.

Muller arrives and soon discovers Bey’s secret- that he is actually Imhotep. Wemple also reveals that the museum now has the Scroll of Thoth, which Muller demands be destroyed. Imhotep uses his powers of mind control to make Wemple’s Nubian servant his own, and then kill Wemple before he can destroy the scroll. As this happens, Imhotep begins pursuing a woman named Helen (Zita Johann), whom Frank has taken a liking to.
Imhotep finally takes the scroll back from the Wemple residence and brings Helen to the museum. He reveals that Helen is the reincarnation of Anuk-es-en-Amon, and that when he tried to bring her back to life with the school of Thoth, he was caught and sentenced to being buried alive as a cursed being ). Imhotep then tries to kill Helen and revive her as a living mummy like himself. While holding off Frank and Muller, Helen (her Egyptian memories reawakened), prays to Isis to save her. A statue of the goddess suddenly points at Imhotep and his body crumbles into dust
Thoughts and Background: After all the name-calling I did a few paragraphs ago, you might think that I believe all these movies stink out loud. Well, to be honest, this first entry in the line of mummy movies isn’t that bad. It’s limited but it has an atmosphere reminiscent of ‘Dracula’ and ‘Frankenstein’ common to Universal’s early 1930’s horror movies. Maybe if I add some info I can explain.

‘The Mummy’ was originally going to be a film about an immortal, revenge-seeking magician until screenwriter John Balderston was assigned to it. As a reporter, Balderston had covered the opening of Tutankhamen’s tomb by Howard Carter and Lord Canarvon in 1925 and had a genuine love and knowledge of Egyptology. So, he kept the outline of the story, but changed the setting. Karl Freund- the man who saved ‘Dracula’ just two years earlier- was made director. But the project was given just a three-week shoot. As the saying goes, “’The Mummy’ was green-lit on a Saturday, casted on a Sunday, and began filming on a Monday.” This, I think accounts for the film’s shortcomings. Almost all the scenes feel like tight, confined sets. The lack of extras for most of the feature reveals the empty space, stage-like feeling. You can tell this was a rushed film that Universal execs weren’t putting a lot of effort into. But it still works.

Freund uses many of the same German Expressionist techniques that he used on ‘Dracula,’ particularly with Karloff’s face and the lighting in the tomb and the museum. But that’s not the only Transylvanian connection here. Screenwriter Balderston had previously co-written the Dracula stage play that served as a basis for that film. (You can see a lot of that movie’s film structure in ‘the Mummy.’) And van Sloan does a near carbon copy of his Van Helsing character for Muller. The rest is pretty good, though not that memorable. Many people praise Zita Johann for her as Helen, but I think she was par the course for 1930’s actresses. And speaking of actors…
Karloff (the Uncanny) as the Imhotep/Adath/Bey: Boris’s one and only appearance as the Bandaged One might surprise people. Particularly since he only wears the bandages for a few brief moments in the opening scene. That was probably to his relief, as it took Jack Pierce eight hours to apply the cotton, clay, spirit gum, and linen wrappings to create the look. Then seven hours to shoot the scenes. And another two hours to remove the stuff. And what did Karloff have to say about to Pierce about the look? “Good job, Jack. But you forgot to give me a fly.”

He spends the rest of the film either in either Arab garb- with a Fez!- with tissue paper in his face (to create he dried-out appearance) or in ancient Egyptian clothes for the flashback to Imhotep’s cursed punishment. But believe me, this is a good thing.
Karloff uses his facial expressions and mere presence like few actors can. (Although Christopher Lee comes to mind.) Using a brooding manner, Karloff draws in the viewers’ attention. Imhotep thus has an almost ethereal presence, hanging over the other characters and using his magic as a puppet master and creating a formidable opponent for the heroes. If only this was how the series continued…

The Mummy’s Hand (Universal, 1942) (Trailer)

Plot: It’s time for a changing of the guard at the local Egyptian Cult Club. Andoheb (George Zucco), who wears a Fez! while traveling by camel across hilly, grass-and-forest encrusted hills of Californee, uh, Egypt, arrives to meet with the cult’s dying high priest. It seems the cult guards the tomb of Princess Ananka. The main guardian is Kharis, a former high priest of Egypt who was in love with Ananka and tried to use sacred tana leaves to bring her back to life, but was caught and sentenced to be buried alive and cursed and…you just rebooted the series!
Soon, we’re introduced to a pair of ne’er-do-well “archaeologists,” Banning (Dick Foran) and Jensen (Wallace Ford) come across a broken vase in Cairo which they think will lead them to Ananka’s tomb. To finance a dig, they convince a down-on-his-luck magician (Cecil Kellaway) to fund them. The magician’s daughter, Marta (Peggy Moran), thinks they’re unreliable (smart lady) and tries to get the money back by confronting the duo in their hotel and firing twenty shots from a six-chambered revolver. Banning charms her and convinces her to join them. (stupid lady)
I should also mention that Andoheb keeps Kharis alive with a mixture of three tana leaves a day. Nine leaves on a night of the Full Moon make him walk again. Also, Andoheb works at a museum and tried to keep Banning and Jensen from…no, no. I have to say it. The filmmakers are trying to pass these two off as a comedy duo. A terrible comedy duo. So, from now on, they will be known as NotAbbott and NotCostello.

The team arrives at Ananka’s tomb, where Andoheb has Kharis kill the only competent scientist in the group. In fact, he’s strangled with the Mummy’s hand! We have a title! And in a further plot twist, Andoheb has decided he’s in love with Marta and will use tana leaves to give them both immortality. Calm down…calm down… But lucky for us(?), NotCostello shoots and kills Andoheb and NotAbbott destroys Kharis’ tana fluid. Then he sets him on fire. The team loots the tomb and heads home filthy, stinking rich.
Background and Thoughts: What is there to add? I mean, really? The Mummy was a one-trick bad guy and they probably did the best they could with the Karloff movie. Now, to make up for the lack of substance, they add bad humor (“we got nothing!”) and a cult (the last resort of all featureless horror films). In fact, this movie suffers from multiple personality disorder. It doesn’t know if it’s supposed to be a comedy (with NotAbbott and NotCostello) or an honest attempt at a horror flick (with Andoheb and the cult). And it fails at both. Not to mention this is the first of THREE- not one, not two, but THREE reboots of Universal’s Mummy character. Truth be said, I liked Brendan Fraser’s 1999 film. And while you couldn’t bribe me to see the Tom Cruise version, I’d bet it’s still better than this one!
Tom Tyler as Kharis: And for the cherry on top, the Monster of the title is reduced to being a henchman. Does this make this the first movie named after a henchman? And, of course, we finally get the mummy you’ve all been expecting: wrapped up in bandages, plodding, dragging its feet, and going for the throat (with hands). Kharis is an unworthy successor to Imhotep. Imhotep ran the show; Kharis is Fritz to Abdoheb’s Doc Frankenstein. So, in both literal and slang terms, the Mummy has become a tool.

The Mummy’s Tomb (Universal, 1942) (Trailer)

Plot: As much as I don’t want to, out next story picks thirty years later after the last movie. And at his home in Massachusetts, NotAbbott (Dick Foran) spends- I think- about ten minutes recounting the last movie for his sister, son, and future daughter-in-law. One thing: I just reviewed this movie! I DON’T NEED TO SEE IT AGAIN! Meanwhile, in Egypt, Andoheb (George Zucco), having survived what I’m guessing was a just a flesh wound inflicted by NotCostello thirty years ago, passes on his high priest title to Mehemet Bey (Turhan Bey). Of course, he also explains how to remote control Kharis (who, it seems, didn’t burn up after all). Bey then packs Kharis into a crate and heads to the States for a little revenge- reanimated mummy style- against those and the descendants of those who desecrated Ananka’s tomb.
Bey gets a job as cemetery caretaker (because only Scotsmen are allowed the title of ‘groundkeepers’), and sets up shop. He orders Kharis (Lon Chaney, Jr.) to kill NotAbbott. And he succeeds! Attaboy, Kharis! Oh, and Marta died between movies, BTW. NotCostello arrives in town to pay his respects and when he hears of the manner of NotAbbott’s death, and especially after the death of NotAbbott’s sister, he is convinced it’s Kharis. No one believes him, naturally. Thus allowing Kharis to kill him, too. Here go, Kharis! Here we go! Whoo! Hoo!

Mummy-esque mold form the victims’ necks is all it takes to convince local officials that a reanimated mummy is on the loose and, killing at will in New England. (Perhaps since Stephen King hasn’t written ‘It’ at this time, it’s only the most logical conclusion in this part of E Pluribus Unum.) Bey has- what else?- taken a fancy to Isobel (Elyse Knox), fiancée of NotAbbott’s son, John (John Hubbard). Of course, he wants to marry her and use tana leaves to make them immortal.
To wrap things up- see what I did there?!- John, the sheriff, and a Pitchforks-and-Torches Mob arrives at the cemetery. Bey confronts them and is quickly shot by the sheriff. (But not the deputy.) Kharis is spotted with Isobel at the house. So, of course, the Mob sets it on fire. I mean, why see to the lady’s safety first? John rescues Isobel and Kharis seems to perish…though we don’t actually see this happen! Of course, that can only mean one thing… And in the denouement, John and Isobel marry before John, a doctor who’s been drafted to serve in the Army medical corps against the Nazis, leaves to join his unit.
Thoughts and Background: …have just a few questions here. You mean World War II is going on in this movie? That means ‘Mummy’s Hand’ took place in 1912! Well, I must say, Egypt has got to bet he most technologically advanced country on Earth, what with having 1940’s technology and clothing before the sinking of the Titanic and all. So, we went from a reboot to a sequel that’s just a remake of the reboot? You know, I’m going to stop being so hard on these filmmakers. They knew how to make money. How? Simple. They invented the ‘Friday the 13th’ formula years before the invention of the hockey mask. With only minor tweeks, just keep making the same film over and over again. Genius!
Lon Chaney (, Jr.) as Kharis: Nothing much to say here. Due to the restrictive nature of the Mummy costume, there wasn’t much Chaney could do other than use motions similar to the ones Tyler used in the film before this one. I will give kudos to the costume and makeup department, though. In keeping with the last film, Kharis appears burned and is missing his right hand. So, the last film wasn’t completely ignored. Okay. Not bad. Also, did you notice that this makes Chaney the only actor to play four classic Universal Monsters? Yep. He was the Count in ‘Son of Dracula,’ the Monster in ‘Ghost of Frankenstein,’ the Wolf Man in ‘the Wolf Man,’ and now he’s the Mummy. (At a close second is Christopher Lee, who played the Count, the Monster, and the Mummy for Hammer Studios.) Oh, about the parentheses in Chaney’s name? That was a studio decision. Chaney had reluctantly changed his name from Creighton to Lon, Jr. at the endless requests of studio bosses in order to benefit from the reputation of his late, great father. Now, for this film, they took away the ‘Jr.’ to capitalize on the father’s fame even more. It was something the younger Chaney deeply resented.
And about Karloff’s credit further up…Boris became an instant superstar after ‘Frankenstein.’ In fact, he became so big that Universal simply billed him by his last name only. Either that, or ‘Karloff the Uncanny,’ due to his roles in horror films. What studio execs will do for a few extra bucks, I tell you.

The Mummy’s Ghost (Universal, 1944) (Trailer)

Plot: In Eternal Aegypt, High Priest Andoheb passes on the duties and title of high to Yousef Bey (John Carradine) and gives him the task of inflicting revenge on [fill in the balk] with Kharis and…oh, here we go again. Didn’t we just do this?! I…I... All right. All right. To give this film the benefit of the doubt, Mehemet Bey was killed in the previous film, so a new high priest is obviously needed. (Though how Andoheb knew this is anyone’s guess.) But what’s with the nepotism here? Can only members of the Bey family succeed to the title of high priest in the 20th century?

Back in New England, Professor Norman (Frank Reicher), who helped defeat Kharis in the last film, finally figures out how the tana leaves are used to summon. And showing all the logic we’ve come to expect from this series, he lights the leaves and brings back Kharis, who strangles him. You know, that’s the second time this series has killed off characters from the previous film. And I thought the MCU was bloodthirsty…
Unlike other films, the good guys immediately realize a monster is on the loose and spare us the usual collecting-evidence- to-convince-the-officials subplot. What is new is that Amina (Ramsay Ames), a student at the college, is having strange dreams about Egypt. She even finds herself following Kharis when Professor Norman first wakes him up. At the same time, Bey- did I mention he wears a Fez!?- takes Kharis to the museum to view Ananka’s body- only to see it disappear under the wrappings! Kharis throws a fit while Bey deduces that Ananka’s spirit must have just been reincarnated in another body. Of course, it turns out to be Amina, who Kharis promptly kidnaps her and takes her to the mill where Bey will complete Ananka resurrection. Except…dissention!
Bey decides to use the tana leaves to instead preserve Amina’s beauty and then wed her. Naturally, Kharis doesn’t take his forced breakup well and kills the Fez!-wearer by throwing out a window. A Pitchforks-and-Torches Mob arrives, but it’s too late. Kharis carries Amina to a Swamp, where she promptly dries out and ages one hundred years into a mummy(?). They then sink into the swamp and that’s it.
Thoughts and Background: Again, we’re hit with Kharis finding a version of his long-lost love. However, having a body disappear and the spirit jumping into another living person…I’m no Buddhist, but I’m pretty sure that’s not how reincarnation works. Everything is, well, pretty much a rehash of the previous film. The only notable thing I can take away is that it’s the only film in this series that seems to not have a full generation gap in between, as several characters return and are ready for Kharis’ return. Not much else to say here.
Lon Chaney, Jr. as Kharis: Pretty much the same as his last appearance as the Mummy. I wasn’t able to confirm this, but I’m pretty sure this is where Chaney started to get P.O.’d with the makeup department. Due to the nature of the makeup/costume (which still took eight hours to apply in full), he despised this character. But he did it because he was a contract player. I’ve heard that makeup boss Jack Pierce and director Reginald Le Borg developed a system so that only the parts of Chaney’s body that would be seen in any given shot would have to wrapped up for that days’ shooting. I suppose that might have made things easier. But despite that, Chaney was a trooper. In the scene where Ananka’s body is found to be missing, Kharis destroys the room in a fit of rage. Apparently, one of the case props for the room was made with real glass. And Chaney, not realizing this, smashed it anyway and sliced his hand. Ouch! But being a pro, (and knowing he only had one shot for the scene), he continued and finished going all Tommy Wiseau on the set.

The Mummy’s Curse (Universal, 1944) (Trailer)

Plot: Did you know mummies have the power of teleportation? Well, this movie will convince you that they do! You see, it starts in a Swamp that is being drained, but the workers are weary for fear of the two mummies that disappeared in it a generation ago. (Well, I’m guessing it was a generation ago.) All good and dandy, so far. Except that everything- the weather, the accents, and the company name, ‘Southern Engineering Company’- point to it taking place in Louisiana! Yes, it seems Kharis and Ananka sank in a New England swamp in the late 1940’s/early 1950’s and are about to emerge in the Louisiana bayou in in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s. The presence of the mummies is confirmed by a pair of experts who arrive from the local museum where the mummies were previously kept. (Just roll with it. We’re almost done.) However, late that night, one of the experts, accompanied by a creep-looking guy (Martin Kosleck), climbs a hill to an abandoned monastery. Could he…is he…could this guy possibly be wearing the Mark of Evil itself? -a Fez!?
Yes! Yes, he is! He then gores into the monastery. And what do we get to see in there?
-Scooby-Doo and the gang running between a series of randomly opening doors along with the most famous ghouls they’ve ever faced?
-Pete Best- having already captured and now torturing the souls of John and George- now summoning Cthulhu and Nyarlathotep in order to carry out a final revenge against Paul and Ringo?
-The missing artworks stolen from the Dutch Room of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston?
No, of course not. We get a friggin’ flashback! Yes, it seems our villain and new high priest, Ilzor Zandaab (Peter Coe), feels people watching this movie may not have seen the earlier Mummy movies. Though he may be right, I am in no mood at this point to suffer through all again. Die in a fire, all of you!
Okay, this going on too long. Let’s do this: Ananka (Virginia Chrsitine) rises out of the swamp and becomes young and becomes an assistant to the scientists due to her uncanny knowledge of Egyptian artifacts found in Louisiana but not before Kharis comes for her, killing workers and scientists alike before taking the seemingly amnesic Ananka to the abandoned monastery where the creepy-looking guy turns on Zandaab in order to get close to a lady whom Ananka befriended at the scientists’ camp, thus prompting Kahris to trap him in a room that collapses on both of them while the rest of the group finds Ananka’s newly-remummified re mains nearby.
Thoughts and Background: This is the epitome of laziness. Just another B-movie sequel squirted out to get the wartime audience to part with a couple of coins. No explanation for the inane change of location while watching yet another set of characters try to figure out what we, the audience, have already known for four movies now. (Suddenly, the previous film seems almost better for having done away with that.) About the only real difference here- other than the southern location- is that we don’t have a passing-the-high-priest-title scene in Egypt.
Lon Chaney, Jr. as Kharis: It’s pretty clear that Chaney’s career is already showing signs of his multi-decade decline. From everything I’ve learned about him, Chaney’s alcoholism was beginning to take center stage at this point, with him showing up drunk to work on the set. (There are even some stories that he could only remain sober until noon. Then, he would begin taking shots he’d already up on the shelves of his dressing room.) Critiques of Chaney’ acting skill are all over the place, with some calling him limited, others believing he was an under-used genius. Either way, a sad end for a once-promising career.
But instead of that downer, let’s end the Mummy’s run on a more positive note of trivia.

Did You Know? the poster for the original 1932 ‘The Mummy’ was once the most valuable movie poster in history? It’s true. In early ‘90’s, an original poster from the film’s release sold at auction for a then-record $453,500. This was only surpassed in 2014 when a poster for the 1931 ‘Dracula’ film sold for $525,800. Another Mummy poster was found and put up for auction at Sotheby’s in London in 2018 and was expected to set a new record. (Some predicted it would fetch as much as $1.5 million.) However, the minimum asking bid of $950,000 wasn’t met and the poster went unsold.
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Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Monsterpiece Theater: Carnival of Souls (1962)

Before we get started…I just wanted to say that this year, we will be continuing with the Universal Monster Mash reviews. There are a few left to cover, (including one that Andrew absolutely insisted I review as part of the series). The problem is that my schedule didn’t give me the time I needed to watch all the necessary films for the next Monster. Fortunately, last year I had jotted down an outline for a review that I never got around to. So, if you’ll permit me, I’m going to go briefly off topic and discuss an independent cult classic from the early 1960’s.

A Rather Odd Introduction

Okay, for a guy who enjoys writing film reviews as much as I do, it’s time I made an unusual confession: I rarely, if ever, go to movie theaters anymore. (I almost gave them up after seeing Captain America: Civil War.) In fact, the only thing I go to see regularly on the big screen is the Rifftrax group. A successor comedy troupe to Mystery Science Theater, (made of the show’s former writers/performers), Mike, Kevin, and Bill are still at work making fun of Hollywood releases and B-grade shlock. And their live shows are about all I go to see on the big screen nowadays.
So, it was at a Rifftrax Live Halloween show three years ago that I was introduced to ‘Carnival of Souls’ – well, a colorized version of ‘Carnival of Souls’ with a constant barrage of jokes aimed at the film’s low budget and flaws. And yet, despite the comedic setting, odd color, and, at times, near Manos- level budget, there was something about his film that didn’t let me forget about it.


The Story

Things begin somewhat abruptly when Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) and her two friends run some red lights and race another car toward a bridge in Kansas. The two autos bump and Mary’s car falls off the bridge and CRASHES into the river. Dredging crews fail to find the car, but Mary is rescued when she appears almost out of nowhere on the river’s muddy bank.
Two days later, Mary leaves for a new job in Saint Lake City as a church organist. However, along the way, her attention is drawn to an abandoned pavilion/amusement park along the darkening road. She then CRASHES into a ditch when a ghoulish-looking figure (director Herk Harvey, known only as the Man), appears on the road. Mary manages to get back on the road and, unable to find the class-five full-roaming vapor, makes it into town and tries to start a new life.
However, the Man keeps appearing every now and then. There are also times where Mary finds herself unable to communicate with people, as though she were invisible. And finally, Mary also feels drawn to the abandoned pavilion, which she visits first with her boss, the pastor (who refuses to set foot on the property), and then again, against the advice of a doctor trying to help understand what’s going on. (But, to be honest, he does hurt his credibility by admitting he’s not a psychiatrist. That’s where a lack of PhD’s in parapsychology and psychology will get you.)

Things reach a head when, while envisioning ghouls dancing in the pavilion’s ballroom, Mary plays a macabre song on the church organ in a trance-like state. The pastor finds the music ‘sacrilegious’ and informs her that the board of choirs has terminated her employment and she must vacate the organ bench immediately. Mary tries to forget what happened by going on a date with her obviously rape-intentioned neighbor, Mr. Linden (professional scene-chewer Sidney Berger). However, another hysterical sighting of the Man in her room causes even this guy to freak out and run away. Mary decides it’s time to try and escape.
The next day, while waiting for car repairs, Mary again finds herself unable to communicate with anyone. After running across town, (and encountering more ghouls), she heads for the therapist’s office- only to find the Man sitting in the chair. Mary wakes up in her car and after NEARLY CRASHING, drives back to the pavilion. There, she watches as the ghouls rise out of the water of Great Salt Lake, and begin to dance. Say what you want about these spooks. They have no trouble crossing the streams.
Mary then sees an undead version of herself dancing with the Man, which leads to only one possible action…
Mary: “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!”
Ghouls: “GET HER!!”
The ghosts chase Mary out of the pavilion, through the dried-up docks, and, as she screams hysterically, across the sand. And can you blame her? I mean, it’s coarse and rough and irritating, and it gets everywhere. Oh, and she falls and the ghouls finally get her. Later, a team of police, the pastor, and the doctor find Mary’s footprints- and only Mary’s footprints- on the beach toward the lake, but no trace of her, or of tracks back to the pavilion. Back in Kansas, a car is dredged up, containing the bodies of three girls. One of them is Mary. Thus, proving there’s no place like home- even when you’re dead.
‘I Want to Make a Movie this Time’

‘CoS’ (if you’ll pardon my use of abbreviations), was made by Herk Harvey and other employees of Centron in Lawrence, Kansas. Like ACI and Coronet, Centron’s bread and butter was churning out educational short films. You know, the often ten-minute-long things Baby Boomers and Gen Xers had to watch at school about various professions, problem -solving situations, ethics, foreign countries, etc. Harvey’s own resume included such classics as ‘Why Study Industrial Arts?’ and ‘Shake Hands with Danger.’ Eventually, however, he got the bug to make a movie.
The inspiration for his magnus opum came, as Harvey put it, when he drove past the ruined Saltair Pavilion/Amusement Park outside Salt Lake City and imagined a parade of ghouls rising out of Great Salt Lake where they proceeded to dance in the pavilion’s main ballroom. He told his friend and screenwriter, John Clifford to write a script any way he wanted, as long as it ended with that scene. The production that followed was almost a clinic on how to make a movie on a minuscule budget. The filmmakers had to go around town in Lawrence asking businessmen to donate to their cause. However, despite the generosity of the locals, the crew had almost no money for special effects or post-production, forcing them to use news-style cameras and guerrilla-filming techniques. (This included paying off- or ‘bribing’- locals in Salt Lake City to let them film in and around certain buildings instead of getting official permits.) Mary’s job as an organist -and the film’s original score, which is entirely organ music- was determined by Clifford’s relationship with executives at an organ-making factory in Lawrence. Harvey- who was also an actor- even played the lead ghoul (‘the Man’) himself to save on the cost of hiring another actor. But despite the gruesome, eye-opening experiences of making a feature for the first time, the biggest- and most unfortunate- shocks were yet to come.
In post-production, some footage of the ghouls approaching the pavilion from the lake was overexposed and lost. Nothing serious. Except…it was only the scene that showed the ghouls walking from Great Salt Lake to the pavilion!!! In other words, the first scene director Harvey thought of and got the whole production off and running was lost, never to see the inside of a cinema. *Sigh* Life isn’t fair. And if you need further proof, try this: the company that Harvey sold the distribution rights to turned out to be a scam job, resulting in a complete loss of all earnings. (Harvey got word while on assignment for Centron in South America.) And just as bad, if not worse, the filmmakers forgot to copyright the original print, making the film public domain from the start and never earning a penny in royalties for its creators.

Now there’s a postscript that’ll leave you terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought.
The Good…

Watching this film for the first time at a comedy event and in color probably wasn’t the best way to evaluate it. The comedians kept drawing attention to the film’s slowness and repetitiveness. Plus, the colorization (as I later found out), seriously damaged the film’s onscreen appearance. So, I did the right thing: I watched the original black-and-white. It turns out, in some respects, the film is stronger than I anticipated.
Like a classic film noir, ‘CoS’ skillfully uses back and white. The shots of Saltair in the dark are truly menacing. Opened in the 1890’s, the former amusement park had closed several years prior due to a combination of competition and the receding of Great Lake due to droughts. (Hence the chase under the dried-out dock at the end.) The decrepit state of the place, its long, unlit tunnels and rooms, and its massive, shadow-enshrouded main pavilion are the epitome of a former place of fun and happiness having been corrupted and turned evil. At other times, Mary’s face is the only illuminated part of the scene, making it feel as if the darkness is creeping closer and closer towards her. Like her, we want to focus on the light and not see what the darkness may be hiding. (The scene filmed from a roof where Mary looks up from an empty alley between the tall buildings of Salt Lake City and screams, “Why won’t anybody hear MEEE???” is quite unnerving with its shadows and buildup.) Plus, when Mary is invisible to other people, the film seems to blur a little. Later on, I learned that Harvey had tinted the film with a cyan (greenish-blue) color to give the scene a dreamy, ethereal feeling. It’s as though Mary is fading away into her surroundings when this happens, the spirit world pulling her closer and against her will.
And it goes without saying, the white makeup used for the ghouls’ faces is much more effective and death-like in black-and-white.

…and the Bad (There is no Ugly)

However, despite the moody atmosphere the film creates, the plot and characters are quite a letdown. I watched this film with a family member and he figured out the twist before the halfway point. He said it was like a long episode of the ‘Twilight Zone.’ I can see why he thinks that. The filmmakers don’t create enough drama between the characters to hide Mary’s fate.
In fact, the acting is so flat that I completely misinterpreted the movie the first time I saw it. Granted, this was largely because of a joke in the Rifftrax version: when the car is dredged up at the end, comedian Kevin Murphy said, “What? Was this whole thing just one big misdirection?” Well, it fooled me. Instead of being in the real world, I thought the entire story had taken place either in limbo or in Mary’s head before her soul is sucked into the Great Beyond. And, odd as this may seem, this led to me pondering how the story could have been made stronger.

‘Carnival of Souls’ – Rustbelt’s Special Edition

As noted above, the characters are a weak spot for the film. The actors barely emote, often appearing flat on screen and only going through the motions. Many a YouTube critic has undoubtedly chalked this up to filmmakers who specialized in industrial films making a movie that feels like an industrial film. In other words, slavishly following the script, going literally from point to point with little, if any, creativity. But such thoughts are rather insulting to a film that achieves a great amount of atmosphere. And I think I’ve found out the reasons for these shortcomings.

While researching this movie a year ago, I watched an interview with Herk Harvey that explained his original intention: that Mary was a woman who never really ‘lived’ and wasn’t ready to die; thus, after the crash, she fought back against death to try and enjoy life, only to find she no longer could and that her time was up. Kind of like a near-death experience with actual death. Harvey regretted not showing Mary’s life prior to the crash, as the contrast would’ve helped the original story idea.
Another clue came from a print interview with screenwriter John Clifford, who explained his “secret” in writing ‘CoS.’ He said that he deliberately wrote the supporting characters to show no sympathy for Mary, suggesting that they cannot connect to her because she’s no longer part of this world and is an unaware ghost, (or poltergeist, as Harvey called her). Hilligoss’s flat portrayal was supposed to show her newfound inability to connect with a world she no longer belongs in, despite her desires to the contrary. While I admire the intention, I think the effect backfired. It created a host of stale performances that have little to no effect on Mary or the story.

So, I pondered and wondered… “what if?”

What if the pastor and the doctor tried harder to reach Mary? This might go with my original idea that Mary was in limbo. The Man could be the Devil, while the other two could be more angelic, if flawed, figures, trying to pull her back into the light. The pastor could appeal to her spiritually, while the doctor tries to interpret her situation. This might even put Mary in a almost Scrooge-like position. In other words, she would have one last chance to avoid eternal punishment and try for Heaven. Perhaps she not only led an unfulfilled life, she led a self-centered, mean-spirited one which will lead her to the dark corners of the afterlife.
And here’s another wrinkle: I‘ve barely mentioned Linden, the sleazy neighbor. I don’t know why, but when I think of him, I think of Lampwick from ‘Pinocchio.’ Here me out on this. Both are characters who are mired in vices. Obviously, Lampwick meets a terrible punishment for living a life of laziness, lawlessness, and pursuing only hollow pleasures. We can assume, if this were limbo, that Linden is set to meet a similar fate. Both characters also have another thing in common: both are trying to corrupt an innocent, (well, an alleged innocent in Mary’s case). Since both situations could be metaphors for the path to Hell, Linden and Lampwick are essentially damning another while damning themselves. Personally, I think it’s an angle that could’ve worked, with Linden as an unknowing devil’s advocate. What do you think?
(Little Known Fact: Did you know that in the scene in ‘Pinocchio’ where the boat is approaching Pleasure Island, that the island is drawn to resemble the entrance to Hell? Oh, it’s true. It’s based on illustrations from a late 19th/early 20th century copy of the ‘Divine Comedy’ in Walt Disney’s personal artbook collection.)

So, overall…

What is ‘Carnival of Souls?’ A fine example of indie filmmakers making the best use of their limited resources to craft an effective film? An overly-long knockoff episode of the ‘Twilight Zone’, shamelessly padded in lieu of enough script to reach feature film length? A parable about not letting women drive?
I’ll leave you with two takeaways from this film. ‘Carnivals of Souls’, much like the current political scene, deals only in extremes. There is no middle ground. (Hence no ‘Ugly.) What it does right (atmosphere), it does very well. Where it falters (characters), it falls hard. It seems almost all viewers either love it or hate it. And it’s easy to see why this film is both praised and dismissed. Therefore, the best way to decide to just take a look a look at it and decide for yourself. Just head on over to Youtube.

‘Carnival of Souls’

The second is more of an announcement. Next week, we return to our Universal Monster Mash, which means it’s gonna take more than pasty-faced ghouls in funerary prom outfits to scare me. Cause I ain’t afraid of no ghosts.
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