Written by: Richard H. Landau
Directed by: Lee Sholem
Starring: Mark Dana, Ziva Rodann and Diane Brewster
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
The Vengeance-Lusting Mummy That Waited 4,000 Years to Strike!
Mummies have always played second (okay, third or maybe even forth) fiddle to the more recognizable horror icons. Even among the classic Universal Monsters, Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man bask in the spotlight while The Mummy is just sort of over in the corner, no doubt carrying off some dame in a nightgown. I guess thereís only so many ways you can bandage a guy up and have him shamble about (even the Universal Mummy sequels were like the Friday the 13th of their day in that theyíre almost identical to each other). As the years wore on, Hammer dutifully did their own set of mummy flicks, but, as our fascination with ancient Egypt as dwindled (the original Mummy was commissioned to cash in on an Egyptology craze in the 20s and 30s), so to have our films centered around them. These days, most people probably consider the Mummy to be a CGI pain in Brendan Fraserís ass, but there was a time when they were occasionally trotted out to scare people, and one of those times came in 1957 when Pharaohís Curse was released.
Sort of, anyway--the tricky and cool thing about Pharaohís Curse is that itís this really odd duck that doesnít quite do what youíd expect. Its setup is familiar enough: a bunch of archeologists are sent on an expedition to open a tomb and maybe exhume a mummy. On their way there, they encounter an exotic woman whoís kind of strange and says ominous things, but sheís looking for her brother and she knows the area well, so sheís allowed to join the group. Despite the disappearance of a horse and the general foreboding mood, they solider on and actually make it to the tomb. And then they open it and somehow resurrect an ancient mummy that terrorizes them, right?
Nah, not really. You wonít find the typical toilet-papered zombie stumbling about in Pharaohís Curse; instead, it crosses over into some other genres and creatures, which is kind of cool for 1957. That someone didnít just dig up a mummy and deliver a derivative, lame take-off on the then moribund Universal series is admirable. The nature of the beast is actually revealed about thirty minutes in, which is actually just about the halfway point for this breezy monster movie, so Iíll leave it up for you to discover. Iím not promising anything mind-blowing by any means, but I was pretty surprised by the ingenuity of the story. By the time itís wrapped up, it might strike you as sort of absurd--the plot is maybe a little too silly and elaborate--but it makes for a fun little yarn that actually feels a little bit like The Thing From Another World transported to Egypt.
In addition to the rather unique premise, you can also expect to find some decent effects and makeup work. Pharaohís Curse is actually quite grisly for its day--a guy gets dual bloody scratches on his face, and thereís even a dismemberment that Iím sure had audiences watching this through their fingers. Okay, thatís probably a stretch since I canít imagine anyone ever being truly terrified by this little cheapie, which boasts about three sets and a cast comprised of a bunch of TV and lesser known actors (though itís interesting to note that Kurt Katch battled mummies a decade earlier for Universal). The big subplot among them involves the failing marriage between Diane Brewster and George Neiseís characters, but this just adds a bit of bad melodrama to an otherwise lean monster mash.
Even though its content and concept are slightly original, Pharaohís Curse feels old fashioned as hell. Itís one of those horror films thatís just stripped down to the bare essentials--moody black and white photography, a dash of cobwebby dankness, and some intricate makeup work to sell the quaint terrors it has to offer. All of this is pretty much right up my alley, and Pharaohís Curse is made all the more digestible by its scant runtime. Thereís not a whole lot thatís extremely memorable besides the somewhat unique monster and the strangely unsympathetic nature of both Neise and Brewster; the former is eventually cast into the role of the all-to-ambitious adventurer, and his obsession drives him to be kind of a dick (which is necessary since Brewster is carrying on with the filmís square-jawed hero portrayed by Mark Dana).
Pharaohís Curse is one of those neat little surprises--itís a mummy film without a mummy, but it still (mostly) works. That it subs in another type of familiar monster and gets away with it says a lot, and I like how it really explores the ritualistic burials of the ancient pharaohs. Iím sure the script takes liberties with a lot of the details, but itís enjoyable to see a film skirt around the standard pattern. This is yet another movie I stumbled across while surfing Netflix, but itís also available through MGMís Limited Edition collection, where Iím sure the disc is fine since the ones Iíve seen have been. Thatís a viable enough option, but this is really the type of movie that instant streaming exists for--itís an odd little obscurity thatís worth conjuring up on a rainy evening. Rent it!
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