As in most cases, even the grandest of movie studios begin small. Universal is no exception. Its success was in large part to the tireless, visionary efforts of Carl Laemmle. A Jewish immigrant to the United States, he helped pioneer the arrival of the movie theatre itself, his efforts culminating in 1912 when he successfully helped merge four filmmaking companies to become Universal Film Manufacturing Company. However, it wasn’t until the early 1930s that Universal started to truly hit its stride. The genre that helped catapult them to new heights was horror, with both cinematic adaptations of literary classics like Frankenstein and Dracula, to original concepts, some inspired by recent world events. Enter The Mummy.
The inspiration in question for the now legendary tale of horror and romance stemmed from the 1922 excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb and the infamous, fascinating Curse of the Pharaohs, a curse more level headed folk attributed to the simple fact that old tombs might have nasty bacteria in them. Real world scientific explanations be damned though. Here was a story the producers at Universal could use to further their domination of the horror genre. 1931 was an incredible year for Laemmle’s team, what with Dracula and Frankenstein finding impressively wide audiences as well as critical acclaim. It was important to beat the iron while it was still hot. Time to dig up some old Egyptian tombs protected by malevolent curses.
The Mummy (1932)
Frankenstein was not only an incredible box office success, it only introduced to the world the inimitable Boris Karloff, credited as Boris the Uncanny. His performance as the titular scientist’s monster (and the creature’s prosthetic makeup) was lauded. Universal knew they had a good thing on their hands with monster movies and Karloff, and as such it was decided that Karloff would incarnate their mummy in a new movie. While no mention of Tutankhamun is made in 1932’s The Mummy, the notion of a curse that afflicts all those who disturb the resting places of important Egyptian figures serves as the plot’s basis. The Mummy was also the first directing opportunity awarded to seasoned cinematographer Carl Freund.
So much so is the Tutankhamun episode the launching pad for Freund’s picture that it opens in 1922, where a team of archeologists has uncovered the tomb of one Egyptian priest named Imhotep (Boris Karloff). While two of the men temporarily leave the cave to debate the prudence of tampering with the mummy, the younger, more star-eyed scientist translates and reads the infamous scroll of Thoth despite warnings not to. Lecture of said scripture accomplishes two things. First, revelation that Imhotep was mummified for falling in love with the princess Ankheshenamon and trying to bring her back from the dead, and second, Imhotep comes to life! Completely stunned, the young scientist goes mad as Imhotep escapes unseen by anyone else.
10 years later, a new expedition led by Frank Whemple (David Manners), son of one of the archeologists from the previous mission a decade earlier, and Professor Pearson (Leonard Mudie), finally discover the tomb of princess Ankheshenamon, but not without the help of the mysterious Ardath Bey, in reality Imhotep in more human form. Bey desperately wants to reclaim his one true love, especially when he discovers Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), who bears a striking resemblance to the princess. A battle of wits, courage, and evil magic ensues between Frank, in love with Helen, and Bey, in love with Helen as Ankheshenamon reincarnate.
If the above synopsis seems suspiciously similar to 1931’s Dracula, that is precisely because much of the plot is basically lifted from Tod Browning’s vampire classic. However, whereas Dracula feels very much like a proper horror film, Freund’s Mummy, while game enough to strike fear into audience’s hearts on a few occasions, is equally interested in relating a more touching, delicate story. Filmmakers and aficionados alike have often argued it that the most interesting villains are those that believe their actions are perfectly justifiable. Villainy for villainy’s sake can still be entertaining, but less dramatically engaging. The Mummy comfortably fits the bill of a monster following his heart for the woman he risked his life for thousands of years ago. Bey himself, in attempting to reason with Helen (at this point feeling a psychological tug of war between herself and Ankheshenamon who lives within her), argues that no one has suffered as much or for as long as he for a woman. There is no mistaking that Bey is a dirty bastard, killing several supporting characters from afar via special powers no science can quantify or qualify, but he is doing so for a heart that still beats and longs for love, so that must count for something.
The film’s persistent interest in the drama that unfolds results in a pacing that may strike some as more languorous. A shock-per-minute thrill ride The Mummy most certainly is not, but what it lacks in scares it makes up for in craftsmanship, and leading the way is Boris Karloff and the remarkable makeup from artist Jack Pierce, the latter whom worked on an innumerable amount of movies, including the unmistakable Frankenstein effects. It really is quite odd how so much of the promotional material made hoopla about the actual mummy effects (which reportedly took 8 hours to apply) whereas in actuality, the monster in its most decrepit form appears for all of 2 minutes at the very start of the film. Impressive though it may be, it is not the makeup effect the film emphasizes. Instead, Ardath Bey’s curious, wrinkly, dry skin is seen for the remaining drama that unfolds. Lest that turn off potential viewers, it looks quite discomforting, like something just isn’t right about Bey, which of course there is! Karloff himself gives an extremely measured performance: slow, taciturn, yet quietly exuding a sense of power and intimidation.
Dracula, Frankenstein, and even the Wolf-Man offer more true frights than The Mummy. The latter’s horror angle lies more in the strange fantasy injected into the plot, with evocative lighting bringing out the angular features of Bey’s odd face, murders via mysterious heart attacks, and a poor woman literally losing her mind as another identity mysteriously usurps hers. For those capable of tempering certain expectations, Freund’s film is admirable, if not spectacular.
The Mummy’s Hand (1940)
Universal went through a change of leadership once both Laemmle senior and Jr. left the business due to precarious finances. The incumbents were less keen on making money via horror, and as such The Mummy returned to its slumber until 1940. The original film revisited theatres briefly, with Universal hoping to make easy money. So successful was the monster’s return to the silver screen that it was deemed wise to reboot the franchise. Yes, that is accurate. Even in the 1940s studios were shamelessly rebooting their favoured characters.
The Mummy’s Hand, with director Christy Cabanne at the helm, does away with all of the characters from the 1932 original while retaining some of the plot essentials. Viewers are introduced to Karnak, an ancient spiritual sect that has survived thousands of years and many generations, always with a high priest holding the reigns. The current high priest is on his death throne within a tomb in Egypt and calls upon Andoheb (George Zucco) to follow in his footsetps. Via a magical pool of steamy water, the dying man shares the tragic tale of Kharis (Tom Tyler), a priest that fell in love with princess Ananka. After severing his tongue, officials buried him alive, but fate had something different in store for Kharis. Tana leaves from an extinct plant have preserved Kharis alive, if still in a mummified state. Andoheb is to prepare a potion that will allow Kharis to move about and kill all those that dare disturb his tomb, which is bad news for American adventurers Steven Banning (Dick Foran), wisecracking buddy Babe Jenson (Wallace Ford), Dr. Petrie (Charles Trowbridge), his daughter Marta (Peggy Moran), and magician (!) Solvani (Cecil Kellaway).
This 2nd film of The Mummy property is a strange beast, no pun intended. The filmmakers saw fit to toss out almost everything that made the 1932 classic special, including the titular antagonist’s ability to pseudo-reincarnate as a decrepit looking human being and roam freely. Of course, Boris Karloff’s absence is sorely felt, and in what one is free to assume is an attempt to skirt around that glaring problem, the creature is kept at bay for the better part of the picture’s running time, only let loose in the final third.
What’s more, the tone of the film is as far removed as can be from the more direct romance-horror of its predecessor. Steve Banning fits the bill of the ambitious, handsome, young protagonist ready to invest all he has left in finding something of historical value in the desert plains, whereas his accomplice Babe serves as comic relief from start to finish. Further distancing itself from Karloff’s picture is the inclusion of a touring magician, a jovial personality who enjoys demonstrating simple, amusing tricks to any and all that give him attention. The Mummy’s Hand therefore has not one but two vehicles with which to indulge in comedy. So focused is the movie on producing a lark that the better part of the plot concentrates on the Babe and Solvani bumbling around.
It’s difficult to categorize Hand as a bad film, because it does have some rather amusing scenes. It also opens up the Mummy universe, so to speak, by revealing the secret sect whose vocation is to preserve Kharis’s relative well being, but on the whole it comes across as woefully misguided.
The Mummy’s Tomb (1942)
Despite the actual quality of some of the entries, watching the original Mummy series is at times a revelation. So much criticism is reserved for franchises of the past 20-25 years for writing totally ridiculous, absolutely monetarily driven reasons for reviving dead characters or simply rebooting them, yet the truth of the matter is that such practices had already been going for several decades. The subject of the shameless reboot has already been broached, so now the time has come for the resurrection of a foe that was clearly vanquished in the previous film. Burned alive by Steven and Babe, Kharis is no more but ashes, correct?
Wrong. You’re dead wrong.
Tomb begins with an aging Steve Bannon (Dick Foran) telling his son John (John Hubbard) and the latter’s fiancée Elyse (Isobel Evans) the previous film’s plot. Complete with flashbacks that literally replay footage from Hand, this lasts about 10 minutes until viewers are transported to Egypt where a dying Andoheb, who was also thought to have perished in Hand, passes on the proverbial torch of an ancient sect to a younger man, Mehemet Bey (Turhan Bey). Oh, and the priests of Karnak are now the priests of Arkham. No one knows why the name was changed and apparently it doesn’t matter. Mehemet travels the Atlantic to the sleepy New England town where the older versions of the previous movie’s heroes reside. Revenge is a dish best served cold, preferably with a cup of tana leaf potion to set off a raging, murderous Kharis.
Director Harold Young and his crew do away with the comedic inclinations of Hand, settling into the horrific possibilities of a 3,000-year old mummified priest choking people to death in modern day New England. Although the film is a bit uneven, credit where credit is due. The filmmakers certainly mean business this time around, as Hand’s few surviving characters are in fact killed off without mercy. If the torch of villainy changes from Andoheb’s hand to Mehemet’s, then that of heroism is passed from Steve’s to his son John and soon to be daughter-in-law Elyse. It’s an interesting choice, one that suggests the filmmakers expressed a desire to be bold rather than ineptly taking a different route by completely changing the genre and tone as with Hand.
That does not imply the new heroes are more engaging than the previous team. At the risk of coming off as a hypocrite, despite how odd Hand was as another Mummy picture, the fact of the matter is Steven, Babe, and Solvani were at least passably entertaining, whereas John and Elyse are less so. On the flip side, the town’s Sheriff (Cliff Clark) is delightfully cantankerous as the predictable non-believer in all the mummy nonsense the heroes try to make him understand.
Tomb is a course correction of sorts. By this stage the shock of what the mummy represents has worn off, and as such Tomb simply tries to deliver a straight up horror venture, praying to the gods that some viewers experience a few chills and shivers down their spines. Furthering the topic of very old movies committing familiar tropes, it doesn’t help that Kharis is appallingly slow, his successful kills being as much a result of how quiet he is when sneaking up on his targets as their idiocy. At least viewers can breath a sigh of relief when Kharis is finally destroyed in a burning house at the film’s end…