The Mummy's Ghost, the first of two mummy films from 1944, and that fact alone tells us of the estimable "crank these fuckers out" mentality that had laid in as Universal's horror factory was about to enter a lengthy period of dormancy once World War II ended and killed off the genre's popularity. Also, it makes it a good deal easier to understand Lon Chaney, Jr's much-noted dislike for playing Kharis, a dislike that manifested itself in some unusually interesting ways in this particular film. But we will come to that presently.
The signs of laziness set in almost immediately once the plot kicks in: the degree to which the writers, Griffin Jay, Henry Sucher, & Brenda Weisberg, couldn't be bothered to think about any damn thing is palpable and lush. This is at once the most directly continuous film in the mummy franchise and perhaps within any Universal franchise to that time, explicitly taking place not long after The Mummy's Tomb, a year or two at most, and heavily relying on characters' knowledge of the events of that film. We immediately find that Jay, Sucher, and Weisberg are interested in crafting a coherent, film-uniting story (Jay & Sucher, it should be noted, also wrote The Mummy's Tomb) only insofar as they can do it without having to be so creative as to invent an easier source of exposition than trotting out the High Priest of Arkan, Andoheb (George Zucco), to recall the horrible events of those many years ago when the mummy of the Princess Ananka was taken from Egypt to America, as he prepares to send a priest off to the States to bring her back. Perhaps you may recognise this as having been the exact situation that opens the last movie. Perhaps you recognise also that Andoheb is supposed to be dead. And that he was the high priest of Karnak, not Arkan. On the other hand, if Andoheb hadn't been arbitrarily written back into the plot, we'd have missed out on Zucco's highly alarming choice to indicate the priest's feebleness by shaking his right hand like it's on fire.
Some labored cross-cutting on echoing lines of dialogue introduces us to the situation back in Mapleton, Massachusetts, where Professor Norman (Frank Reicher) is eagerly telling his Egyptology class at the local university about his first-hand exposure to Kharis during the monster's rampage. One of those students, Tom Hervey (Robert Lowery) dismisses it as fanciful tosh, despite not just the professor's eyewitness account, but subsequent proof that the entire town of Mapleton has quite uncontroversially agreed that yes, this thing happened; one person who absolutely doesn't dismiss it, but in fact gets quite quiet and moody when the subject is brought up, is Tom's girlfriend Amina Mansouri (Ramsay Ames), partially descended of Egyptian stock herself, but entirely unwilling to talk about it. "What's wrong with Egypt? It's as modern and up to date as any other country" says Tom jovially, in what I can only possibly read as the filmmakers' apology for the intense degree to which the mummy films, up to that point, have decidedly not subscribed to the belief that Egypt is modern or up to date in any meaningful way at all.
Anyway, the young priest of Arkan sent to retrieve Ananka and Kharis, one Yousef Bey (John Carradine) comes with a reparation of tana fluid, the life-giving elixir that should bait the mummy to come out from wherever he's been hiding since he was burnt to embers. Professor Norman, unluckily, has brewed his own batch of the same stuff, and this is what attracts Kharis first, ending in a dead professor and an eerily sleepwalking Amina as the sole witness and/or suspect in the crime. Bey, upon spotting the young woman, decides on the spot to use his Arkanian magic to make her his bride, because that's the only way that these films can figure out how to drum up any conflict of all. And, finally bringing the "resurrected love" motif back from the very first Mummy back in '32, Amina turns out to be the reincarnation of Ananka herself, so Kharis has his own desire to capture her that has nothing to do with keeping her secure for his horny boss.
You can only put lipstick on a pig in so many places, and whatever charms The Mummy's Ghost possesses for itself - and there are some, it is true - there's no getting around the awareness that we've definitely seen this plot before, and almost always done better. For one thing, the cast just isn't there: Ames has the exotic beauty thing down pat, but there's not much to her performance besides looking dully shocked, like director Reginald Le Borg (a specialist in musical shorts, which is clearly why he was picked for a horror feature) suggested that she respond to everything with the same feeling that she had just realised that she forgot to pick up her laundry at the cleaner, and now she had to go back out. Carradine, almost always a reliable presence in crap B-pictures, has never been less charismatic in anything I've seen him do - and in fairness, no one human can see every John Carradine performance, unless they make it the sum of their life's work to do so - not nearly menacing enough to be a good villain, and not passionate enough about his love for Amina to sell this iteration of a tired plot hook. Lowery is just one more damn vanilla Universal romantic lead.
The one cast member who puts in a real performance, in fact, is Chaney, and I like to think that it's his dislike for the part that drove it. Bluntly, his Kharis, in this go-round, is an outright vaudevillian, reacting in big ways to every plot point, not a mean feat for an actor whose face is almost unrecognisable beneath thick makeup. It's his body language that does the work, though: impatience with Bey, excitement for the reborn Ananka, all sorts of things come through loud and clear as Chaney indulges in the closest thing he did to a silent film melodrama performance. It might cost Kharis some of his limited effectiveness as a monster, but at such a huge benefit to his personality that it's worth it; not like The Mummy's Ghost was ever going to be much of a horror film, after all (by 1944, there wasn't such a thing as a Universal horror film with the right amount of atmosphere and restraint to really work on that level), so at least somebody could have some fun with it.
There's one other thing that gives the film some bite. For the most part, it's a laggy piece of fluff, and only its 60-minute runtime can possibly forgive how little actually happens as the characters stand around marking time between mummy attacks. So it's more than a little bit stunning that in the last few minutes, the film suddenly makes such a pronounced turn for the downbeat, breaking all the rules of the B-movie playbook in the '40s. Do you mind a spoiler for a not very good, 69-year-old film? Because here it is: Amina, possessed by the ghost of Ananka, begins to turn into a millennia-old mummy, and Kharis drags her down into a swamp, where they will be in their undead lover's clinch for all time. The end. What the heck! A b-movie where the female lead isn't rescued at the last minute by her lover? That's genuinely shocking, especially because nothing about The Mummy's Ghost implies that it's coming - it just happens, and we don't get a second of release before smashing into the end credits. I don't know if it's meritorious or not for a film to make such a huge break with itself like that, especially to such mean effect, but it certainly sets the movie way far apart from the crowd, and given the state of the genre at that moment in time, a bold distinction of any kind is awfully easy to praise.
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)