The low-budget film outfit Bel-Air Productions churned out a trio of black & white chillers in the 1950s. All produced by schlockmeister Howard W. Koch (director of FRANKENSTEIN 1970) and released through United Artists, the three titles consisted of the legends-of-horror romp THE BLACK SLEEP, the Karloff vehicle VOODOO ISLAND and this film, PHARAOH’S CURSE (aka CURSE OF THE PHARAOHS), no doubt the weakest of the bunch. Never before available on home video, PHARAOH’S CURSE now makes its DVD debut courtesy of the MGM Limited Edition Collection.
Desperate to find her archeologist husband, Sylvia Quentin (Diane Brewster, THE INVISIBLE BOY) joins Captain Storm (Mark Dana) to trek across the Egyptian desert and eventually stop the husband’s excavation of an ancient tomb. With a couple of British soldiers along for the journey, the group suddenly makes the acquaintance of a mysterious, exotic Egyptian woman named Simiri (Ziva Shapir), who joins them in search of her brother Numar (Alvaro Guillot), who happens to be the guide on the exhibition. Before Sylvia and the others catch up with her husband, strange things occur, including the disappearance of their food, water and medical supplies, and Sylvia nearly succumbs to a scorpion’s sting.
When Silvia and the group finally reaches their destination, its Captain Storm who finds himself storming into the ancient burial place, just in time to witness expedition leader Robert Quentin (George M. Neise) and his companions open up the sarcophagus of a high priest, and proceeding to cut open the wrappings surrounding his face. At this moment, poor on-looker Numar faints, but the worst is yet to come. He starts to age rapidly (becoming quite decrepit), embodying the essence of the long-dormant high priest, now a walking zombie who will stop at nothing to protect his pharaoh’s undiscovered resting place, killing off anyone in his path while feeding on their blood.
PHAROAH’S CURSE carries a screenplay that’s pretty standard stuff, especially when you’ve already seen every Universal mummy movie before it. A group of various Americans, Britishers and Europeans desecrate an Egyptian tomb: a centuries-old curse comes to fruition and the walking dead knocks off the blasphemous ones responsible. But the difference here is that the mummy doesn’t actually awaken, but rather embodies a living person who hence rots and becomes a decrepit and mummy-like vengeance machine. Even though to some he might resemble a very old man wandering around in loose, striped pajamas, the monster is rather effective in his few scenes, and there’s the added bonus that he’s something of a bloodsucker, biting the necks of his victims like a traditional vampire. A memorable scene has the monster’s crumbling, stone-like arm detached (pulled off) as it escapes through a heavy door.
The film boasts some impressive sets, and the location shooting in California’s Death Valley National Park is a believable double for what is supposed to be Cairo. Shot as a period piece and running only 66 minutes long, the film has a reputation for its dullness, but there’s still enough enticement to placate seasoned fans of older “creature features” type flicks, especially when the mummy was such an underused monster during the decade of the 1950s (the mummy had previously met Abbott and Costello and was about to be taken on by Christopher Lee in Hammer’s gothic horror rebirth). The cast is rather uninspired, but character actor George M. Neise will be familiar to viewers from several 1960s Three Stooges features, as well as his turn as Mr. Faversham in the “On Stage” episode of The Honeymooners. Here, he’s at his best, as the obnoxious expedition leader obsessed with uncovering the pharaoh’s tomb, and totally blasé about his failing marriage. Les Baxter, still years from his tenure at AIP, provides a moody score.
In 2007, MGM/Fox issued a press release that promised PHARAOH’S CURSE as part of a “Midnite Movies” DVD paired with CURSE OF THE FACELESS MAN, but the disc’s release was cancelled. Five years later, PHARAOH’S CURSE now joins FACELESS MAN as part of MGM’s Limited Edition Collection line of manufactured-on-demand DVDs. The film has been presented full frame (its original aspect ratio is reported at 1.37:1, despite it being shot in 1956), yet there does tend to be extra headroom in a number of scenes. The transfer looks very impressive, with the black & white image having sharp detail, deep black levels and not a blemish in sight and nothing in the way of grain. The mono English audio track is clear as a bell, with no noticeable hiss or distortion. There's no trailer on the disc, but chapter stops can be navigated at ten minute intervals. (George R. Reis)
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