Blu-ray Review: The Mummy

Ancient Egypt has been on my mind for some time.  It was the Dark Adventure Radio Theatre audioplay of Imprisoned with the Pharaohs that I reviewed last spring that made me think about going someday.  Curse of the Pharaoh followed, as well as two different versions of Death on the Nile, and various Mummy movies from Hammer and Universal. Eventually, I worked my way back to original film–Universal’s The Mummy from 1932, starring Boris Karloff.

Boris Karloff as The MummyThis movie was filmed in California with stock footage of the Valley of the Kings and  back-screen projections of contemporary Cairo, but very few movies from the early sound era ever filmed on location. Its sets and settings are steeped with imagery and lore from ancient Egypt, though a lot of it is historically confused or fiction created specifically for this story–but one also expects a certain amount of mystical fabrication from a movie about a mummy that’s come back to life. What’s most interesting to me, however, is how little of this movie’s manufactured lore and story template are reused in the numerous sequels and remakes over the 85 years since it was made.

The Mummy begins with the British Museum 1921 Expedition at Thebes. An archeological team headed by a man with the unprepossessing name of Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron) has just discovered a previously unknown and undisturbed tomb. With his colleague, occult expert Dr. Muller (Edward van Sloan, basically playing von Helsing from Dracula again under a different name), and an eager young archeologist named Ralph, Whemple examines the dig’s most interesting finds:

  • A 3700-year-old mummy of a man (Karloff, or at least a convincing-looking dummy replica of him at this point). The mummified man did not have his organs removed before burial, as was customary, and shows signs that he was still struggling when they wrapped him up and entombed him. The man’s name, Imhotep, is carved on his sarcophagus, but the sacred spells that would protect his soul in the afterlife have been chipped away. The trio speculates that he must have done something truly horrible and sacrilegious to have been doubly damned in this way. (Ralph quips that perhaps Imhotep “got too gay with the vestal virgins”.)
  • A small casket of gold containing an even smaller box with its seals intact and a warning upon it:  Death and eternal punishment for anyone who opens it.

Sir Joseph: “Good heavens, what a terrible curse!”

Young archeologist: Let’s see what’s inside!

The mummyDr. Muller and Sir Joseph go outside to discuss the dangers of opening the box and unleashing a millennia-old curse; they both already assume that the box contains the Scroll of Thoth, which the goddess Isis herself is said to have used to resurrect her slain husband Osiris. This scroll, which we were introduced to via text at the beginning of the film, is part of that fabricated mythology, although it is loosely based on the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

While they’re talking, the young archeologist gives in to temptation and opens the box. Inside, there is indeed a papyrus scroll, which he sits down to transcribe.

This leads to my second-favorite scene in this movie. It’s a beautiful sequence in  understated horror, analyzed in minute detail by better film critics than I.

Basically:

The young archeologist reads the hieroglyphics he’s copied aloud in a low murmur. Behind him, unnoticed by him, the mummy’s eyes open just a crack, enough that we see a glister of life. The bandage-wrapped arms crossed over the mummy’s chest slowly move downward.

This is all we’ll see of Karloff as the wrapped-up mummy in motion. No long scenes of leg-dragging staggering around in search of victims for Imhotep!

While the oblivious archeologist continues to read, a wrinkled, aged hand bearing a large jeweled ring reaches into the shot and takes the scroll from the table. The young man only now looks up. We don’t see what he sees. He screams in terror and backs up against the nearest wall, then starts to laugh maniacally.

The mummy's hands Hand takes the scroll Scream! The mummy leaves

A couple of trailing bandages are glimpsed going out through the door.

Muller and Sir Joseph, hearing the commotion, return to find an empty sarcophagus, an empty box, a dusty handprint on the work table, and Ralph still laughing as his mind, unable to cope with what he’s just seen, tips over into insanity. “He went for a little walk!”

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CD Review: Brotherhood of the Beast

This H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society episode of Dark Adventure Radio Theatre is a whopping 3-disc adventure, not adapted from any one story of Lovecraft’s, but alluding to several of them and featuring characters created by Andrew Leman, Sean Branney, and friends back in their gaming days. The plot is based on the Chaosium Call of Cthulhu® role-playing game, “The Fungi from Yuggoth.” Chaosium is now a Dark Adventure Radio Theatre sponsor like Fleur-de-Lys cigarettes and the mood-enhancing softdrink Bub-L-Pep, with its very own 1930s-style radio ad at the opening of the show.

The story begins in Boston with the murders of three children. Because of the strange nature of these deaths, Nathaniel Ward (Leman) has been consulted by the city police. He’s just the sort of man you turn to when there’s weird stuff going on.

Since his old friend, millionaire playboy adventurer Charlie Tower (Branney), is in town, Nate phones and asks Charlie to help out.

Charlie brings along his latest girlfriend, a fast-talking brassy dame named Jenny Alexander (voiced by Sarah Van der Pol. I picture Jenny as something like a pre-Code Barbara Stanwyck).

Charlie Tower with a girlfriend who doesn't look anything like Barbara Stanwyck

Nate, Charlie, and Jenny visit the police station, where they view the bodies–the wounds on which resemble those seen on cattle in the small and remote Massachusetts town of Dunwich a few years earlier–and review the information the police have gathered. It’s Jenny who observes a pattern to the crimes: At the center of the area where the children were attacked is a neglected old mansion, once belonging to a Dr. Cornwallis and his wife–both died years ago in a scandalous murder/suicide.

Digging into old newspaper articles reveals a little more of that story: Mrs. Cornwallis stabbed her husband and was shot by him in 1891, about a month after the birth of their stillborn son. The doctor’s grave was later desecrated by someone who believed him to be a warlock.

This doesn’t tell the trio much, but it’s intriguing enough to send them over to the Cornwallis house to have a look around.

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Dark Shadows: Curse of the Pharaoh

Last week, I went shopping on Amazon to see how many other Dark Shadows audio dramas were available, following Return to Collinwood. Quite a lot of them, as it turns out. They come in two types: 1. Audio plays performed like old-fashioned radio programs with a cast of actors from the original show in their old roles or new ones; 2. Dramatic readings of Dark-Shadows-based stories done by one, maybe two, of the actors. I picked out one of each.

Curse of the Pharaoh is a dramatic reading, done by Nancy Barrett, who played Carolyn Stoddard, and Marie Wallace, who played Evil Eve and Mad Jenny.

Why this one? From the description on the back of the CD box:

Curse of the Pharaoh“Finding Nefarin-Ka’s tomb was only the beginning… I made the most important discovery in archeological history.”

Dr. Gretchen Warwick, famed Egyptologist … comes to Collin- wood, searching for the answers to life in the hereafter.  At first, Carolyn cannot comprehend why an expert in ancient, mystical lore would desire her help, but to her horror, discovers that she is indeed the key to a dark, dangerous world on the other side of death….

In my review of the final episodes of Dark Shadows, I mentioned a feature on the last DVD where one of the show’s writers foretold a future for Carolyn in occult research; I said I would love to watch a spin-off series based on that premise. Although this story doesn’t follow that idea exactly, it seemed to be along similar lines. Also, I’d just listened to the Dark Adventure Radio Theatre play Imprisoned with the Pharaohs to prepare for writing that review, and I thought I’d like to hear another story about an evil ancient Egyptian ruler with a cult that survives into modern times. As it turns out, the story does have its own Lovecraftian overtones.

It was amusing to me that this story begins with Carolyn looking over “strange, alien” hieroglyphics and declaring that “It makes no sense!” just as Nathaniel Ward did.

Carolyn, however, is not in a deep and long-forgotten tomb in Egypt, but in her own home at Collinwood. She is making subtle changes to the hieroglyphs as transcribed in the notes of some person as yet unnamed, and is terrified that that person will come in and discover her before she finishes.

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CD Review: Imprisoned with the Pharaohs

Harry Houdini and Charlie TowerImprisoned with the Pharaohs (a.k.a. Under the Pyramids) was H.P. Lovecraft’s first collaboration with Harry Houdini; the serialized story was ghost-written for Weird Tales magazine in 1924 as a first-person account of an experience the great escape artist is supposed to have had one night while touring Egypt.

The story is online at http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/up.aspx 

The Dark Adventure Radio Theatre version is fairly faithful to Houdini’s adventure, but adds some elements that seem to me to improve the story. First, a reason is given for the events that take place. Second, additional characters are introduced to give Houdini someone to interact with.

In the original story, Houdini often refers to “we” and “us” as he describes his travels in  Egypt, but it often isn’t clear who is with him on his tour. Is it his wife? Other tourists in their party? Some Egyptian guys? Here, “we” is primarily Bess Houdini, Harry’s wife, voiced by Leslie Baldwin and given a distinct voice of her own. The Houdini’s relationship and interactions are some of the best parts at the beginning of this audio play–Bess’s practicality balances Harry’s impetuous and thrill-seeking nature, yet they are both at heart show-biz people.

The other new character is an HPLHS creation who shows up in a lot of these Dark Adventure Radio Theatre adaptations, and whom I’m always happy to see more of: Miskatonic University professor of archaeology, Nathaniel Ward (Andrew Leman).

The audio drama begins at the American Cosmograph Theater in Cairo. We’re presented with brief snippets that give us a medley of the kind of thing you’d get in pre-WWI Vaudeville: song and dance acts, trained dogs, jugglers, comedians, a ventriloquist, a hypnotist, and finally the big draw of the night–The Great Houdini!

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