Films from the Mummy's Tomb

the history of Mummy-related horror films assessed,
a brief glance at bandaged mayhem movies by Tony Chester


On the face of it one would not necessarily have thought that some old bloke shambling about, with or without bandages, would be all that frightening. Yet the Mummy has proved to be one of horror’s more endurable creations. Though none of the Mummy films credit it, they all owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the novel The Mummy! A Tale of the 22nd Century (1827) by Jane Loudun (Webb), the original mummy-takes-revenge-on-those-who-disturbed-its-rest story. By the cinema age, Egypt, tombs and mummies were all the rage, both sides of the Atlantic: In 1913 the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York purchased from the Egyptian government the mastaba (tomb) of the Fifth Dynasty lord chamberlain Pery-Neb, dismantled it in the cemetery at Saqqara and reconstructed it in the Egyptian Wing of the museum; and, of course, on the fourth of November 1922 Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon discovered the tomb of Tut-ankh-amun, twelfth king of the Eighteenth Dynasty, who had died at nineteen years of age after a ten-year reign (1333-1323 BC).

Karl Freund, who had been cameraman on Dracula, made his directorial debut with the classic Universal film The Mummy (1932), starring Boris Karloff as Im-Ho-Tep, a 3700-year-old Mummy accidentally brought to life by an Egyptologist (Bramwell Fletcher) reading aloud from a scroll. Im-Ho-Tep in his bandaged form is barely seen (which adds to, rather than detracts from, the horror); when we catch up with Karloff it is as a wrinkle-faced man searching for the reincarnation of his lost love (Zita Johann). Their tale, told in an effective flashback, is the by now usual one of love’s transgression, with the illicit lovers punished, Im-Ho-Tep by being interred alive. Before he can imbue Johann’s form with the spirit of his lost love, he is destroyed by Edward van Sloan. Just as a matter of interest, there was a real Imhotep who built a step-pyramid at Saqqara. Although he was 'only' an advisor and architect to Pharaoh Zoser (28th century BCE), Imhotep ended up being worshipped as a 'god of healing' in his own right. The British production company Gaumont, keen to cash in on Karloff's popularity and the enthusiasm for things Egyptian engendered by The Mummy, cast Karloff in The Ghoul (1933), directed by T Hayes Hunter. Based somewhat loosely on the novel by Frank King and Leonard Hines, this film suffers from not knowing whether it wants to be a comedy or not. Boris Karloff is a dying Egyptologist and dabbler in the occult who has a gem, the Eternal Light, which, if offered to Anubis on the first full Moon following his ‘death’, will give him immortality. He is laid in a sepulchre when he dies (though this is later hinted to be catalepsy, in keeping with the downplaying of supernatural events in British horror films of the time) with the jewel bandaged to his wrist. However, his servant (Ernest Thesiger) steals the gem to safeguard it for the heir (Dorothy Hyson). She turns up at the house with a friend (Kathleen Harrison) and another relative (Anthony Bushell) when summoned by the shady lawyer (Cedric Hardwicke), and they are also joined by a bumbling (and phony) priest (Ralph Richardson in his first screen role). They and others (there are some Egyptians out trying to recover the jewel) stumble around trying to find the gem, in the fashion of a haunted house mystery, while Karloff rises from his tomb, also seeking it. Needless to say, it all works out eventually, with Karloff truly dead. Quite a different kettle of fish was Mummy's Boys (1936), a Mummy parody starring comedy duo Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey, directed by Fred Guiol. Sadly, the mummy that was killing archaeologists turns out to be a murderer in disguise.

The first of the Universal sequels did not arrive until 1940. These are, to say the least, somewhat variable in quality. The Mummy’s Hand (1940), directed by Christy Cabanne, was the first film to have the Mummy shuffling around in bandages throughout. George Zucco is the bad guy who controls the Mummy through the sacred tana leaves; Peggy Moran the reincarnated lover who Zucco also has designs on; and Dick Foran and Wallace Ford the tomb desecrators. Tom Tyler, a veteran cowboy actor, is the Mummy, now called Kharis. The Mummy’s Tomb (1942) dir. Harold Young was very nearly a straight re-make of the previous film. Lon Chaney jr takes over the bandages of Kharis (looking a bit portly); Zucco re-appears – despite a pretty emphatic death scene in the previous film – handing over the reins of chief evildoer to Turhan Bey; Dick Foran also turns up, but the damsel in distress is Elyse Knox. The Mummy’s Ghost (1944), dir. Reginald LeBorg, is a little better. John Carradine is in control of the tana leaves; Chaney jr keeps the bandages; but now Ramsay Ames is the reincarnation of Kharis’s lover Ananka. By the end of the film her hair has turned white and she sinks with Kharis into the swamp. The Mummy’s Curse (1945) dir. Leslie Goodwins has the swamp drained, a new bad guy (Peter Coe) and a new girl to chase (Virginia Christine). And that was it for a decade, until the inevitable self-parody Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955) came along. Directed by Charles Lamont this was the last and least of a string of films putting the comedic heroes in horror and SF situations. In 1948 they had met Frankenstein, in '49 Boris Karloff, in '51 the Invisible Man, in '53 Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde and, also in'53, had gone to Mars. By the time of this film, Abbott and Costello were seriously past their sell-by date, and the best thing Eddie Parker's mummy could have done would have been to put them out of our misery.

1957's Castle of the Monsters, dir. Julian Soler, is a Mexican imitation of Universal's "monster rallies" and especially 1948's Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Comics Antonio Espino (Clavillazo) and Evangelina Elizondo stumble around a haunted castle meeting Frentenstein (sic), the creature from the Black Lagoon, a vampire, a werewolf and a mummy. Poor though that might sound, much less interesting was Pharaoh's Curse (1957) dir. Lee Sholem. George Neise and Diane Brewster desecrate the tomb of a priest and make an incision in the mummy's wrappings. Though warned against this by an Arab girl (Ziva Rodann), the cut sucks in the spirit of her brother (Alvaro Guillot) which re-animates the mummy so that it can set about its revenge. Which it does. Tediously. Thankfully 1957 also gave us three wonderful Mexican mummy films, very popular in the film programmes of 1970s comic and SF conventions. The Aztec Mummy (1957), dir. Rafael Portillo, was the first of the three, all from the same director, producer (Guillermo Calderon), writers (Calderon and Alfredo Salazar), and a virtually identical crew and cast! The comic-book/serial adventures start when Dr Almada (Ramon Gay) hypnotizes his girlfriend Flor (Rosita Arenas) into regressing to a past life. It turns out she is the reincarnation of an Aztec princess, Xochitl, who was ritually killed for an illicit affair with the warrior Popoca. The jewels with which she was buried reveal the location of a large horde, sought by the baddie Dr Krupp (Luis Aceves Castaneda, who goes round in a mask calling himself ‘El Murcielago’, the Bat). Popoca was mummified to keep the jewels safe. Needless to say, when the jewels are taken from Xochitl, Popoca comes to life to reclaim them. For some reason he’s afraid of the crucifix, and the good guys get away and dynamite the tomb. In The Curse of the Aztec Mummy Dr Krupp kidnaps Flor, aided by the bandit El Tierno (Arturo Martinez). Once again his schemes are thwarted by Almada and his assistant, who dons a mask to become the wrestler El Angel (Crox Alvarado). Popoca locks Krupp in a room full of vipers before going back to sleep. The third film, The Robot vs. the Aztec Mummy, reveals that Krupp escaped his doom and he has created a robot to battle Popoca. Once again the good guys win. In 1964 director Rene Cardona mixed the mummy, now called Tezomoc, into a series of films featuring a gang of women wrestlers. The Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy is not as ‘good’ as the originals and can be safely missed.

The influence of The Mummy can be seen in the 1958 film Curse of the Faceless Man, dir. Edward L Cahn, which has an uncommonly witty and literate script by Jerome Bixby. In Pompeii a golem-like figure of a calcified Etruscan slave-gladiator, Quintilius, is found and transported to an American museum. The figure (Bob Bryant) comes to life and threatens an artist (Elaine Edwards) who just happens to be the girlfriend of the museum's scientific advisor (Richard Anderson). Just when you think the 'mummy' has won, he attempts to walk into the sea, with his love in his arms, only to crumble to dust in the water. La Casa del Terror (1959), dir. Gilberto Martinez Solares, is a comedy horror vehicle for Mexican film comic Tin Tan (German Valdes), which features Lon Chaney jr. as a mummified werewolf. The film was badly butchered upon its release in the US in 1965 as The Face of the Screaming Werewolf. However, 1959 is also the year that Hammer Films started their run of the Universal franchise in the capable hands of director Terence Fisher. The Mummy (1959) featured a Jimmy Sangster script which, on the whole, probably owes more to the 1940 and 1942 films than to the 1932 original, but colour film and Fisher’s direction combine to make this a more macabre offering than was possible in the previous decade. Christopher Lee plays Kharis and Peter Cushing the defiler of his tomb. Cushing’s wife, Yvonne Furneaux, is the reincarnation of Princess Anaka (a slight name change). Once again there’s a pretty convincing flashback to the original ‘crime’ and mummification, but the scene that stays in everyone’s mind is that of Lee rising from the swamp. But it was five years before the first sequel came along. In the meantime the Mexicans popped up again with La Cabeza Vivente (1961) dir. Chano Urueta. Horror importer K Gordon Murray released this into the US market as The Living Head. It comes remarkably close to being an adaptation of Bram Stoker's The Jewel of Seven Stars (1907). Professor Mueller (German Robles) discovers the tomb of Aztec chief Acatl (Mauricio Garces) and his priestess Xochiquetzal (Ana Luisa Peluffo). The professor takes a ring from the priestess's finger and gives it to his daughter Marta (also Peluffo) whose fiance (also Garces) is, of course, the spitting image of Acatl. The revenge against the desecrators is overseen by a muscular priest-mummy (Guillermo Cramer).

The Hammer films continued with The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964), dir. Michael Carreras, which tried to inject new blood into the vengeance fuelled theme but, arguably, failed in this muddle-plotted film. Dickie Owen is the Mummy Ra-Antef who gets to revenge himself upon the reincarnations of all those responsible for his ‘death’, including his immortal brother (Terence Morgan). John Gilling’s The Mummy’s Shroud (1966) was scripted and directed by him, wasting a fine cast that included Andre Morell, Catherine Lacey, Maggie Kimberley, Roger Delgado and others. Eddie Powell is the guardian Mummy, Prem, who gets to indulge in relatively gory murders before crumbling into dust. Then Hammer backed off for another five years! Meanwhile, in 1969, Oliver Drake directed The Mummy and the Curse of the Jackal which pits a Mummy against a were-jackal on the streets of Las Vegas. This so-bad-it is-good treat features John Carradine and, though difficult to find, is good for a laugh. Hammer's last mummy offering was an adaptation of Stoker's story scripted by Christopher Wicking. Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971) was directed by Seth Holt, who died in the final week of shooting, the directorial chores being taken over by Michael Carreras. Andrew Keir uncovers Queen Tera while his wife dies in childbirth. The daughter, Margaret (Valerie Leon), grows up to look remarkably like Tera and she is fascinated by her ring when her father places it on her finger. While the hints of incestuous desire are not so obviously played as in The Awakening (1980), they are there nonetheless. In the end, Keir mutilates Tera’s body to end her influence but the forces unleashed destroy the whole house. The film ends with the survivor of this catastrophe, Leon, awakening in a hospital bed, covered in bandages. While Hammer did not make as much of the Mummy as they did of the characters of Frankenstein and Dracula, at least he got to make more appearances than did their Werewolf. Curiously, the same year, there was a British TV-film, Curse of the Mummy, which was also based on Stoker’s book; in truth I can remember very little about it other than the fact that it featured Isobel Black and Patrick Mower. Nor can I even confirm the existence of a 1972 film Il Secreto de la Momia, mentioned en passant in a reference work. Perhaps the compilers meant El Secreto de la Momia Egipcia (1973) dir. Alejandro Marti, a Spanish film which featured George Rigaud as a scientist telling his mummy resurrection plans to passing occultist Frank Brana, also starring Michael Flynn, Catherine Franck and Teresa Gimpera. There was a much-maligned, somewhat gory, Spanish film in 1973 called La Venganza de la Momia (aka. The Mummy’s Revenge) directed by Carlos Aured that was actually pretty good, given the limitations of it is budget, with a fine cast that included Jacinto Molina (aka. Paul Naschy) and Helga Line. Pharaoh Amen-Ho-Tep (Molina) and his queen (Line) are mummified alive for slashing the throats of young girls and drinking their blood. An English Egyptologist (Jack Taylor) and an Arab, Oseth Bey (also Molina), awaken the Pharaoh who rampages until burnt to death. This was pretty much the last gasp of the mummy for the seventies.

The eighties started on a poor note with The Awakening (1980) dir. Mike Newell. Based somewhat loosely on Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars, this is a film that disappoints throughout, not least in trying to copy The Omen (1976) where it is unsuccessful every time. Corbeck (Charlton Heston), an Egyptologist, breaks into Queen Kara’s tomb just as his wife (Jill Townsend) gives birth to his daughter Margaret (Stephanie Zimbalist). Years later Corbeck has married his assistant (Susannah York) and Margaret, now grown, is his constant companion. He is obsessed with a ritual to bring the mummy he has discovered back to life, while his daughter seems to be succumbing to possession by the late queen. She kills her psychiatrist (Ian McDiarmid) and the assistant falls to her death, leaving daughter and father to complete their, fairly obviously, incestuous tryst by performing the ceremony that unites Kara and Margaret. Whereupon the walls fall down killing them both. Most of the adaptations of Stoker's work have been poor, with the possible exception of Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, but it is hardly surprising as the book itself has been described as "incoherent" (sometimes critics can be cruel, but in this case the description is pretty much on the money, so to speak).

Both praised and criticised for its gore content, Dawn of the Mummy (1981) was directed by Armand Weston until producer Frank Agrama took over. A 3000 year-old mummy, complete with slave retinue, is revived to kill their way through a bunch of fashion models. The same year Spanish director Jose Ramon Larraz gave us the horror-comedy La Momia Nacional, in which a revived princess (Azucena Hernandez) decides to rape all the men she encounters at the home of a rich young Egyptologist (Paco Algora). While quite a silly film, it is worth checking out for its surrealistic touches. Brazilian director Ivan Cardozo, following in the footsteps of Jose Mojica Marins (Coffin Joe), brought us O Secredo de Mumia in 1982 (aka. Lago Maldito). It is a spoof that puts the mummy into a mix which includes a Dr.Moreau-like professor and tips its hat to several forerunners. The Monster Squad (1987) dir. Fred Dekker is a highly entertaining kids’ horror film that pits the Universal monsters against a gang of kid horror film fans. Dracula (Duncan Regehr), Frankenstein’s creation (Tom Noonan), Mummy (Michael Mackay), Wolf Man (Carl Thibault) and a ‘Gill Man’ (from Creature from the Black Lagoon) (Tom Woodruff jr) are after Van Helsing’s diary and a jewel that governs the balance between good and evil. Arrayed against them are a bunch of kids led by Andre Gower, helped by a Jewish ‘creepy old guy’ (Leonardo Cimino). The poor old mummy is unravelled when it gets its bandages caught on a nail while the truck it is clinging to speeds away. After this the mummy went into hibernation for another decade, until…

The Legend of the Mummy (1997), directed by Jeffrey Obrow, was yet another attempt to do The Jewel of Seven Stars, but this film is quite the worst of the lot. The performances of the principle actors (including the hero Louis Gossett jr. and the heroine/victim Amy Locane) are dire, the script rambling, the editing absolutely atrocious, and the direction laughable. This is definitely a film to miss! There was a follow up (I hesitate to call it a sequel), Legend the Mummy 2, but by all reports this is even worse than the first! But in 1999 Stephen Sommers revived The Mummy, which is as much ‘Indiana Jones’ film as it is horror. A lot of the plot of the 1932 film is retained, but a radical updating, aided by excellent CGI effects, turns the Mummy from a laughable shambling, dusty corpse into a hyper-powered piece of nastiness. Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) is an adventurer hired by Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) and her brother Jonathan (John Hannah) to guide them to the ancient city of Hamunaptra. While there Evie speaks aloud from the Book of the Dead (when will these archaeologists ever learn?), resurrecting Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) who first recovers his missing organs by slaughtering a bunch of Americans, then kidnaps Evie to try to resurrect his love Anck-su-namun. The good guys win, of course, but only until the sequel The Mummy Returns (2001) dir. Sommers. By this time Evie is Mrs O’Connell and the couple have a son who activates an old treasure map. In the meantime a woman called Meela (Patricia Velasquez) has become Anck-su-namun and she calls back Vosloo’s Imhotep. It turns out that Evie is the reincarnation of Nefertiri, an old sparring partner of Anck-su-namun, and Rick is part of a mystic brotherhood who fight Imhotep’s evil. Ardeth Bay (Oded Fehr) is one of the brotherhood who is out to stop Imhotep from resurrecting the Scorpion King (Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson). This led to a spin-off for The Rock called, simply, The Scorpion King (2002), dir. Chuck Russell, which would have made a good Conan film!

In 2002 we were treated to the wonderful Bubba Ho-Tep, director Don Coscarelli's extremely faithful adaptation of the 1994 short story by Joe R Lansdale. Elvis, or Elvis impersonator Sebastian Haff (Bruce Campbell), teams up with fellow 'Rest Home' resident Jack McLaughlin (Ossie Davis), who thinks he's John F Kennedy, to battle a soul-sucking mummy (Bob Ivy) loose in East Texas. The whole film is delightful throughout and the performances excellent, from the leads to Ella Joyce as a condescending nurse and Reggie Bannister as the Home's administrator. Legion of the Dead (2005) also has the action in an unlikely setting, in this case Southern California. The tomb of exiled sorceress Aneh-Tet (Claudia Lynx) is discovered by Dr.Ari Ben-David (Rhett Giles) and she is accidentally brought to life by well-meaning student Molly (Courtney Clonch). Unfortunately she wants to raise six more mummies, each of which require a human sacrifice, in order to perform a ceremony to bring her master Seth to Earth. Luckily Molly, her sister Kevyn (Emily Falkenstein) and her would-be boyfriend Carter (Chad Collins) have the requirements to save the day. This also features Bruce Boxleitner as Sherrif Jones, and Zach Galligan as Dr.Swatek; the whole just about transcends the limitations of its budget, but not by much. After seven years a third Rick O'Connell Mummy film was released, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008) dir. Rob Cohen. Rick (Brendan Fraser) with a new actress playing wife Evie (Maria Bello, introduced with a nice gag), and brother Jonathan (John Hannah) accidentally – isn't it always? – revive an Evil Chinese Emperor (Jet Li), cursed by sorceress Zi Yuan (Michelle Yeoh), whose tomb was found by now-grown son Alex (Luke Ford). In other words, the same year that Indiana Jones adventures with a grown son in IJ and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), Rick O'Connell has an adventure with his son. The plots have other similarities, for instance the betrayal by a trusted friend that kicks the plot(s) into gear, Ray Winstone in Indiana Jones, David Calder as Professor Wilson in this, which also features Liam Cunningham as pilot Mad Dog. Once the plot's been dealt with, you can settle down to the expected stunts, special effects and CGI. Very nice it is too, but not a patch on the first two films.

Today (2011) it has been almost eighty years since 'Karloff the Uncanny' was wrinkled up by Jack Pierce and cast in a film billed as "Stranger than Dracula. More Fantastic than Frankenstein. More Mysterious than the Invisible Man." Who would have thought that bandages and dust would make it all the way into the twenty-first century? And it is not like enthusiasm for the original 1932 film has abated: In 1997 the film's poster set a new record at auction fetching US$453,500, smashing Frankenstein's 1992 record haul of US$198,000. What the Mummy lacks in obvious threat seems to be more than compensated for by endurance. And, under those circumstances, I would not be the least bit surprised if the bandaged bad-guy has a few more appearances left in him!

Tony Chester is one of the Science Fact & Science Fiction Concatenation's founding co-editors.


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