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Pharaoh's Curse
MGM Limited Edition Collection

Pharaoh's Curse
MGM Limited Edition Collection
1957 / B&W / 1:66 open matte should be 1.66 or 1.85 / 66 min. / Street Date March, 2012 / available through Screen Archives Entertainment / 19.95
Starring Mark Dana, Ziva Shapir (Ziva Rodann), Diane Brewster, George N. Neise, Alvaro Guillot, Ben Wright, Guy Prescott, Terence de Marney, Richard Peel.
William Marguiles
Film Editor George A. Gittens
Original Music Les Baxter
Written by Richard H. Landau
Produced by Howard W. Koch, Aubrey Schenck
Directed by Lee Sholem

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

In the years just before the Mirisch Brothers arrived to reenergize United Artists, not every independent producing team at UA had their act together. The distribution outlet released some big pictures but a lot of meager programmers, almost all of which used the same impoverished poster art style (see below). An exception were producers Howard W. Koch and Aubrey Schenck, who a few years later would escape the second-feature doldrums and hit the mainstream in a big way. At UA they did mostly unassuming westerns and crime films. Their Shield for Murder is an efficient quickie. They also tried their best to revive the moribund horror genre with fare like The Black Sleep and Voodoo Island. A third chiller, Pharaoh's Curse endeavors to put across a full-blown Mummy mystery, and goes so far as to shoot exteriors on location in the Los Angeles-adjacent desert. This particular title has not gathered much of a following over the years. It lacks action and gore, and even substitutes a bloodsucking ghoul for an actual Mummy monster. Yet its screenplay contains some good ideas, and the director and cast approach the project with enough seriousness to work up at least a little tension. I was expecting a low "C" but rate the end result a middling "B".

Rioting in Cairo is putting every Englishman at risk, giving the commander no choice but to send the handsome Capt. Storm (Mark Dana) on a mission to bring back an English expedition looting investigating a newly-discovered tomb many miles in the desert. Storm must also escort beautiful Sylvia Quentin (Diane Brewster of The Young Philadelphians) to the dig; her husband Robert (George N. Neise) is one of the archeologists. En route the small party is joined by the mysterious, exotic, and downright sultry Simira (Ziva Shapir, soon to be known as Ziva Rodann). Samira and Storm clash over the fastest route, as she wants to get to the site as well to prevent a calamity she claims to have foreseen in the spirit world. When they arrive the diggers have already opened the tomb, and Samira announces that a terrible fate will now ensue. While ignoring her passive-aggressive threats, Capt. Storm discovers that the attractive Sylvia has come out only to dissolve her marriage to Robert (?). Robert doesn't seem to mind that she pays so much attention to her officer escort. All would be rosy were it not for the curse of the tomb. The mummy of a royal retainer found in a sarcophagus disappears. One of the scientists collapses, ages beyond recognition in a few hours, and also disappears into the maze-like interior of the tomb. And any expedition member that wanders alone ends up dead, drained of blood. In one confrontation, the dusty ghoul's arm breaks off like a piece of chalk. When examined, it looks exactly like flesh and bone that have been drying and molding for thousands of years.

Screenwriter Richard Landau got his start in World War II and then worked as a writer for the wildcat distributor Robert Lippert. Landau's name ended up on the credits of several Hammer films finished with Lippert funds, including Val Guest's big success The Quatermass Xperiment. On his own, Landau comes up with a perfunctory but workable script that needed stylish direction and eerie production design to make an impact on screen. The film gets neither. The camerawork is competent but undistinguished, as budget constraints didn't allow for the careful lighting of scenes. Whether in a tent, on a mule or in the (unusually roomy) corridors of the tomb, the light is mostly flat.

That means that the actors must both carry the drama and suggest the atmosphere, and here Pharaoh's Curse gets a thumbs up. The story is told straight and nobody ruins the tone by acting disengaged or disoriented. Viewers looking for exciting characterizations may be disappointed, but neither is the show a campy joke or a pitiful display of non-direction. Director Lee Sholem (Tobor the Great) slants the story like a Lost Patrol piece, with the scientists being eliminated one by one. With more of a sense of jeopardy or urgency, some real excitement could have been generated. The film's monster is disturbing in appearance but not very threatening. When the mystery is finally resolved, even the characters take the supernatural events as "just one of those things" that are better off forgotten. So how will they explain those three or four corpses they left behind in the desert?

The male actors are mostly just adequate, while both Ziva Rodann and Diane Brewster rise above typed characterizations. Rodann stands like a statue in her alarmingly non-chaste, form-fitting dress to intone her severe predictions; nobody pays her much heed or worries when she disappears and reappears like some kind of phantom, hint hint. Ms. Rodann would go on to small but notable roles in films for Jack Arnold, Sam Fuller, Roger Corman, Richard Brooks, Don Siegel and John Sturges before being subsumed into TV work. I've often wondered if Ziva and her agent knocked their brains out to think of a catchy last name, to find out only too late it was shared by a Japanese flying monster. Equally beautiful Diane Brewster experienced a similar career arc that ended in frequent TV work, but few of her feature roles were opportunities to shine. Pharaoh's Curse appears to be her first big screen credit. Sci-fi fans will know Brewster as the cheerful mother who becomes voyeur bait for the quirky The Invisible Boy.

The MGM Limited Edition Collection DVD-R of Pharaoh's Curse is a handsome transfer of a show that once played in murky midnight screenings on local TV stations, chopped to ribbons with commercial breaks. It's only 66 minutes long but was regularly shown in 90-minute time slots. Any movie would seem slow with so many commercials. Technically, we still wish that MGM would show more respect for their library by consistently transferring 1950s and '60s B&W films at their correct aspect ratio. Those crypt sets begin to look really bare when we keep seeing featureless floors below and ceiling-less ceilings above. I suppose viewers that remember the title from the TV screenings will be less critical.

MGM has no trailer or extras on this release. The original ad art was no winner -- it's the first movie monster that seems to be saying, Look Ma, no cavities!" But the dull photo on the package cover isn't an improvement - it won't attract the attention of buyers perusing the goods at the Screen Archives website.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Pharaoh's Curse rates:
Movie: Good -
Video: Very good
Sound: Very Good
Subtitles: None
Supplements: the tomb was empty
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 6, 2012

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2012 Glenn Erickson

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