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The Complete On-Screen History of The Mummy

Universal Pictures was a champion of horror in the 1930s and 40s, building a rogue gallery of creeps known as the Universal Monsters. Now the studio is rebooting these classic horror films, and has announced plans to construct an overlapping franchise known as the Dark Universe. In anticipation, we’ve been revisiting Universal’s supernatural antagonists. Last week, we discussed the man-turned-beast known as The Wolf Man. Today, we discuss a reanimated man hellbent on reuniting with his centuries-old love: The Mummy.

The Mummy is sort of a strange monster, compared to Universal’s other antagonists. His motives are oddly pure, though he’ll stop at nothing to achieve his goals. Unlike Frankenstein and Dracula, there is no specific text upon which the film is based. And unlike The Wolf Man, there is no global folklore to draw from. While mummification was an ancient Egyptian burial practice, they did not believe their mummies would come to rise again. According to Richard Freeman’s “THE MUMMY In Context,” The Mummy has origins in several pieces of fiction, including Jane Webb’s The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century (1827), Edgar Allen Poe’s Some Words with a Mummy (1845), and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Ring of Thoth (1890). 

Universal’s The Mummy came out in 1932, the year after horror hits Dracula and Frankenstein, but before The Wolf Man. The opening scene places us in 1921, at the site of an archeological dig in Egypt. The expedition is led by Sir Joseph Whemple, whose team finds the mummy of Imhotep, a priest of ancient Egypt. Buried with him is the Scroll of Thoth, loosely based on The Book of the Dead. When one of the crew members reads the scroll aloud, he inadvertently awakens Imhotep. Imhotep escapes, leading the others to believe the mummy has been stolen. The poor sap who read the scroll aloud is left mad, shrieking with laughter.

This particular expedition had some similarities to the real-life expedition led by Howard Carter in 1922, in which he and his companions excavated the tomb of King Tutankhamun. Rumor surrounded the expedition, including the belief that opening the tomb had cursed those involved. Any time something bad happened to a member of the crew (or their pet canary), it was breathlessly attributed to the supposed Curse of the Pharaohs. 

In the film, a seemingly curse-free decade goes by and the resurrected Imhotep has settled into modern society as Ardath Bey. When Whemple returns to Egypt, this time with his charming son, Frank, Imhotep leads the expedition the tomb of a princess, Ankh-es-en-amon. They excavate, turning over everything they find to the Museum of Cairo.

Meanwhile, Frank falls madly in love with a young woman named Helen Grosvenor. Helen is under some kind of spell, it seems, oddly drawn to Imhotep/Ardath Bey. It is revealed that, in life, Ankh-es-en-amon was the forbidden love of Imhotep’s life. When she dies, he steals the Scroll of Thoth to resurrect her, but is caught in the act and sentenced to death. He is mummified alive and buried with the Scroll, both seemingly forever had it not been for those pesky archaeologists. Imhotep realizes that Helen is the reincarnation of the princess, and so he sets about stealing the mummy, the scroll and Helen so that he can, via ambiguous magic, put Helen’s soul in the mummy’s body and reunite with Ankh-es-en-amon at last. 

When Whemple figures this out, he attempts to burn the Scroll. Imhotep causes him to suffer heart failure with a spooky ring he points menacingly at people he does not like. He steals away with Helen and shows her her past life. Helen, who does wish to die even if resurrected as an Egyptian princess, saves herself by imploring the goddess Isis to save her. A statue of the deity raises its arm and ignites the Scroll, which causes Imhotep to wither and disintegrate into dust. This leaves Frank free to be with Helen, who, as you may recall, fell in love with her within 30 seconds of meeting her.

Perhaps the best thing about The Mummy is the performance of Boris Karloff. His menacing eyes are prominently featured in the film, and the hold his character maintains over Helen is reminiscent of Dracula’s dark spell over Mina Harker. At this point, Karloff had become two of Universal’s most enduring monsters, having played Frankenstein the year prior.

Karloff does not reprise his role in Universal’s The Mummy’s Hand (1940), a very similar story in which a group of explorers find Kharis, a mummy who sustains itself by drinking a tea made from tana leaves. The Mummy’s Hand would get several sequels, including The Mummy’s Tomb (1942); The Mummy’s Ghost (1944) and The Mummy’s Curse (1944). Tom Tyler portrayed Kharis in the first film, and Lon Chaney, Jr. (-also the Wolf Man) took over for the next three. As Universal had done with other monsters, they also gave the monster a comedy with Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955). The Kharis mummy appeared again in several Hammer films, and was portrayed by Christopher Lee. Lee had also starred as Dracula when Hammer produced a series of films about the vampire originally famous by Bela Lugosi in Universal’s Dracula (1931).

Universal brought the Mummy to life again in 1999 with a second film called The Mummy, starring Brendan Fraser as action hero Rick O’Connell and Arnold Vosloo as Imhotep. Though not a direct remake, the plot contains numerous similarities, including Imhotep’s desire to resurrect his lover. A string of sequels and prequels followed.

Mummies have appeared on and off throughout a number of other horror films and TV shows, including horror-comedies Night at the Museum and Bubba Ho Tep. A few films, including The Awakening (1980) and Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971) were based on a short Bram Stoker story about an archaeologist who attempts to revive a queen whose tomb he discovered many years before. An early episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer finds a character falling in love with a new exchange student at Sunnydale High who turns out to be recently resurrected mummy.

And let’s not forget the time the Backstreet Boys dressed up like monsters in the video for “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back),” and Nick Carter was a mummy.

On June 9, Universal will launch their Dark Universe with yet another film titled The Mummy. The action flick stars Tom Cruise as a man cursed by the newly awakened mummy of Egyptian princess Ahmanet, played by Sofia Boutella. Ahmanet appears to have four pupils, incredible powers and a thirst for vengeance. The trailer utters something that may be familiar to you: “Welcome to a new world of gods and monsters.” It’s taken from a toast made by mad scientist Dr. Pretorius  in Bride of Frankenstein—an appropriate portent to Universal’s new horror endeavors. 

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