LEADING LADIES: ZITA JOHANN

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Boris Karloff and Zita Johann in THE MUMMY (1932).

 

Zita Johann only had eight screen credits, but one of them is well-known to horror fans.

When she starred opposite Boris Karloff in THE MUMMY (1932) she delivered one of the great performances in a Universal monster movie. Her portrayal of Helen Grosvenor, the reincarnated Princess Anckesen-Amon, was mystical, mysterious, tragic, and very sexy.

And in terms of classic horror, that’s all she wrote. It was one and done for Johann, which is too bad, because she was really good in THE MUMMY.

Here’s a partial look at Johann’s film career:

THE STRUGGLE (1931) – Florrie – Johann’s film debut is in this drama about alcoholism, the final feature directed by D.W. Griffith.

TIGER SHARK (1932) – Quita Silva- Romance directed by Howard Hawks, also starring Edward G. Robinson and featuring J. Carroll Naish.

THE MUMMY (1932)- Helen Grosvenor – one of Universal’s best monster movies. Slow-paced but eerie to its core, this Karl Freund directed thriller features a remarkable performance by Boris Karloff as the living mummy Im Ho Tep, who, once resurrected, seeks out the mummified body of his former love, the Princess Anckesen-Amon.

THE MUMMY is really a tragic love story. Im Ho Tep’s life is shattered when his forbidden love, the Princess Anckesen-Amon, dies at a young age. When he tries to resurrect her using the Scroll of Thoth, he’s found out and sentenced to death. He meets a horrifying end as he’s buried alive.

Centuries later, in 1921, his mummified body is discovered and accidentally resurrected. He resurfaces in 1932 and helps archeologists unearth the tomb of the mummified Princess Anckesen-Amon, in the hopes of once more bringing her back to life.

While attempting to do so, he discovers Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), who’s the splitting image of Anckesen-Amon. Convinced that Helen is Anckesen-Amon reincarnated, Im Ho Tep seeks to kill her and bring her back to life so they can live together for all eternity.

THE MUMMY also features the phenomenal make-up work of Jack Pierce, and fine supporting performances by Edward Van Sloan and David Manners, but it’s Boris Karloff and Zita Johann who drive THE MUMMY.

Johann’s wide eyes and dark features give her a sensual, mysterious presence. She makes for a strong, independent female character, and she’s convincing as the reincarnated princess.

In THE MUMMY, Johann delivers one of my favorite performances by an actress in the Universal monster movies.

RAIDERS OF THE LIVING DEAD (1986) – Librarian – Zita Johann’s final screen credit in this 1980s zombie flick.

Zita Johann was born on July 14, 1904 in Austria-Hungary. Before acting in the movies, she performed on Broadway starting in 1924.

In THE MUMMY, she and director Karl Freund did not get along. According to Johann, Freund went out of his way to make her life miserable on set. That being said, Johann did develop the reputation for being a difficult actress to work with. Evidently, she turned down lots of scripts, which may explain why she made so few movies.

I wish Johann had made more movies. Her performance as Helen Grosvenor has always been a treat for me and one of the best parts of THE MUMMY. Watching Johan portray Grosvenor, you’ll easily see why Karloff’s Im Ho Tep was in love with her.

Johann passed away on September 20, 1993 in Nyack, New York at the age of 89 from pneumonia.

Zita Johann – July 14, 1904 – September 20, 1993.

I hope you enjoyed this LEADING LADIES column and will join me again next time when we look at another leading lady from horror cinema.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

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THE HORROR JAR: THE UNIVERSAL MUMMY SERIES

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Boris Karloff as Im Ho Tep/The Mummy in THE MUMMY (1932).

 

Welcome back to THE HORROR JAR, that column where we look at odds and ends pertaining to horror movies.

Up today it’s the Universal MUMMY series. Never as popular as Universal’s other monsters- Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man— the Mummy nonetheless appeared in five Universal horror movies and one comedy starring Abbott and Costello. As such, the Universal Mummy movies are significant. In fact, one of the Mummy movies, the first one, THE MUMMY (1932) ranks as one of the best Universal monster films ever made.

So, let’s get to it. Here’s a look at the Universal MUMMY movies:

 

1. THE MUMMY (1932)

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Im Ho Tep (Boris Karloff) reveals his secret to Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann) in THE MUMMY (1932).

 

73 minutes; Directed by Karl Freund; Screenplay by John L. Balderston, based on a story by Nina Wilcox Putnam, and a story by Richard Schayer; Imhotep/Mummy: Boris Karloff

As I said, THE MUMMY, Universal’s first Mummy movie, is one of the finest Universal monster movies ever made. There are a couple of reasons for this. The number one reason, really, is director Karl Freund.

Freund, a well-respected cinematographer, was in charge of the cinematography in DRACULA (1931). His work here as the director of THE MUMMY, with its innovative camerawork and masterful use of light and shadows, is superior to the directorial efforts of both Tod Browning on DRACULA (1931) and James Whale on FRANKENSTEIN (1931). The only stumbling block by Freund is the ending, as the film’s conclusion is choppy and inferior to the rest of the movie.

The other reason is Boris Karloff’s performance as Im Ho Tep, the Mummy. Unlike subsequent Mummy movies, in which the monster remained in bandages, here, Im Ho Tep sheds his bandages and becomes a threat quite unlike later Mummy interpretations. Karloff of course is famous for his portrayal of the Frankenstein Monster, and rightly so, but his performance here as Im Ho Tep is one of his best.

The story in THE MUMMY is quite similar to the story told in DRACULA, which is no surprise since it was written by John L.Balderston, who had written one of the DRACULA plays on which the 1931 movie was based. In fact, it’s THE MUMMY with its story of reincarnated love which later versions of DRACULA borrowed heavily from, films like Dan Curtis’ DRACULA (1974) starring Jack Palance, and Francis Ford Coppola’s BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992), both of which featured love stories between Dracula and Mina, a love story that did not appear in Stoker’s novel or the 1931 Bela Lugosi film. But it does appear here in THE MUMMY (1932).

And unlike DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN, THE MUMMY was not based on a literary work but was instead inspired by the events surrounding the opening of King Tut’s tomb in 1925.

THE MUMMY also features superior make-up by Jack Pierce, the man also responsible for the make-up on Karloff’s Frankenstein Monster and on Lon Chaney Jr.s’ Wolf Man. The Im Ho Tep make-up is creepy and chilling.

THE MUMMY contains frightening scenes, like when the Mummy is first resurrected by the young man reading from the Scroll of Thoth. The soundtrack is silent as the Mummy’s hand slowly enters the frame and grabs the scroll from the desk.

THE MUMMY also has a nice cast. In addition to Boris Karloff, Edward Van Sloan is on hand as the Van Helsing-like Doctor Muller, David Manners plays dashing Frank Whemple, and the very sexy Zita Johann plays Helen Grosvenor, Im Ho Tep’s reincarnated love.

One of Universal’s best horror movies, THE MUMMY is not to be missed.

 

2. THE MUMMY’S HAND (1940)

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Kharis (Tom Tyler) attacks hero Steve Banning (Dick Foran) in THE MUMMY’S HAND (1940).

 

67 minutes; Directed by Christy Cabanne; Screenplay by Griffin Jay; Kharis/The Mummy: Tom Tyler

Universal’s second MUMMY movie was not a direct sequel to THE MUMMY (1932). Instead, it told a brand new story with a brand new Mummy. It also took on a completely different tone. Rather than being eerie and frightening, THE MUMMY’S HAND is light and comical, with the emphasis on adventure rather than horror. The Brendan Frasier MUMMY movies from the late 1990s-early 2000s borrowed heavily from the style of THE MUMMY’S HAND.

THE MUMMY’S HAND follows two adventurous American archeologists in Egypt, Steve Banning (Dick Foran) and Babe Jenson (Wallace Ford) as they seek the tomb of the Princess Ananka. They are joined by a magician Solvani (Cecil Kelloway) and his daughter Marta (Peggy Moran) who agree to fund the expedition. They run afoul of the evil high priest Andoheb (George Zucco) who unleashes the deadly Mummy Kharis (Tom Tyler) on them in order to prevent them from stealing from the tomb of the princess.

Kharis the Mummy is the first of what would become the classic interpretation of the Mummy in the movies: the slow-moving mute monster wrapped in bandages, a far cry from Karloff’s superior interpretation in THE MUMMY, but it’s the one that caught on. People simply love monsters, and Kharis is more a movie monster than Im Ho Tep. Kharis is also mute since in this story when he was buried alive, his tongue was cut. Ouch!

Jack Pierce again did the Mummy make-up, and it’s not bad,  I prefer the Im Ho Tep make-up much better.

Tom Tyler is average at best as the Mummy. Any stunt man could have done the same. He doesn’t really bring much to the performance, and for me, Kharis the Mummy is a weak link in this film.

The highlight of THE MUMMY’S HAND is the comical banter between Dick Foran and Wallace Ford. They’re amusing and highly entertaining.

Other than THE MUMMY, THE MUMMY’S HAND is the only other of the Universal Mummy series that received critical praise. I like THE MUMMY’S HAND well enough, but I actually prefer the next film in the series better, and that’s because Lon Chaney Jr. joined the series as Kharis, and would play the Mummy in the next three films.

 

3. THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1942)

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Lon Chaney Jr. takes over the role of Kharis, the Mummy, in THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1942).

 

61 minutes; Directed by Harold Young; Screenplay by Griffin Jay and Henry Sucher; Kharis/The Mummy: Lon Chaney, Jr.

THE MUMMY’S TOMB is a direct sequel to THE MUMMY’S HAND. In fact, the first ten minutes of the film recap the events from THE MUMMY’S HAND. The story takes place thirty years later, and Stephen Banning (Dick Foran) is retired in Massachusetts, enjoying time spent with his adult son John (John Hubbard) and his son’s fiance Isobel (Elyse Knox).

All is well until the nefarious Mehemet Bey (Turhan Bey) arrives in town with Kharis (Lon Chaney Jr.) to finish the job of punishing those who raided Princess Ananka’s tomb.

The story here is pretty standard, as are the production values. The Mummy series at this point had definitely entered the world of the 1940s movie serials. Everything about this movie and the next two are quick and cheap. Yet—.

Yet— I really like THE MUMMY’S TOMB, and other than THE MUMMY (1932), it’s my favorite of the Universal Mummy movies. The number one reason is Lon Chaney Jr.’s performance as Kharis. Say what you want about Chaney, as the years go by, his reputation as an actor continues to grow. Back in the day, he received well-deserved praise for his portrayal of Larry Talbot aka The Wolf Man, but that was about it. His other portrayals in horror movies were often dismissed. Not so anymore.

He brings some character to Kharis and imbues life into the monster. He’s been criticized for being too heavy to portray an Egyptian mummy, but you know what? His considerable bulk— not fat, mind you, but solid bulk— is quite frightening! And that’s my favorite part about THE MUMMY’S TOMB: Kharis, in spite of the fact that he might lose a foot race to Michael Myers— it would be close!—is damned scary! Sure, you might outrun him, but if he gets you in a corner, it’s over! Jack Pierce’s make-up here on Kharis is also my favorite of the entire series.

Speaking of best of the series, THE MUMMY’S TOMB has, not only the best ending in the entire Universal series, but I’d argue it has the best ending of any Mummy movie period! Sure, its torch-wielding villagers which chase Kharis borrows heavily from FRANKENSTEIN (1931)— in fact, some of the same footage was used— but once the action reaches the house, and the subsequent chase inside the house, that stuff is all tremendously exciting and well-done.

On the other hand, since this story takes place thirty years after the events of THE MUMMY’S HAND, it should be set in 1970, but in the timeless world of Universal classic horror, the action is still occurring in the 1940s. I won’t say anything if you won’t.

 

4. THE MUMMY’S GHOST (1944)

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Kharis (Lon Chaney, Jr.) is back at it again in THE MUMMY’S GHOST (1944).

 

61 minutes;  Directed by Reginald Le Borg; Screenplay by Griffin Jay, Henry Sucher, and Brenda Weisberg; Kharis/The Mummy: Lon Chaney Jr.

THE MUMMY’S GHOST is my least favorite film in the series, other than the Abbott and Costello film. A direct sequel to THE MUMMY’S TOMB, Yousef Bey (John Carradine) arrives in Massachusetts to reclaim the bodies of Kharis (Lon Chaney Jr.) and Princess Ananka. When Kharis turns out to be still alive, and the Princess reincarnated in the body of a college student Amina (Ramsay Ames), Bey feels as if he’s hit the lottery. He decides to make Amina his bride, which doesn’t sit well with Kharis, since after all Amina/Ananka was his girlfriend back in the day!

The reason I’m not crazy about THE MUMMY’S GHOST is that it doesn’t really offer anything new. It’s just kind of there, going through the motions. Lon Chaney Jr.’s performance as Kharis isn’t as effective here as it was in THE MUMMY’S TOMB, nor is Jack Pierce’s make-up. The use of a Mummy mask on Chaney rather than make-up is much more prominent here.

Even the presence of John Carradine, Robert Lowery who would go on to play Batman a few years later in the serial BATMAN AND ROBIN (1949), and KING KONG’s Frank Reicher doesn’t help. I like the return to the reincarnated lover plot point, but even that doesn’t really lift this one, as that plot element was handled much better and with more conviction in THE MUMMY.

 

5. THE MUMMY’S CURSE (1944)

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Kharis (Lon Chaney Jr.) on the prowl in the swamps of Louisiana in THE MUMMY’S CURSE (1944).

 

60 minutes; Directed by Leslie Goodwins; Screenplay by Bernard Schubert; Kharis/The Mummy: Lon Chaney Jr.

Inexplicably, Kharis (Lon Chaney Jr.) and Princess Ananka are now located in Louisiana, having somehow moved there from Massachusetts! The story here in THE MUMMY’S CURSE is pretty much nonexistent. It’s pretty much just an excuse to feature Kharis the Mummy stalking the swamps of Lousiana.

But that’s the reason THE MUMMY’S CURSE is superior to the previous installment, THE MUMMY’S GHOST. Lon Chaney Jr. returns to frightening form, and watching Kharis terrorize the bayous of Louisiana is pretty chilling. THE MUMMY’S CURSE is chock full of atmosphere and eerieness, in spite of not having much of a story. As such, I always seem to enjoy watching this one.

 

6. ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE MUMMY (1955)

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Bud and Lou want their Mummy in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE MUMMY (1955).

 

79 minutes; Directed by Charles Lamont; Screenplay by John Grant; Klaris/The Mummy: Eddie Parker.

After the success of ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948), one of the best horror comedies ever made, the comedy duo of But Abbott and Lou Costello met some other monsters as well, in such movies as ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE INVISIBLE MAN (1951), ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1953), and they would meet their final monster in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE MUMMY (1955).

While Abbott and Costello are almost always good for a decent laugh here and there, this vehicle ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE MUMMY is probably my least favorite of their films where they meet a Universal monster. The gags are okay, but not great. The Mummy, named Klaris here rather than Kharis, is pretty pathetic-looking. And for some reason even though Bud Abbott and Lou Costello play characters named Pete and Freddie, in the movie they simply call each other Bud and Lou. This may have been done to be funny, but it comes off as if they weren’t taking this film very seriously.

ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE MUMMY has no connection to any of the previous Universal Mummy movies. It’s not a bad movie, but neither is it all that great.

Well, there you have it. A look at the Universal MUMMY movies. I hope you will join me again next time for another HORROR JAR column where we will look at odds and ends from other horror movies.

Until then, thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy Birthday, Boris Karloff!

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Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein Monster in FRANKENSTEIN (1931)

Happy Birthday, Boris Karloff!

Karloff, the king of horror, was born on November 23, 1887.

Karloff made over 70 movies before playing the Monster in FRANKENSTEIN (1931), the film which changed his career and made him a household name.  He would reprise the role twice, in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) and SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939), and of course would go on to make a ton of horror movies over the next four decades, from the 1930s to the 1960s.

To celebrate his birthday, here’s a look at a handful of Karloff’s most memorable horror movie performances:

FRANKENSTEIN (1931) – The Monster- there’s a reason this role turned Boris Karloff into a star.  His Monster is both brutal and sympathetic.  Insanely powerful, he can kill in a heartbeat, and yet this newly born creature is simply terribly misunderstood and maltreated.  With a remarkable make-up job by Jack Pierce, no movie Frankenstein monster has ever looked as much like a walking corpse as this one.  If you only see one Boris Karloff movie in your life (which would be shame- see more!) see FRANKENSTEIN.

THE MUMMY (1932) – Imhotep – For my money, Karloff’s interpretation of Imhotep remains the most effective movie mummy performance of all time.  There still has not been another one like it.  In spite of a plot that is very similar to DRACULA (1931), THE MUMMY is a superior horror movie, and Boris Karloff’s performance as Imhotep is a major reason why.

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Karloff as Imhotep in THE MUMMY (1932)

THE BLACK CAT (1934) – Hjalmar Poelzig – In this classic first-time pairing of horror icons Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, Karloff plays the devil worshipping Hjalmar Poelzig, pitted against Bela Lugosi’s heroic Dr. Vitus Werdegast.  Superior horror film has little in common with the Poe tale on which it is so loosely based, but it has a top-notch script full of classic lines, and it features two performances by Karloff and Lugosi in their prime, doing what they do best.  Best watched late at night with the lights out.

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Karloff in THE BLACK CAT (1934).

BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) – The Monster- The Monster speaks!  So boasted this movie’s tagline, and it’s true, Karloff’s monster learns to speak in this classic sequel to the iconic original.  Critics consider BRIDE to be the best FRANKENSTEIN movie of all time, but I still slightly prefer the original, if only because it remains much scarier.  But Karloff takes his performance as the Monster here to another level.  It’s arguably the best performance of the Frankenstein monster of all time.

THE RAVEN (1935) – Edward Bateman -The second Boris Karloff/Bela Lugosi pairing. Karloff plays Edward Bateman, a criminal transformed into a hideous monster by Lugosi’s insane Poe-obsessed Dr. Richard Vollin. Another classic pairing of these two iconic horror film stars.

THE BLACK ROOM (1935)- Baron Gregor de Berghman/Anton de Berghman – Karloff has a field day in a dual role as twins, one good, one bad.  Karloff delivers one of his best performances in this little known period piece horror drama.  Look fast for an uncredited Edward van Sloan as, of course, a doctor.

THE BODY SNATCHER (1945) – John Gray – Another superb Karloff performance.  He plays John Gray, the body snatcher who robs graves for Dr. “Toddy”  MacFarlane (Henry Daniell). Based on a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson and the real life story of Dr. Knox and grave robbers Burke and Hare.  Produced by Val Lewton and directed by Robert Wise. Horror film making at its best.  Also features Bela Lugosi in a small supporting role.

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Karloff in THE BODY SNATCHER (1945).

ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945) – General Nikolas Pherides- Karloff plays a hawkish general who uses his ruthless methods to protect a group of islanders who believe they are being hunted by a vampire-like creature in this intriguing well-made chiller by producer Val Lewton.

THE TERROR (1963) – Baron Victor Frederick Von Leppe –  An aging Karloff stars opposite a young Jack Nicholson in this haunted house tale, reportedly shot by director Roger Corman in four days.

BLACK SABBATH (1963) – Gorca – Karloff is at his scary best in this horror anthology by Mario Bava.  Karloff appears as a “Wurdalak” or vampire, and he’s downright frightening.  This is the only time Karloff ever played a vampire in the movies.

So, there you have it, just a few of Boris Karloff’s more memorable horror movie roles. To celebrate his birthday, you can’t go wrong watching these or any of Karloff’s 205 screen credits, for that matter.

Happy Birthday, Boris!

Thanks for reading!

—Michael