13 Mummies Dearest
Article By: Tony Timpone
The excitement level continues to build for classic monster movie buffs with the release of The Mummy and the launch of Universal Pictures’ Dark Universe label. The big-budget crossover films will unite legendary Universal Monsters figures like Frankenstein’s creations, the Wolf Man, the Invisible Man and others in a shared world meant to compete with the superhero antics of Marvel and DC, but with a decidedly more horrific bent. The Tom Cruise-starring The Mummy arrives first, and the movie marks the studio’s third franchise iteration of this ancient bandaged baddie. Today, Chiller’s Friday 13 looks back at the best Mummies Dearest who emerged from antiquity to terrorize present mortals. As a bonus, we include comments from some of the talent involved with these fear films. (Titles arranged according to year of release.)
1. The Mummy (1932)
The grandmummy of mummy movies owes its classic status to the top notch talent in front of and behind the camera. A year after Frankenstein, Boris Karloff took on one of his most chilling and sinister roles as high priest Imhotep, mummified millennia ago for a sacrilegious act. An archaeologist accidentally revives Imhotep 3,000-plus years later (in one of horrordom’s creepiest scenes), and the mummy shuffles off, assuming a new identity 11 years later and pining for his reincarnated love. Director Karl Freund, who ended his career as the chief director of cinematography on I Love Lucy, brings much visual panache to the eerie material. Jack Pierce’s iconic Mummy makeup also deserves praise; it took 11 hours to apply it to poor Karloff.
2. The Mummy’s Hand (1940)
Instead of directly sequelizing their ’32 Mummy, Universal instead rebooted their very old monster with a new mummy eight years later. This time, cowboy actor Tom Tyler lassoed the role of Kharis, who gets ritually buried alive for trying to bring his beloved Princess Ananka back to life. Resurrected in modern times, Kharis serves as the henchmummy to tana-leaves-brewing evil high priest George Zucco. Standing over 6 feet tall, Tyler cuts an impressive figure as the bandaged one, strangling with one arm various tomb defilers. Lon Chaney took over as Kharis in three more quickie Mummy flicks, though they lacked Hand’s entertaining blend of scares and laughs.
3. Curse of the Faceless Man (1958)
In this “honorary” mummy movie, the infamous A.D. 79 volcanic eruption of Pompeii’s Mt. Vesuvius encases in stone Roman gladiator Quintillus Aurelius (Bob Bryant). The plaster man later returns to life with a shot of radiation and goes on a killing spree to reunite with his reincarnated love. Sound familiar? The filmmakers lifted their basic plot right out of the Karloff Mummy, while the Faceless Man looks and acts just like Kharis! Still, there’s plenty to love in this B-movie cheapie, including actor Richard Anderson (the Six Million Dollar Man’s future boss) as the archaeologist who dug up the petrified Etruscan and a memorable, spooky score by Gerald Fried (Star Trek’s “Amok Time”).
4. The Mummy (1959)
When it came to Hammer time, the British studio recruited company stalwart Christopher Lee to put a new set of bandages on Universal’s Kharis. Lee told this author one of his favorite anecdotes on playing the living mummy during the exciting, water-logged finale. “[The set was supposed to represent] a muddy lake,” Lee recalled. “And it was all done in a studio tank. That was very tough, because of all the machinery underneath to make bubbles and everything. And I’m holding the supposed-to-be-unconscious girl [actress Yvonne Furneaux] at arm’s length, and she’s saying to me, under her breath, ‘Don’t drop me! Don’t’ drop me!’ She didn’t want to be dropped in all the muck!”
5. Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971)
Hammer followed up the Kharis film with several more mummy thrillers, though each one featured a different mummy! For this sexy and stylish shocker, Hammer adapted Dracula author Bram Stoker’s 1903 novel The Jewel of Seven Stars. At the exact moment Egyptologist Andrew Keir opens the tomb of black magic-practicing Queen Tera (Valerie Leon), her spirit escapes to ultimately possess the body of his daughter as Mom dies during childbirth. Years later, the Jewel story got shoddy remake treatments starring slumming Oscar-winning actors: 1980’s The Awakening (starring Charlton Heston!) and 1998’s Legend of the Mummy (with Lou Gossett Jr.!!)
6. The Mummy’s Revenge (1975)
Spanish Wolfman Paul Naschy donned the dusty wrappings to limn the nefarious Amenhotep and his descendant in this gory and atmospheric production, lensed in both Madrid and London. “My father was so proud about this movie because he loved the Egyptian civilization,” recalls Sergio Molina, son of the late horror star. “He also loved the mummy movies with Karloff and Lee, and he wanted to play the character. [In the ’32 film] you hardly see the character in his ‘mummy guise.’ My father wanted to be shown as the character throughout the film. The makeup took hours to apply. The mummy’s costume was amazing, but they forgot to put a zipper on it; my father endured the whole day without being able to go to the bathroom!”
7. The Monster Squad (1987)
This fun “kids-meet-the-monsters” movie by Night of the Creeps director Fred Dekker echoed past traditions. “Unlike the intense mummy out now, I played more of the classic Hollywood mummy,” recalls actor Michael Reid MacKay, who last appeared in Insidious: Chapter 3. “Once I was fully wrapped, I was the character. I did not copy the classic mummies I had seen, but made it my own creation with quirky moves and suddenness to create jump scares which I love!”
MacKay recounts the climactic unwrapping scene, one of The Monster Squad’s major highlights. “A metal bracket was welded onto the back of the truck, and I was put onto it and strapped in,” he says. “The actors in the truck were switched out with little people stand-ins. My unwrapping demise happens when Rudy [Ryan Lambert] shoots an arrow at a bandage, sticking it to a tree to unwrap me. I was switched out for a hollow mummy dummy for the unwrapping scene that disintegrates, with my head the last to go. This was my first professional job, and I had a blast playing the mummy.”
8. Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (1990)
The first segment of this all-star anthology film adapts an obscure mummy story from Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle and relocates it to a college campus. “‘Lot 249’ was the first sequence we shot, and it set a great tone for the rest of the film,” recalls director John Harrison. “I had Julianne Moore in her first film role, and Steve Buscemi in one of his first. Talk about ‘casting up’! And, of course, Christian Slater, who could wield an electric carving knife with such manic glee. But the real hero of the piece was our Mummy, Michael Deak, who had to suffer endless hours under hot lights in KNB EFX’s airtight costume. Just keeping him hydrated was a major undertaking. Some of his stumbling around as the mummy worked so well because he was actually about to pass out. Or maybe he just had to go to the bathroom!”
9. The Creeps (1997)
Perhaps the oddest film on our list, this Charles Band quickie introduced the first midget mummy, joining a quartet of miniature monsters inspired by old favorites. “Apparently, Charlie had found this collection of little toys that were inspired by the classic Universal Monsters, but all squashed down so that they looked like little dwarf versions,” recalls Creeps screenwriter Neal Marshall Stevens, who took the pseudonym Benjamin Carr on the film. “So he got it into his head that he’d like to do a movie where all those monsters were somehow brought to life—but somehow or other squashed down to half normal size—and asked me to come up with something.
“The Creeps is the result, with the whole goofy idea of a mad scientist and his ‘Archetype Inducer’ that can take classic figures out of literature or myth and turn them into real beings,” Stevens continues. “Of course, the great thing about working with Charlie is that he’s usually game for any crazy idea you come up with, so long as time and budget permit. The depiction of the monsters, even at half size, worked out really well, and the Mummy was really great. Of course, the story required that there was some classic ‘literary’ archetype for each monster. For the Mummy, we ended up having a book from Nina Wilcox Putnam on the pedestal, which was a bit of a stretch because, though she did write the original story on which the Karloff classic was based, the final movie didn’t use any of it and pretty much everything that we think of as ‘Mummy’ lore really comes from John Balderston’s  screenplay. But having a screenplay sitting on the ‘archetype’ pedestal wouldn’t have had quite the same gravitas!”
10. The Eternal (1998)
And now for something completely different, the first Irish mummy movie! Independent writer/director Michael (Experimenter) Almereyda’s poetic and haunting story finds an alcoholic couple traveling to the Emerald Isle to dry out. There they meet their strange uncle (the perpetually strange Christopher Walken), who’s hiding a 2,000-year-old Druid witch mummy in the basement with the goal of revitalizing her! “I remember seeing a fascinating bog mummy in a Dublin museum,” Almereyda told Fangoria. “It wasn’t hard to invent a connection, converting the conventional Egyptian mummy to Irish turf, turning it into a female Druid witch.”
11. Tale of the Mummy (1998)
This slick Russell (Highlander) Mulcahy movie plays as a loving tribute to past mummy movies, but with a modern spin. Front and center is evil Egyptian Prince Talos, whose swirling, living bandages from his mummified body serve as weapons! “Tale of the Mummy was conceived as a homage and modern tribute to Hammer Horror,” explains co-writer John Esposito. “We even recreated the poster from the 1959 Mummy. Russell had remembered seeing it as a kid and being miffed that the image from the one-sheet never made it into the movie. As far as the character of Talos was concerned, I was trying to switch it up a little from Karloff’s Imhotep and, also, Kharis, from the Universals and Hammer remake. Their mummies had been, by and large, somewhat sympathetic, at least in their initial motivation; a great love, tragically taken. Talos was never that. He was conceived as a villain from the onset, born to cause misery and subsequently reborn to continue his mission for future generations. The twist ending—the male lead [Jason Scott Lee] being the actual reincarnation of the mummy’s princess—was another attempt at switching up the tropes of the genre.”
12. The Mummy (1999)
Armed with a $70 million budget, writer/director Stephen Sommers reinvented The Mummy for a new generation. Emphasizing Indiana Jones-style action, spectacular ILM visual FX and an amiable cast (Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz and John Hannah), the movie scored at the box office and spawned two sequels, a spinoff series (The Scorpion King) and a Universal theme park ride. Despite the nastiness he causes, new Imhotep star Arnold Vosloo gravitated toward The Mummy’s love story angle. “I like the romantic aspect as opposed to the horror aspect,” Vosloo told Fangoria. “I thought if I could add some kind of romance to this, it would really be interesting.”
13. Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)
In this offbeat entry, based on the Joe R. Lansdale short story, a geriatric Elvis Presley (an amusing Bruce Campbell) clashes with a soul-sucking ancient at a nursing home. “In approaching our 4,000-year-old Egyptian mummy in Bubba Ho-Tep, I wanted to have some fun, but keep it as traditional as possible under the circumstances,” says director Don (Phantasm) Coscarelli. “The inherent problem with many mummy movies is that mummies by their very nature are very slow-moving creatures. Therefore, having a healthy young actress scream and then faint so she can be killed by the mummy is patently ridiculous. But the beauty of the Bubba Ho-Tep concept was that all the victims were old codgers in wheelchairs and walkers so the threat would be genuine—they couldn’t move fast enough to get out of the way! Of course, the Ossie Davis JFK character solved that problem with his motorized wheelchair!”
If you want a dose of unintended camp, check out the various ’60s-era Santo and Aztec Mummy wrestling movies from Mexico. 1974’s hilariously awful Voodoo Black Exorcist from Spain (just out on Blu-ray from The Film Detective) sets an oatmeal-faced mummy loose on a cruise ship. Any others? Tell us on our Facebook page or go on Twitter using #Friday13.
Tony Timpone contributes the blog Elegy to leading horror website Dread Central. See the first installment here.