Do you get it? See, it’s a pun and a reference to…never mind. Today, we’re talking about one of the oldest monsters in pop culture, the Mummy. Before we can get too far into this topic, we have to ask ourselves one question: what is a mummy?
Now hold on! I know we all know what a mummy is in real life. I’m talking about what a mummy is in terms of monster lore. It’s actually kind of a hard question, because each take on the Mummy tends to redefine what a mummy actually is.
The main points that everyone agrees on is that a mummies are undead, because mummification is a method of preserving dead bodies. There is almost always at least one curse associated with a mummy, which probably came about due to the curses that were inscribed on the tombs of the pharaohs. Similar to classic vampires like Dracula, most mummies are going to be part of the nobility, since the popular thought is that only pharaohs were mummified.
Apart from this, there is surprisingly little to go on in terms of concrete mummy lore. This is probably because the idea of mummies coming back to life and killing people didn’t become a popular story idea until the popularity of Egyptology exploded in the 1800’s. So even though mummies should predate most of the monsters we’ve talked about so far, the stories about mummies are actually more recent then most pieces of monster lore.
As such, each author has to decide how mummies work in their world. Mummies typically are not portrayed as cannibalistic undead like vampires or zombies. Even when they are, like in 1999’s The Mummy, it’s usually limited to being a way to revive the mummy completely. There is no real consensus on how smart a mummy should be, with some being really intelligent and others being no smarter than a typical zombie. The way to defeat a mummy depends on whether the story is serious or comedic: in serious stories the mummy can only be defeated with magic or by destroying the thing that brought the mummy back to life, while in comedic stories the mummy can be killed by just unwrapping it.
While it’s easy to portray a dumb mummy (they typically just do whatever the person that raised them tells them to), it’s harder to portray a smart mummy because then they need some kind of motivation for their actions. When you get down to it, what would an intelligent mummy do if it was raised in today’s world? The empire that existed when they were alive has been gone for several millenia now. Would a mummy want to try to re-establish the ancient Egyptian Empire, try to conquer the world, or would they want to something more basic?
I remember reading an article somewhere (I forget which website the article was posted on) where the author said that mummy movies always have an element of racism in them. In their argument, they point out that these films always have a native Egyptian character that warns the British Egyptologists (and the Egyptologists are always British in these films) about the curse on the tomb. The Egyptologists, being men of science, always ignore these warnings of curses. The article suggests that this was racist because it implied that Egyptians are superstitious while British people are too smart and well-educated to believe in things like curses.
I never agreed with that argument for one simple reason: the Egyptian character is always right. In all of these films, the British characters all suffer horrible fates because they ignored the Egyptian character’s warning. The only reason that the mummy gets defeated in these stories is due to ancient Egyptian magic, which may or may not have been revealed by the Egyptian character. You could even argue that there these films are karmic in nature, since the British characters often show disdain for both the ancient and modern Egyptians. Being killed by a dead Egyptian monarch is kind of a fitting punishment for their hubris.
In 1932, Universal Studios released The Mummy. Like with The Wolf Man, this film was a unique creation of the studio, so I won’t be talking about a book adaptation here. I will say that I do find it odd that, for the most recent mummy film (which as of this post is 2017’s The Mummy), where the studio used a female mummy, the studio once again used an original script instead of basing it on an existing story. I find this odd because there was at least one book that had a female mummy as the monster, Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars. I may talk about that book in a later post.
Getting back to 1932’s The Mummy, the title character is an ancient Egyptian priest named Imhotep. The term “mummy” should probably be used loosely in this film though. The archaeologists that discover Imhotep find that he was basically buried alive, and that none of his organs were removed (a huge part of the mummification process). So basically, the ancient Egyptians were mad enough at Imhotep to deny him a ceremonial death, but not so mad that they didn’t at least wrap him up first.
One of the scientists reads from an ancient scroll that brings Imhotep back to life, because scientists in these films are kind of dim. The movie cuts to ten years later, where Imhotep has disguised himself as a modern Egyptian. That’s right, the very first film to feature a mummy as the villain didn’t have him wrapped up for the majority of the film. Anyway, the disguised Imhotep points a team of Egyptologists to the tomb of his former love, Princess Ankh-es-en-amon.
For those of you thinking “that sounds an awful lot like the Brendan Fraser movie”, then you are right. There are a lot of parallels between the two films. The reason for Imhotep’s punishment is even the same: he was trying to resurrect Ankh-es-en-amon. Imhotep finds a half-Egyptian woman named Helen whom he plans to murder and resurrect as Ankh-es-en-amon. His plan almost succeeds; he is only thwarted when Helen prays to the goddess Isis, and a statue of Isis emits a beam that destroys the magic scroll the revived Imhotep.
The next film in the Universal series is kind of odd. The movie is partially a remake, but also partially a sequel. Think Evil Dead 2, but without anyone from the original film returning. The Mummy’s Hand changes a few details; the mummified priest is named Kharis, the woman he tried to raise is named Ananka, and the magic scroll is replaced with something called tana leaves. This film also has a cult dedicated to preserving the dead Kharis by periodically feeding it the juice of three leaves, with instructions to use the juice of nine leaves if they ever need to make Kharis mobile.
An evil priest uses the mummy to kill some Egyptologists that are despoiling the tomb and kidnaps a woman to try to make into his immortal bride. The heroes of the film defeat the mummy by destroying the container that holds the juice of the leaves, and then setting him of fire for good measure. It’s hard to say if this film is the first of the “dumb mummy” films or not. It’s explicitly stated in the film that Kharis’s tongue was removed, so there’s an explanation for why he never speaks, but it’s hard to say if he is just doing the bidding of the evil priest or if he actually has a mind of his own.
The next film, The Mummy’s Tomb, takes place thirty years after the previous film. The survivors of the previous film helpfully explain what happened there, so that the audience doesn’t need to actually watch that film. I don’t know if that was intentional or not, but this film was made before streaming, DVDs, or even video tapes, so I imagine it would be difficult for horror fans to be able to re-watch the previous film.
After the explanation of the previous film, we cut back to Egypt. The evil priest, who somehow survived getting shot in the previous film, explains to his follower about the legend of Kharis. He instructs the young follower to use the mummy to kill the survivors of the previous film. With the exception of the revenge plot, this film is mostly similar to the previous one. It even has the young follower trying to wed a woman against her will, and the mummy being destroyed with fire.
After that came The Mummy’s Ghost. How can something be a mummy and a ghost, you say? Well…yeah, the title makes no sense. In this film, the evil priest from The Mummy’s Hand orders one of his subordinates to retrieve Kharis and Ananka, using the juice of the tana leaves to lure the mummy to him. He succeeds in getting Kharis, but when he tries to take Ananka, her body crumbles into dust. Apparently, this means that Ananka has been reincarnated.
Kharis and the priest find the woman that Ananka was reincarnated as and kidnap her. Once again, the priest tries to take the woman for himself, and once again he dies. This is one of the few mummy movies where the villain technically wins in the end: the woman starts transforming into the ancient Ananka while Kharis is carrying her away from an angry mob, and the two die together as they sink into a bog.
The Mummy’s Curse picks up where the last film left off, with pretty much the same plot as the previous films as well. An evil priest is sent to retrieve Kharis and Ananka, he kidnaps a woman to take as his bride, and the priest and the mummy die horribly. As you can probably tell, the films in the mummy series all started to get formulaic after a while. A somewhat interesting twist is that Ananka, having become a mummy in the previous film, is restored to human form. She spends a great deal of the film with no memory, but having a lot of knowledge of ancient Egypt.
That was the last of the Universal Studios mummy movies until the 1999 remake. Technically there was one more film, Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy, but I generally don’t count that as part of the same series. Unlike with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which at least had the same monsters and characters from the preceding House of Dracula, there is very little continuity between this film and The Mummy’s Curse.
The mummy has a different name (Klaris), and there are no references to the previous mummy films. The mummy isn’t even the villain of this film either. A group of tomb robbers are after the treasure in Klaris’s tomb, so Klaris and the priests that guard over him spend the movie trying to stop them. Abbott and Costello’s characters don’t have a lot to do with the plot of this film; they’re just Americans stranded in Egypt, looking for a way to get enough money to return home. This makes the film feel more like a parody, whereas Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein felt like a legitimate entry in the series.
I still recommend watching this movie, if only for the classic Abbott and Costello routines. There is also a part in the film where one of the robbers decides to disguise himself as a mummy, at about the same time when Abbott’s character comes up with the same plan. This leads to a hilarious scene with the two fake mummies wandering through the tomb with the real mummy, and no one being able to tell the mummies apart. The mummy is defeated with a stick of dynamite, which is kind of original, I guess. The priests, no longer having a mummy to guard, are convinced to turn the tomb into a nightclub. There is no mention of what happened to the tomb robbers, but this is a comedy, so we’re not supposed to think too hard about those things.
It’s actually kind of rare for the mummy to show up in “Monster Mash” films or books. When he does show up, his name is never given and he is treated like the “dumb mummy” from some of the Kharis films. I would say that the mummy basically fills the same role that zombies tend to play in these stories; a mindless undead servant.
I do find it kind of interesting that the mummy is a popular enough monster to have multiple modern adaptations. We pretty much expect that from the big name classic monsters like Dracula and Frankenstein, but it seems kind of odd that there are multiple big budget films featuring a mummy as the monster. Granted, the Brendan Fraser films are action movies instead of horror films, but the point still stands.
Anyway, that’s it for the mummy. Tomorrow we start talking about some of the human members of the “Monster Mash” group. We will start with one of the more bizarre inclusions in this list: The Invisible Man.