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Friday, November 13, 2009

SHOW ME THE MUMMY:A Look At The Classic Universal "Mummy" Series by porfle

(The Mummy/The Mummy's Hand/The Mummy's Tomb/The Mummy's Ghost/The Mummy's Curse)

Run! Or at least walk real fast! Here comes the Mummy--again!
Yes, I figure this is as good a time as any to take a look back at the classic original Universal Studios "Mummy" films that started it all back in the 30s and 40s. Let's see what we can dig up, shall we?
(Warning--this article contains a sarcophagus-load of spoilers!)

THE MUMMY (1932) stars Boris Karloff, receiving sole over-the-title billing here only a year after FRANKENSTEIN plucked him from relative obscurity. He plays Im-ho-tep, an Egyptian high priest who was mummified alive for the sacrilege of trying to use the Scroll of Thoth to bring his dead Princess Ankh-es-en-amon back to life. Thousands of years later his tomb is discovered by archeologists led by Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron), and when a junior member of the team reads aloud from the Scroll of Thoth, the mummified Im-ho-tep returns to life in one of the creepiest and coolest scenes in the Golden Age of Horror and drives the poor guy stark raving mad when the crumbling corpse emerges from his sarcophagus, grabs the scroll, and shuffles off to Buffalo (or its Egyptian equivalent, anyway).

Jack Pierce's makeup job on Karloff here is magnificent, but after a few wide shots and one really great close-up, we never get to see it again. For the rest of the film Karloff appears sans wrappings (but with another fine, densely-wrinkled makeup job by Pierce) under the guise of the fez-headed Ardeth Bay, a mysterious Egyptian who shows up years later to lead the archeological team of Whemple's son Frank (David Manners) straight to the tomb of Princess Ankh-es-en-amon. With the recovery of her mummy and the Scroll of Thoth, Ardeth Bay plans to bring his ancient princess back to life--until he discovers that her soul has been reincarnated in the body of young Helen Grosvenor (the fascinatingly-eccentric actress Zita Johann), whom he now begins to lure into his sinister clutches. Sir Joseph Whemple and his son Frank discover Bay's intentions and try to foil them, with the help of a wise old expert in the Egyptian occult named Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan).

Unlike FRANKENSTEIN and THE WOLF MAN, there was no basis in literature or folklore for the character of the living mummy. In fact, the original script by Nina Wilcox Putnam was based on the life of French mystic Cagliostro, who claimed to have been several centuries old. But due to the sensation caused by the discovery of King Tut's tomb, the script was changed to take advantage of the public's mummy-mania at the time and offer Karloff as the undying Im-ho-tep. It was also heavily influenced by the previous year's DRACULA with Bela Lugosi, containing many of the same story elements right down to the almost-identical characters played by Edward Van Sloan and David Manners, and the replacement of the crucifix with an Egyptian ankh as a talisman against evil.

The cinematographer on DRACULA and a major influence on its look (especially in the early scenes in Dracula's castle) was German filmmaker Karl Freund, and THE MUMMY marked his first official stint in the director's chair. He gave the film its beautifully somber, almost expressionistic look and a deliberately-paced restraint that make it, as it has often been called, a "tone poem" of horror as opposed to the more lurid and over-the-top offerings in the genre. Today, many viewers might find it too slow and boring to sit through. But if your attention span encompasses an old-style form of storytelling that offers a wealth of exquisite subtlety and mood over visceral sensation, not to mention a great performance by Karloff, you will most likely find THE MUMMY to be one of the finest horror films ever made.

Strangely enough, it took Universal eight whole years to get around to making a sequel. But in 1940, they finally came up with THE MUMMY'S HAND, which, as it turned out, had nothing to do with the original story. This time, a couple of down-on-their-luck archeologists, the dashing Steve Banning (Dick Foran) and his pudgy comedy-relief sidekick "Babe" Jenson (Wallace Ford) are about ready to give up and leave Egypt when they stumble upon a clue that leads them to the ancient tomb of the Princess Ananka. But the tomb is guarded by the undying mummy of Kharis, who, like Im-ho-tep, was mummified alive for sacrilege. In lieu of the Scroll of Thoth, however, Kharis is kept alive by the fluid of boiled tana leaves, given to him over the years by a succession of High Priests who are dedicated to preserving the sanctity of the princess' tomb. The archeological expedition, which includes financial-backer and stage magician The Great Solvani (the lovable Cecil Kelloway) and his daughter Marta (the even more lovable Peggy Moran), is menaced by the Mummy until Steve and Babe locate the High Priests' temple and, in the exciting finale, vanquish the evil Professor Andoheb, current High Priest of Karnak (George Zucco) and set fire to the Mummy.

By this time, Karloff had better things to do than shuffle around wrapped head-to-toe in gauze, so actor Tom Tyler took over the title role. Better known as the title character of one of the greatest serials ever made, 1941's THE ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN MARVEL, as well as a prolific Western star, Tyler brought an eerie presence to the role of the homicidal Kharis. In the movie's trailer and in some of the wider shots of the film itself, Tyler's eyes are menacing and expressive, yet in his close-ups they're masked to appear solid black. Some prefer this and consider it scarier-looking, but I think he looks much more impressive without the special effect. Anyway, this time the Mummy remains mute and leaves his wrappings on, thank goodness--no fez for Kharis--as will also be the case in the subsequent sequels.

Other precendents for the future films are set here as well. THE MUMMY'S HAND begins with an old priest handing down his knowledge and responsibilities to a successor, and relating the history of Kharis and Princess Ananka through flashbacks from the first film. Here, scenes from THE MUMMY are combined with new shots of Tom Tyler replacing those of Karloff to depict Kharis defiling the tomb of Princess Ananka and being condemned to a living death. This is a scenario we'll see again. Another is the discovery of "a greyish mold" on the throats of the Mummy's victims. And finally, there's the inherently lovelorn and amorous nature of these new-model High Priests of Karnak, who just can't seem to keep their hands off the leading ladies. George Zucco sets this precedent in motion by developing a high-school crush on the captive Peggy Moran and planning to give her and himself the old tana-leaf injection until Steve and Babe show up just in time to stick a fork in his scheme.

With THE MUMMY'S HAND, the series was already double-bill fodder with a running time of only 67 minutes. Even so, the expedition doesn't even reach the desert until the halfway point, and the Mummy makes his initial appearance several minutes after that. But the comedy bits and character scenes leading up to that are fun, and once the action gets started it never stops. The scene of the Mummy coming to life before the horrified eyes of expedition member Dr. Petrie (Charles Trowbridge) and strangling him as the gloating Andoheb looks on is one of the high points of the entire series. The cast is fine and the film as a whole is a polished, competent effort that stands on its own as one of the most likable horror films of the forties.

In 1942 came the follow-up, THE MUMMY'S TOMB, which brought a surprisingly downbeat and decidedly unsentimental aura to the series. Gone was the comedy relief, along with the exotic Egyptian setting itself, and with it the security of knowing that certain characters were immune from the Mummy's wrath. This is powerfully illustrated early on as the Steve Banning character from the previous film, now thirty years older and living in peaceful retirement in the quiet New England town of Mapleton, is visited in his bedroom one night by a vengeful (and somewhat singed) Kharis and strangled to death. The next night his elderly sister Jane, whose misfortune is to be of the same bloodline as a defiler of the Princess Ananka's tomb, meets the same fate. And when Babe (whose last name has somehow changed from Jensen to Hanson) hears the news and comes to Mapleton to pay his respects, sure enough the Mummy runs into him that very night, corners him in an alley, and gives him the old five-finger chokeroo. Even when I saw this as a kid, I was aghast that these characters were getting killed off--this was eighteen years before Janet Leigh's fatal shower in PSYCHO proved that no one was safe.

Well, Steve Banning's goofball son John (John Hubbard) survives and goes skipping merrily through the woods with his fiancee' Isobel (the lovely Elyse Knox, who happens to be actor Mark Harmon's mom) while the new current High Priest of Karnak, Mehemet Bey (Turhan Bey) scarfs an eyeload of her and falls head-over-heels in love just like his predecessor. So, using Kharis as a sort of proactive go-between, he orders him to kidnap Isobel and bring her to the cemetary where he works as caretaker so they can share tana-leaf cocktails and go sailing off into eternity together. Which doesn't seem quite right to Kharis, but he does it anyway (in later films he'll get righteously fed up with such tomfoolery). But this eventually brings the whole town down upon them and, in a fiery finale, John rescues Isobel while the Mummy is trapped on the balcony of the Banning home as it goes up in flames.

THE MUMMY'S TOMB establishes Universal's new horror star, Lon Chaney, Jr., as the Mummy for the remaining three films in the series, and the tall, beefy actor is definitely the most intimidating incarnation of Kharis. He's big, mean, and vengeful, and somehow Chaney is able to convey this through the rubber mask now used by Jack Pierce to create the character, with a combination of body language and hand gestures along with his imposing physique. The film itself is a lean one hour long, with a full eleven minutes devoted to a recap of the previous film as recounted by Steve Banning to his disbelieving houseguests right before his final encounter with Kharis, and there's also the traditional passing of the baton from one High Priest to another. This time, it's George Zucco again, who somehow survived being shot two or three times by Babe and managed to keep his job after having failed so miserably, handing things over to the young Turhan Bey, who proves to be a not-so-great choice himself. But somehow, even with its brief running time and generous padding, THE MUMMY'S TOMB manages to generate a good deal of monster-type entertainment. It also adds a curious element to the series' timeline--if THE MUMMY'S HAND takes place in the forties, then how come THE MUMMY'S TOMB, which is supposed to be about thirty years later, also takes place in the forties? Hmm...

Not long after these events, however, comes THE MUMMY'S GHOST (1944), which opens with George Zucco's now-ancient Andoheb yet again breaking in another High Priest and hoping for the best. (They're the High Priests of Arkam instead of Karnak now, for some reason--new management, maybe?) This time it's John Carradine, who made movies like this mainly to support his theater habit, as Yousef Bey. When Andoheb asks him, "You are Yousef Bey?" it sounds like he says "Useless" instead of "Yousef", which turns out to be pretty accurate. With the Bannings and Babe all out of the way (except for the surviving John Banning, who is inexplicably given a free pass), Yousef is charged with a new mission: go to America, where the Mummy is still running around in Mapleton, and bring him and the Princess Ananka back home to their resting place in Egypt. Instead of brewing tana leaves to keep the Mummy alive, since he apparently doesn't need them for that purpose anymore, they're to be used now to lure him in the same way the aroma of a Brontosaurus steak used to lure Fred Flintstone.

The usual flashbacks are dispensed with this time as Andoheb gives Yousef a quick verbal rundown of the story thus far, which he hands off to the previous film's Dr. Norman (Frank Reicher of 1933's KING KONG) to finish in a lecture to his skeptical Egyptology students back in Mapleton. Unfortunately, Dr. Norman brews up a batch of tana leaves himself during a home experiment that night and the Mummy shows up to kill off yet another familiar character before chugging the concoction like a frat rat at a keg party. His presence somehow attracts a sweet young Egyptian college student named Amina (Ramsay Ames), who sleepwalks to the scene of the murder and passes out on Dr. Norman's lawn, then becomes a suspect when she's discovered there the next morning. Her stuffy boyfriend Tom (Robert Lowery, who played a dour Batman in the 1949 serial BATMAN AND ROBIN) whines to the local sheriff about this to no avail, then thoughtfully leaves his dog Peanuts with Amina to help cheer her up. (In one scene it sounds like he says, "Come on, Penis" to the dog--sorry, but this just sounds funny to me because I can't stand the stiff-arsed Tom character).

Yousef Bey's seemingly simple task is made more difficult when he and the Mummy reach the museum where Ananka's body is kept. For just as Kharis reaches out to touch it (he actually cops a feel--really!), it crumbles to dust as her spirit flees to another body. Whose body, you ask? That's right--Amina, who is the physical reincarnation of Princess Ananka, and now serves as the vessel of her living soul as well. So the Mummy kidnaps her and brings her to the abandoned tower where he and Yousef are hiding out. (For some reason, they pick the one place in town with the most steps for the slow-moving Mummy to have to walk up and down.) Yousef, of course, takes one gander at the lovely, bound Amina and goes ga-ga, his priestly vows flying out the window as he grabs for the tana fluid and professes his eternal love to her. The Mummy overhears this sacrilege, however, and turns him into a priest-Frisbee. Meanwhile, Penis--I mean, Peanuts has managed to lead Tom and the other townsfolk to their hideout, and while making his escape with the now rapidly-aging Amina, the Mummy wanders into a swamp and they both sink into the quicksand as the horrified Tom and Peanuts look on.

At 61 minutes, THE MUMMY'S GHOST is a pretty eventful little film with some good Mummy action. A lengthy subplot about Inspector Walgreen (Barton McClane, THE MALTESE FALCON) investigating Dr. Norman's murder and setting a trap for the Mummy at Norman's house goes nowhere, since the Mummy never shows up there again. (It was a dumb idea, anyway--dig a big hole in Norman's yard, cover it with leaves, and hope the Mummy falls in. "Duh.") But the Mummy's angry rampage at the museum after Ananka's body crumbles to dust and his killing of the museum guard are memorable, as are some good, spookily-lit closeups of him during the movie. Chaney's performance is energetic and effective, regardless of the fact that he hated playing the mute, heavily-wrapped character. Plus, the murder of Dr. Norman and the downbeat ending continue the unsentimental, anyone-can-die attitude of the series.

Continuity flies out the window faster than a Mummy-propelled John Carradine in 1944's THE MUMMY'S CURSE, the final film in the series. Timeline? While this one takes place twenty-five years after the events of the last film, it's still the forties. Mapleton? Never heard of it. Now, the Mummy and Amina are buried beneath a bayou in Louisiana which is being drained by land developers. Don't look at me--I don't know how they got there. But the workers start dying, and a Mummy-shaped hole is discovered by Dr. James Halsey (Dennis Moore), who is investigating on behalf of the museum against the wishes of the gruff foreman, Pat Walsh (Addison Richards).

Halsey's assistant is the delightfully-named Dr. Ilzor Zandaab (Peter Coe, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN), and it doesn't take long to find out that Zandaab is the new High Priest of Whatever, sent to finish the job that all the other idiots so overwhelmingly screwed up. This guy's different, though--he's hardcore, and nothing, not even Walsh's beautiful daughter Betty (Kay Harding), can sway him from his task. His eyes gleam with purpose as he narrates the extensive flashbacks (they're back!) for us, and if anybody has a chance of getting this long-standing Mummy business straightened out once and for all, it's this guy. He is my hero. One catch, though...he has a shifty-eyed henchman, Ragheb (Martin Kosleck), and sure enough, the henchman falls for Betty and screws everything up in the end. Somehow, I think Amon-Ra has a sick sense of humor and is just messing with these guys.

Comedy relief returns to the series--sorta--in the form of Cajun Joe (Kurt Katch) and a stereotypically-black swamp worker named Goobie (Napoleon Simpson), who exclaims at one point, "De Debbil's on de loose and he's dancin' wiff de Mummy!" Later, after some reconsideration, he amends this to observe, "De Mummy's on de loose and he's dancin' wiff de Debbil!" (Well, I did say "sorta.") Cajun Joe meets his end in a shot that graced the cover of at least one monster mag back in the 60s, while another likable character, Tante Berthe (Ann Codee), a singer who owns the local bar where everyone hangs out, gets hers while valiantly trying to keep the Mummy from grabbing a young girl found wandering around earlier in the swamp.

Played by Virginia Christine, who was "Mrs. Olson" in the old Folger's coffee commercials ("It's mountain grown!"), she turns out to be Amina herself. Her resurrection from the drained swamp is one of the most impressive, and downright odd, sequences in the entire series. Caked in dried clay, she struggles to break loose from her burial place and then staggers blindly through the woods, her head turned upward to the blazing sun as it glows through her closed eyelids, until finally she descends slowly into the water to cleanse herself. This is such a strangely beautiful, almost surreal sequence, it almost doesn't even fit into a relatively ordinary film like THE MUMMY'S CURSE, and is without a doubt the most memorable thing about it.

The Mummy has a lot more screen time in this film than in most of the others as he keeps trying to apprehend the fleeing Amina and killing anyone who gets in his way. He finally catches her and takes her to the abandoned monastery where he and Zandaab have been hiding out (and yes, it has about a hundred-and-fifty freaking steps for him to schlepp up and down), where he discovers that Ragheb has kidnapped Betty and has her tied up and ready for the old tana-leaf treatment. He's already killed Zandaab, who remained faithful to the cause to the bitter end (my hero!) and is duking it out with Dr. Halsey when the Mummy steps in and makes him sorry he ever went off-mission. Ragheb flees into a cell and locks the door, and the Mummy goes into a rage, ripping the bars out of the wall and bringing the roof down on both of them in a hair-raising scene that serves as a worthy end to this great character's involvement in the series. While discounted by some as the weakest "Mummy" film, I find THE MUMMY'S CURSE to be one of the most entertaining and unusual entries of all.

If you're into classic horror and especially the Universal monster flicks of the thirties and forties, and for some reason have managed to miss out on these movies after all these years, you can't go wrong with the "Mummy" series. From the undisputed classic Karloff original to the less prestigious but still totally cool programmers that followed, they remain some of the most highly-entertaining and rewatchable monster films that Universal Studios ever produced. So stick THE MUMMY--THE LEGACY COLLECTION (which contains all five films plus some cool extras) into your DVD player, pop some popcorn, brew up some tana leaves, and have some fun. It is the will of Amon-Ra!

Buy "The Mummy: The Legacy Collection" at
Buy "The Mummy" at HK Flix


The Igloo Keeper said...

Shit man, that's a beautifully written piece!

Porfle Popnecker said...

Thanks! I appreciate that very much.

Kenny8 said...

...and a decade later it still is

Porfle Popnecker said...

I still appreciate your saying so a decade later! Thanks for reading it!