Universal were almost responsible for initiating the first real horror boom at the beginning of the thirties with the infamous movies already elsewhere discussed at Grim Cellar. Perhaps the arrival of sound had a direct impact on the effectiveness of films to embellish a disturbing emotional manipulation of audience responses, and new possibilities were perceived. In their search for new ideas they turned to Egyptian history/mythology and to assist brought in their established master of terror at the time, Boris Karloff. The Mummy (1932) briefly recounted an age more than three millennia prior to the discovery of an ancient scroll, where priest Im-Ho-Tep is consumed by love and mourning to a point where he commits sacrilege by exercising a hex to raise his woman from the dead. For his sins he is forced to suffer one of the most tortuous deaths imaginable - burial alive. In the early part of the twentieth century his tomb is opened and the bandaged corpse discovered, but a foolishly optimistic young archaeologist reads aloud the ancient scroll, releasing a curse that revives the mummified priest. The young explorer goes insane and the priest departs into the night. Later on a strangely benevolent Egyptian - the priest without his bandages - appears on the scene and helps the explorers locate another tomb, something which leads to his realisation that one of the women, Helen, is actually the reincarnation of the lover that he died for centuries ago. His objective is to reunite their souls but the girl whose body is inhabited by the princess’s soul must die to allow this.
For younger viewers more familiar with the Stephen Sommers/Brendan Fraser action adventure yarns the original Universal film may be considered something of a whopping great bandaged borefest. It is quite slow and very old fashioned in terms of cinema, while gore didn’t really exist in this era and scares were of the atmospheric variety (i.e. there wasn’t a 100 decibel soundtrack jab designed to make you leap involuntarily every time something frightening was supposed to happen). It crafts a story that mixes the tragedy of impractical love with mythology and history, and the highlighting of cultural issues preventing two people from being together is just as relevant today. After establishing himself as a classic cinematographer on many German silents Karl Freund was rushed into directing, ultimately proving himself here to be methodical and considered, sometimes imaginative at the helm. There are inspired moments, such as Karloff’s foreboding narrative recollection of his former life, and the glowing eyes of course, though these do become a tad overused by the conclusion. There’s also the inclusion of a beautiful clip of a wolf in medium shot howling against the moon - probably stock footage but a phenomenon to witness nonetheless. Zita Johann is an alluringly naïve Helen, wearing amazingly low-cut dresses but not quite having the upper body physique for raincoat viewers (like me) to salivate over. The Motion Picture Production Code became a serious entity in 1934, something established in the USA to essentially force film-makers to abide by a series of rules that precluded sexual references, imagery, etc. Therefore films made prior to this often contained elements that were slightly more risqué than their post-1934 counterparts, and the wardrobe of Johann I believe was a product of this. The undisputed star of Universal’s early make-up era, Jack Pierce, provided groundbreaking processes for the mummy itself/himself. Both bandaged and ‘unclothed’, Karloff’s make-up is stupendous even to this day. One final surprise for those who only have vague recollections of these films is the mummy itself - in his stereotype form he is barely used here: we see he awaken at the film’s beginning, we see his feet stagger from the room, and that’s it. Afterwards Karloff returns only as the Egyptian Ardath Bey, an old but very human-looking man. The Mummy achieves its goal well enough and, while not quite a classic film, it possesses its fair share of eeriness combined with good storytelling.
It took the studio some time to follow up this moderately successful outing but it was inevitable at some point. The Mummy’s Hand (1940) recreated the history set up in the earlier movie. Taking elements of the filmed flashback featuring Boris Karloff (who’s not participating in this one or any of the subsequent sequels in the conventional sense) we learn that Kharis was condemned to the same mummification and death for similar reasons. Some time around the thirties or forties a couple of losers have their final chance at making a buck in Cairo before having to head back to the USA bankrupt. They learn of a hidden tomb which is sure to be filled with concealed treasure and persuade an erratic magician to lend them $2000 to fund an expedition. Along with some workers and the magician’s feisty young daughter they head out to uncover the tomb, but get more than they expected when the desecration of the Kharis resting place brings about his resurrection, something that’s welcomed by a local priest who enslaves Kharis to perform homicidal bidding.
It’s immediately obvious in the first sequel that the tone is lightened somewhat, mostly through the implementation of two wannabe comedians in the principal roles. Whilst their tomfoolery is generally incompetent, their comic timing being inadequate to some extent, the story and dialogue manage to keep your attention while you’re perfectly aware of what the film is building up to. It takes some time to get there too, with about half the film passing before some action appears on the horizon, however I think this contributes towards the formulation of a reasonable helping of atmosphere. This is where we see the mummy in all his traditional horror glory for the first time - a staggering, bandaged corpse intent on avenging the curse that has brought about his reanimated misery. His eyes appear to be blacked out by a possible manipulation of the negative (an effect not completed for the trailer itself) and his presence, courtesy of highly prolific actor Tom Tyler, is ominous - Pierce once again graced the creature with his skills. The flashback is quite a strange phenomenon: clearly they’ve used footage from the first film as they retell the story and Karloff is right there in many shots, but for close-ups it switches to new footage of Tyler, creating an oddly jarring effect. It could be said, consequently, that Karloff is actually present in this film, though his participation is nonexistent. While the budget for …Hand was approximately half that of its predecessor some of the production design may seem pretty outstanding, though that’s simply a result of economical set regurgitation - some of them were actually built for James Whale’s adventure story Green Hell. Finally, the sole female of note this time is Peggy Moran and whilst not quite as revealingly dressed as Zita Johann she is visually appealing and her initially dominating approach is unwittingly sexy. The Mummy’s Hand, directed by quickie specialist Christy Cabanne, is no doubt inferior in many respects to the original film, but it is entertaining and the pace is perceptively executed.
The story of …Hand is recounted at the beginning of The Mummy’s Tomb (1942) where the two guys responsible for the expedition that kicked everything off have returned to the USA and grown older. Still holding a grudge, however, the wizard who knows when it comes to mummified corpses (George Zucco) sends his servant across to the land of the free with the body of Kharis to reap vengeance on those who’ve caused all the trouble. The servant sets up as a graveyard caretaker while sending the mummy out to kill off the two clowns and anyone genetically associated with them, one by one.
This one really is a quickie: not only does it only run for an hour but the first ten minutes of that are taken up with a recap of the previous story, via flashbacks and the narration of Dick Foran’s returning character Steve Banning. Universal also managed to bring in Lon Chaney Junior (no doubt a consequence of his success in The Wolf Man) this time to play the monster, something he would do in the following two films also. They also managed to annoy the star in the process by dropping the ‘Jr.’ from the actor’s screen credit, something which favourably distinguished him from his famous father in his eyes. Chaney does a good job but there’s little real challenge with this creature, while the make-up, though not as proficient as the first movie, is suitably putrescent. Some of the stunt work is quite rough on the actors, particularly when it comes to fire. Several people are dangerously close to the flames at the end and one actor (who visibly falls against his torch) was reportedly burnt during filming. Neil Varnick’s story is quite feeble and lacking a certain amount of imagination, resorting to Universal’s obligatory mob of angry villagers for the film’s climax - quite strange because they’re carrying burning torches and clubs despite the time period somewhere around the middle of the twentieth century by my calculations based on the men’s ages, etc. The early sightings of the creature bring about a number of amusing situations when he manages to avoid being seen in almost every instance with the exception of his shadow, consequently this giving rise to several reports of ‘a shadow’ in the area! Imagine West Midlands police responding to reports like that… The entertainment factor here is diminished compared to the preceding chapters but the flick does retain a certain charm in its madness.
Some time after the events of …Tomb a group of hip students are learning history in The Mummy’s Ghost (1944) when the teacher decides to tell them about the mysterious mummy attacks that once allegedly took place in their very town. Whilst it all seems a little difficult to digest they don’t realise that the mummy inexplicably survived (indeed, it just wanders out of the forest near the beginning) and is soon on the move when the college professor experiments with the leaves that grant it strength and life - he is drawn to the leaves instinctively but kills the professor in the process. The servant (John Carradine) of Andoheb (George Zucco again) has been sent on a mission to track down the body of Kharis’s ancient lover, which has been shipped to a museum in the USA, but realises when the body crumbles that her spirit has reawakened in the shell of one of the young student girls. The servant decides that she must be ‘reacquired’ by Kharis. I’m sure they were making this stuff up as they went along at this point!
By about half way through …Ghost I’d pretty much resigned it to being a worthless pile of camel waste. Carradine’s acting is serious to the point of being about as active as a plank of wood, the mummy make-up seems to have been substantially cheapened (though Pierce was still involved, perhaps rushed), the story pedestrian and generally uninspiring. There are even clumsy errors such as Chaney’s useless arm suddenly becoming functional when he needs to carry an unconscious woman. However the damn film almost won me over by its conclusion: why? Because of that bloody dog! This thing outshines Lassie when it comes to intelligence. It’s only one of those small Jack Russell type of canines but, boy, is it smarter than the humans in this film. It actually responds to their statements and even goes to fetch the mob of angry villagers when the two heroes are in trouble - I couldn’t help by laugh. Also, the denouement of the story is quite grim compared to virtually all other Universal monster bashes, and the outcome surprised me. It’s not a good film by any stretch but the dog provided a few smiles (though whether those were intentional is another matter) and the climax is the most effective of the whole series.
Shot around the same time The Mummy’s Curse (1944) took Universal’s tendency towards temporal distortion one step further, with some pub-dwelling gypsy-types retelling some of the last movie’s events as being about twenty five years prior. Adding that up with the bodily aging of some of the previous characters, etc., this should place the time around the 1980s by my calculations, however it seems more like the turn of the twentieth century at the beginning before strangely shifting to 1940s America. I don’t suppose chronological logic was at the front of the minds of Universal’s writers… Anyway, there are plans to completely renovate the marsh near Mapleton, where the events of previous films took place, but a couple of museum archaeological buffs turn up wanting to dig out the mummy and his bride Princess Ananka (after having been left there at the end of …Ghost) to return them to the museum. Some of the locals are concerned that this interfering with the mummy’s current resting place will arouse the curse again, fears which aren’t without good cause it seems. After dredging half the swamp they soon find an empty space in the mud where ‘a large man’ would have lay, and of course a dead villager nearby. Oh yes, and the giveaway, there’s a bit of bandage left on the murdered person (I shit you not). While Kharis is roped in by one of the Egyptian servants to kill more people, this time Ananka also reawakens to wander around in a state of perpetual confusion regarding her origins or purpose.
The problem primarily by this point was the fact that the stories really had nowhere to go and very much continually rehashed ideas from earlier films. Quite literally too, as we were very often treated to flashbacks of footage from the other movies despite meagre running times. The mummy, again played by Lon Chaney Jr., was a creature of limited potential and was lucky to have his lifespan stretched out over this number of movies. The Mummy’s Curse begins more in the vein of many of Universal’s other films of the period, almost a timeless entity in a dimension undiscovered. The murders themselves are quite feeble - one guy stumbles in on a ritual during the awakening of the mummy and sort of asks what they’re up to, like one would, before the mummy, which would have been plainly in his sight, staggers right up to him without him noticing until he‘s actually being strangled. There is one standout sequence in this film, and indeed one of the best of the whole series; the revival of Ananka: she squirms awkwardly out of her grave, her eyes covered in mud and barely able to open, then staggers off in a manner that the TV girl in Ring would have been proud of. It’s possibly the creepiest scene in the whole mummy series and director Leslie Goodwins must have realised he was on to something because he gets his mileage out of it. Other than that it’s a derivative and uninspired finale to the series.
There was of course one more appearance for the monster to come: Abbott And Costello Meet The Mummy (1955), but this would offer little other than the two comedians making fools of themselves as the creature proves ineffective as a killing machine, though at least it would return the series to its Egyptian beginnings. The mummy films provide some fun overall, but were clearly not greatly respected by its studio - this is apparent by the haphazard manner in which the stories were rushed together and the running times as meagre as the films’ respective budgets. The mummy (actually Im-Ho-Tep in the first one, Kharis in the following four, and Klaris in the A&B entry) had minimal development as a character beyond the first film though at least there was some narrative progression and continuation from film to film, but within each context there was little to do for the monster other than stagger around and kill. In that sense he is almost a precursor to Michael Myers of Halloween or the homicidal lunatic of almost any other long-running slasher series - this is possibly the slasher movie in its embryonic infancy here, formulating many of the staples that would much later on become clichés in slasher cinema. Compared to Universal’s other series of the time the creature is less charismatic and quite a lonely entity. The fact that his arm and leg are virtually unusable (unless he needed to carry a helpless woman) did irritate me a little throughout - he’s rendered practically impotent and the explanation for this was briefly iterated early on in the series but afterwards employed simply as a tool for having him walk in a (then) tension-building fashion. The aforementioned temporal distortion is something that stands out if the viewer is to watch them in sequence, but there is some inadvertent bewilderment to be had with this. In fact the series as a whole works at its best if you simply switch off the logical side of your brain and accept the crazy rules on their own terms but, though idiosyncratic in the extreme, it can never quite match up to the studio’s Dracula, Frankenstein, and Wolf Man cycles. It’s a pity that the gradually diminishing quality of the series detracts from its achievements but it is nevertheless something that will provide a reasonable degree of entertainment, and that’s what it’s all about at the end of the day.
(P.S. Extra special thanks to Colin at Riding The High Country for making this article possible)