Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Mummy Mania #6: Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955)

This is what rock bottom looks like.

1955's Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy is the end of the line for several things. Yes, it's the final movie to star the iconic Mummy until 1999, over three decades later. But it's also the final movie from Abbott and Costello to be made by Universal. In fact, it was pretty much the end of Abbott and Costello as a movie duo, with them only starring together once more the following year. For those who are interested in such things, this is technically their 28th motion picture for Universal, and it had been a long and profitable partnership in its heyday. Watching earlier Abbot and Costello films is usually a really fun and rewarding experience; their gags are often laugh-out-loud funny, and they had an interplay that made them household names. By the time we get to this movie, though, the magic is nearly gone. 

It's telling that The Mummy is their final monster encounter, after previously working their way through the most of the Universal Monsters rogues gallery of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. By the time they ended up here, there were virtually no monsters in Universal's stable besides The Mummy. One can't help but feel like this was everyone's last choice. 
The movie consists mostly of bits between Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, and some of them work better than others. There's the hamburger bit, the hide-and-seek-with-a-dead-body bit, the snake charmer bit, the water in the face bit, and so on. The comedy that once felt fresh and fun now feels very tired. But I can't stress this enough: if you are unfamiliar with the comedy of Abbott and Costello, don't judge them on this effort. They'd been making movies for Universal for 15 years, and had been radio stars before that. When they first hit the scene, they were outstanding, and they proceeded to have a long, prosperous comedy career that made them icons and household names. Nothing lasts forever, though, and all good things must eventually come to and end. This is pretty much that end. Newer comedy teams like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were arriving, and the torch had to be passed. The exact same thing could be said about The Mummy himself. 

Speaking of The Mummy, where does he fit into all of this, you ask? Good question. He really doesn't. The Mummy feels like an afterthought to a bunch of Abbott and Costello bits set in Egypt. We see a glimpse of him in his sarcophagus early in the movie, but he doesn't actually get out of the thing until almost an hour into an eighty-minute movie. When he finally does start roaming around, we see that the legendary costume and mask from special effects makeup artist Jack Pierce is gone and has been replaced by, get this, a jumpsuit. The Mummy, here renamed Klaris instead of Kharis, drags himself around in a baggy bandage jumpsuit with a saggy bottom like he has a dirty diaper. What's more, they build gags around The Mummy and have other people in similar jumpsuits, meaning that there are scenes with THREE Mummies with dirty diaper bottoms. 
For fans of horror and the rich legacy of Universal Monsters, this is a travesty. Not only does it cheapen the impact of what has come before by making the monster himself the subject of comedy (something earlier Abbott and Costello monster movies avoided), but it pretty much ruins The Mummy. There's a reason it took thirty years to get a decent Mummy movie out of Universal after this, and it's because they had absolutely ruined the character through multiple sequels of diminishing quality followed by this, an absolute mockery of the concept. This would be like putting Jason Voorhees on Hollywood Squares. It would ruin what makes him scary and special. Freddy Krueger would be right at home as the secret square because it fits with his character, but Jason? No way, Jose. He belongs to the night, a killer in the shadows (notice how I've avoided bringing up that time that Jason Voorhees was on The Arsenio Hall Show). The shadows of the night is the same atmosphere that should always serve as The Mummy's stalking ground, too.

There's really nothing else to say. I want to take a stance of moderation here, but I just can't. It's terrible. If I try to divorce myself from my love of The Mummy and simply look at this as a mid-fifties Abbott and Costello vehicle, it's tepid at best. When I factor in the disrespect to the classic monster to get laughs, it lowers the movie to "awful" status. 
I've seen most of these Mummy movies before, but I've never really sat down and watched them consecutively with the intent of tracing through-lines and seeing how they work as a series. Now that I'm six films deep, it's becoming obvious that there has never really been a solid legacy for The Mummy. The first film is a classic, but each sequel fails to live up to the quality of that first film or the potential of the story itself. In a lot of ways, it reveals that The Mummy has always been a the red-headed step-child of the Univeral Monsters. He has an iconic image that is instantly recognizable and he's helped sell model kits and makeup kits and magazines, but he's never shared the same status as monsters like Dracula, Frankenstein, or Wolf Man. When you think of The Mummy, you think of classic black and white horror, of the undead corpse dragging his leg through the night on his way to kill. Yet that was rarely the image we saw on screen. The Mummy of our pop culture seems to be largely a myth, something that never existed on screen as it does in our minds. This is somehow very sad to me. 

In the interest of complete transparency, watching all of these Mummy movies really burned me out and discouraged me. I had planned to go ahead and flow right into the Brendan Fraser trilogy, but I'm too bummed out to continue the series right now. Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy is so awful that I have to take a break for a while. It's really that bad. 

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