Revisiting Universal’s Mummy franchises

With The Mummy heading back to our screens in 2016, we look back at the many Mummy movies to date...

Since 1932, there have been several films featuring a Mummy as the antagonist — the most successful and enduring portrayals of this classic movie monster have come under the banner of Universal Studios. From Karl Freund’s original classic through Abbott and Costello’s spoof, Hammer’s series of the 60s and Stephen Sommers’s blockbuster reboots of the new century, Universal Studios has kept a not always firm grip on cinematic portrayals of this archetypal monster. With the veteran studio gearing up to re-launch its classic monster line-up with a new Mummy, now seems like the perfect time to take a look back at the bandaged ghoul’s previous incarnations.

The Universal Series (1932-1955)

The Mummy (Karl Freund, 1932)

The priest Imhotep is mummified alive for trying to resurrect his lover Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon from the dead. Brought back from the dead into modern times by a generic moron who reads a scroll he shouldn’t, Imhotep escapes out into the world. Disguising himself as Ardath Bey and still intent on his mission, he gives a group of archeologists information about the whereabouts of Ankh-es-en-Amon’s tomb.

Universal’s original Mummy is well regarded as a part of Universal’s classic run of 30s monster films. However, that has probably more to do with the films with which it is associated, rather than the quality of the film itself. To be blunt, it does not stand up in the same way as the better known Dracula and Frankenstein. Most Universal horrors of this period suffer in comparison to James Whale’s work on Frankenstein and Bride Of Frankenstein, and The Mummy is no exception. Directed by Dracula’s DP Karl Freund, The Mummy looks amazing but suffers from some of the same problems as the original Dracula — leaden pacing and a stage-bound, overly talkative narrative (this was scripted by the same writer as Dracula, John L. Balderston).

It lacks the set pieces of other Universal horrors, and the pacing is funereal. Much of the cast is taken from Dracula (as is the main title music, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake). Moments hint at potential greatness: The flashback to ancient Egypt is atmospheric, though as with the rest of the film, somewhat stilted. The most famous image is of Karloff staring straight at the camera — it’s a terrific shot, but the movie repeats it over and over again at various moments to provide more tension. It does not work — it merely emphasises the lack of other highlights in the film. Even compared to Dracula, regarded as one of the most flawed of the Universal horrors, the film lacks a truly outstanding moment. Dracula may be a flawed film, but it has the terrific opening section in Transylvania, which is far scarier and more dynamic than any scene here. The final sequence, in which Imhotep prepares to resurrect his love benefits from Freund’s talents for mood and chiaroscuro, but comes too late to improve overall impressions of the film.

Ad – content continues below

Aside from a few memorable images and Karloff’s quiet, eerie performance, The Mummy is underwhelming.

The Mummy’s Hand (Christy Cabanne, 1940)

A new Mummy (Kharis instead of Imhotep), but suspiciously close to its predecessor, this is more of a soft reboot of the original than a true sequel. The Mummy’s origin is almost exactly the same, with the names changed: hence Imhotep is now Kharis and his beloved Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon is now the more pronounceable Princess Ananka. Footage of Kharis’s mummification is just clips from the original Mummy (with Boris Karloff clearly recognisable in long shots). Kharis would continue to plague the various sequels, but it would be the only time in the bandages for actor Tom Tyler (most famous for playing Captain Marvel in the well regarded movie serial). Cast because his lanky frame could match Karloff in the stock footage they were using, Tyler does not get a lot to do, and after Karloff’s more otherworldly presence, Tyler is a disappointment.

Thankfully, though the villain is a carbon copy of Karloff’s Imhotep, the story bears almost no resemblance to the preceding film. The plot is based around an order of monks, The Temple of Karnak, tasked with guarding Kharis’s tomb — over time, their numbers have been reduced until only a few fanatical adherents remain. The High Priest of Karnak, now dying, passes on his sacred mission to his successor, Andoheb (played by the original generic evil Brit George Zucco), with explicit instructions on how to feed the sleeping Mummy to keep him comatose. If the queen’s tomb is penetrated, he also shows him how to wake Kharis in order to wreak his vengeance on the intruders. Of course, as soon as he dies, someone does in fact open the Princess’s tomb.

These intruders are Steve Banning (Dick Foran) and his wise-cracking compadre Babe Jenson (Wallace Ford). They are unemployed archeologists in need of a dig to utilise their skills and grow their bank balances. Their fortunes change for the better when Steve finds an old vase in a Cairo market and becomes convinced that the hieroglyphics reveal the hidden location of Ananka’s tomb.

The first thing to say about this movie is that for an hour long movie, it takes forever to get going. One bright spot is veteran character actor Cecil Kellaway as the Great Solvani, a magician who gives the heroes all his money to finance their expedition to find Ananka’s tomb. Accompanied by Solvani’s daughter Marta (Peggy Moran), the group head to the tomb (which appears to be down the road from town) and commence digging and blowing up the desert until they find the entrance to the tomb. Once inside, they quickly discover a coffin, and the surprisingly fresh Mummy inside: Kharis. Masquerading as an Egyptologist, Andoheb has joined the expedition and activates the undead bodyguard.

Unlike Imhotep, who requires an incantation to come back from the dead, Kharis is technically not dead. He is barely conscious, kept in a state of suspended animation by a drug derived from tana leaves. An increase in the dose brings Kharis to regain mobility — even then, it is restricted: Kharis is only able to lurch around slowly, and only has one usable arm to slay his victims. In one of the film’s few interesting touches, the evil Andoheb places vials of the liquid near each of the people he wants dead, which draws Kharis into proximity. As he drinks more vials of the liquid, he regains more control of his limbs — this idea would be developed in the Stephen Sommers iteration, where Arnold Vosloo’s Imhotep requires the essence of the men who entered his tomb in order to regenerate.

Ad – content continues below

After a brief (but slow) rampage through Banning’s camp, Kharis runs into Marta and decides to kidnap her. Of course, as soon as a woman enters the picture, Kharis picks her up and carries her away ala every monster you can think of. They don’t even give a reason why Kharis would not harm her. This abrupt character turn leads to an ending filled with random cliches. After he brings Marta to Andoheb’s lair, the priest then arbitrarily decides to make her immortal so that they can live together forever. Then he wastes time until the comedic sidekick turns up, whereupon Andoheb mocks him for such a long time I thought this was his subtle way of introducing magical powers, but no — he’s just trolling. He gets shot dead for his trouble, and Kharis runs out of the fluid and Banning burns him to ash with a handy kerosene lamp. Our heroes embrace and stroll off into the sunset.

While it is packed with incident, and some colourful characters, The Mummy’s Hand feels simultaneously too slow and too abridged to become really enjoyable. The movie is half over before Kharis turns up, and he is dead before he gets a chance to really cement his status as a strong villain. He’s just mindless muscle for Andoheb. And while George Zucco gives the role a certain sadistic relish, as a character Andoheb is completely useless. Apart from Cecil Kellaway, the rest of the cast leave little impression. The film is reasonably put together, and the scenes in which Kharis attacks the camp have their moments, but overall The Mummy’s Hand is just bland.

The Mummy’s Tomb (Harold Young, 1942)

Kharis returns, this time in the more robust form of Lon Chaney Jr., who now completed his hat trick of playing all of Universal’s classic monsters. Sadly, his casting does not add anything to Kharis — unlike Karloff, he does not get a lot to do other than kill or carry people. This is a real shame because Chaney could be a truly empathetic screen presence. Just check out The Wolfman (1941) or his performance as Lennie in Of Mice And Men (1939). Yet the higher-ups decided to not use Chaney’s talents to their advantage — Kharis is, at his basis, a tragic character damned by his love for a dead woman. It’s the kind of melodramatic role that Chaney could have really milked. But no — cover him up and just have him stagger around a bit.

The main problem with Kharis is that he is not that interesting — the fact that one half of his body is paralysed makes him a less-than-threatening antagonist. This characteristic worked a little better in The Mummy’s Hand, because it was made clear that Kharis needed more tana leaves to recuperate. Here, it just feels like the filmmakers decided to just replicate Tom Tyler’s version, rather than use Chaney’s recasting as a chance to make Kharis more menacing. With the one-handed throat grab as his only move, Kharis/Chaney is just as bland and rote as his predecessor. The Mummy is basically just Frankenstein’s monster here — Chaney carries a woman around; there’s a mob with torches and the climax features a house burning down at the end.

As with the previous movie, there is some re-capping of previous events with a quick montage. This time it is delivered by George Zucco’s Andoheb from the previous movie. Last time we saw him, he was bald and seemingly dead. Here, to show that it is 30 years later, he now has a full head of white hair. He charges his acolyte Mehemet Bey (Turhan Bey) with taking Kharis to America to carry out vengeance against the survivors from the last movie.

More than the previous movie, The Mummy’s Tomb and its follow-ups highlight the old approach to sequels: make them shorter and make them cheaper. There is some attempt at continuity — along with Zucco’s Priest, his old foes Steve Banning and Babe Hanson return in smaller roles (Banning basically re-caps the last movie for the audience, and then becomes Kharis’s first victim). The action moves to the Norman Rockwell/Charles Adams-like town of Mapleton, Massachusetts (clearly studio backlot and old sets from past horror movies).

Ad – content continues below

The movie is fairly predictable — Bey resurrects Kharis to carry out a series of murders, falls in love with a woman and, in a replay of the last movie, diverts Kharis to kidnap her to be his bride. Panicked by the murders, the townsfolk figure that the culprit must be that Johnny Foreigner whose just moved into town. Bey gets shot dead and Kharis hoofs it with the girl. It all ends with Kharis seemingly perishing in the burning Banning estate. Morale of the story: sometimes bloodthirsty mobs do have their uses.

The Mummy’s Ghost (Reginald Le Borg, 1944)

Chaney’s back — and this time it’s for love!

This time, Chaney gets some pedigree in the fellow villain stakes: John Carradine, a perennial icon of 40s horror, joins the cast as the new High Priest of Arkam, Yousef Bey. He is tasked with bringing Kharis and his beloved Princess Ananka back to Egypt. After his lackluster predecessors, Carradine’s lean face and large, piercing eyes are a welcome addition to the series rogue’s gallery.

The Mummy’s Ghost is where continuity gets really screwed up — the priests of Karnak in the previous movies are now priests of Arkam. Guess their previous failures forced them to re-brand? What makes this more confusing is that George Zucco’s Andoheb, the High Priest of the previous movies returns — even though he died at the climaxes of both previous movies. Here, he dies again after passing on information to his successor, Carradine, about Kharis.

Most of the movie still takes place in Mapleton, where the events of Kharis’s last rampage have become town legend. We open on a local doctor who has found the recipe for restoring Kharis to life, along with the deceased Mehemet Bey’s batch of tana leaves. We get some classic Hollywood sexism as the good doctor decides to fool around with the tana leaves over the objections of his wife (‘That’s my salvation, Ella — the fact that you are not a scientist and that it is too much for you’). After sending his wife to bed, the doctor follows the recipe and brews the leaves.

This time we don’t even see Kharis’s resurrection — he’s just wandering out of the woods and the doctor’s action draws him back toward town. That’s the problem with this movie. Director Reginald LeBorg is so workman-like he does not even bother with any kind of atmosphere or building of suspense. Drawn by the brewing leaves, Kharis enters the doctor’s house, kills him and drinks the mixture — not that it improves his condition. He cannot even fight off a neighbourhood dog.

Ad – content continues below

One interesting wrinkle is a young Egyptian woman (Ramsay Ames) who falls into a trance-like state following Kharis’s return. It turns out she is the reborn Princess Ananka which allows Kharis’s character to become a little more developed (and I use that term very loosely). Accompanied by Yousef Bey, Kharis breaks into the local museum, the Scripps, where Ananaka’s remains are on display. This is the first time in the series that Kharis finally gets to be face-to-face with his dead love, and it is the film’s best scene.

His animated reaction when he finally sees Ananka’s mummified body, and his pitiful grasping hand as her body collapses to dust is surprisingly impactful. This tragic turn is followed by Kharis’s enraged destruction of museum exhibits — for one brief moment the character’s despair, and the tragedy of his prolonged existence, hit home.

However, this scene highlights the major weakness of Kharis as a villain compared with Karloff’s Imhotep up to this point: his complete lack of agency. Ultimately, Kharis is just a super-strong stooge for whoever resurrects him. There is nothing interesting about Kharis as a character, because he does not have one. It is always his master who is more interesting — and while he initially makes a good impression, Carradine is too stolid as Kharis’s master, and his lack of personality only highlights how un-appealing Chaney’s mummy has been. While the return of Ananka results in a more manic, passionate and human version of Chaney’s much abused Kharis, it does not become a sustained arc for the character.

At this point, just as the movie is about to get interesting, the plot stops dead to allow the police to catch up with the audience on what’s going on via a convenient exposition dump. The other major problem with this movie is that there is no main character we can get behind. The movie cuts repeatedly between the villains to Amina Mansori (Ames), the resurrected Ananka, and her milquetoast boyfriend Tom (Robert Lowery), to the police investigating the case, without making one person or pairing the driving force of the movie.

The climax of this movie may be the most hair-brained in the series, and I am including those pygmy zombies from The Mummy Returns. You know this series has jumped the shark when a goddamn dog has to lead our heroes to the villain’s hideout. Yousef Bey has an argument with himself over how beautiful Amina/Ananka is and decides to scrap his mission, make himself immortal and marry the captive woman. Kharis overhears this and kills him. This leads to a sequence involving the dog chasing down Kharis as he tries to get away with Amina. This leads to an oddly poetic final scene— without the life-sustaining tana leaf potion, Amina/Ananka rapidly ages and dies in Kharis’s arms as he sinks into a swamp.

The Mummy’s Curse is considered the worst of the series, but I would nominate The Mummy’s Ghost for that dubious honour, on account of how a few scenes hint at the kind of movie it could have been. Every time the movie feels like it is building toward something new, something hackneyed or stupid veers in out of nowhere to bring the movie crashing back to mediocrity.

Ad – content continues below

The Mummy’s Curse (Leslie Goodwins, 1944)

Lon Chaney Jr. makes his final appearance as the undead Kharis and I am really regretting this project. Thankfully the promise of Hammer and Christopher Lee is keeping me going. For some reason the action has been moved to a Louisiana bayou, a completely random decision roughly equivalent to ‘Let’s send Jason Vorhees to space!’ This does give the movie a little more juice. The movie opens with a little more panache than its predecessors — in a cafe where a French chanteuse doing a song-and-dance number. It’s a nice bit of scene setting and more fun than the series has previously been. Once again, there has been a massive time jump: we are 25 years after the previous movie, so now the action is set sometime in 1995.

We are deep in Cajun country, a locale rarely seen onscreen, where a company is trying to drain the local swamp for sanitation purposes.Work has been stop and start because the workers are afraid of Kharis and Anaka, who have been killing workers — sadly this information is conveyed through dialogue rather than in a set piece. If you are wondering how our undead heroes made the trip south, keep wondering. They are just there. After sinking into a swamp in New England, they have been carried downriver somehow and wound up in the deep South. The location and set-up are interesting enough that an explanation is unnecessary.

The Scripps museum, a major part of the last movie, re-appears represented by Dr. James Halsey (Dennis Moore) and Dr. Ilzor Zandaab (Peter Coe). They are here to excavate the bodies and take them back to the museum. Since Zandaab is the only Egyptian here, of course it turns out that he is the new high priest of Arkam who has found the bodies already and has hidden them in a secret location. Unlike his predecessors, he is aided by a human follower, Ragheb (Martin Kosleck). It is unclear whether it is Kharis or these two who have been killing the workers.

Once again, we get a flashback to get the viewer up to date on Kharis’s story— this number is particularly mouldy, combining footage from the original Mummy and The Mummy’s Hand. I wonder if Tom Tyler got royalties for his cameo? It speaks to the movie’s meagre budget that they could not sub Lon Chaney Jr. into the scene — his body type and Tyler’s are completely different, and it would have given Chaney a chance to something other than choke and carry people.

The next scene is pretty good — one of the tractors clearing the swamp disturbs Ananka’s (Virginia Christine) resting place and she slowly pulls herself out of the mud. As she staggers through the swamp, past tree roots and vegetation, the movie gains something the others have lacked: atmosphere. That is, until she is discovered by a local — this leads to an incredibly obnoxious continuity error where her hair unexpectedly changes from mud drenched to freshly cleaned and styled. This is followed by a hilariously underwhelming ‘scary’ sequence in which Kharis tries to capture Ananka from the kindly couple who have found her. While he slowly chases her through the woods, Ananka conveniently passes out near a road. Coincidentally, a car comes past driven by Dr. Halsey and Betty Walsh (Kay Harding), the daughter of the man in charge of clearing the swamp. They pick Ananka up and drive away. What is so funny is that the director stages this scene in one shot with deep focus so you can watch Kharis slowly stagger toward them while, in the foreground, Halsey and Betty wonder how and why this girl is lying at the side of the road. Kharis arrives just as they get back in the car and drive away — it’s a gag worthy of Abbott and Costello.

A word about Virginia Christine — she’s the best version of Ananka — somehow she manages to convey the woman’s disoriented state while lending her a regal air. She is easily the most sympathetic character in the film. Not that the character is really great to begin with, but Christine gives Ananka a spark and charisma that is only hamstrung by the limitations of the script.

Ad – content continues below

The movie ends on the same gambit as the previous one, with the film’s villains fighting over a woman. The hero just happens to turn up to save the girl and blah blah blah. Kharis destroys the monastery; Ananka reverts to her desiccated form and the hero marries the heroine. Simultaneously more atmospheric (the swamp locations help) and more plodding than the previous films, The Mummy’s Curse is an odd finale to the series. While I rubbished Goodwin’s direction earlier, Kharis is well photographed — with an emphasis on having him emerge from the darkness, introduced by one grasping hand. It’s a creepy touch, and more than the character has received in past entries. Ultimately, The Mummy’s Curse is no better and no worse than the other Mummy films of this era. One only wishes they had taken all of the good ideas and scenes scattered through the series and put them into one decent movie. Recognising that the series had run dry, Universal put the series on ice. It would take nearly 15 years before audiences saw Kharis again…

Abbott And Costello Meet The Mummy (Charles Lamont, 1955)

Considering how fast the original Mummy series declined, it is surprising that this did not happen sooner. Klaris (stuntman Eddie Parker) takes the place of the much abused Kharis to torment our bumbling heroes. Sadly this is a case of two tired franchises reaching the end of the line at the same time — unlike their previous spoofs, little is made of the Mummy’s potential for spoofery (considering the films preceding it, this is a massive oversight).

A few words about our undead antagonist: Overall, a major improvement. Klaris is given a raspy growl, and his facial make-up allows for more facial movements — this is one aspect that the Universal series has over Hammer — too often Hammer resorted to crude facial casts which barely allowed for eye movement. The effect here is much more arresting and ‘alive’.

The film has a few other points of interest. A brief reprieve is provided by the great Marie Windsor as a tough femme fatale straight out of a 40s noir. Her character should feel totally out of place, but there is something weirdly awesome about blending a gangster movie with a supernatural horror movie. Ultimately, the film never really capitalises on this possibility, but we do get a scene in which a gangster’s mole has a shootout with a Mummy. Considering the lack of original ideas in past Mummy movies, this movie is positively inspired.

Apart from our villains, this is pretty by-the-numbers stuff. It’s amiable, and while they are not on great form, Bud and Lou are good leads (although they have character names in the credits, they refer to each other by their real names).

The Hammer series (1959-1971)

In 1959, following their successes with their remakes of Frankenstein and Dracula, Universal gave Hammer Productions the go ahead to produce their take on another of their classic monster lineup. The result was one of their best films. The films which followed, while distributed by other Hollywood studios, should be considered thematic follow-ups to the first, sharing cast and crew members, plot conventions and character types. While they are based on the Kharis series of the 40s, the Hammer movies expand upon the creature’s potential in more interesting ways, to varying degrees of success…

Ad – content continues below

The Mummy (Terence Fisher, 1959)

Kharis returns in the formidable form of Christopher Lee to exact his vengeance on the desecrators of his beloved Ananka’s tomb. As is usual with Hammer, the colour photography is lush, and Terrence Fisher’s direction, while somewhat stately, serves the set pieces well — the scene where Kharis returns to life, emerging from a foggy swamp, is fantastic. Though it is titled The Mummy, it draws more inspiration from The Mummy’s Hand and its sequels than the 1932 original. This is to the good —Lee’s Kharis is a more soulful and ultimately terrifying creature than the Universal iteration. Driven more by his love for his dead mistress than the incantations of his master, Lee’s Kharis is easily the best version of the character. One only wishes they gave him more screen time.

As our hero, Peter Cushing is his usual reliable self as archeologist Stephen Banning. Crippled during the initial discovery of Ananka’s tomb, he is initially spared from Kharis’s wrath. Though physically handicapped, he bravely attempts to save his friends from Lee’s unstoppable monster. Ultimately, wit wins out over brawn, as Banning outmanoeuvres Kharis and the priest who resurrected him. Playing Mehmet Bey, the priest in question (once more, the order of Karnak returns), George Pastell is surprisingly empathetic as the true antagonist of the piece. Like Lee, Pastell is head and shoulders above the similar characters from the Universal series. The scene where Banning uses veiled insults of the old gods to agitate Bey is terrific — unlike the villains of the 40s, Pastell’s Bey is a true believer who views Banning and the members of his expedition (quite rightly) as hijackers of his culture. Bey’s mounting fury as Banning dismisses his religious foundation is terrifying — for once, the priests of Karnak pose a truly tangible threat. The one element from the Universal films which feels crowbarred in is Banning’s wife Isobel, who, coincidentally, resembles Princess Ananka — and only when her hair is down.

Unlike his Universal predecessors, Mehmet Bey does not like Kharis bringing her to their hideout and demands she die. This does not sit well with the Mummy, who kills him instead. The ending is a replay of The Mummy’s Curse, except here the damsel is saved in the nick of time, leaving the unhappy Kharis to sink into a swamp to be entombed once again, this time with the life-restoring scroll, sealing his fate once and for all. Overall, Hammer’s The Mummy is a terrific piece of entertainment — it takes bits and pieces from the Universal series, and blends these elements into a solid film that feels distinct from its inspirations.

The Curse Of The Mummy’s Tomb (Michael Carreras, 1964)

Hammer honcho James Carreras takes the helm as both writer and director for Hammer’s second Mummy picture. The results are inconsistent — the first 30 minutes are simply terrible, with poor match cutting and blocking of scenes. It is a major qualitative dip from Fisher’s work.

Technically, this film is not a real sequel to the previous film, but it is made by many of the same people. The story is pretty similar to previous Mummy films, but is filled with meaningless digressions and tangents. Boiling it down, the plot concerns an archeological expedition which discovers the tomb of Ra, an Egyptian prince forced into exile due to the machinations of his brother, who later poisoned him to prevent his return to claim the throne. The expedition is financed by an American showbiz promoter, Alexander King (Fred Clark), who plans to show off Ra’s coffin and belongings on a tacky world tour. When a government representative Hashmi Bey (George Pastell again) and a mysterious stranger Adam Beauchamp (Terence Morgan) become involved, events do not go as planned…

Carreras’s direction improves markedly in the second half of the picture, once the Mummy has come to life. A standout scene is the unveiling of the Pharaoh’s coffin — including an extended tracking POV shot of the expedition’s entrance into the tomb, it is a rare moment of directorial flash. The scene in which the Mummy, Ra, kills King is the scariest part of the film. Carreras shoots the scene in a fog-filled alley staircase. As King walks up the steps, the towering silhouette of the Mummy appears at the top and shambles toward him. Almost as good is the attack on an elderly Egyptologist. He turns to face his living room windows, which are completely obscured with fog. The viewer hears the sounds of a dog barking and then being cut off. In an improvement on previous Mummy pictures, this Mummy is given an eerie aural signature — heavily modulated breathing. It’s a creepy touch which, combined with the Mummy’s frozen features, add up to a truly striking monster.

Ad – content continues below

On a personal note, Ra also deserves compliments for using two hands to kill his victims — after 6 films of the one-handed throat grab, it is a welcome change of pace. Here, Ra holds the old Egyptologist down with one hand while using a conveniently close sculpture to beat the poor man’s head in.

Overall, the story makes little sense and there is a lack of forward momentum. In terms of script and direction, this film is a mess save for the title villain, and even then his motives are baffling until the end. What makes this movie so frustrating is that the final twist is actually rather good, and throws the story into a whole new light: As expected, it turns out that Beauchamp is the one responsible for bringing Ra back to life. However, it turns out that Beauchamp is actually Ra’s brother. His father had discovered that he was responsible for Ra’s death, and cursed him to walk the earth until his brother could return to have his vengeance. Tortured by his own immortality, Beauchamp is actually looking forward to his own death — which Ra provides in a collapsing sewer. It’s the one interesting idea the story has, but it comes too late to save the film from being a crushing bore.

The Mummy’s Shroud (John Gilling, 1967)

Written and directed by John Gilling, this movie benefits from a more developed story and characters. Unlike Michael Carreras, Gilling was a talented filmmaker, responsible for some extremely enjoyable Hammer films, such as 1966’s double bill of The Reptile and Plague Of The Zombies. The Mummy’s Shroud is well shot and benefits from a more lived-in aesthetic — the previous Hammer movies suffer from settings and makeup which are a bit too clean. The characters look like they’ve been in the desert for a few months. In a slight twist, the Mummy here is a slave protecting the remains of the young prince he served. This movie is not that well-regarded, but I found it all rather enjoyable and involving.

Ironically, the Mummy is not as well-handled as the previous film — gone is the laboured breathing and the fog. His death mask is slightly less animated as well, and looks too much like something you would make for Halloween. Played by Eddie Powell (Christopher Lee’s stunt double), his movements are too casual and lack menace. The set pieces are laughably functional, and not as suspenseful as they could be — in one, the Mummy attacks a man in his dark room and douses him in chemicals. In another hilariously brief scene, the Mummy wraps a victim in his own bedding and tosses him out the window. While both have their moments (the Mummy being reflected in the photographer’s chemicals is a nice touch), but the talented Gilling is clearly coasting. At one point, he even resorts to the old ‘cat’ jump scare.

On the other hand, the Mummy’s demise is spectacular — crumbling piece by piece to a pile of dust, it is a triumph of practical effects. The cast are serviceable. Doctor Who fans will want to check it out to see the OG Master, Roger Delgado, as a Bedouin skilled in the old ways who is behind the Mummy’s murderous rampage. Overall, while it is a better movie than its predecessor, the portrayal of the central monster is actually worse than Carreras’s film and undermines the overall effect to an extent.

Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb (Seth Holt, 1971)

Finally, a mummy of a different kind. For my money, the second best Mummy movie made by Hammer, and considerably better than most of Universal’s efforts. Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb was the last film to be directed by the great Seth Holt (1965’s The Nanny), who died towards the end of shooting. The picture was completed by Michael Carreras, whose ham-fisted touch is thankfully not detectable in the final product. Holt was one of the most talented directors to work for Hammer. The Nanny with Bette Davis is one of the best thrillers of the 60s, and Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb benefits from his sure touch for mood and suspense. More of a Hitchcockian master of slow-burn tension than the more obvious Terence Fisher, Holt’s approach is less interested in filling the frame with special effects, and this results a more un-Hammer-like atmosphere.

Ad – content continues below

Based on Bram Stoker’s novel Jewel Of The Seven Stars, instead of the usual bandaged cadaver, the story is based around the perfectly preserved body of the evil Princess Tera. Overcome by her beauty, archeologist Professor Fuchs (Andrew Keir) brings the body back to London and rebuilds a facsimile of her tomb in the basement of his home. Due to the dead princess’s otherworldly influence, his daughter (who looks identical to the princess) begins to act out her revenge, killing the other members of the expedition. Gradually, Tera’s plan comes into focus — she is laying the groundwork for her resurrection, with his daughter to serve as her new body. The only question is whether Fuchs and Margaret can ward off the evil princess before she can complete her plan…

Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb is only the first adaptation of this Stoker story. The film was remade less than a decade later as The Awakening, starring Charlton Heston and Susannah York, directed by Mike Newell (in his directorial debut), again in 1986 as The Tomb and for the last time with 1998’s Legend Of The Mummy. Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb is the most well known and well-regarded of the adaptations.

After so many movies, it is a relief that there are no bandages to be seen here. Someone had the brilliant idea to make a Mummy movie without the typical beats and iconography, and it pays off handsomely. Instead the emphasis is on reincarnation and possession. The movie is not without its faults — it can be slow in parts, and gradually loses the plot toward the end. However, of all the Mummy movies to this point, it has the most uncanny atmosphere. Partially this is down to Seth Holt’s direction; the other is the lack of obvious tropes from the previous Mummy movies.

The cast are solid. Andrew Keir took over the lead from Peter Cushing, and acquits himself well. Any movie with James Villiers as the villain is doing something right — as secondary antagonist Corbeck, he grounds the supernatural mumbo-jumbo with a cold, businesslike mania. He is going to facilitate the queen’s return in order to discover the secret to eternal life, and if anyone gets in his way, that’s their problem. With the Queen a largely unseen presence, Villiers is an excellent stand-in. As the queen/Keir’s daughter, Valerie Leon matches her co-stars to help give this piece some gravitas. In a rare case for Hammer (and horror in general) is a good actress as well as being incredibly attractive, and makes for an intelligent and winsome lead.

Overall, Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb is a neat little deviation from the established ‘Mummy’ formula. While it does not live up to its full potential, it stands as the most idiosyncratic and unsettling film in Hammer’s Mummy cycle. It’s only a pity that it had to come at the end of the cycle — if it had come a few films earlier, maybe it could have spurred Hammer to experiment more with the formula.

The Stephen Sommers series (1999-2008)

A new Mummy film had been in the works for nearly a decade when Universal resurrected its long dormant franchise in 1999. Various notable talents, including Goerge Romero, Joe Dante and John Sayles, were involved at various stages. None of these early versions reached production until Stephen Sommers, fresh off his successful version of The Jungle Book (1994) and enjoyable creature feature Deep Rising (1998), came in with his own pitch…

Ad – content continues below

The Mummy (Stephen Sommers, 1999)

Probably the Mummy most people are familiar with, Stephen Sommers’s reboot is a fun mix of Indiana Jones and a 50s monster movie. It is surprisingly faithful to the 1932 original, while taking the approach that more remakes should do: take the basic ingredients of the original but come up with a completely different spin on the material. It suffers from ageing CG and a rather disturbing streak of racism toward anyone remotely Egyptian, but if you are willing to take that into account, it is still a fun, silly movie The pacing is good, the story is relatively simple. Even the things which should work against it, like Oded Fehr’s over-heated narration and Jerry Goldsmith’s melodramatic score, merely add to the confection.

Much of the credit for this movie’s good vibes is down to the chemistry between Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz. It’s the usual intellectual vs brute dynamic we’ve seen before, but it is well-handled. Fraser is not the vulgarian you think he is; Weisz does not play Evelyn as a cold brain but rather with a warmth and nervy energy that makes her instantly likeable.

While re-watching The Mummy, one question kept blaring through my mind: What the hell happened to Brendan Fraser? He is the biggest special effect in this movie. I feel like most of what I liked about this movie has to do with Fraser — his ability to traverse the requirements of both action hero and comic relief have rarely been put to better use, and he seems to have an innate understanding of the tone the movie is going for. Though he is capable of the usual action hero schtick, he feels like a regular guy. Clearly, O’Connell is modelled after Indiana Jones and Fraser lends him a vulnerability vaguely akin to Harrison Ford — while he is no rube, O’Connell is always ruffled by what happens to him — which makes the comedy feel like a natural release for the character, and not just something for the audience.

How about our villain? Like Karloff, Arnold Vosloo has a face for villainy, although it is closer to the cruel matinee idol looks of Christopher Lee. Thankfully, Sommers makes the decision to remake Imhotep along the lines of the original 1932 version — though his resurrection is out of his control, Sommers’s Imhotep has a motivation and agency over his actions. This has been a major bone I have with most of the Universal and Hammer mummies, who were just slow-moving lackeys for another character. The menace has rarely been the Mummy itself, so Vosloo’s iteration has a massive leg up on that count. Overall, the movie is not overly concerned with building him up beyond the tragic backstory, but that is enough for this kind of romp.

While it is still boatloads of fun (if anyone can come up with some sand-related metaphors, I would be most grateful), the CGI really hurts the movie when it comes to realising its title villain. Right from the opening shot of the Sphinx, it takes you out for awhile. For the time it was state of the art (and still looks so much better than the sequel), but its starts the movie on an off-note. Clearly, the filmmakers took great care with hiding Imhotep in shadows and staging most of his scenes in the dark, but the character lacks menace. One thing that is kind of funny is during the famous sandstorm scene when Imhotep’s face appears out of the sand and tries to swallow the plane carrying our heroes — the effect is undercut by Sommers cutting back to Vosloo making faces.

Now to my real issue with this movie. I have major problems with the character of Gad Hassan, played by Omid Djalili (The Infidel). He is a garish ethnic stereotype, which is par for the course with Middle Eastern characters in Hollywood movies, but they go out of their way to make him as disgusting as possible. One scene in particular stands out: During the scene where the expedition is travelling through the desert, Evie’s brother Jonathan (John Hannah) complains about his Camel’s smell and spit is intercut with shots of Hassan spitting and basically embodying everything Jonathan dislikes. The filmmakers are basically equating one of the major Egyptian characters to an animal. It’s an ugly moment that feels like a joke from a movie made 50 years ago.

Ad – content continues below

When this movie came out in 1999, I was in America and got to watch it at a drive-in, which was probably the best kind of setting in which to see it. I’ve always liked it, but before this feature, I had not seen it in over 10 years and expected to hate it. Thankfully, aside from the issues I’ve already gone into, The Mummy is still a fun flick with plenty of old-fashioned swashbuckling and a winning performance from Brendan Fraser to recommend it.

The Mummy Returns (Stephen Sommers, 2001)

And so the good times have come to pass. After the one-two punch of Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb and The Mummy ’99, we are sinking back into the dreck. Only up a few inches, but the feeling is not comfortable. This movie is the poster child for the wasteland of Summer 2001. Name a blockbuster from that year. Was there one you liked? Exactly. Fear of a Writer’s Strike in mid-2000 sent several films into production with unfinished scripts, and I would not be surprised if part of this movie’s flaws were dictated by a shortened pre-production period.

The Mummy Returns is not a total misfire, but after the relatively simple pleasures of its predecessor, this sequel comes off as top-heavy and half-baked. This movie suffers from repeating the previous movie, and simultaneously forgetting what made it so much fun. It’s like Stephen Sommers took a bunch of random ideas and pasted them on a wall, and then threw darts at them and based the movie around the ones he hit. Everything from the original returns, only augmented to laughable extremes. It’s vaguely entertaining in bits and pieces, but lacks the straightforward story of the original.

There is too much fantasy here, which robs the movie of any drama. These aspects of the story (including pygmy zombies and a home-made dirigible) are done so poorly that they are never really enjoyable in a cheesy way. The terrible special effects do not help in this regard. This is the one area where this movie has become truly memorable — and the Scorpion King is only the tip of the pyramid — right from the opening sequence where the oasis of Ahm Shere rises out of the desert, the CG looks half-finished and rushed. Imhotep himself looks worse than his ’99 incarnation, lacking the texture and detail which made him initially so eye-popping. And there’s the film’s centrepiece: Even as a child, the Scorpion King was a let down, and 15 years later he looks even worse.

There are some saving graces. The movie is still funny, with the chemistry between Fraser and Weisz patching over some poor exposition. Sommers gets the movie started at a gallop, shunting through the rules he established in the last movie, and setting our heroes on their new quest. compared to this era of bloated exposition, the opening half hour of The Mummy Returns provides a reasonable exercise in how to get a mindless romp of this kind going. The initial scenes in Hamunaptra and London are exciting, with Imhotep quickly brought back into the fold and a new group of acolytes to increase his advantage over our heroes. Summers also gives his antagonists more powers — the sentries return, now capable of acrobatic feats reminiscent of Spider-Man. They also sprout poisonous claws. The set piece in which Rick and company hold off these undead free runners while driving around in a double decker bus is the best in the film, and feels the closest to the atmosphere of the original film.

The introduction of the dirigible is the moment the movie jumps the shark from enjoyably ridiculous to stupidly ridiculous. There’s a scene where O’Connell literally outruns the sun — not a bad concept for a scene, but so cartoonish in execution you lose all sense of peril. The ‘how to’ series of hieroglyphs O’Connell finds that reveal how to kill the Scorpion King are hilariously stupid. The final charge of the Army of Anubis resembles the cutaways to Sir Lancelot’s charge on the wedding party from Monty Python And The Holy Grail. There are some fun bits — the appearance of the Army of Anubis at the climax through a massive silhouette is stylish — but it never coalesces. Of the final fights, it’s the knife fight between Evie and Anck-Su-Namun which is the strongest because the combatants are tangible and are not assisted by the visual effects department.

Ad – content continues below

As stated at the outset, most of the original’s cast return — to greatly diminished effect. While Brendan Fraser does his best to bring all of his charm to Rick, and the chemistry between him and Weisz is still solid, the cast as a whole feel shortchanged by the thin script. John Hannah’s return to bandage (Geddit?) is pointless — he is just there because he was in the previous movie. In the first movie, Weisz’s Evie was sweet and a bit niave. Her strength came from wit and intelligence — for the sequel, Sommers turns her into a slightly colourless warrior woman with little agency of her own. Following her brief appearance in the prologue of the first film, Patricia Velasquez gets a chance to tackle a more interesting role —playing the mysterious femme fatale Meela Nais, who is behind Imhotep’s resurrection. Plagued by memories from her past life, Meela is a potentially interesting character, and Velasquez has a few fun moments — her promise to put a snake in Alex’s bed, spoken with light maternal admonishment, is blackly comic — but Sommers bottles it by having Meela die halfway through and possessed by the spirit of Imhotep’s dead love, Anck-su-Namun. While there was not much depth to Meela, she is vastly more interesting than the undead Egyptian, who is introduced far too late to really make an impression — to be honest, I had completely forgotten that Anck-su-Namun came back in the sequel, which just shows how much of an impression she made (It did not help matters that I spent the dull patches of this movie Youtubing highlights from Velasquez’s stint on Arrested Development as Gob’s long-abused girlfriend Marta. Good times. Back to the review!). None of the new characters really stick out, especially the villains. With their numbers and red uniforms, they just end up feeling like indiscriminate cannon fodder left over from an Indiana Jones movie (considering their wardrobe, I’m guessing Temple Of Doom).

And now onto Alex O’Connell, Rick and Evie’s son, played by Freddie Boath. To be brutally honest, the kid is a dud — While he is not Episode I bad, there is an inconsistency in both writing and performance which is enormously detrimental to enjoying this character. Sometimes he is an 8 year old, other times he’s wise-cracking like someone 20 years older. All in all, he comes off as a vaguely dislikable smart ass.

Ultimately, The Mummy Returns serves as a great example of how to do this kind of franchise poorly. The breezy tone of the first Mummy is forsaken for unnecessary world-building and character arcs (shades of the Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise). It would have made more sense to either send our heroes on a new adventure, or pit Imhotep against new characters. And while cartoonish fantasy can be great fun, Sommers tries to have his cake and eat it by going for the other extreme with dark moments of tragedy — such as Evie’s death — which are quickly undermined by a swing back to fantasy (Evie’s resurrection). When there is a spell for any malady, what is the point of the story? Nothing matters in The Mummy Returns, so the stakes never feel real. In terms of emotional beats that do work, Imhotep’s death is great — his look of betrayal as Anck-Su-Namun bails on rescuing him is the one real visceral moment in the movie.

The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor (Rob Cohen, 2008)

After rubbishing him for several paragraphs, I feel like a hypocrite for what I am about to say/write: Bring back Stephen Sommers. While it boasts a strong cast, a neat change in location, good visual effects and some great production design, this movie lacks the sense of fun and adventure that the original had. And a lot of that had to do with the tone Sommers brough to proceedings. Under the sledgehammer direction of Rob Cohen, all the charm of these characters has vanished. The tone is unrelentingly bland, the acting rote and the attempts at comedy… Ugh. It’s not an unpopular opinion but I should point out that I have never been a fan of Rob Cohen or his movies. 

This movie has Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh and Brendan Fraser the walking charm factory, and manages to waste all three of them. Maria Bello, a fine actress, has been forced into Rachel Weisz’s shoes and the result is not a strong fit. Jet Li not on-screen long enough to differentiate his character from Imhotep. The bit where he has his favourite general quartered by horses is suitably villainous, but there is no dimension to him. Imhotep had a backstory and motivation — by contrast, Emperor Han just wants to conquer the world — there is nothing else to him to make his character interesting. The fact that he is in constant agony as his skin is continually re-covered with clay is a good touch, but he needs more in the way of actual characterisation to really stick in the mind.

While the visual effects have more texture and benefit from the seven year gap between sequels, what the movie needed was a better sense of build-up and spectacle. Cohen shoots in too many tight shots and cuts too much to allow the movie’s show-stopping moments to really hit home. There are times where Cohen does not establish a strong sense of geography or scale — the introduction of the Emperor’s tomb is shot and cut in such a baffling fashion that it is hard to actually get a sense of what the set looks like, and where the characters are. There are moments in almost every major sequence it feels like there needs to be some extended, wide shots to give us a sense of the scale and grandeur of the locations, and to ground the viewer in terms where the heck people are in relation to each other. The only time we get a real good introduction to a location is one we don’t even get to visit: the first shot of Shangri-La is a nice break from Cohen’s usual approach — nice and steady, it gives the viewer a chance to really get a sense of its size and scale.

Ad – content continues below

The final shootout at the entrance to Shangri-La is a major example of Cohen’s inability to visually structure a location and a scene. We start with a series of shots of the soldiers walking up the mountain. Usually you would expect this sequence to be followed by a sequence showing the soldiers coming in sight of the entrance and then our heroes spotting them (or vice versa). Not Cohen. He cuts to a mid-shot of Rick running forward, looking out of frame. In the next shot, General Yang’s men are on the ridge across the bridge from him and open fire. It’s moments like these when you feel like Cohen forgot to shoot establishing shots, or he’s just too afraid to pace his movies properly. This is a problem throughout the movie: there are several scenes which just begin and end arbitrarily, with no rhyme or reason, and it is up to the viewer to try and understand what’s going on.

The romantic subplot feels wedged in and completely unnecessary. There is no chemistry between Luke Ford and Isabella Leong, but more fatally, there is no spark between Fraser and Bello. However, what is truly detrimental is the complete lack of humour. Indeed, aside from the O’Connell’s plane ride with Maguire and his yak Geraldine, the movie lacks the humour of Sommer’s instalments. He might have gone too far with the gags, but at least Sommers knew how to stage comedy.

Cohen’s handling of the movie’s ‘comedy’ moments is leaden. Certain scenes, like the scene where Rick goes fishing, or the later scene where Evie tries to bite into his catch and cracks her teeth on bullet fragments, just lie there. There’s no looseness to the staging or the delivery, no sense of fun. There’s one really weird beat where Fraser and Ford argue over the size and power of their respective weapons which is just wrong — he’s your dad, man. That’s the other thing — the dynamic between Rick and Alex is all wrong. Fraser’s forte as Rick is that of a young smart ass — when juxtaposed with Luke Ford, who is too old to play his son anyway, they come off as siblings rather than father and son.

It is not all bad. Randy Edelman’s score is fantastic — especially during the O’Connnell’s trek through the Himalayas. Liam Cunningham is great as yet another of Rick’s pilot buddies, Mad Dog Maguire, although he does not get a lot to do. The 40s production design is lush and eye-catching, especially the interior of Jonathan’s club (‘Imhoteps’), complete with a big band and dancers in gaudy ‘Egyptian’ garb. It feels like a homage to Abbott and Costello’s Club Klaris, but who knows. The Yetis are a nice diversion. Especially when one punt kicks a soldier over a gateway then his mates cheer him on like he just scored the winning goal. The movie needed more offbeat moments like this.

Overall, while it is not a terrible movie, Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor feels dull and tired, and is not enjoyable enough to make up for its lack of new ideas.

Final thoughts

As these films show, Alex Kurtzman’s reboot is nothing new. Apart from Karl Freund’s original and the first Hammer production, none of the movies featuring the Mummy have been that great. Unlike stablemates the Frankenstein’s Monster and Dracula, after wading through these movies, it still feels like The Mummy has the potential for greatness, but that potential still remains largely unrealised. This might be wishful thinking, but hopefully, this new project is the one which gives this classic movie monster a classic movie to go along with its classic status. And hopefully, they throw away the formula this time: too many Mummy movies can be reduced to supernatural slashers. Give us something new and unique, otherwise audiences may stay away.

In summation, as far as the movies I would recommend, check out The Mummy (Terence Fisher, 1959), Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb (Seth Holt, 1971) and The Mummy (Stephen Sommers, 1999). They are all highly watchable, and show how good a Mummy movie can be. This feature has been harder work than I thought it would be, but somehow it has made me a fan of the Mummy, at least as a concept..Now I turn the conversation over to you, readers (Den Dwellers?). Did I judge Karl Freund’s picture too harshly? Is Michael Carreras a secret genius of avant grade cinema? Who is the best Mummy? Karloff or Lee? Will Sofia Boutella be a good Mummy (that came out wrong)? Let me know what you think in the comments.

Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.