Today we survey Universal Pictures’ original Mummy franchise as our series of classic horror posts launched here. Warning: we always include spoilers!
The Mummy (1932)
As a general rule I would have to say that the “Mummy” franchise is one of those rare times when the re-make (meaning the one launched in 1999) is better than the original source material. That said The Mummy itself is head and shoulders above any of its soporific sequels of the 1940s, even if it does lack the central thing we expect and want fromBoris Karloff a mummy movie, i.e. a guy walking around hallways wrapped in bandages. Directed by Karl Freund (who’d been the D.P. on Dracula and numerous films by Lang and Murnau), the film opens with what I regard as one of the scariest scenes in all cinema, when a trio of archaeologists unearth a casket from an Egyptian tomb, and the rashest of them eagerly translates some of the writing and mutters the words aloud, bringing the mummy (Boris Karloff) to life. The sight makes the young man instantly insane; his uncontrollable laughter is chilling.
A number of years pass, and the revived Imhotep disguises himself as a semi-human looking contemporary Egyptian. (Nothing is made of the fact that modern Egyptians and ancient Egyptians are entirely different peoples, both culturally and ethnically). Kaloff’s performance and make-up are great—he seems brittle, dry, capable of crumbling into dust at any minute. Most of the picture is spent with Karloff using mind control to try to effect the resurrection of his bride and to put her soul into the body of one of her descendants, a beautiful Egyptian girl (played by John Houseman’s wife Zita Johann). The backstory is cool—Imhotep had been punished for daring to love a priestess of Isis. He is wrapped like a mummy and buried alive without benefit of religious rites, dooming him to never achieve rest in the afterlife. In the climactic scene, a sacred scroll is burned, and the mummy returns to bones and dust.
The Mummy’s Hand (1940)
Eight years later, this film is more a revival of the Mummy series than a sequel, although some of the old footage has been revived for exposition purposes. (This is true of all four in the revived Universal Mummy series, making their one hour running times seem even more skimpy). But short as they are, they’re still too long, because by comparison to other Universal horror movies, they’re all painfully dull. They are cast for the most part with wooden unknowns. The first in the series The Mummy’s Hand at least takes place in Egypt, making it marginally better than what follows, but not by much. Then again, early scenes in the film were clearly shot in Southern California. Still, there is a little bit of a Casablanca vibe, providing badly needed exoticism.
In this one, an out of work scientist (Dick Foran) and his theoretically comic relief pal (Wallace Ford) discover a vase that gives the location of a sacred tomb. Meanwhile, a high priest (and head of the local museum, played by George Zucco) has been enjoined by the former high priest from the last film to watch over the tomb and protect it, killing anyone who disturbs it. The mummy from the last film has also survived, although he has a different name and a different character. He is no longer the schemer himself, but a mute lackey who merely shuffles around killing people at the priest’s bidding (Cesare to his Caligari, if you will). It is from this series that the archetypal image of the shuffling, bandaged killer mummy derives. The scientist and his pal team up with a comical magician and his daughter to find the tomb. (they need them for their money). The mummy, invigorated by tanna leaves, begins to kill off members of the party. The high priest wants the girl for himself though. This will be a recurring theme in the new series The mummy dramatically carries the girl off. The piest is going to mmmify himself and the girl…then the hero arrives, shoots the bad guy, burns the mummy.Ya know — like ya do.
The Mummy’s Tomb (1942)
This is an odd title in that in that the story takes place thousands of miles away from any mummy’s tomb. It is set in a Massachusetts town rather unimaginatively called “Mapleton.” The mummy is loose in America! A new twist, making it feel kind of like the alien invader films that were to follow in the next decade. It is supposed to be 30 years later , and a new minion of the high priest has been given the mission to use the mummy to kill the remaining characters who survived the last movie. (The high priest and the mummy have both survived their demises from the last film). The former is still George Zucco, the latter is now Lon Chaney Jr., fresh off his success in The Wolf Man, thus providing box office juice The minion gets a job as caretaker in the local graveyard. The monster does indeed kill the various characters from the last film who play themselves, made up to look older. The son of the hero of the last film and his fiancé are the new heroes. This minion wants the girl for himself. The mummy steals her. A torch wielding mob is formed in latter-day Massachusetts, and they burn down the house containing the mummy. Whatever happened to the good old-fashioned New England town meeting?
The Mummy’s Ghost (1944)
We are back in the U.S. once again. The connecting thread to the last film is the scientist who identified the mummy in the last picture, a minor character. He tells his class about the mummy and subsequently begins to fool around with tanna leaves, waking the ancient somnambulist. There is also a beautiful Egyptian girl, the girlfriend of the hero. She assists the professor but has strange dreams and sleepwalking episodes. The new lackey sent by the high priest (George Zucco) is John Carradine, but it doesn’t save the film from being a very routine programmer. He puts the spirit of the long dead princess into the girl and the mummy begins killing again. Eventually the two are sunk in a swamp…the girl having reverted to her 2,000 year old self just before she sinks.
The Mummy’s Curse (1944)
For some reason the action has now shifted to Cajun Louisiana! And everyone has a terrible accent. An opening musical number takes place in an inn which looks half Parisian, half Gypsy. The locals are all up in arms about a government engineering project to drain the swamp. They believe it is cursed because the mummies are there. Some archeologists come to retreieve the mummies they believe will be found. One is the hero, and one, by virtue of his fez, is clearly the villainous successor to the priest’s lackeys from the other films. And the instant the swamp is drained, the mummy kills again and the girl wanders around seeming to have amnesia. The bad guys have a refuge in an old monastery, which would be out of place enough in Louisiana, but now they have it outfitted like an Egyptian temple. When the inevitable torch wielding mob shows up, the monastery collapses. A perfunctory outing, and the last in the series until a decade later, when…
Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955)
Ironically, I think this is a much more entertaining mummy movie than all of Universal’s “serious” mummy sequels combined. It contains much more of what I want from a mummy movie, at any rate…an Egyptian setting, tombs, pyramids, guys in pith helmets and of course a somnambulant, dusty, 4,000 year old fellow walking around wrapped in ace bandages. Most of the “legit” sequels turn out to be set in the U.S. for some odd reason (probably expense) and we get far too little onscreen mummy time. The irony is that in my view Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy is the best of all the sequels to the original The Mummy. That is, until the reboot. Because of its close association with an actual Universal horror franchise, this is the one that most resembles Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. It’s one of the better ones.