A Lon Chaney Trio!
By Kristin Battestella
Do we need an excuse to discuss this Junior-variety triumvirate of Lon Chaney films? I thought not!
The Black Sleep – From Basil Rathbone’s slick top hat and suspicious, desperate doctoring and the spine-chilling entrance of the snapped Lon Chaney Jr. to a wild appearance by John Carradine and Bela Lugosi’s sad dénouement, the titans abound in this sophisticated 1956 terror tale. Cataleptic drug history and an ominous narration set the black and white mood along with a spooky score and fitting 1872 styles. Prison dreary, erroneous death sentences, grave robbing, dissection of convict cadavers, and the titular anesthetic keep the morbid plot moving, and questionable science, eerie estates, secret passages, and a crazy patient or two complete the scary movie checklist here. While some of the science talk is dated or hyperbole and deflection and the pace is perhaps slow today, the classy morose and well played ensemble cast – also including Akim Tamiroff (Touch of Evil), Herbert Rudley (The Mothers-In-Law), Patricia Blair (The Rifleman), and Tor Johnson (Plan 9 from Outer Space) – are worth watching. There isn’t much of our silent strongman Son of the Hour, and I’m not sure why neither he nor the bittersweet Lugosi has little or no lines, but freaky brain surgeries, great damsels, and macabre dream sequences are in keeping with the elegant yet subtly gruesome. Long time horror viewers won’t find a whole lot of scary amid the medical gone awry, but at times I didn’t know what was going to happen next thanks to surprising reveals, twisted progression, and an action creepy finish.
The Mummy’s Curse – Stay with me now – this 1944 hour long Universal sequel marks the final appearance by Lon Chaney Jr. as Kharis after The Mummy’s Tomb and The Mummy’s Ghost, which follow the 1932 original and The Mummy’s Hand. Got that? Of course, the timeline and locales are all over the place at this point anyway! We open with a French sing along to set the inexplicably changed Louisiana setting here before getting to the expected accursed mummy swamp recovery, investigating archaeology professors, and screaming dames. It’s amusing to see all the fearful and faux French accented locals, and reused stock footage from prior Mummy films creates further humor. But why is this exact same story being told to us again? Again but in a Louisiana swamp? A swamp that lies below a conveniently abandoned chapel where the Mummy hides? Fortunately, once the audience takes these leaps, Chaney’s resurrected and deadly, limbering monster can be enjoyed thanks to well done shadows, lighting, and crisp black and white photography. Virginia Christine (Tales of Wells Fargo) also has an excellent entrance as the revived Ananka, with eerie music, stilted movement, and great horror editing. Despite the spooky bayou atmosphere, this isn’t as scary movie as it should be – somehow Chaney’s crippled, dragging Mummy seems sad and used more than frightening. Poor thing misses a victim or two thanks to them, you know, walking away from him! Thankfully, the quick fun here is still watchable for fans, especially in a Mummy or Chaney viewing marathon.
Witchcraft – Lon Chaney Jr. is old but earnest in his failed attempts to rescue a centuries old family graveyard from urban development in this black and white 1964 spooky. Creepy music and that stony cemetery scenery set the mood while family rivalries, ruthless business practices, and a buried alive witch returning from the grave just in time for May Day sacrifices up the angst ante. Although we don’t see Our Man Creighton too much, the wise horror viewer knows anyone desecrating a tomb will earn plenty of bad blood and titular mayhem. The young romance scenes are also too sappy and cliché, but thankfully, they are few and far between the otherwise well played generational gaps. Conflicting attitudes on respecting the witchcraft history and superstitious fears add to the suspenseful and well-edited murders, disturbing effigies, and voodoo dolls. Great lighting, dark shadows, sinister winds, creepy car rides, and eerie, silent up close scares increase as the revenge deaths and onscreen pace quicken. These 80 minutes might become too predicable by the end with so much magical vengeance, but each mini murder sequence is a well done piece unto itself. Creepy eyes, hoods and ritual robes, and just enough undead makeup accent the fun fiery finish, too. Perhaps this is a standard witchy tale, but there’s enough plotting and performance here to match the effective, atmospheric telling.