Why I enjoy certain “killer mummy” movies, and why I usually roll my eyes at the rest of this subgenre.
If there’s one thing I’ve always enjoyed doing since birth, it’s watching monster movies. It all started with the old black-and-white ones with guys like Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Lon Chaney, Jr. When I was seven or eight years old, there was a local UHF TV station that used to broadcast many of these flicks on weekend afternoons or late at night. This is how I remember seeing things like King Kong (1933), Godzilla (1954), and Them! (1954) for the very first time. Most of these movies didn’t scare me that much (though I remember being absolutely traumatized by The Thing From Another World), but I loved them anyway, especially the Universal monster movies. And naturally, Karl Freund’s The Mummy (1932) is the one selection from that particular canon that made the greatest impression on me.
An ancient Egyptian priest named Imhotep (played by Boris Karloff) has a forbidden crush on the princess Ankh-es-en-Amon, who is a virgin priestess of the goddess Isis. When Ankh-es-en-Amon dies an untimely death, Imhotep steals the legendary Scroll of Thoth to resurrect her corpse. The Pharaoh’s guards apprehend him and rip out his tongue; then they bury him alive, all as punishment for his blasphemy. To add insult to injury, Imhotep’s fellow priests scratch out all the hieroglyphic spells inside his coffin that are meant to procure a safe journey to the Otherworld for its occupant, thereby condemning his soul. Thousands of years later, some European archaeologists dig up Imhotep’s tomb and accidentally resurrect him with the Scroll of Thoth. One of them sees the old boy walking around, and the poor dumbass goes stark raving mad. Then the mummy disappears, snatching the Scroll on its way out.
Years later, Sir Joseph Whemple (the European who hasn’t gone crackers) returns to Egypt with his son Frank to launch a new expedition. That’s when a guy calling himself “Ardath Bey” (an anagram of “Death by Ra”) shows up. Bey appears to be the oldest (and dustiest) Shriner walking the Middle East, and he walks around like he’s got a Louisville slugger rammed up between his ass cheeks. He also has an incredible knack for knowing exactly where the archaeologists should dig to find more treasure. Thanks to Bey, the archaeologists discover the tomb of Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon—and that’s when a European lady named Helen Grosvenor (played by Zita Johann) starts sleepwalking through traffic in the middle of Cairo. Thinking Helen might be the reincarnation of his old lady (literally), Imhotep—er, I mean Ardath Bey—decides to put the wammy on her so he can kill her, mummify her, and resurrect her corpse.
Of course, Helen doesn’t exactly relish the thought of becoming a drooling, undead trophy wife. So Imhotep does what any sensible star-crossed sorcerer would do; he kidnaps her, hypnotizes her with his magic, and forces her to go along with what he wants. But just before he’s able to claim his final victory, Helen feels a sudden inspiration to pray to Isis, whose statue springs to life and electrocutes Imhotep with magic lightning. At that point, the world’s oldest (and dustiest) Shriner reverts back to the walking, talking mummy he really is, and he promptly disintegrates into a pile of bones. Then Helen goes home and presumably marries her other suitor, the archaeologist’s son. (Actually, Helen simply exchanges one kind of “zombification” for another. Considering how Frank treats her while he’s keeping her safe from Imhotep, it seems like she’s doomed to become someone’s zombie trophy wife sooner or later.)
The Mummy was inspired by on the opening of Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922 by the archaeologist, Howard Carter. There was a lot of media hype back then about Carter and his colleagues bringing down a so-called “Curse of the Pharaohs” for committing this “sacrilege.” Everyone who had a hand in opening the tomb was supposed to die a strange and mysterious death. (Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the famous creator of Sherlock Holmes, believed there was some kind of truth to this curse.) But it actually would have been rude of Tutankhamen to unleash such a curse, given that Carter’s the one who gave the poor kid his biggest break. Tutankhamen was hardly an afterthought in Egyptian history during his woefully short life; it wasn’t until Carter found him that he became the most famous Pharaoh of all. Even people who’ve never read a single Egyptology book know who “King Tut” is, and it’s all thanks to Carter. I’ve always figured Tutankhamen would be mighty grateful to Carter for this.
And did you know there was actually a real, historical Imhotep? He wasn’t anything like Boris Karloff’s character; he is actually the oldest known physician in history. He wrote one of the earliest medical treatises that offered purely scientific (and not magical) treatments for illnesses (predating the Greek physician Hippocrates by over 2,000 years). He was also the master architect and engineer who designed the Pyramid of Djoser (otherwise known as “the Step Pyramid”). Far from being cursed for any blasphemy, Imhotep was something more like a saint who had achieved great enlightenment and holiness during his earthly life, and who could intercede as a spirit on behalf of the living. Such was the real Imhotep’s popularity that he eventually gained his own religious following and was worshiped as the “Son of Thoth” (the god of wisdom, who was Imhotep’s tutelary deity). My guess is, the makers of The Mummy wanted an authentically Egyptian-sounding name for their film’s antagonist, and they most likely chose “Imhotep” without knowing anything about the historical figure to whom it belongs.
The thing that really sets The Mummy apart from other films of the period is the way in which its titular monster is defeated. Most gothic horror movie monsters—vampires, werewolves, Frankenstein monsters—are easily defeated with Christian religious symbols, or with purely practical weapons like fire. Imhotep is impervious to all of these things, and it is neither Jesus Christ nor Professor Van Helsing (nor even The Mummy‘s own perpetually dumbstruck “hero”) who saves Helen at the end. Her savior is a goddess who’s assumed by the (male) archaeologists in the film to have been a mere superstition, but who’s shown to be real and benevolent enough to answer an innocent woman’s desperate plea. The Mummy is pro-Pagan in its insistence that the ancient Egyptian religion is true and continues to have power and currency today. The fact that most people no longer believe in the Egyptian gods has absolutely nothing to do with it, and all of the characters are forced to accept these facts by the end of the film.
There’s only one other character who understands these things from the start, and that’s Dr. Mueller (played by Edward Van Sloan). Mueller is Helen’s psychiatrist, but he’s also an esotericist who happens to put his faith in the Egyptian religion. He’s the one who insists that everyone should be wearing an amulet of Isis for protection (and he turns out to be right). He also warns the archaeologists that they shouldn’t be meddling around with the Scroll of Thoth, and that they should just torch it in a fireplace somewhere. Not only does he seem to know that using the Scroll is a bad idea, but he specifically uses the word “sacrilege.” I’m sure the filmmakers never put this much thought into it, but I bet Mueller is a member of something like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn or the Ordo Templi Orientis—some European occult initiatory order that claims to be older than it really is, and which is full of bored social elites who claim to know more about Egypt than they really do. Except in this case, Mueller happens to know just enough to help keep some of the other characters alive, which is curiously pro-Egyptian for a movie from this era.
Of course, the film isn’t without criticism. One complaint I often hear is that it’s basically the same movie as 1931’s Dracula, but with Egyptian rather than Transylvanian window dressings. This is definitely true; the idea of an undead immortal man lusting after a mortal woman also appears in Dracula, and Dr. Mueller and Frank Whemple are both played by actors who also appeared in nearly identical roles in the Lugosi film (as Professor Van Helsing and Jonathan Harker, respectively). The opening title sequence even uses the exact same music that was used for Dracula (the “Swan Theme” from the second act of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake). But despite all of this, I feel The Mummy is superior to Dracula in almost every way. It has the benefit of being made after Hollywood had a chance to learn from making “talkies” for a while. Dracula has always seemed very stilted and boring to me, and I think it’s because they were only just starting to film with sound when it was being made. It’s also more faithful to Hamilton Deane’s 1924 stage play than it is the original Bram Stoker novel, which means it’s a fucking terrible adaptation. At least The Mummy doesn’t claim to be based on a book and then do a fantastically shitty job of adapting it.
The Mummy was followed in the 1940s by a string of so-called “sequels” (starting with The Mummy’s Hand in 1940) that have nothing to do with the original film’s characters or plot. They’re also not nearly as intelligent and much more racist. They follow a mummy named Kharis, who’s less of a savvy sorcerer like Imhotep and more of a stumbling, demented death machine. He’s sent by the ancient priesthood of Karnak to kill some archaeologists for desecrating the tomb of a princess, and he’s controlled by the priests with (ahem) petrified tea leaves. While the 1932 original depicts Egyptian magic as a morally neutral power that can be used to help or hinder, the 1940s films treat it as a bizarre and degenerative cult that can only bring savage violence and death. (Most insultingly, the priests of Karnak always end up falling in lust with some white woman and trying to rape her, which always leads to the priest’s demise.)
Thankfully, the story of Kharis was revisited in more thought-provoking terms in the 1959 remake by Hammer Studios, called simply The Mummy and starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Thanks partly to a great script by Jimmy Sangster and a terrific performance by George Pastell as Mehemet Bey (the priest of Karnak in this version), Hammer’s The Mummy casts its Egyptian characters in a somewhat more sympathetic light. It still views its own subject matter through a racist and colonialist lens, but at least Mehemet Bey is given a chance to articulate his position to the white protagonists, and Pastell really sells it. I can totally see how the systemic exploitation of his culture and religion would radicalize him to kill in the name of Karnak, regardless of the fact that Karnak is actually a city in Egypt and not a god. (I actually enjoy this flaw in the film, because it means none of the violence is being committed in the name of any deity that’s worshiped in any real life religion.) It’s also nice to see a version of the story that doesn’t have the priest of Karnak getting all rapey with the heroine and sabotaging himself in the end.
The Hammer Mummy is a close contender for “Greatest Movie Called The Mummy Ever Made” in my Setian scriptural canon, but the Universal original wins this category for the following reasons:
- The Universal original is pro-Egyptian and has the good guys getting their asses saved by an Egyptian goddess; the Hammer version, despite having a sympathetic villain, still has an uncomfortably xenophobic message of “Anything that isn’t White Anglo-Saxon Protestantism is evil black magic and devil worship.”
- While Mehemet Bey keeps his cool right up until the end, the Hammer version still has someone getting rapey with the female lead and thereby foiling Mehemet’s plot; in this case, it’s his own damn mummy Kharis (played by Christopher Lee), who I guess just wants to prove you’re never too old to sow your oats.
There’s been a truckload of other “killer mummy” movies since the Hammer Mummy, but most of them just repeat the same old premise from the Karloff original: some dead guy from Egypt rises from the grave with the worst case of morning wood ever, and he stops at nothing to claim the current reincarnation of his ancient sweetheart. Considering the complexity of Egyptian mythology and its huge cast of characters, it’s never made sense to me why Hollywood keeps circling back to this particular trope. There are so many other ideas from Egypt that could be adapted into much more interesting stories, such as the belief in kas (invisible doppelgangers that are supposed to follow us around throughout our lives), or the story of the Destruction of Humankind (in which humans are almost completely wiped out by the lion goddess Sekhmet), or the idea that pictures and drawings are actually windows into alternate universes. There’s more than enough material in Egyptian literature to inform several long-lasting movie franchises, but audiences just want to see scantily-clad women being fondled by dudes wrapped in Charmin I guess.
Okay, so the 1999 version of The Mummy handles this trope a little differently. Yes, the evil mummy wants to bring back his dead lover; but at least here, the dead lover and the living heroine are two different characters. (The mummy still has to kill the heroine to bring back his ancient lover, though, so I guess it’s not that different after all. Also, the heroine turns out to be the reincarnation of another Egyptian princess in the 2001 sequel, The Mummy Returns. Doesn’t anyone ever get tired of writing this crap?) But one thing that does work to the 1999 film’s favor is the fact that it frames itself not as a gothic horror movie, but as an epic adventure yarn. It bears much greater resemblance to the Indiana Jones movies than to either of its own titular predecessors. The performances from Brendan Frasier, Rachel Weisz, and Arnold Vosloo are also quite enjoyable, and I like that the film has its heroes using Egyptian mysticism to defeat the villain. (Reading a spell from the Book of Amun-Ra is not quite as impressive as having a goddess show up to personally rescue you from the monster, but I digress.) If you can look past the horrible computer graphics that are in this movie (and mind you, this is a 1990s movie, so its digital effects are craptastic in that special way that only 1990s CG could give us), you could do a whole lot worse.
Which brings us to the latest Mummy reboot, the 2017 version starring Tom Cruise. Sweet Set O Mighty, I don’t even know where to begin with this one. Okay, so we have an Egyptian sorceress who’s mummified alive for trying to take the Pharaoh’s throne. We have Tom Cruise digging up her coffin in contemporary Iraq (?) after an airstrike. We have Tom’s pal getting killed and showing up as a ghost that only Tom can see (probably because he got confused and thought they were making An American Werewolf in London). And we have Russel Crowe showing up as Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde (yes, from the Robert Louis Stevenson novel), who has somehow become the leader of a secret society that knows everything there is to know about the mummy. I appreciate that they made this mummy a chick (and I won’t lie, Sofia Boutella looks fucking hot wrapped in Charmin like that), and I’m especially grateful that the “ancient lovers” theme was completely removed. Yet the film makes other unforgivable mistakes, and its absolute worst offense is the sheer number of aimless plot points that are clearly meant to be resolved in future movies. It’s one thing to do this when you have a clear vision of how everything’s going to tie together in the end; but the 2017 Mummy is not a finished product that can stand or be judged on its own merits. It amounts to little more than a 110-minute long preview of coming attractions (which we will never get to see).
But that isn’t what upsets me most about the 2017 Mummy. I can forgive movies for all kinds of cinematic sins, but I find it difficult to watch anything in which Set is used as a stand-in for the Christian devil. The mummy Ahmanet has acquired her supernatural powers as a result of making a “pact” with Set, and pretty much everything she does in the film is to serve Him. Naturally, this means Set is “evil” and wants to destroy the world. Would it kill Hollywood filmmakers to make a movie for once where Set isn’t written like He’s some two-dimensional cartoon villain? Even better, the film ends with Tom Cruise killing the mummy, inheriting her powers from her pact with Set, and becoming a superhero. If you don’t understand why I would be bothered by this, imagine for a moment that someone has made a film in which Jesus comes back to start a global holocaust, only to be defeated by Val Kilmer, who then promptly uses his new Jesus powers to become “Captain Nazareth.” Sounds pretty stupid, right?