Nicknamed “Roll ‘Em” Sholem for his unpretentious efficiency, director Lee Sholem had worked with Tarzan, Superman, Jungle Jim, Ma and Pa Kettle and Tobor the Great by the time he wrapped his head around his first and only “mummy” movie, “Pharaoh’s Curse” (1957), a former late-night television staple that has all but disappeared in recent years, along with many of the other black-and-white B movies that ate up after-midnight TV slots in the ancient pre-cable era, before infomercials and reruns of “The King of Queens,” and before programmers decided consumers wanted full-color high-definition programming to better show off their widescreen monitors, even though most of those consumers (judging from my family, at least) have yet to figure out how to set their monitors to the correct widescreen ratio.
According to local author Harris Lentz’s invaluable “Fantastic Features Chronolog,” Memphis’ beloved “Monster of Ceremonies,” the vampire-like Sivad (real name: Watson Davis), screened “Pharaoh’s Curse” four times between 1964 and 1968 on his “Fantastic Features” horror-movie program on WHBQ-TV; yet, somehow, I missed it every time. Consequently, “Pharaoh’s Curse” is a movie I’ve wanted to see for some 40 years, even though many “classic horror” fans — a notoriously forgiving bunch (as I’m about to demonstrate) — have dismissed it as a waste of time.
Earlier this year, “Pharaoh’s Curse” was made available on disc through the MGM Limited Edition Collection, another of the major-studio manufactured-on-demand initiatives. The cover art and design couldn’t be duller, but to my surprise, the low-budget movie itself is surprisingly atmospheric, in part because even its sillier moments are played entirely straight, and because the great Les Baxter contributes an alternately creepy and rousing musical score that sounds like a million bucks.
Scripted by Richard H. Landau (who also worked on “Frankenstein – 1970” and the Hammer classic, “The Quatermass Experiment”), the 66-minute “Pharaoh’s Curse” — so low-budget the producer’s couldn’t even afford a titular “The,” ha-hah — demonstrates its ingenuity and economy in its very first scene, set in a British army headquarters office in Cairo. Sholem doesn’t show us much of anything besides a couple of injured and weary men talking to their commander, but the background crowd noise, obviously added in postproduction, is enough to suggest a near-riot is occurring offscreen, outside the building, while the desktop sphinx paperweight is all we need to “sell” the idea that we’re in Egypt. Instead of spending money to stage what would have been an intense but problematically extreme scene of violence, Sholem and Landau have a witness describe his experiences, conjuring gruesome images with words instead of pictures: “They butchered us proper, they did,” one of the soldiers tells the officer. “They cut Johnny’s tongue out, made him watch while they fed it to the animals…” The next line not only sums up the character’s despair but conveniently locates the story in time as well as place: “You’d think this was the Dark Ages instead of nineteen-hundred-and-two.”
“All they want is a chance to throw us out and bury British rule,” says the officer (Ralph Clanton), and the choice of verb is clever: The Egyptians are as eager to bury the British as the British are to unearth the Egyptian dead. In any event, to help quell the unrest, studly Capt. Storm (Mark Dana) is sent into the desert to retrieve a “jolly Anglo-American” archeological expedition, before it can be accused of violating Egypt’s dignity by digging up yet another ancient tomb. Accompanying the captain and his pair of officers is Sylvia Quentin (Diane Brewster), the glamorous wife of the leader of the expedition, Dr. Quentin (George N. Neise). Only the most naive viewer won’t assume that Sylvia — a former “starry-eyed mousy little librarian” turned bold adventurer who has “been captured by pgymies,” among other escapades — soon will be playing Paula Broadwell to the captain’s Petraeus. (In fact, Storm, perhaps more arrogant than confident, shows little compunction about hitting on another man’s wife.) “Pharaoh’s Curse” has no pygmies, but one sleeping character is menaced by a scorpion; in one of the movie’s unintentionally funnier moments, the sleeping man’s hand that shares the frame in closeup with the arthropod clearly belongs to a mannequin.
In the desert (the Death Valley location offers an impressive stand-in for the Sahara), the little group is joined by a mysterious and exotic and dare we say cat-like young Egyptian beauty named Simira (Palestine-born Ziva Shapir), whose brother, Numar, is with the Quentin expedition. The two groups unite shortly after the discovery of a burial chamber, a sarcophagus and a mummy, all 40 centuries old. “I feel a wee bit strange about desecrating this tomb,” admits Andrews (Ben Wright), the Scottish archeologist. (In other words, this is another tale — like those that fill the newspaper every day — of a Western venture in the Middle East gone bad.)
But as its title suggests, “Pharaoh’s Curse” is no ordinary mummy movie (which may be why it tends to be overlooked). Instead of a bandaged revenant, the film offers a possession tale that predates “The Awakening,” among other films. After the mummy’s casket is opened, Simira’s brother (Alvaro Guillot) begins to age rapidly; his hair whitens, his teeth darken and his skin becomes wrinkled and rough: “It’s like a hide drying in the sun,” one scientist observes. (The makeup is extremely effective.) When the brother disappears, the killings start, beginning with a horse: The poor animal appears “deflated,” drained of blood.
This is where “Pharaoh’s Curse” becomes interesting: The true auteur here appears to the screenwriter, Landau, for the film is revealed to be a supernatural revamp, to some extent, of “The Quatermass Xperiment.” Numar’s transformation — especially the bit about the dry, wasted skin — is a replay of the evolution of the doomed infected astronaut in “Quatermass,” and the “deflated” victims are like those left behind in the Hammer thriller. A difference is that in the less challenging, more formulaic American film, the brawny soldier is the hero, whereas in the earlier British film, scientific brainpower trumps military might, and the lead scientist, Dr. Quentin, proves to be not just conceited (like Quatermass) but a villain (so viewers can give Storm a pass for coveting his wife).
“Pharaoh’s Curse” was released by United Artists and produced by Howard W. Koch and Aubrey Schenck for their Bel-Air Productions company, also responsible for such late 1950s horrors as “Voodoo Island,” with Boris Karloff, and thei monster-mash magnum opus of “The Black Sleep,” with Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine annd Tor Johnson. Koch later was the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and the bigwig producer behind “The Manchurian Candidate,” “The Odd Couple” and “Airplane!,” among others.