I have a confession to make. Or perhaps a retraction.
After completing my last review, I put off watching this movie for a couple of weeks. Why? Because I thought I knew what it was going to be. I have made no secret of how much I hated The Mummy’s Hand and The Mummy’s Tomb. The former was a half-baked remake that dumped all the atmosphere and imagination of the original movie, and the latter is just a pointless, punishing film that no one should ever watch. And after watching both of those films, I felt like I had reason to believe this next Mummy film would just be more of the same.
I was wrong.
Is it as good as the 1932 film? No. Is it a good movie at all? God no. But The Mummy’s Ghost defies the expectations set by the two previous movies and delivers an experience that’s actually somewhat enjoyable. It has a personality of its own, it gives Kharis some much-needed character development, and it even has the balls to take the audience to some shocking and genuinely unexpected places.
The Plot: Some time after the events of The Mummy’s Tomb, our old buddy Andoheb (George Zucco) is faced with a problem: not only is the body of Princess Ananka still separated from its rightful resting place, but the living mummy Kharis (Lon Chaney Jr.) is also stuck in America. He also got burnt to a crisp, but that’s less of a problem. Andoheb summons yet another priest of his mystical order, Yousef Bey (John Carradine) and sends him on a mission to get Kharis and the princess back from the United States. Yousef Bey revives Kharis with the infamous tana leaves, and a fresh string of mummy murders break out in the little town of Mapleton. Local college student Tom Hervey (Robert Lowery) takes an interest in the mystery when his professor is the first person to be killed. Meanwhile, Yousef Bey and Kharis find Princess Ananka’s body and uncover a revelation that throws a wrench into their whole plan: Ananka has been reincarnated as Amina Mansori (Ramsay Ames), Tom’s fellow student and girlfriend. Now the mummy is on the hunt for his lost love, and it’s up to Tom to save Amina’s soul. But even if he can rescue her from the clutches of Kharis, he may not be able to rescue her from destiny itself…
The behind-the-scenes info isn’t very detailed this time. Our director is a guy called Reginald Le Borg. He was an Austrian filmmaker who had been a banker in Vienna before emigrating to the US in 1931. His oeuvre was mostly musicals and/or comedies, and he became attached to this project when the original director (we don’t know who) had to be replaced. Another point of interest is that we have a female screenwriter, Brenda Weisberg, mentioned in the opening credits.
The familiar faces of Chaney Jr, Carradine and Zucco are all back for this film. Robert Lowery had small parts in Hollywood from the mid-30s up until the mid-60s, and a few years after The Mummy’s Ghost, he would become the second actor to play Batman on film, starring in a 1949 serial. Ramsay Ames was a dancer, singer and model in addition to being an actress. She was never a huge star in the US, but she later moved to Spain and had her own talk show for a while, which is kinda cool. The role of Amina/Ananka was originally intended not for Ames but for the actress Acquanetta, whom B-movie aficionados may know from 1951’s Lost Continent. Ames had to step in after an accident where Acquanetta tripped and hit her head on what were supposed to be papier-mâché rocks. Emphasis on “supposed to be.
This movie starts, perhaps not intentionally, with a series of absurd moments and plot points that set it apart from its predecessors, at least in my mind. First you have Yousef Bey show up, and John Carradine is in such ridiculous brownface that it took me a couple scenes to recognize him. Then you have Andoheb sitting on his throne in his secret temple just like last time, telling his new minion the story of Kharis and Ananka, and the camera cuts to Carradine showing off one of the most bored, dead-eyed expressions I’ve ever seen on a human. That’s funny enough, but then we cut over to the United States where a professor is apparently teaching a class of college students about all the times this evil mummy ran around killing people. Like, it’s just common knowledge now that this evil living mummy exists. Most of the characters aren’t too flabbergasted by this notion. In fact, when bodies start piling up again and the local law enforcement finds bits of moldy cloth near the murder victims, the first conclusion they jump to is “the evil living mummy must be back.”
Of course, the murders haven’t happened yet. We have to meet Tom and his girlfriend Amina, who is Egyptian but feels weird and scared whenever the topic of Egypt is mentioned. This idea could be racist if it wasn’t so hilariously inept, being mentioned only in this scene and then never coming up again. But the most important part of this scene is Peanuts. Peanuts is a dog. Peanuts is the undisputed hero of this movie. Peanuts has a name that sounds very inappropriate whenever Tom says it because the actor doesn’t enunciate the “t” properly.
But the crown jewel of first-act stupidity is when Yousef Bey gets to America and does the tana leaf ritual that’s meant to summon Kharis. All of a sudden, with no flashy effects or musical sting, Kharis is just there. Just lumbering out of the woods like a confused Bigfoot. It’s like the movie is saying “we don’t care, you don’t care, we both know the other party doesn’t care, let’s just do this.” It’s horrible storytelling and filmmaking, yes. But unlike the two previous Mummy films, it was horrible in a way that I could laugh at.
The Mummy’s Ghost is not trying to be a comedy. But at the same time, I don’t think it’s taking itself as seriously as the past films did. It doesn’t devote time to building up a sense of mystery or showing the characters’ journeys as they uncover the supernatural horror beneath the mundane horror of violent murders. It knows that the best thing it has to offer is mummy action, so that’s what it focuses on. And in a twist, that actually makes it a more entertaining movie. It’s more fast-paced, it’s more creative, and the presence of Kharis is much greater. In fact, The Mummy’s Ghost scores an unequivocal victory over its two predecessors where Kharis is concerned, because it makes Kharis — gasp! — an actual character.
Let me be clear, this movie still has no business casting a talented actor like Lon Chaney Jr as what is essentially a slasher villain prototype. But in this movie, the script at least does more with Kharis. I remember saying in one of the previous Mummy reviews that Kharis’s role could have been filled by a crash test dummy wrapped in toilet paper. That is not the case here. Kharis has a motivation, he reacts to plot developments, he is not wholly subservient to the orders of another character. And crucially, the film remembers that he’s supposed to be in love with Princess Ananka. Though Ananka herself never truly appears and Kharis only has a few interactions with Amina, the little you see still gives the impression that Kharis cares deeply about his lost love. The biggest example of this happens at around the midpoint of the film. Kharis and Yousef Bey have tracked Ananka’s sarcophagus and body to a nearby museum, and their plan is apparently to steal the body and take it back to Egypt. But when Kharis tries to touch Ananka, her body vanishes and only the wrappings are left behind. Her soul is no longer in her body: since she was moved from her tomb, her spirit cannot rest and has been reincarnated as a result. Upon realizing this, Kharis flies into a wordless rage, smashing apart exhibit cases and killing the unfortunate security guard who comes to investigate the noise. It may not seem significant, but it’s an autonomous move on Kharis’s part which demonstrates the depths of his emotion, and that’s way more than the last two movies ever gave him. The first part of the museum sequence is also rather amusing, with the redshirt security guard listening to a pulpy horror radio show, blissfully unaware of the actual occult ceremony happening in the next room over.
Another aspect of Kharis that the film does well is convey his sheer strength and durability. I wasn’t joking when I called Kharis a slasher villain prototype. Though not creative in his kills, his muteness, imposing figure and reliance on brute force is echoed in iconic characters like Halloween‘s Michael Myers and Friday the 13th‘s Jason Voorhees. I wouldn’t call Kharis frightening, but this movie does a decent job of making him feel threatening. It mostly accomplishes this via the easiest trick in the horror book: letting your audience imagine the horrors that they aren’t allowed to see. For example, take the scene where a farmer grabs his rifle and pursues Kharis into a barn. He sees the mummy coming toward him and raises his gun, but the camera cuts to the barn exterior as we hear the shots fired. A few seconds later, other characters arrive and find the farmer’s dead body, along with a Kharis-shaped hole in the wall. Nobody tells us that Kharis is impervious to bullets and can burst through walls like the Kool-Aid Man, but after that scene, nobody needs to tell us.
Outside of these clever moments, however, The Mummy’s Ghost is mostly an average Universal Horror film. The plot combines the murder-mystery plot of Mummy’s Tomb with the reincarnation plot from The Mummy, and neither of them are especially compelling. It does make the interesting choice of having the characters’ suspicions fall on Amina, causing her additional stress on top of the whole reincarnation thing, but this is only explored a little bit. The acting is mostly just so-so. Chaney Jr doesn’t really get a chance to act under all the makeup he has to wear, and Carradine spends most of his screentime looking like he would rather be anywhere else than on set. The heroes don’t fare much better. Ramsay Ames turns in a decently hysterical performance, but she doesn’t have much chemistry with Lowery, and the rest of the cast is pretty unmemorable. Over in the makeup department, Jack Pierce’s design for Kharis is still decent, and Amina gets some cool Bride of Frankenstein-esque white streaks in her hair after running afoul of the mummy a few times. Overall, the good and the bad balance each other out pretty evenly. It’s certainly a step up from the last two Mummy films, I’ll admit. But it’s not great, and it’s not surprising.
Until we hit the ending. Oh my god, this ending.
So at the top of the third act, Yousef Bey and Kharis are hiding out in an old mill and doing a spell that’s supposed to help them locate Ananka’s reincarnated soul. Carradine suddenly decides to act for the first time in the movie, because his reaction to the spell activating has a distinct air of “Wow, I didn’t think that would actually work.” Kharis locates Amina, kidnaps her and bridal-carries her off to the mill in true B-movie monster fashion. It’s around this time that Yousef Bey falls victim to the same line of thinking that got his predecessor killed. Amina should be his, since such a beautiful woman shouldn’t be locked away in a tomb and left to rot as the bride of a mummy. To the film’s credit, it does offer slightly more of an explanation for this turnabout than the previous film did for its equivalent plot point. And because Carradine has decided to act, we do get Yousef Bey having a little crisis of faith and looking genuinely disturbed at the idea of betraying his religion for his own ends.
But he decides that the hot girl is worth it, of course, and he decides to give Amina the tana leaf potion so she’ll be immortal. So there he is, plotting to betray Kharis, brewing the tana leaf potion which we’ve established is the main thing that will attract Kharis. And Kharis is literally right outside the door. I’m sure you can guess how this ends.
So! Yousef Bey is dead, Amina’s hair has turned fully white from the trauma of all this nonsense, and Kharis is making a break for it with his girl in tow. But who has been tracking Kharis ever since he kidnapped Amina? Why, it’s our hero, Peanuts! Tom had given the dog to Amina in an earlier scene, so he was on the scene when she disappeared. Now he is leading Tom and the rest of the town’s impromptu mummy-hunting league after Kharis and Amina. They all reach the outskirts of a swamp, and…
This is the point where you’d think the movie would wrap up. You’d think the heroes would manage to grab Amina away from Kharis and manage to destroy the mummy, whether by fire or by gunshots or just by shoving him into the swamp. You’d think the young lovers would be reunited and the status quo would be restored.
That’s what the movie wants you to think. Because that way, it can hit you over the head with its last and greatest trick.
The heroes — and the audience — realize far too late that Amina’s white hair wasn’t just a side effect of her trauma, but a symbol of something far more sinister. As Kharis approaches the swamp, we see in close-ups that her hands and feet have become wrinkled and aged. And when Kharis walks right into the swamp and starts to pull Amina under the water, we get the final ghastly reveal: she has magically aged into an old woman. The assembled crowd, Tom included, can only look on in despair as Kharis and Amina sink under the surface and disappear.
Reader, when I realized what was happening, I began to applaud.
Is it completely nonsensical? Yes! Is it a cruel, pointless twist ending that comes out of nowhere? Yes! And that’s why I love it! It’s so random and horrible that you can’t help but be impressed by the filmmakers for having the guts to do this ending. And that’s reinforced by the fact that we are still in the era where “the monster gets the girl” is not considered an acceptable ending for this kind of film. Thanks to the Hays Code, you almost never saw movie villains of this era get away scot-free. Perhaps the filmmakers found a loophole in the fact that a magical living mummy isn’t exactly a common criminal. But regardless of potential censorship issues, this is still an ending that goes against what we’ve seen in the genre up to now. It’s not unheard of to see the monster carry off the girl in a modern film (keep this in mind when we reach the 2010s, BTW), but I can imagine it being genuinely subversive and shocking to audiences at the time. It certainly caught me off-guard.
What I can’t tell you is why exactly it happens. The most explanation we get is a last-second voiceover repeating a line that Yousef Bey had said to Amina earlier: “The fate of those who defy the will of the ancient gods shall be a cruel and violent death.” Did Amina die because she said no to the idea of getting shut up in Ananka’s tomb? Who even knows? This is not the kind of film that poses deep and meaningful questions, as I’m sure you have figured out by now. And I, for one, am perfectly happy with that.
Compared to the two previous films in what I call the Kharis continuity, The Mummy’s Ghost is a step up in terms of entertainment, though maybe not in overall competency. It’s still a bad movie, but it’s the kind of bad movie you might see on Mystery Science Theater 3000, something you can enjoy and have fun with if you go in with the right mindset. The film scores extra points for treating Kharis as a character instead of a plot device and giving him some measure of autonomy. And while the ending is mean-spirited and comes out of nowhere, I did enjoy that the filmmakers chose to end on a note that is somewhat radical for the time and genre. Obviously this is not on the level of something like The Mummy. But if you enjoy silly B-movies and have an hour to kill, I think you may dig it. No pun intended.
Our next film should be exciting to talk about. We’ve had two of the classic monsters meet before, but why stop there?