The Series Project: The Mummy

The Series Project: The Mummy

Film essay by: Witney Seibold

 

In 1922, archeologist Howard Carter uncovered the tomb of King Tutankhamen in Egypt. The vast treasures therein sparked a frenzy of interest all around the world, and King Tut became a byword of mysterious ancient opulence, and, thanks to a few mysterious inscriptions over his tomb, the bearer of unfortunate curses to anyone who would disturb his mummy. The ancient embalming process of mummification became an interest of boys the world over. Hollywood especially seemed eager to adopt the ancient Egyptian aesthetic, and began designing glitzy movie theaters to match the look of the ancient tombs; visit Grauman’s Egyptian theater, or the Vista, both on Hollywood Blvd., and you’ll see what I mean.

Universal Pictures had already had a few major horror hits in the early 1930s, from Tod Browning‘s “Dracula,” to James Whale‘s “Frankenstein” and “The Old Dark House.” Compiling his sable of horror talent, Carl Laemmle, Jr. decided to cash in on the mummy craze himself and, in 1932, produced “The Mummy,” directed by Karl Freund. This wasn’t the first film to feature a mummy (according to The Internet Movie Database, there were mummy films starting as early as 1911), but it was, by leaps and bounds, the most popular.

“The Mummy” was a big hit and, as is so often the case, spurred a rash of sequels that extended over the next fifteen years. Thereafter, the idea of the living mummy went public, and various other studios began mucking with the mythology. The infamous Hammer studio produced a series of mummy films, and mummies started cropping up in all kinds of monster mash movies. Even El Santo fought a mummy a few times.

While many have seen the 1932 film “The Mummy,” or at least are familiar with its mythology and iconography, fewer have seen any of the Universal-produced sequels, made from 1940-1944. I, your humble critic, have sat and watched the first five Mummy films, and, here, present to you, the latest in my Series Project, the Universal Mummy films.

The Mummy (1932)

 

The famous German cinematographer Karl Freund, who shot Tod Browning’s “Dracula,” directed this film, and it was written by John L. Balderston, the playwright behind the stage version of “Dracula.”

One might say that “The Mummy” has “Dracula” all over it. They both feature a romantically frustrated undead monster who hypnotizes an innocent with his alluring gaze and ultimately intend to monsterize his victim in a ballet of undead rituals. Both monsters have weaknesses to religious symbols, and both have heroic doctors or scientists who aim to stop them. But while “Dracula” has a very melodramatic, almost lurid quality about it (a quality that has left an imprint on the ages, mind you), “The Mummy” seems more restrained, more skilled, more adult, if you will.

The story: About 3700 years ago in Egypt, a priest named Imhotep (named after the ancient architect who built the Pyramids of Giza, and played famously by Boris Karloff) fell in love with Queen Ananka (Zita Johann). This so angered the king, that Imhotep was mummified alive, and hidden in a secret tomb. The scene where Karloff is being forcibly wrapped in bandages to really kind of terrifying.

Fast forward to the 1920s, and Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron) and his dashing son Frank (David Manners) have uncovered the tomb, along with the scroll of Thoth. Ignoring the grave warnings inscribed on the tomb, an archeological assistant reads the scroll and unwittingly resurrects the sleeping mummified Imhotep, now all dusty and wrapped in gauze, who flees the scene.

Fast forward another decade, and Imhotep has disguised himself as a museum curator named Ardath Bay, and, while still looking dry and wrinkled, is not the lumbering moldy monster seen earlier. Bay insinuated himself into the lives of the young Frank, and his sweetheart Helen (also Johann) with some insidious agenda. He uses a smoking well in the museum to cast spells from across town, and can even mysteriously kill people using this method. Eventually his plan is reveled: Imhotep will use his knowledge of Egyptian magic and the scroll of Thoth to resurrect the body of his long-dead darling, whose soul has now been reincarnated in Helen’s body.

 

Imhotep eventually begins to convince Helen that she was indeed once an ancient Egyptian queen, and, thanks to an amazingly moody performance from stage veteran Johann, we believe it too. Just as Imhotep is going to complete his wicked task, the bland Frank bounds to the rescue, and Imhotep is killed.

This is a powerful and important monster film with a moody atmosphere, a scary, creative monster, and a definitive mythology that persists to this day. The performances from Karloff and from Johann are surprisingly strong, and hold up to this day. You can see that these two are professionals, and are taking this material seriously. This was long before the age of self-aware horror films, and these two are genuinely exploring the deep recesses and frightening implications of millennia-old resurrection. Indeed, some cursory research reveals that Johann was a notoriously oddball actress who was intensely interested in the occult, and would often invoke spirits on set. It is also revealed that she and Freund had a very rocky working relationship (he was a technical director, she an instinctual actress), and would bicker endlessly on the set. At one point she fainted, and claimed to have had an out-of-body experience right there under the studio lighting. Whether or not this take made it into the film’s final cut is a matter of mere speculation.

Karloff has notoriously announced his ambivalence toward being a horror icon. On the one hand, he’s glad it landed him work, and is very happy that his acting will be remembered through the ages. On the other hand, he always prided himself on being an intense, not to mention dashing, leading man, and was almost insulted when James Whale approached him to play the monster in “Frankenstein.” I just thank the powers that be that Karloff was able to play in such films. He was indeed an excellent actor and, even when buried under pounds of makeup (which took hours to get into), he managed to convey a tragic soulfulness to his monsters; it’s rare that you find yourself sympathizing with the magical murderous creature.

 

We’ll have more sympathy for the monster later in the series, but that begins to skew decidedly towards pathos.

If you haven’t seen “The Mummy,” you must. If you’ve only seen the 1999 special effect extravaganza “The Mummy,” you’re missing out. This is a great film.

The Mummy’s Hand (1940)

 

Directed by Christy Cabanne (who has 164 directing credits to his name), and written by Griffin Jay and Maxwell Shane, “The Mummy’s Hand” resembles less a horror film, and more a raucous action adventure. It was made on the cheap, featured a lot of recycled sets (the climax takes place in the same building used to film James Whale’s “Green Hell”), and had none of the same actors or characters from “The Mummy.” These days, sequels are used merely to cash in on the success of the first film. Back in the 1940s, it was common for titles and monsters to be reused without any attempt to connect them to the source material.

What struck me most about “The Mummy’s Hand” was actually how good it was. How quickly it moved. This is a film that, despite being made in 1940, was edited like a film made decades afterward, making for a film that is brisk and easy and entertaining. It contains all the familiar archetypes (bland hero, nutty sidekick, glowering villain, plucky heroine, befuddled father), and exploits them to a surprisingly effective end. While it may not have the skill or adult fear of “The Mummy,” I can still recommend “The Mummy’s Hand” as a legit adventure film.

The story, which is far more structured that the previous film: There is an evil sect of cultists who live out in the deserts of Egypt, led by the dying Eduardo Cianelli. The priest holds the secret (to life?) to life! (Itself?) Itself! Evidently, by brewing a tea made from tana leaves, and feeding it to a mummy, one can bring the mummy back to life as a slave. The tana plant is extinct, but the wicked priest has a secret stash of them hidden by an ancient priest named Kharis (played in flashbacks by western luminary Tom Tyler). The wicked priest teaches his secret to a descendant, Professor Andoheb (played by the surly and swarthy George Zucco), and tells him to find the missing tomb of Kharis’ true love, the queen Ananka (Johann in archive footage), and to resurrect Kharis with the tana leaves found there.

 

I like to think that Ananka has a lot of mummified lovers peppering the landscape, but this renaming of Imhotep was actually just the studio’s way of erasing Karloff from the series; indeed, “The Mummy’s Hand” reuses a lot of footage from “The Mummy” with Tyler inserted into the Karloff parts.

Anyway, at this point we get to meet our square-jawed hero Steve Banning (Dick Foran), a down-on-his-luck amateur archeologist who is trying to find Ananka’s tomb for himself, much to the chagrin of his wisecracking sidekick Babe (Wallace Ford). When he finds a broken amphora in a marketplace, he brings it to a sinister-looking professor for confirmation. The professor is, of course, Andoheb, who refuses to help. Banning, instead, gains the aid of the friendly Dr. Petrie (Charles Towbridge), and the monetary grant from the equally-down-on-his-luck magician The Great Solvani (nee Sullivan, played by a genial Cecil Kelloway). Along with Solvani comes his haughty daughter Marta (the pretty and feisty Peggy Moran), who will clearly serve as a love interest for Banning, but actually bothers to be a real character for herself.

This is a common theme in these mummy movies: A strong-willed woman who is far more interesting than the hero.

Anyway, Andoheb secretly follows Banning’s caravan, they uncover Kharis’ tomb (natch), and Andoheb uses the tana leaves to make tea and resurrect Kharis, now all dusty and mummified. Kharis kills Petrie, and, at Andoheb’s goading, goes for the throat of anyone who has tana leaves. Kharis is not as ethereal or as creepy as Imhotep, but you do get the sense that this is a man who has been dead for over 3000 years who is just looking to live again. The filmmakers also incorporated a neat effect for this mummy, in close-ups of his face, they animated his eyes jet black, giving them this shimmering, otherworldly look. I liked it.

Kharis tries to kill Solvani, but is foiled by Marta. Kharis kidnaps Marta and brings her to Ananka’s tomb, now uncovered, where Andoheb will do something horrible to her. I never really gleaned what it was, but I knew it was terrible. Shortly thereafter, the heroes also find Ananka’s tomb, Babe shoot Andoheb, and Banning sets Kharis on fire. It;s implied that Banning and Marta are now in love, but that was clearly tacked on.

 

Things I liked about the finale. The mummy was powerful, and cared little for the people around him, and more about the tea that would keep him alive. When an urn of it is knocked over, he logically drops to the floor, and begins slurping it up. I liked that the central bad guy, Andoheb, was not killed by his own hubris, or shot by the hero, but was dispatched by the comic relief sidekick. I liked that Marta seemed able to defend herself for the most part. I just liked this movie in general. It was solid and fun and felt ahead of its time. It may have been cheap and dumbed-down, but is way enjoyable nonetheless.

The Mummy’s Tomb (1942)

 

Directed by Harold Young and written by Griffin Jay.

A direct sequel to “The Mummy’s Hand,” this is where the series started to (you’ll forgive this) unravel. While they finally got another big name in the role of the monster, Lon Cheney, Jr., the rest of the production seems to have taken a downhill turn, most notably dictated by the film’s need to a) use about 12 of its 61-minutes of screentime to recap the events of the previous film, and b) its need to bring its mummy to America. It’s never a good sign when the most notable thing about your horror sequel is its change of setting. Jason Voorhees took Manhattan and then went to Hell and then went to space, ad nauseum. Now we have a mummy lurking about the mansions of Massachusetts.

In a prologue we see Stephen Banning (Foran in age makeup), now an old man, recounting the story of “The Mummy’s Hand” to his boring son John (John Hubbard), and his feisty sweetheart Isobel (Elyse Knox). We learn that Babe still visits occasionally, but that Marta is dead. In a second prologue we see that Andoheb (Zucco) is still alive in the same tomb in Egypt, and that Kharis is inexplicably still in tact. There is no explanation as to how they survived.

Andoheb enlists the services of Mehemet Bey (Turhan Bey) to resurrect Kharis again, using the same tana leaves they still have, and use him to take revenge on Banning and his family. Bey accepts, despite a warning not to fall in lust with anyone. An odd warning that only indicates that he will fall in lust with Isobel later.

Turhan Bey is, I have to say, one damn charming fellow. He cocks his eyebrows and purrs his sinister lines in a sultry bedroom voice, causing the audience to swoon and to squirm. He really bites into the role. Bey himself worked steadily through the 1940s, then didn’t work from 1953 to 1993, where he enjoyed a decade-long television renaissance. He lives in Hollywood.

 

Anyway, Bey takes Kharis in a box to Massachusetts (more echoes of Dracula), and sets up shop in a cemetery. He feeds Kharis the tana tea, and Kharis goes on a rampage, actually killing Banning. Local reporters begin to flood the small New England town, and word gets out (from the local cops, represented by Cliff Clark, and the local CSI guy played by Frank Reicher) that it is indeed a mummy on the loose. Despite this, Kharis manages to continue his rampage, killing Babe (Ford). How depressing. The heroes from the last film are all dying.

Wait. This film was made only two years after the previous one, but, judging by the characters’ ages, a good 30 years have passed. Does this mean we’re now living in the 1970s?

Anyway, when Bey sees Isobel, he instantly falls in intense lust, and asks Kharis to kidnap her. Kharis strikes me as a put-upon errand boy with an attitude. It’s easy to fill in his internal dialogue with the complaints of a rock ‘n’ roll roadie, constantly required to schlepp heavy things and getting no glory. Perhaps this is a compliment to Cheney’s performance. Bey tries to feed tana leaves to Isobel, but John charges in and saves her. John minces about the movie, and looks dainty and delicate; he runs like a girl. I didn’t buy him as a romantic lead, nor as an action hero.

At about this time, the reporters have all banded together into a legit mob, complete with torches, to find the mummy and burn it. This is a surreal sight in a mummy film, and feels almost like a requisite after the mob scenes from the “Frankenstein” movies. It’s made all the more surreal when you realize that the mob is made up entirely of reporters. John eventually takes charge of the mob, and corners the mummy in his girlfriend’s house. He gets to say the golden line of dialogue: “If he tries to escape, stop him with fire!”

John heroically burns down his girlfriend’s house with the mummy inside, and they run off in a hasty epilogue to get married.

Don’t the filmmakers realize that by taking the mummy out of Egypt, they’re kind of ruining some of its specialness? I always felt that part of the reason the mummy was scary was how alien, how exotic it was. It used the magic of ancient, faraway religions to come into being, and is, in addition to being scary, is also inscrutable. Seeing a mummy walk around Massachusetts only brings to light that a mummy is little more than a dusty zombie.

This is a sloppy film, which is fun to watch for Bey, for Cheney, and for its unending silliness. Stop him with fire.

The Mummy’s Ghost (1944)

 

Directed by Reginald LeBorg, and written by Jay with Henry Sucher and Brenda Weisberg.

O.k. So despite what looked like a death scene in “The Mummy’s Tomb,” Andoheb (still Zucco) is still alive, and is still giving tana leaves out to his minions. He’s downright ancient in this film, though, so its clear he’s about to kick off any second. His minion in this film is Yousef Bey played by horror movie staple John Carradine. Yousef travels to Massachusetts to find the reincarnated soul of Ananka who is now residing in the body of the Egyptian-American student Amina Mansouri (Ramsay Ames). Amina is dating a boring square-jawed hero named Tom Hervey (Robert Lowery), and they are betrothed. The CSI guy from the last film, Prof. Norman (Reicher again) is also around, and has a sealed box of tana leaves for himself.

And where is Kharis (Cheney again) in all this? Well, he’s simply wandering the countryside, I guess, free from the fetters of society, for when Prof. Norman manages to unlock the box and brew some tana tea, Kharis – I guess – smells it brewing, and charges in to drink it. He kills the professor, and wanders back out into the brisk New England night. Yousef gives occasional grave proclamations, but has still never actually talked to Kharis.

Eventually, though, Kharis and Yousef do meet up, Yousef gives him some tana tea, and asks him to kill, etc. etc. The ultimate goal in this film is, however, an attempt to reunite Kharis with his love Ananka, and Kharis and Yousef break into a museum to steal Ananka’s corpse. When the corpse turns to dust in their very hands, Kharis throws a tantrum, and its refreshing to see the mummy behave in such a demonstrative fashion. They surmise that Ananka’s soul is around here someplace, and Yousef orders Kharis to kidnap Amina. How they knew Ananka was resurrected as Amina is unclear to me.

 

Amina has spotted the mummy a few times before during the course of the film, and each time a bit of her hair turns white. It’s a neat effect. Amina is intense and broody, and certainly shows no interest in the lunkheaded Hervey who seems to prefer the company of Peanuts, Amina’s terrier.

Amina is, of course, kidnapped and taken to an abandoned mine where Yousef, on the brink of feeding her tana tea, has an attack of lust, a curious interior monologue, and an abrupt decision to keep Amina for himself. Kharis kills Yousef, and tries to flee with Amina. There is another hastily assembled mob, this time of police officers, led by Hervey, who give chase. Hervy, it should be noted, is easily knocked out by the mummy, and its Peanuts who alerts the cops as to where the monster is. Eventually, the mummy flees into the local swamp (in Massachusetts?), carrying Amina in his arms. Amina, strangely, begins to age rapidly, and, in a twist, is not rescued by our lunkheaded hero. She and the mummy sink into the swamp. The end.

 

This is a depressing ending on an incompetent and nonsensical film. How is the mummy still alive at the beginning? It’s never revealed. We never see the mummy burn in earnest, but isn’t that the implication? Isn’t the “escaped from a fire” conceit a little too obvious after “Frankenstein?” How come the “hero” character is so ineffectual? And, again, how much more time has passed? Are we in the 1980s now?

What’s more, the film is bare and ugly. When it’s not recycling footage from “The Mummy’s Tomb,” it’s using harsh California daylight to illuminate dry, uninteresting locations. The exteriors are clearly shot on a soundstage, and the sets seems smaller and weaker than last time. We’re finally getting into that part of any film series where the law of diminishing returns is beginning to rear its ugly head. The story is given less and less thought, and mummy mayhem is given fewer and fewer reasons to be.

I will say that Cheney is still very good as Kharis, and Ramsay is a lovely lady. Like the last, it’s fun to watch because of how ridiculous and illogical it is.

The illogic will only continue in the series’ final film…

The Mummy’s Curse (1944)

 

Released the same year as “The Mummy’s Ghost,” and directed by Leslie Goodwins.

So here’s something that’s touch to swallow. The mummy Kharis (Cheney once more) and his ladyfriend are still stuck in the same swamp as in the last film, but the swamp itself has now mysteriously relocated to somewhere in Louisiana. Yes, we’ve magically teleported to another state with no warning or explanation. This is the sloppiest film of them all, having all the elements of the previous films, but hastily assembled in a piece of cinema that only barely registers as a story. There are even stretches where “The Mummy’s Curse” begins to feel like an abstract nightmare.

So there’s a local swamp populated by immigrant workers, and the hardass foreman, who needs workers to empty the swamp. The migrant workers are all extremely racist stereotypes, and are seen, in an opening scene, singing in a bar. There’s the racist Greek (named, I kid you not, Achilles, played by Charles Stephens), the racist Cajun (Curt Catch), the racist Spaniard (Martin Kosleck), and, most horribly, the racist black guy Goobie (Napoleon Simpson). Lawsy.

An amateur archeologist named James Halsey (Dennis Moore, Dennis Moore) knows about the sunken mummies and wants to dig them up, but the superstitious immigrants refuse. Luckily, there’s a wicked priest (Peter Coe) lurking about who is able to get the mummy free of the swamp (somehow, it’s not shown on screen), so he can make more tana tea and finally get this poor mummy laid. While Kharis is busy strangling people, Amina (now played by Virginia Christine) manages to free herself from the swamp, but is now wiped of memory. The scene where Amina slowly rises up out of the swamp, eyes glued shut, caked in mud, slowly stumbling, exhausted and relieved, toward the sunlight, is actually a hugely impressive and genuinely terrifying scene. The image is original, and Amina’s stone-faced expression is really scary. For a few brief moments, “The Mummy’s Curse” started to transcend.

 

Indeed, while the storytelling is sloppy, the details are confusing and ill-thought-out, and the filmmaking skill actually approaches that of a Z-grade hack, I have to admit that I found something imminently watchable about “The Mummy’s Curse,” mostly because of the stylish aspects that border on the fetishistic. You seen, Christine is a porcelain skinned beauty with a Bettie Page style haircut, and is painted up with heavy, severe eye makeup. This is a look that can be found in any Goth club, or spattered across the Suicide Girls website today. She was clearly the result of many hours of sexual fantasy. What’s more, Christine’s protracted overacting only add to her alluring luridness; the camp levels are jacked up to delirious levels. A friend used the word “tawdry” to describe the film, which is perfect. What’s more, Christine is given several scenes with the film’s heroine, Betty (Kay Harding), who wears tight pants and knee-high leather boots. The pseudo-sapphic flirting is almost palpable; it’s almost like a calmer scene from a “Sweet Gwendolyn” comic.

 

Eventually, the mummy is dispatched, the boring hero kills the evil priest, and all is well.

This was a tough one to sit through, whose 61-minute running time was a mercy rather than an economy. I can’t say I recommend it as a drama, or even as a cheap, fun monster flick. If you’re a big Rob Zombie fan, though, or are one of those hipster gals who likes burlesque and Bettie Page, you could do worse than “The Mummy’s Curse.”

Series Overview

Starting with one of the best horror films ever, dipping briefly into action/adventure, and quickly slumping into indistinguishable shlock, “The Mummy” movies run the gamut. They offer an exotic monster in an exotic locale that stems from a national obsession with an exotic culture. They feature some strong female leads, and allowed Boris Karloff to invent one of his most memorable roles. The filmmakers, though, were all too quick to cash in on the name, and the films suffered harshly for it. By the time we get to the fifth film, we’re long since run out of juice, and the films started to become unintelligible. I can only be glad that the mummy eventually drifted into the public domain, and others began making mummy movies.

Each of the mummy movies contains at least four of the following:

  • An evil priest in control of the mummy.
  • A young woman who may be the reincarnated soul of Ananka. 
  • The mummy strangling at least four people.
  • A bland white male hero who fights the mummy.
  • A careful instruction as to how tana leaves work.
  • A man overcome with lust for the heroine.
  • A big fire.

 

Of course, mummies are hard to make fun, seeing as their limited to a certain time and place. I like to defend the mummy as an underrated monster. Dracula, Frankenstein and The Wolf Man get a lot of the spotlight, and the Mummy is always a second-tier player, usually grouped with the creature from the Black Lagoon and The Invisible Man. I think, upon watching “The Mummy” again, that it deserves more, and should be listed more closely alongside the big boys. But most of the proceeding mummy movies, Universal and otherwise, can’t add much more to the mummy’s general premise of him being a simple zombie wrapped in cloth.

There is some sort of filmic copyright law that dictates that a studio, if they own the rights to a certain character, must put that character in a new film every so often to keep the rights. In 1999, Universal put out another mummy movie, which was mostly CGI action/adventure, and was pretty fun, despite its shoddy direction and general compulsory sense. They also put out a film in 2004 called “Van Helsing,” cementing the ownership of the other popular Universal Monster franchises. These are not classics by any stretch, but a fantastic byproduct was the re-release on home video of a lot of the old Universal Monster flicks from the ’40s. This allowed a new generation to see them with relative ease, and allowed me to charge through these obscure mummy movies with glee and aplomb.

I will say again, that you should watch “The Mummy.” You could also do well to watch “The Mummy’s Hand.” The lovers of camp and fetishists may want to, if they have a strong enough constitution, watch “The Mummy’s Curse.” Otherwise, stay away from that one.

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Published in: on July 9, 2010 at 4:37 pm  Comments (2)  

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