If you’ll pardon the pun, it’s time to unwrap another monster, just because I can.
In 1922, archaeologist Howard Carter unearthed the lost tomb of Tutankhamen, perhaps the most famous and certainly the most publicized of the digs into ancient Egypt. It had such an effect on popular culture, the likes of which no one could have imagined. You’ve perhaps seen examples of the period style known as Art Deco? It was largely inspired by the art and design of ancient Egypt. Art Deco was everywhere in the 1920s and ’30s, a testament to the hold ancient Egypt had on the public imagination. But it wasn’t just the beauty and the grandeur. It was also the horror potential.
Along with the body and treasures of Tutankhamun came the legend of the “curse of the pharaoh.” Such an idea launched a thousand pulp novels, and Universal Studios producer Carl Laemmle, Jr., jumped on the idea of bringing that idea to the silver screen. Laemmle was the son of studio president Carl Laemmle, who had commissioned The Phantom of the Opera, Dracula, and Frankenstein, all to box office records. Now it was time for the son to cash in. The search went out for a literary novel based on ancient Egypt that could be transcribed into a movie script. None was found, though the movie they made has much in common with a short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Ring of Thoth.” The original treatment was for a film entitled Cagliostro, about a 3,000 year old magician. By the time it was reworked and rewritten, a new Universal classic was born: The Mummy.
Boris Karloff’s star was now in ascension following his work on Frankenstein. His nickname “Karloff the uncanny” was the kind of public awareness that money can’t buy. It was a no-brainer to cast him in this role.
When the film was released, it was an instant success, especially in Britain, whose teams had been at the forefront of the Egyptian excavations.
It’s interesting to note that The Mummy didn’t have a sequel. 1940’s The Mummy’s Hand was a pseudo-remake. It and its sequels follow a different mummy character, Kharis, where the original follows the story of Imhotep, who would later be reborn in the 1999 remake starring Brendan Fraser with Arnold Vosloo in the title role.
I… have a love / hate relationship with this movie. It both excites and depresses me at the same time. The Mummy plays on my twin loves of history and mythology. It’s one of those irresistible combinations that will forever hold my attention. When it comes to Egypt, my fascination with Cleopatra VII led me to discover Egypt’s history, while my love of Egypt’s mythology opened into full throttle with the movie Stargate. Both explorations tell me I should not like this movie because precious little of it is accurate to anything outside of the references to Isis, Osiris, and Anubis. I can go scene by scene and tell you what’s wrong with it. Sometimes it’s even fun to do it. But I also grew up with this film as I did with so many other monster movies, and a little film called Raiders of the Lost Ark taught me at an early age that sometimes the ideas of history and mythology are enough, that it’s ok to step aside and let the adventure come through.
The thing is, The Mummy isn’t an adventure. Well, this one isn’t. The 1999 version is. For this one, one of the things it has in common with all of the best monster movies of that age is that it’s all artistic spectacle of sets and makeup, presented in mood. If I turn off my brain, so to speak, the many reasons this movie is a classic become readily apparent to me, and I enjoy it for all those reasons.
However, what is seen cannot be unseen, and I noticed something a few years ago that makes me laugh every time I watch this now. If you play it side by side with Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, you quickly find that there are entire scenes that line up almost shot-for-shot. Dracula and The Mummy are almost the very same movie! And at the same time, they’re very different movies too, in terms of tone and artistry. Such isn’t the last time that would be done. Universal almost didn’t buy The Wolf Man, and it wasn’t a commercial success because they’d done Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde three years earlier. The similarities are striking. Admittedly, that’s a little more obvious than The Mummy and Dracula, but there it is. Ironically, what separates the two is that The Mummy has a bit of a twisted love story to it, where the monster defeats death and time to find his reincarnated lover, but Count Dracula is just evil and cares nothing for such things… until later versions when The Mummy’s gimmick is handed over to Dracula on a silver platter, and to better effect. Watch Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and you’ll see what I mean. I guess what I’m saying here is that I tend to enjoy the idea of The Mummy better than the film itself. I still love it for nostalgic reasons, and I always will. It’s not an A-lister for me, but I refuse to leave it buried all the same.