“Do you have to open graves to find ghosts to fall in love with?”
In dark and eldritch celebration of Halloween I’ve made the sign of the Devil, summoned up the spirits of the dead, called on the services of Mephistopheles, raised the dread demon Pazuzu, supped with the Great God Pan and abandoned my one-film-a-day ritual. Today I’ve watched three films: ‘The Mummy’, directed by Karl Freund in 1932, ‘Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man’ directed by Roy William Neill in 1943, and ‘Carry On Screaming!’, directed by Gerald Thomas in 1966.
Of the three, the earliest is undeniably the best. In fact I would say that ‘The Mummy’ is superior to the earlier Universal adaptations of ‘Dracula’ and ‘Frankenstein’. Boris Karloff plays Imhotep, a deceased Egyptian priest who is resurrected in 1920s Cairo and who uses his mesmeric powers to try to bring his dead lover back. Karloff is unbelievable in this, the make-up is inventive and suggestive of dry decay but without overdoing it – the real power is in Karloff’s uncanny performance, his lanky stance and weird movements; his unblinking eyes. It’s a love story, but one that plays (maybe unconsciously) with the idea of empire and the rights of countries to control the cultural heritage of others.
‘Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man’ is a far less coherent and far more disposable affair. It’s the equivalent of the Marvel superhero mash-ups without the control or skill to bring it together. There are touches of greatness here – the sets and model work are great, the pace is strange (the story is broken in two to serve the two characters) but kinetic. Of real interest is the chance to see Lon Chaney Jr in the role that made him famous (other than his role as the son of the legendary horror actor) and the unusual sight of Bela Lugosi instead of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster. Lugosi is, strangely, but the strength and the weakness of the film. There is a prurient pleasure in seeing him wearing anther character’s shoes, but also a sadness. He is reduced to snarling and gesturing throughout the film; a side-lined extra instead of a central character. The worst thing about it is he doesn’t even snarl or gesture believable – opting instead for a fake memory of what Karloff achieved.
Finally, ‘Carry On Screaming!’ is a horror parody to end all parodies. Tackling the Universal movies, but also Hammer, ‘Doctor Who’, ‘Quatermass’ and ‘The Addams Family’, the 1966 film is a joyous collision of the seaside humour of the Carry On movies with the rich, gothic darkness of the horror genre. For me the Carry On films were at their best when tackling historical rather than contemporary events, but this one is different and rarer. This is a Carry On film that parodies a genre. In the series, only ‘Carry On Spying’, ‘Carry On Cowboy’ and this one (all from the mid-1960s) take this approach, and this is where it works best. Highlights are Jon Pertwee’s cameo as a police scientist, Harry H. Corbett as the almost heroic Detective Sergeant Bung, and the ubiquitous Kenneth Williams as Dr. Orlando Wat, an undead scientist. The film has a particular Britishness about it, unusual after watching the Universal movies attempts to recreate Britain in Hollywood. Somehow the balance of humour and horror, the interplay between the sexual jokes and the macabre work perfectly and sum up what makes the Carry On films such a particular part of our national heritage.
Would I recommend them? ‘The Mummy’, absolutely, in a double bill with ‘Dracula’. The others, maybe ‘Carry On Screaming!’ if only for sheer and unabandoned pleasure of watching a genre be picked apart.