16 October 2013

UNIVERSAL HORROR: WITHERED UP OLD CORPSE

Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy has the personally unfortunate distinction of being the first movie starring that celebrated comedy duo that I ever saw, and the direct reason that it was many, many years until I saw a second: when I finally caught one half by accident, well into my 20s, the discovery that ol' Bud and Lou were capable of making something that wasn't indescribably terrible was as big a surprise as I've ever had watching vaudevillians.

Meet the Mummy, you see, is just a complete drag. It is the last of the films the celebrated duo made for Universal Pictures, the second last overall, and by 1955, a decade and a half of acrimonious film sets had finally started to bleed over into the movies themselves, and there's just something unpleasant about watching the comedians interact, something where you can tell that underneath all the comic banter about how much their characters disliked each other, they actually fucking hated each other. Compared to the seven-years-old Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, the first of the many "A&C meet..." films and by universal consent the only one that is truly excellent, it's downright shocking how much more weary and petulant everything in Meet the Mummy is, how threadbare the jokes, how physically tired the actors look - particularly Lou Costello, who was just coming off a bad illness and had the look of a man for whom every physical movement tuckered him out. Not very fun to watch, and deadly for comedy, when the designated goofball is visibly dessicated.

In this go-round, the boys - the end credits optimistically suggest that they are named Pete Patterson and Freddie Franklin, but those names are never uttered onscreen, while Bud and Lou most unmistakably and frequently are - are stuck in Cairo with no place to go, when they hear of a golden opportunity for some easy money and a free ride home: Dr. Gustav Zoomer (Kurt Katch) has in his possession of archaeological treasures the mummy of Klaris, defender of the tomb of Princess Ara, and he needs two men to accompany it safely back to America. This sounds like a cakewalk, but in fact the mummy is hot property indeed: savvy black marketeer Madame Rontru (Marie Windsor) wants to steal it for the clues embedded on a medallion it wears that leads to the treasure room of the princess, while a group of cultists led by Semu (Richard Deacon) want to preserve the mummy's sanctity and also revive it, so that it can kill the infidel Westerners. In hardly any time at all, Bud and Lou have accidentally incriminated themselves in Zoomer's murder at the hands of the cult, discovered that the medallion is cursed, and in Lou's particular case, swallowed it, thinking it was a hamburger. And so the stage is set for a three-way chase into the desert, where Semu revives Klaris (stuntman Eddie Parker), and Rontru's right-hand man Charlie (Michael Ansara) disguises himself as a mummy, while Bud disguises himself as a mummy, and there is such merry farce, oh! how merry.

Comedy is subjective; but Meet the Mummy sucks. I'm sorry, it just does. If Costello looked like he was ready to pass out half the time, Abbott sounded worse, with a dry, hacking bark that had to stand in for his speaking voice most of the time, and between the two of them they make all of the comedy look more labored than it needed to, especially in the routines that were basically just revivals of their old classic bits. The only part of the film that absolutely, 100% works as comedy is a sequence in which the two men get into a spat over the difference between a pick and a shovel; it's a retread of the iconic "Who's on first" bit, but well-timed and over before it has a chance to get boring. Otherwise, it's just pure shtick, played by men who absolutely did not have the energy or the motivation to do their shtick well, and the whole thing is frankly a little bit sad to watch. By this point, the duo had long since fallen out of the favor they regained with Meet Frankenstein, and it's easy to see why, if this is the best they had to offer (though Meet the Mummy ended up being somewhat more successful than most of their late-period offerings).

One would have to be as big an idiot as Lou Costello affects to be to expect this film to be anything remotely decent as horror - as funny and bright as Meet Frankenstein is, it's still an absolutely terrible monster movie - but it's still kind of stunning that as weak as it is a comedy, that's still the best thing about it. It is a gracelessly cheap thing, boasting rickety sets and bad props, but you could almost forgive that as part of the cheesy fun. What cannot be forgiven is the unbelievably awful mummy costume, what looks like a rubber suit indifferently etched with a pattern that doesn't do more than vaguely suggest "bandages". His face is even worse, looking more like somebody slapped modelling clay on Parker's face and hastily covered it with some linen strips to try and sell it at all. A high school performance of this exact script would have a better-looking, scarier mummy, performed with more menace; probably better sets, too.

The whole thing is a tired, wheezing wreck, the last desperate gasp of both Abbott and Costello's act and the classic era of Universal horror; none of the monsters introduced in the '30s would be shown the light of day again until 1979, at least not by that studio. The year prior to Meet the Mummy, Universal horror had triumphantly roared back to life with Creature from the Black Lagoon, one of the very best of the best, and somehow, that makes it all the more depressing to me that this movie came out just late enough to besmirch the name of the first generation monsters when it seemed like they had been consigned to an honorable history. Everything about this film is slack and disappointing and depressing, which are all generally bad things for comedies to be. It's a pity this particular one had to be so historically noteworthy; it really doesn't earn it even slightly.

Reviews in this series
The Mummy (Freund, 1932)
The Mummy's Hand (Cabanne, 1940)
The Mummy's Tomb (Young, 1942)
The Mummy's Ghost (Le Borg, 1944)
The Mummy's Curse (Goodwins, 1944)
Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (Lamont, 1955)

6 comments:

Will said...

Incidentally, I'd love to see you do a review of the "Creature" trilogy, which is (in my opinion) one of the best examples of exponential decay in quality of films over the course of a series.

javi75 said...

So horror fell out of favor after WWII? With the rise of film-noir in those same years it seems strange to me, but your knowledge of film-history is surely better than mine.
I used to think it was another management change (like in the '30s, as you perfectly explained in the first review) that ended the Universal horror wave of the '40s, when legendary producer Wililam Goetz's International pictures merged with Universal creating Universal-International, with Goetz as head of production, in 1945.
Apparently, and this is the part I'm not too sure of, he wanted to produce more "prestige"-oriented movies and got rid of most B-stuff, until economic necessities forced him to bring it back shortly after.
Great round of reviews, and funny.

Tim said...

Will- It's definitely on the horizon.

Javi- I'm of the party that draws a clear distinction between horror and noir (and certainly, there are those who don't), which leaves us with a virtually uninterrupted desert after the RKO B-unit died where no studio outside of the Poverty Row guys would touch horror until around 1953. It wasn't just Universal, though I don't doubt for a second that Goetz wasn't the only executive trying to create a more serious and prestigious name for himself in those days.

javi75 said...

I was thinking of RKO after I sent the comment. Maybe I'm wrong but I can only think of Universal and RKO churning out horror films in the '40s, and Universal suffered the Goetz takeover in 1945, while RKO was bought by Howard Hughes a few years later and I believe he practically halted all production at some point.
1946 was the height of movie-theater attendance, and everybody and their mother were creating their own production companies (the majority of which would be dissolved before 5 years). It seems to make sense that Goetz would think he could do without the b-series.
Right after that the steep decline of the box-office started. I believe the "Ma and Pa Kettle" and "Francis, the talking mule" series were the most popular ones produced under Goetz's reign, and they didn't start until 1950, when they would have been acutely needed, which lends at least some circumstancial credibility to the idea that he had slowed down the b-unit the previous years. Maybe he especially hated horror (the fact that "House of Dracula", the last of its wave, was released in 1945 seems so much of a coincidence).
But I guess horror might have been falling out of audiences' and filmakers' favor anyway.
True, it didn't come back until 1953, and then every studio would try their hand at it. So different circumstances and despair in the '50s.

Tim said...

I think that's probably quite a likely case for what was going on at Universal, but for RKO, there's an even simpler explanation than the Hughes takeover: the B-unit films had started to lose money. I think Bedlam was the only outright flop, but Isle of the Dead was just a break-even, IIRC.

javi75 said...

Oh, I confess I know nothing about the history of Lewton's production unit (in fact, this reminds me I've yet to read your Lewton retrospective, which I should have done before starting this), and I guess it was his unit that they shut down, if his movies were losing money, as you point out.
But otherwise I believe the B-movie unit at RKO went on for a few more years. I read Richard Fleischer's autobiography and he was making b-movies there until 1950 (when he made the re-shoots for an A-movie, "His kind of woman", and left RKO soon after). Sid Rogell was the head of the B-movie unit there for many years (whereas the heads of production didn't usually last a year, all through the '40s) and he wasn't fired until 1950 (appropriatley so, shortly after he had been appointed head of production of the studio).
Well, at least that's how Fleischer tells it, I haven't read that book about the history of RKO.