Friday, October 31, 2008

The Universal MUMMY movies (1932-1944)

What the comedians say about the Mummy is true: he is the classic monster who would seem least likely to actually harm you since he moves so darned slowly, shuffling and limping along with trails of raggedy wrappings which could trip him at any moment. Still, the image of the lumbering, undead, wrapped-up figure is enough to bring a chill, and I can imagine being stopped dead in your tracks if confronted thusly. Anyway, suspension of disbelief is such a major part of being a horror movie fan, what's one more detail to take with a grain of salt? The first movie in the series, THE MUMMY (1932) with Boris Karloff, has very little footage of Karloff in his mummy outfit; just the spooky opening sequence in Egypt in which a mummy from a plundered grave comes back to life. We don't even see the mummy move, but we do see a young archeologist (Bramwell Fletcher) go mad from witnessing the mummy get out of its sarcophagus and, in Fletcher's gibbering words, take "a little walk." Months later, the formerly mummified Im-Ho-Tep winds up in England as Ardeth Bey (Karloff in excellent old-age make-up), and the film becomes a gothic romance as he tries to seduce a young lady (Zita Johann) who is the reincarnation of his long-lost love from ages ago. Two cast members from the 1931 DRACULA, Edward Van Sloan and David Manners, essentially repeat their roles from the earlier film as men engaging in "wild work" to save a woman from an undead creature. The film is rather slow-moving but the atmosphere helps a great deal. It has almost nothing in common with the 1999 Brendan Fraser remake except the vague general theme of transmigration of souls over centuries.

In the early 40's, Universal made a series of four B-movie sequels and these films are where the stereotype of the slow shambling Mummy monster come from. 1940's THE MUMMY'S HAND sets up the template for the rest, with an Egyptian high priest (George Zucco) put in charge of keeping watch over Kharis, a mummy who can be brought back to life with a potion of tanna leaves when he's needed to stop outsiders from defiling a tomb. The movie is enjoyable, though it relies a little too much on the comic touches of its heroes, Dick Foran and Wallace Ford, who very nearly become Abbott and Costello; Cecil Kellaway as a befuddled magician is more fun. Western star Tom Tyler is Kharis, always fully wrapped up, so he doesn't exactly get to stretch his acting abilities. In 1942 came THE MUMMY'S TOMB, a direct sequel set several years later; it has the same basic plot, this time playing out in America, where the high priest (Turhan Bey) has brought the mummy (Lon Chaney Jr.) to life to punish the tomb raiders.

1944's THE MUMMY'S GHOST sticks with the same outline, but re-introduces the concept of the reincarnated lovers from the first film. It has a rather startling ending involving the damsel in distress, who apparently really is the reincarnation of the Princess Ananka, and would have been a nice endpiece to the series, but one more followed the same year, THE MUMMY'S CURSE, set apart from the rest by its setting, the Louisiana Bayou; its heroine is Virginia Christine, known several years later as the kindly Mrs. Olson in a series of ads for Folger's Coffee. Technically, all four films follow one long storyline, but the plotholes are way too big in terms of time passed (60 years between HAND and CURSE) and locale (how did Kharis get from Egypt to New England to Louisiana?). Despite the slight changes in each one, they are difficult to tell apart unless you watch them all together in one sitting--which I do not recommend. But taken separately, a few days or weeks apart, the series remains highly watchable. The DVD "Legacy" collection from Universal is a very nice package, though lacking in any extras above and beyond the commentary and featuette on the first Mummy film--both of which are well worth your time. [DVD]

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