A mere four years after the adventures of Kharis the mummy (played here, for the last time, by the resentful and alcoholic Lon Chaney, Jr.) began with The Mummy's Hand in 1940, they slammed to an end with The Mummy's Curse, the last Universal mummy picture that was actually aiming to be horror: they'd trot out the character for a perfunctory comic send-off over a decade later, and after 55 years, revive the franchise name for a series of action-adventure romps that don't even pretend that horror is on the menu. This was, as we can breezily declare from so many generations down the line, merely part of the studio's abandonment of horror once the market for that genre collapsed in the wake of World War II, but whereas I've always wondered why Universal didn't try to revive the Dracula or Frankenstein franchises around the time that Creature from the Black Lagoon brought them triumphantly back to the top of the horror game, it's no mystery at all why the mummy was left on the back-burner for so long. If The Mummy's Curse demonstrates anything conclusively, it's that the idea of a vengeful living mummy simply wasn't complex enough, or anyway, inspiring enough, for Universal's creative types to do anything value with it.

The first three Kharis films are all basically the same, applying various cosmetic touch-ups to disguise the fact that they have one plot between them (a wicked Egyptian priest using the mummy to defend the honor of his religion instead decides to kidnap a hot American woman). The Mummy's Curse touches on some of the same notes, to be sure. There is, once again, a cruel priest of Ankar, Dr. Ilzor Zandaab (Peter Coe), once again hoping to bring the body of the Princess Ananka and Kharis - now revealed to be a prince himself, in a truly unsupportable retcon - back to their proper resting place in Egypt. And now that we're at the end of the serious Universal mummy pictures, can we spend just a moment reflecting on weirdly different the culture they depict is from our own? In all five cases, the villains are flagged by their desire to retain their nation's antiquities and not allow white Westerners to plunder their culture. It doesn't pay to use the ethics of 2013 to beat up on 1944, but it's really damn hard to watch any of these films without subconsciously conceding the bad guys' point, which doesn't end up mattering all that much - the mummy films that don't work, don't work on a much grander scale than that - but it still makes for an especially weird viewing experience, compared to the more timeless Frankenstein pictures.

What I was saying, though, is that The Mummy's Curse has some affinities with the other movies, but it mostly tries to go off in some bizarre directions, and the depressing thing is that none of these new directions actually end up working - even the attempt to do something different with the franchise really only proves that the whole concept was too stale, and Kharis too limited in his range of possible actions, for the mummy films to cover the same range as the studio's other monster series.

Still, you can't blame them for not trying: there are a lot of ways that The Mummy's Curse could have played it safe, but opening with a musical number in a creole bar in Louisiana was emphatically not among them. It is the cafe owned by the woman lovingly known as Tante Berthe (Ann Codee), and she surely does seem interesting for a character who ends up having nothing to do with the plot of the film. Indeed, the only reason for this scene - and there is no reason at all for her song, except that you never really need an excuse to have a musical number in your horror picture - is to provide the customary scene-setting and exposition for anyone who missed The Mummy's Ghost earlier that year. Actually, missing The Mummy's Ghost probably makes it a lot easier to follow The Mummy's Curse, which does not, after all, clarify why we're in Louisiana now instead of Massachusetts, or why if it's really 25 years after the events of that film, does it still look and sound exactly like 1944 or earlier.

The plot of the film proper involves an irrigation project that reveals the bodies of the mummies hidden in the local swamp (once again, it's received wisdom that, duh, there are living mummies; so much so that the one person expressing doubt is openly mocked), at which point the museum experts take over, not even realising that they're in a race against time with Zandaab and his lackey Ragheb (Martin Kosleck), who want to find the same mummies and return to Africa with them, but not until after using Kharis to wreak unholy vengeance. All well and good, but what nobody's really prepared for is that, after Kharis is dredged out of the swamp, he's followed, unseen, by a female corpse, caked in mud and clay (she looks less like a mummy and more like a golem, frankly). When this being comes to, it's in the entirely lovely, living form of Virginia Christine, and she cannot remember who she is or where she came from, but she has an uncommon knowledge of Egyptian history that proves to be quite an aid to archaeologist Dr. James Halsey (Dennis Moore), currently flirting with Betty (Kay Harding), niece of the head of the irrigation project, Pat Walsh (Addison Richards). We're hopefully smart enough to realise that this mystery woman is Ananka, and that when Kharis finds his ancient lover in the glow of health, things are, of course, going to get ugly for everybody concerned.

In all honesty, the randomness that pervades every moment of The Mummy's Curse makes it possibly my favorite film in the series since The Mummy's Hand, even though Chaney's performance is nowhere near the playfully warped level he hit while making The Mummy's Ghost, and the mummy make-up is easily the worst in the series. For one thing, the scene of Ananka rising from the swamp is absolutely terrific, the best thing in any of these films since The Mummy itself, which established a model of effective old-school horror that the '40s B-picture mummy films were absolutely never going to equal, anyway. Besides which, the mere fact that the basic structure isn't the one that has provided three consecutive movies with their plot leaves the film with an illusion of creativity and innovation that the actual film, soberly considered, does not deserve.

Still, the word "random" could not be better deserved, and that does start to prove a problem. The narrative of the film is entirely arbitrary, from the musical opening on down, as if the only goal was to fill the bare-minimum 60-minute running time with stuff - any stuff at all, as long as it kept the movie hurtling forward without getting boring. Which was probably the truth, after all. But there's only so much "this happened then this happened then this happened" storytelling that a body can take, and director Leslie Goodwins, the latest mummy film director with exactly no prior experience in horror, has neither the investment in creating creepy imagery - Ananka's rise from the swamp is the one great exception in a film that is visibly the cheapest of all the mummy films - nor the commitment to keeping the weirdness popping along with any kind of self-sustaining absurd energy. It's far too short to feel laggy, especially with so many unique events happening in such a compact space, but The Mummy's Curse does, at a certain remove, dart to feel like it's not heading anywhere in particular, and that can prove frustrating at any length.

Particularly compared to the later swan song for the rest of the monster stable, House of Dracula - which actually does arrive at the kind of why-the-fuck-not energy that could actually make this arbitrary plotting work on the level of absurdity - The Mummy's Curse just isn't that much fun, even when it is enjoyably weird. It tries as hard as it might to push the franchise in different directions, but it ultimately descends once again to find Kharis stalking people who could easily get away and strangling them to death, and all the odd distractions in the world can't hide the fact that this is the same old thing one more time. That is, admittedly, enough to make it better than The Mummy's Tomb and The Mummy's Ghost, but not enough for it to be anything remotely resembling a horror classic.

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)