Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, October 21, 2012

Halloween 2012: October 19

The Mummy’s Tomb (1942)
Seems to me, out of their monsters, Universal always gave the least shits about the Kharis the Mummy. Two films in a row, both start with extensive stock footage. Truthfully, one of the things to like about “The Mummy’s Tomb” (which features no actual tomb) is that it's a direct sequel to “The Mummy’s Hand.” Picking up 30 years after that film, “Hand’s” hero Stephen Banning regales his sister, son, and son’s fiancé with the events of the previous film. Cue recycled scenes. Kharis and his evil caretaker are both presumed dead. In what is quickly becoming a trend with these sequels, both characters are retconned as alive, with the excuse that the previous injuries were less fatal then they appeared. (The bullet simply wounded Andoheb’s arm while Kharis seems wholly intact.) The care of Kharis is given to a new baddy, played by Austrian actor Turhan Bey, who does not look even a little bit Egyptian. With Tana leaf tea and a full moon in hand, the Mummy’s dusty, slow-paced wrath is unleashed on the remaining survivors of the expedition.

Like I said, I appreciate that “The Mummy’s Tomb” follows the same characters as the last film. Dick Foran, Wallace Ford, and George Zucco all reprise their parts, each in surprisingly convincing old age make-up. The one major casting change is Lon Chaney Jr. stepping into Kharis’ bandages. Chaney was always open about how the Mummy was his least favorite of the monsters to play. It’s not hard to imagine why, since it was the most extensive make-up and the least interesting, character-wise. Chaney still does his best, providing little bits of character here and there. One of Kharis’ legs drag along the ground while his left hand is bandaged to his chest. The make-up is also above par. The Mummy is now missing an eye, his empty socket recalling Lucio Fulci’s "Zombie." The movie also shifts locations from Egypt to Mapleton, Massachusetts. Setting a distinctly Egyptian threat in an urban environment always works for me, somehow, and predates Hammer doing the same thing in their 1959 version of “The Mummy.”

The movie does its best to sell the Mummy as a creditable threat, even though he remains incredibly slow and shambling. While marching through the city, he disturbs a teenage couple necking in a car (naturally), upsets a horse, and freaks out a kennel of dogs. The film makes fairly good use of shadows. Tree branches and Kharis himself casts some fairly ominous ones. Like the slasher killers it would influence, The Mummy is highly determined, taking bullets, torches, and smashed chair to the head, never slowing down. (Not that he was going fast to begin with.)

Despite being explicitly warn not too, Turhan falls in love with Isobel, the fiancé of the movie’s default hero, Banning’s adult age son. Granted, Elyse Knox is absolutely lovely but the way Turhan just happens to be hanging around whenever the Banning and Isobel are getting romantic is slightly ridiculous. Naturally, the mummy kidnaps the girl. When the raging, torch wielding mob shoots Turhan to death in cold blood, completely unprovoked, the Mummy walks off with the girl into some random hall. Once again, the threat is killed with fire, the town is saved, and the young lovers marry. Too bad about the three folks that got murdered, I guess.

The Mummy series continues to be highly unambitious. This one is about as routine as it gets. As a monster fan, I still can’t totally dislike “The Mummy’s Tomb.” It’s probably the best of the sequels, faint praise that might be, with its shadowy atmosphere, decent performances, and above average script. [6.5/10]

Invisible Agent (1942)
Just as applying “The Invisible Man” premise to comedy in “The Invisible Woman” was a natural move, adapting the concept for an action/adventure spy film seemed inevitable. The same conclusion led to four different TV series. Invisibility is, after all, a superpower. A product of wartime propaganda, “Invisible Agent” more or less entirely abandons the horror genre in favor of fantastic special effects and good ol’ fashion Nazi-bashin’.

A script from the always reliable Curt Siodmak makes this, perhaps, the best of “The Invisible Man” sequels. Retconning the dates of the first two films into the 1890s and 1900s, “Invisible Agent” follows Frank Griffin, the invisible man’s grandson who still has the formula for the invisibility drug. The Axis Forces, represented by Cedric Hardwicke’s Nazi general and Peter Lorre as the least convincing Japanese man this side of Mickey Rooney, attempt to steal the formula from Griffin, in a tense interrogation sequence that involves a paper cutter at one point. Escaping the Nazis, the United States quickly puts Griffin to use in Germany, an invisible spy. His quest to prevent a planned bombing of America attract the romantic attention of double agent Ilona Massey and has him fighting the insanity-causing side-effects of the drug.

This entry has the best special effects of the series, easily. The invisibility effects are practically seamless and, unlike in the previous films, it’s never obvious that an actor has been removed from the frame. A few of the effects set pieces includes the Invisible Man dissipating while parachuting out of an airplane, taking a bath, applying cold cream to his face, slipping into a down Nazi’s uniform, setting fire to an office, sliding down a ladder with a book in hand, getting a fish-hook covered net draped over him, and carrying Massey around an airplane field.

All of this wouldn’t be worth much if the writing and acting wasn’t strong. The film is doubtlessly a piece of propaganda. Siodmak was a German-Jew who fled the country in ’36, so his hatred of the Nazis is well-earned. This is never more obvious then a scene where the invisible agent berates an imprisoned officer for the entire country’s sins. Unlike a lot of wartime films, the movie doesn’t get bogged down in jingoism. The Germans and Japanese are villains but never cartoonish. The movie moves along at a fast pace and has a lot of exciting action.

Jon Hall, a matinee idol and star of swashbucklers, does well enough, acting mostly with his voice. It’s a good thing the movie focuses less on the Invisbile Man’s insanity, since Hall can’t quite sell it. With the exception of personal favorite Julie Adams, I think Ilona Massey was easily the most gorgeous woman in any Universal Monster movie. She gets to parade around in a number of fancy, tight dresses, and even a slinky nightgown in one scene. She’s a good actress too. Cedric Hardwicke and Peter Lorre are both great villains. Hardwicke is slithery and sinister while Lorre imbues quiet dialogue with a murderous intent. The only actor who doesn’t work is J. Edward Bromberg as the buffoonish Nazi who features into several scenes. For the record, not a single person attempts a German accent. All of these factors and more make “Invisible Agent” my favorite of the sequels, even if it’s horror elements are light. [7/10]

The Strange Case of Doctor Rx (1942) Some of the movies I’ve watched this October, like “Tower of London” or “Mystery of Edwin Drood,” were never intended as horror films and instead got labeled as such incorrectly over the years, mostly due to who starred in them or a macabre element here and there. Others, like “Night Key” or this film, were intentionally marketed as horror films even though they are most assuredly not. “The Strange Case of Dr. Rx” is about an unseen vigilante who is offing criminals that have been acquitted by the court. Defense attorney Dudley Crispin hires would-be PI, played by “The Wolf Man’s” Patric Knowles, to investigate the case. Despite seeming to be a mystery, most of the film actually revolves around Knowles bantering with several different people. There’s his newly married wife, played by Anne Gwynne, a pair of bumbling detective, Edmund MacDonald and Shemp Howard (Yes, that Shemp Howard), and, most embarrassingly, his black manservant, played by Mantan Moreland. Moreland originated the catch-phrase “Feets don’t fail me now!” and brings all the cringe-inducing tomfoolery to the part you’d expect. He has to leave notes to remember the most basic chores and likes to nap an awful lot. Dial it back some, 1942. Yeesh.

Anyway, aside from the murders, only one of which we see on-screen, the film has one other major horror element. Near the end of the film, Knowles is abducted by the mysterious Dr. Rx who… Threatens to surgically implant his brain into a gorilla’s body? While the gorilla suit action and mad scientist cackling is the movie at its most entertaining, it is as exactly out of place with the rest of the film as it sounds. According to IMDb, the movie’s script was made-up on the spot. No shit. Knowles and Gwynne have decent chemistry and the movie’s over with quickly enough, but you can safely skip this one. And don’t believe the box cover either. Lionel Atwill has maybe four minutes of screen time and barely ranks as a red herring. [4/10]

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