Monday, October 25, 2010


My friend Rabid Fox of the outstanding website Wag The Fox is hosting Monster Week in the week leading up to Halloween, and he has invited others to write about selected monsters. After surprisingly little thought, I decided on the following choice.

As a young child, I was a big fan of the classic monsters. (As an old child, I still am.) Vampires, werewolves and the like did it for me just like for anybody else, but the one that gave me nightmares was one usually far down on the scare list: The Mummy. Sure, there’s a bit of lameness about being chased by a creature with a crippled arm dragging a foot slowly behind it – just pick up your pace and you’ll get away – but there was something chilling about the Mummy’s inexorable single-mindedness about catching you and strangling you. Part of the creepiness was the silent, fixed concentration, I suppose.

The Mummy as a movie icon got its start on the Universal lot (there were earlier mummy movies, but they are dimly remembered today). In the early 1930s, Universal had enjoyed great success with Dracula and Frankenstein, and wanted a new creature for their Gothic stable. After the opening of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922, the public had been fascinated with mummies –the mummy craze became a bit of a fad in the 1920s - so a walking, reanimated mummy seemed a logical choice. Boris Karloff, who had become a star in Frankenstein was chosen for the title role (billed as “Karloff the Uncanny”) and Karl Freund, who operated the camera on Dracula, was hired to direct, and in 1932, movie audiences shuddered as The Mummy arrived at the local theater.

Those who haven’t seen the original movie before are usually surprised at how little time (only a couple of minutes) Karloff appears in makeup as the mummy Imhotep in the original film. After arising from his sarcophagus, he quickly sheds his bandages, and appears for the rest of the movie as a wrinkled old man with some evil psychic powers. You can hardly blame him for wanting to shed those dusty duds, and it must have been a relief for Karloff himself, as the application and removal of Jack Pierce’s makeup was a tedious and painful process. In truth, the plot is closer to Dracula than the shambling Mummy with which we are familiar.

Their horror movies were the cash cow that saved the studio during rough times, and Universal quickly produced sequels to their scary properties – but not the poor Mummy. He languished without heir until The Mummy’s Hand in 1940, which was more of a remake than a sequel. In The Mummy's Hand, the Mummy is now the familiar gauze-wrapped stalker we now recognize, and instead of the high priest Imhotep the mummy is now Kharis, who was more of a flunky back in the day. The mummy here is a more-or-less zombie (years before the zombie craze) covered in filthy bandages. He is also shown as something of a tool, rather than the true evil, as the mummy is controlled by a series of masters, using the new plot device, tana leaves. The Mummy Kharis was popular enough with audiences he was brought back in the sequels The Mummy’s Tomb, The Mummy’s Ghost, and The Mummy’s Curse. In contrast with the higher budget Karloff’s version, these are strictly B-movies, done quickly and cheaply. Although the movies follow one another sequentially, the timeline is muddied, and if you watch them in order, you will be amused to see Kharis sink into quicksand in Massachusetts at the end of The Mummy’s Ghost, and emerge from it in Louisiana in The Mummy’s Curse. After the third sequel, the series ran out of steam, and with the exception of his appearance in Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy, that was the end of the character in Universal’s golden age. It is worth noting that while all the monsters of Universal were brought together in House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, the poor Mummy was left out, a sort of bandaged step-child, if you will.

In the late 50s, the English studio Hammer had great success in reviving the Universal Monsters, maintaining just enough differences to avoid being sued. In 1959, they loosely remade The Mummy’s Hand as simply The Mummy, with Christopher Lee as Kharis. They would produce three more Mummy movies – The Curse of The Mummy’s Tomb, The Mummy’s Shroud and Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb – in the 60s and 70s, but they were all unrelated, and for the most part, inferior.

In 1999, Universal Studios reclaimed the character, with the third film to be titled The Mummy, a throwback to the Karloff original, with the Mummy named Imhotep and, as played by Arnold Vosloo, rarely seen looking like anything but a man, just as in the Karloff version. The movie played as something like Indiana Jones Meets the Mummy, and was savaged by critics, although quite a success at the box-office, good enough to spawn two sequels of steadily declining value, The Mummy Returns and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. A third sequel is said to be in the works.

So keep your pale Counts with their eyes fixed on your neck, and your hairy werewolves snarling for a meal. I hear shambling footsteps approaching down the hall, and the patter of grave-dust falling to the floor. I must go now, or else I will surely -

1 comment:

Rabid Fox said...

Excellent write-up. I always forget that there is a correlation between the Mummy of old and Brendon Fraser's Mummy. They're so different.

I will admit to liking the '99 film, though.