Saturday, February 15, 2020

Pharaoh's Curse (1957)

... aka: A Maldição do Faraó (The Curse of the Pharaoh)

Directed by:
Lee Sholem

Set in 1902 in Cairo during the British occupation of Egypt, this begins with Egyptians rioting in the streets and throwing a brick through the window of the British headquarters. So what has angered them? Well, it turns out the Brits arranged for an archaeological expedition exploring an ancient king's tomb without first getting permission. Two survivors from the riots, one of whom had his tongue cut out and then fed to him, manage to make it back to warn the higher-ups of what's going on. Colonel Cross (Ralph Clanton) enlists the aid of one of his finest men, Captain Storm (Mark Dana), to head to the Valley of the Kings the following morning to stop the expedition so the superstitious locals will stop attacking them. He's given just two other men, Sgt. Smolett (Terence de Marney) and Sgt. Gromley (Richard Peel), to accompany him on their long journey because that's all the men they can afford to lose at the moment. Also joining them will be Sylvia Quentin (Diane Brewster), who's just flown in from the U.S. to join her archaeologist husband Robert (George N. Neise), the expedition leader. The four take an alternate route through the desert (on horses, not camels!) so they won't be detected. As they camp out for the night, they get a mysterious and unexpected visitor...

After night falls, Egyptian beauty Simira (played by Israeli-born Ziva "Shapir" / Rodann) shows up at their camp. She claims to be alone and that she's from a mountain village hundreds of miles away but has traveled all the way there by foot. She also happens to be headed to the exact same place they are: the tomb of King Rahateb, to locate her missing brother Numar (Alvaro Guillot). Simira even offers to show them a shortcut. However, her suspicious story and strange behavior creates enough doubt ("If you ask me, that beautiful mirage is a walking nightmare!") to where they first decline her offer, thinking she may trying to trick them into an ambush.

The next morning, one of their horses has vanished and Simira's bizarre behavior continues. She doesn't sleep the entire night, refuses food and water and refuses to even ride on a horse; instead opting to speed walk behind their caravan. The team's water and food supplies disappear and a usually-reliable oasis where previous travelers generally stop has completely dried up. When they camp out for the night, Sylvia is stung on the arm by a scorpion and falls ill due to the poison. Now they'll be forced to let Simira lead the way.

Meanwhile, at King Rahateb's tomb, Robert and four of his colleagues - wary pipe-puffer Walter Andrews (Ben Wright), rational Dr. Michael Farraday (Guy Prescott), drunk Claude Beauchamp (Robert Fortin) and translator Hans Brecht (Kurt Katch) - have located the king's sarcophagus. Despite passive protests from Walter and warnings to the tune of "eat of thy flesh" if they disturb Rahateb's sleep inscribed right on top of the coffin, they decide to crack it open and take a gander. Numar, who has accompanied them there as a servant, instantly passes out as soon as they do and then Captain Storm and company show up to crash their party. He orders them to seal up the tomb and return with him to Cairo as soon as Sylvia, who has actually come there to announce to Robert she's planning on divorcing him, recovers from her scorpion sting and physical exhaustion.

We're already halfway through this talky and none-too-exciting movie when we finally get to the mummy stuff. One of the best aspects of this film, which I won't ruin with too much detail, is that it doesn't simply have the mummy rise from its tomb and start attacking. Yes, we get a fairly traditional mummy (with a pretty good make-up design to boot) doing traditional mummy things (like slowly lumbering around tombs, secret passageways and catacombs), but how it comes to life incorporates aspects of rebirth and rapid aging and is fairly original. The revived mummy also isn't dressed up in bandages like your typical mummy and has vampire-like tendencies; sustaining itself by drinking blood. Either human or animal blood will do as Mabel the horse can solemnly attest. Further translations of a tablet found near the grave reveal that all intruders must die before the mummy can be returned to its sarcophagus.

This was made by Howard W. Koch and Aubrey Schenck's short-lived Bel Air Productions, who churned out several dozen features from 1954 to 1958. Their most popular release nowadays is the all-star-cast film noir The Girl in Black Stockings (1957). They also made VOODOO ISLAND (1957), which frequently played on a double bill with Curse and starred Boris Karloff, and THE BLACK SLEEP (1956), which featured a classic genre lover's dream cast consisting of Basil Rathbone, John Carradine, Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. The script was written by Richard Landau (THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT) and there's a Les Baxter score.

A late night TV staple in the 70s, this laid dormant for years until MGM finally unearthed it for DVD release (part of their "Limited Edition Collection") in 2012. Their release print isn't some glorious restoration or anything but it's perfectly watchable.

Labirynt (1963)

... aka: Labyrinth

Directed by:
Jan Lenica

In addition to his films (which include 2 full-length features and a number of shorts) Polish-born Lenica also worked as a graphic designer, poster maker, animator, architect and children's book illustrator, plus became the very first professor of a film animation class in Germany in 1979. His collaboration with Walerian Borowczyk on the surreal Dom / "House" (1959) earned the two a BAFTA nomination for Best Animated Film. 1963's Labirynt, a Kafkaesque solo effort from Lenica (who also wrote, animated and did the production design), would be his last Polish production for nearly four decades as he left his home country and lived in France and then Germany, where he made nearly all of his subsequent films. His relocation clearly had to do with post-WWII communism in Poland, government control over their film industry and the proliferation of propaganda films. The government also owned and operated all of the theaters during that time, so smart filmmakers had to find clever ways around censorship - often disguising their political commentary utilizing surrealism, metaphor and symbolism - to get their visions across. That's almost precisely what we see here.

Regardless of whatever state the Polish government has been in over the years, perhaps partially even because of its restrictions, some of the world's greatest filmmakers have emerged from Poland. Andrzej Wajda, Krzysztof Zanussi, Agnieszka Holland and, of course, Roman Polanski are just some of the Polish filmmakers who've managed to achieve global acclaim for their work. By the late 70s, the people started moving away from totalitarianism; adopting a more democratic government by the 1990s. Sadly, they've been sliding back toward the more repressive political side with Law and Justice party dominance here in recent years, so here's to hoping they don't end up back where they used to be. As we see time and time again, the toxic combination of one-party rule, religious "values" (which always seem amazingly flexible whenever money is concerned) and blinding nationalism is one of the greatest enemies of true artistic freedom. Granted they aren't doing something psychotic like actually harming or killing an unwilling person on screen, no artist should ever be forced to obscure, conceal or alter what they want to say or how they want to say it.

Labirynt begins as a curious winged man / angel flying high above in the cloud descends on a large city. First drawn in by the vibrant colors, he floats further down to take a closer look. He's so impressed by the steely beauty of the architecture, he decides that this is the place he'd like to live. After flying into a building and shedding his wings, he's now ready to begin his new life. However, the physical beauty of the city is concealing something much more insidious. The angel has numerous scary encounters with monsters of all stripes, starting with a giant wasp-like creature seemingly patrolling the skies. A skeletal dinosaur follows him and then calls out, as if it's trying to alert something or someone that there's a new arrival. The angel spots a woman being carried around by an alligator man. He spears it and "saves" the woman only to discover she actually wants this creature. She revives it with a kiss, feeds it the rose the angel had given her and then willingly climbs back into its arms.

The angel starts noticing that some of the cities free-flying creatures, specifically the ones with human heads, are being preyed upon by the rest of the citizenry. A bird-man is lured into a building with the promise of sex, only to emerge stripped down to its bones. An insect-man is lured into the brush with a pretty flower by a fat cat bureaucratic walrus wearing a top hat only to be consumed and have its wings stolen. When the walrus attempts to use the wings to fly off a tall building it comes crashing to the ground. To escape the horrors of what's going on around him, the angel ducks into a circus for a distraction of dancers, clowns and moths literally being drawn to a flame. And just like the moth, he finds himself drawn into a government building where he's snatched up by a giant mechanical hand. A cyborg then ties him down and he's subjected to being measured, probed, scanned, documented and then having a funnel hammered onto his head and some kind of blue liquid dripped inside. He runs way, builds himself a new pair of wings and attempts to fly off, but must first try to escape an army of ravenous birds.

This 15-minute short has no dialogue but it doesn't need any as its intentions are pretty clear. The totalitarian state crushes individuality and brainwashes away independent thought; people are coerced in, slowly altered, infect others and then become a black, swarming, easily controlled and manipulated mass intent on stamping out dissenters. This achieves a nightmarish and oppressive quality and its mix of hand-drawn backdrops, selective use of color, traditional animation and cut-out animation (which would later be popularized by Terry Gilliam and Monty Python) is both visually striking and creates the perfect, cold urban (almost bordering on steampunk) look for this particular piece. This is the type of surrealism I tend to appreciate more where the message is neither blatantly shoved down one's throat nor impenetrably obfuscated through overly-arty flourishes or pretension.

This won awards at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival in France and the Krakow Film Festival in Poland. Along with the Borowczyk / Lenica short Dom, it's included on the 2 DVD set Antologia Polskiej Animacji (Anthology of Polish Animated Film). It's also on Youtube.

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