Column: The Vault of Secrets: The Mummy’s Curse (1944)

By Orrin Grey

The Mummy’s Curse (1944). Directed by: Leslie Goodwins. Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Peter Coe, Virginia Christine.

Welcome back to the Vault of Secrets, where we’ll be unearthing another classic (or not-so-classic) vintage horror film for your delectation. Following on the success of their 1932 classic The Mummy, Universal made four “sequels” in the 1940s (five, if you count the 1955 Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy). The word “sequels” gets quotation marks because they’re really more what we’d think of today as reboots, keeping some elements of the original story, but changing the names of the mummy and his princess to Kharis and Ananka, respectively, and changing the mummy from Karloff’s eloquent version to the shambling, leg-dragging brute with which we generally associate the word. Lon Chaney Jr. plays Kharis in three of the four sequels, where he gets top billing in spite of never saying a word.

In so doing, the Mummy films became a franchise to an extent that few of the other Universal monster titles managed. Made as literal B-movies — low-budget thrillers designed to fill out the bottom half of a double bill — nowhere are the low-rent aspirations of the Mummy sequels clearer than in the last of them, The Mummy’s Curse, which makes liberal use of footage from previous installments and has almost literally only three locations.

The Mummy’s Curse is an immediate follow-up to the previous film in the series, The Mummy’s Ghost. Filmed around the same time as its predecessor, and picking up ostensibly where that movie left off, The Mummy’s Curse nevertheless takes place 25 years after the events of the previous film and inexplicably transports the action from Massachusetts to Louisiana.

The Mummy’s Ghost ended with the mummy Kharis and his reincarnated princess Ananka disappearing into a swamp. At the beginning of The Mummy’s Curse, that same swamp (albeit now located in Louisiana) is being drained by an engineering company, though the project is being held up by the superstitions of the locals, who know the story about the mummy and fear his titular curse. What the locals don’t seem too clear on is exactly what they’re afraid of, as, in addition to referring directly to the mummy, they also voice concerns about loup-garou and the Devil. As one unfortunate character colorfully expresses it (more than once), “The Devil’s on the loose and he’s dancing with the Mummy!”

The 25 years that have apparently passed since the events of The Mummy’s Ghost highlight the strangest aspect of Universal’s Mummy sequels. While the plots and characters are familiar enough — especially to anyone who has seen the 1999 Stephen Sommers remake — the timeline of the movies is something else. The first sequel to The Mummy, The Mummy’s Hand, was filmed and set in 1940. Fair enough, but here’s where things get weird. The next movie in the series, The Mummy’s Tomb, was filmed in 1942 and took place 30 years after the events of The Mummy’s Hand, which would mean that it was set in 1970, in spite of the fact that everything in the film still just looks like 1942. The Mummy’s Ghost is set at the same time as Tomb, but, as we mentioned, The Mummy’s Curse jumps ahead another 25 years, meaning that Curse — in spite of being filmed in 1944 and everything clearly looking like 1944 — takes place in 1995!

Though the bizarre alternate timeline quality of the Mummy films has been noted by critics and scholars, it is never really explored or even mentioned in the movies themselves. And while it’s probably the most striking and certainly the most peculiar trait of the movies, it’s by no means the only unusual one.

The later Mummy sequels — specifically, Ghost and Curse — also boast what seem to be veiled nods to none other than H.P. Lovecraft; possibly the first such references ever put in film. In the previous Mummy sequels, the order of priests who protect and control Kharis was called the Priests of Karnak. In The Mummy’s Ghost, however, their name is changed without explanation to the Priests of Arkham and the change sticks around in Curse. Also, in Curse, our ostensible protagonist from the Scripps Museum is named Dr. Halsey, which could be just a coincidence, but when juxtaposed alongside the Priests of Arkham, feels more like an homage.

That’s it for tonight, but be sure to join us next time when we check out yet another movie with an exclamation point in the title! (We love thoseā€¦)