A mummy movie is never a good idea. Why? Because the only way to make a mummy seem threatening is by having it lumber after a woman who appears to suffer from some kind of inner-ear disorder. Incapable of sustained equilibrium, the woman always stumbles and falls for no apparent reason as she runs in a blind panic, even when a brisk walk could easily outdistance her bandaged assailant.
Faced with the prospect of making a mummy movie, there are really only two choices. Either (a) go the Stephen Sommer’s route and jettison altogether the idea of a slow-moving, ancient Egyptian prince wrapped in bandages, or (b) don’t make the movie at all. Really. This should always be the default choice.
Curse of the Faceless Man, however, chooses to go down the cinematic road less traveled–and by less traveled, I mean gone down once and only once. It’s not enough that the “faceless man” of the title is ancient and slow–no, this particular mummy is also made of stone! This not only makes him the slowest mummy in film history, but for the first half of the film, even when the Faceless Man does manage to move, he is only capable of modest, sustained activity for minutes at a time.
Late in Curse of the Faceless Man, three doctors sum up the situation this way:
1st Doctor: (referring to stone mummy) It can not be alive.
2nd Doctor: Not the way we know life.
3rd Doctor: It is not dead. Not dead as we know it.
Unexpressed by anyone, but probably occurring to all of them, is the following:
1st Doctor: But it is slow.
2nd Doctor: Yes. Slow as we know slow.
3rd Doctor: Old-lady-with-a-bad-hip-using-a-walker slow.
Absent a monster with the menace that can drive the story forward, Curse of the Faceless Man is instead powered by backstory. Six people with various doctorates spend the majority of the film standing in cramped rooms, speculating wildly about the possible origins and abilities of a stone mummy unearthed at a dig in nearby Pompeii. Occasionally, Tina, the fiancée of one of the doctors, joins them. As it turns out, Tina has a psychic connection with the Faceless Man, which is more than can be said for the connection she has with her stiff of a boyfriend, Paul.
Much of Curse of the Faceless Man plays like an extended sequence from What’s My Line? First there’s a series of questions, hypotheses, wild guesses, and then–Ding!–someone gets it right, and the film advances to the next scene.
“The mummy is energized by light!”
“The mummy tried to pin a brooch on Tina. 2000 years ago that was how a man showed his love for a woman.”
“The mummy is an ancient Etruscan slave. He must have been in an Egyptian temple, and when Vesuvius exploded, the vats filled with special embalming fluids were toppled and poured down on him. He was flash-baked like a clay figure in a kiln and his body encased in a layer of stone.”
Ding! Ding! Ding!
The endless speculation might be forgiven if it was an excuse to showcase lots of scenic photography in Pompeii. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case.
One man digging a hole stands in for an entire archeological excavation. A plaque on the front of a building that is clearly the Griffith Observatory proclaims itself to be the Museo Di Pompeii Napolli. Finally, in a desperate bid to convince the audience they are somewhere other than Southern California, the same boxy European cars turn up in scene after scene–inexplicably driven down roads not in Pompeii but in Griffith Park or on the Pacific Coast Highway.
Eventually, the film dispenses–not only with the idea of rising action–but the idea of “action” of any kind. Freed from the twin burdens of character development and believable dialogue, the filmmakers decide to deliver the exposition in the most direct and economical manner possible: a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Having hypnotized and regressed Tina back to an earlier life, Dr. Emmanuel (one of the many “doctors” in the film) invites Paul, Tina’s fiancée, to his office so he can hear the recording.
As they listen to Tina’s flat, emotionless voice, the camera stubbornly holds on a tight shot of the tape recorder, only occasionally cutting away to reaction shots of Dr. Emmanuel and Paul. Although both of them look concerned, only Paul adopts a pose like Rodin’s “The Thinker” to let us know he is also thoughtful.
The following is an example of how possible unused footage might have been edited together.
TAPE RECORDER (Tina’s Voice): The skies have been dark since yesterday when father returned from the senate in Rome. I feel that something terrible is going to happen.
DR. EMMANUEL AND PAUL
Paul starts to speak, but Dr. Emmanuel holds a finger up to his lips–gesturing for silence.
TAPE RECORDER (Tina’s Voice): There’s been no rain. No clouds. Just the grey light over Pompeii that depresses me as I look through my window at Vesuvius and remember the curse placed upon my family by the slave Quintus Aquarius.
He appears deep in though, possibly weighing what action to take. Then the camera tilts down to a pad of paper on a desk. On it is written: Drop off suit at cleaners. Pick up cat food from store. Check out Stabian baths.
TAPE RECORDER (Tina’s Voice): I fear the slave and his strength, for he is the most powerful gladiator in all the empire. He has threatened to escape his cell and take me from my house.
Seated at the desk, he is totally preoccupied with assembling a five-masted schooner inside of a glass bottle.
TAPE RECORDER (Tina’s Voice): Yet, how can I return his love? I am an aristocrat. He is a slave. It is not… There–is that a rumbling in the ground? The house shakes.
DR. EMMANUEL AND PAUL
Dr. Emmanuel hands a gun to Paul. Paul spins the cylinder and holds the gun up to his head. There is a moment’s hesitation, followed by a look of disappointment as the hammer comes down on an empty chamber. Paul hands the gun back to Dr. Emmanuel.
TAPE RECORDER (Tina’s Voice): I hear shouts in the streets. It is a volcano. It is Vesuvius. Our house is falling above me…
Faced with the problem of reuniting the mummy and his reincarnated lover, the decidedly undramatic but time-saving decision is made to have Tina come to the Faceless Man. In a hypnotic daze, Tina frees the stone mummy from his restraints and then faints–setting off what seems to be a kind of Pavlovian response in mummies: the Faceless Man immediately takes her up in his arms. Putting one stone foot in front of the other, he begins the slow, unbelievably tedious journey to the beach — 15 miles away!
In an effort to maintain the breakneck pace that’s been established, the film cuts to a shot of Paul, the local inspector, and four other doctors gathered around a phone–waiting for it to ring. The doctors look spent, drained of all hypotheses and backstory, unable any longer to advance the plot through either word or action. The police force is sweeping the countryside in an attempt to turn up the Faceless Man, but all the inspector and the doctors can do is wait…
Having dispensed with the idea of “rising action,” the film, in a heady disregard for audience expectations, turns its back on anything that might conceivably pass for a climax. The Faceless Man, reliving his actions on the day Vesuvius exploded and destroyed Pompeii, hits the beach at exactly the same moment as the boxy European police cars. Paul and the inspector, along with the doctors and the entire police force of four men, spill out of the cars and race across the sand. The Faceless Man backhands a policeman in the face, and with Tina in his arms, heads into the surf where he….
Well…where he begins to fizz and dissolve like a giant Alka Seltzer tablet. Really. In nothing flat, the stone mummy is gone.
As it turns out, Tina remembers nothing of what has happened, and in a completely unexpected turn of events, Paul passes up the opportunity for a long-winded explanation, instead deciding it’s “just as well” Tina has no memory of the Faceless Man.
One can only guess at the fate that might have awaited Tina if Paul and the doctors hadn’t arrived when they did. Actually, that isn’t quite true. It’s fairly obvious what would have happened. The Faceless Man would have carried Tina into the water. He would have dissolved. And Tina, finding herself alone on the beach at dawn, would have been forced to thumb a ride back to town.
Not the most horrible fate imaginable, but certainly inconvenient.
One reason Curse of the Faceless Man is such a disappointment is because it was written by Jerome Bixby and directed by Edward L. Cahn, the creative team responsible for It! The Terror From Beyond Space. While It! is a classic example of a B-movie overcoming the limitation of a low-budget with talent and imagination, Curse of the Faceless Man is, at best, perfunctory and, at worst, lazy and amateurish.
Not every effort can be a home run, but this isn’t even a bunt.
In any case, Curse of the Faceless Man remains a cautionary tale for anyone who might consider making a mummy movie. The lesson? Don’t. That’s all there is to it: don’t.
THE LOST MISSILE
Jerome Bixby wrote many science fiction and horror films, but one of the oddest he ever penned was The Lost Missile. While more fun and entertaining than Curse of the Faceless Man, it is also weirdly wrongheaded in its bizarre story choices.
A missile from somewhere in outer space (we never learn where it came from or why) circles the earth, leaving a charred and ruined swath of destruction in its wake. Unfortunately, the threat posed by the missile is so arbitrary and unlikely it’s impossible to take seriously; it doesn’t even work as a metaphor for nuclear war. In some ways, the film seems a bit ahead of its time in foregrounding women’s issues and concerns, but unaccountably, it manages to do so in a way that makes them look both selfish and silly.
The Lost Missile is one of a kind, and I do my best to make sense of it in my audio review.https://imrud.files.wordpress.com/2010/08/lost-missile-mp3.mp3″