My motivations are lost in the sands of time…
(Cue wind effects. Cue sand blowing.)
Recently, I set off on an expedition of discovery, scholarly pursuit and looting in search of a good mummy film.
Because they said it couldn’t be done.
I prepared by doing some cursory internet searching and found a few top ten lists. Almost all qualified their limited praise. The same films appeared on each list.
“Who among ye truly loves the mummy movie,” I whispered and promptly rented Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb because at least it has Valerie Leon dressed up like an Egyptian princess.
Set out now with me on this ill-fated expedition.
Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb
Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb is a Hammer horror production. If you are reading a five-thousand word essay on mummy movies you likely know what that means.
For those who don’t, Hammer Film Productions lives at the epicenter of what defines a B movie; yet in their best moments they could transcend low budgets to entertain with misty, gothic settings, over-the-top performances, some decent acting and occasionally real horror.
Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb was a support feature for Hammer’s film Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde made in 1971. It was also the last mummy movie Hammer produced, all of which were based on Universal’s sequels to their own original, The Mummy (1932).
A support feature was a film that would be double billed with the main feature—moviegoers could see both films for the price of one. As such, the support features often reused sets and locations from other films in production and were generally not well funded.
I won’t go through the plot extensively for any of the films I’m going to talk about. Instead, I’ll draw various themes from the films, which in total, point to a fuzzy nexus of what makes up a mummy movie.
Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb is loosely based on Bram Stoker’s novel The Jewel of Seven Stars (as are many mummy films).
It doesn’t have a mummy in it.
Theme 1: Many mummy movies maintain a minimum of mummies.
Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb is my favorite mummy movie by Hammer. Which, taking into consideration our first theme, warns me that there might be something intrinsically flawed with the mummy as the locus of a horror film.
Though it has no mummy, it does feature a scantily-clad Valerie Leon portraying an exceptionally well-preserved Egyptian priestess/queen and also simultaneously the daughter of an archaeologist.
The first theme we note but do not expand on, yet. The second is reincarnation.
Theme Two: Reincarnation (Kind of)
Reincarnation isn’t really a part of ancient Egyptian religion, as far as I know. The point of mummification was to unify disparate parts of your soul so that it could continue, not that it would reassemble in another body.
The Egyptians believed in a multi-part soul. Sometimes it’s composed of seven parts, sometimes five, though usually I see three main ones outlined: the ka, the ba, and the ank. I’m unsure if this is because of disagreements between modern experts or because Egyptian belief changed. I’m not an Egyptologist.
Why reincarnation, I asked myself?
I speculate that nineteenth century writers and twentieth century Western filmmakers and storytellers, many of whom were British, were conflating the beliefs of the inhabitants of their Indian colony with ancient Egyptian beliefs, which was also a colony de facto, if not de jure from 1883-1956.
Don’t believe me? Fine. I could be wrong. It’s just a theory. But if you think there is much understanding of Egyptian culture, archaic or “modern,” on display in any mummy film you watch, I suggest you read even the slimmest volume of Egyptian history, then consider again.
Valerie Leon is the reincarnated spirit of a somewhat morally ambivalent Egyptian priestess/queen named Tera, who starts to take over her body. Kind of. Except she is alive in present day England and named Margaret…Also Tera’s spirit is alive but disembodied and floating “between the stars” …but she also still retains a perfectly preserved body, minus one hand. So they are two separate people. But the same. Simultaneously. They look the same. They are the same. But wait! Not exactly.
Sounds incoherent? It is. But the film still manages to drag the viewer along with it.
Andrew Keir plays Valerie’s archaeologist father who keeps a locked basement full of Egyptian artifacts to himself which his daughter never really thought much about opening or checking out her entire life. Despite the absurdity of the plot point among others the Keir manages the role.
James Villier plays a kind of effeminate parody of a Nietzchean ubermench. He does a decent job of being sinister. Wikipedia says he is known for having a “plummy” voice. That is too British for me to translate or understand, yet I firmly believe it’s true.
Many Hammer film actresses couldn’t quite act (especially as the studio emphasized sex and gore moving into the late sixties and early seventies). Hammer starlets were there for cleavage shots, shrill screams and swooning and often to be rescued by bearded good guys. This is an over generalization and not entirely fair to the studio, or the cultural norms of the time but true often enough to note.
Valerie Leon can act. I stand by it. She is also there for her ability to wear very revealing Egyptian “jewelry”, true. But I was surprised by her performance and by how strong they allowed the character to be.
Back to reincarnation. Another theory;
The pop-psychology criticism to the idea of reincarnation in the Western world is that every woman thinks they were Cleopatra and not a Chinese peasant. The reincarnation-y theme in this film and in other mummy films is always ascribed to the female lead. The movies always seem to associate reincarnation with the feminine. It could be a kind of Orientalism that views this “Eastern” notion as only fit for the feminine mind. Yet, this remains a theory.
And it’s an odd kind of reincarnation which these films present. Usually, it’s not one person transmigrating into another body but instead a kind of doppelganger-forced-takeover of the modern feminine lead’s body by the ancient love interest of the antagonist. Two women’s bodies are exactly the same, two spirits must battle for the “modern” one. So, not exactly reincarnation, but two separate minds fighting for one body.
Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb was entertaining enough to sustain me through the next two movies. I can recommend watching it.
Now let’s trudge on through the dunes to…
The Mummy (1959)
For my second mummy film, I stuck with Hammer. A little more on Hammer studios.
They created a partnership with Universal studios to remake and update Frankenstein, Dracula and then ultimately The Mummy. The modernization of Universal’s classic monsters came by way of filming in color and adding blood and violence. At this point in the late fifties, it had been many years since the American films with these characters had been released. All of the original creature features were black and white.
Hammer had a lot of success with their take on Frankenstein. It brought in money and did well internationally. So, too, their take on Dracula. Then they took on the Mummy. The studio would go on to make four films featuring mummies (don’t be fooled, it’s only three since Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb doesn’t have a mummy in it). The Mummy (1959) was the beginning.
Peter Cushing is great. If you don’t know him, go rent some Hammer movies with him in it. Or blindly pick a Hammer movie and he will probably be in it.
He’s an extremely physical actor and played many of the main roles for Hammer Horror. Sherlock Holmes, Van Helsing, Victor Frankenstein. In this film he plays an archaeologist with a bum leg, who is also the son of an archaeologist. So many archaeologists, so few mummies. Which brings us to our next theme.
Theme Three: Who stars in a Mummy Movie?
There is no star of a mummy movie or solid backstory and recognizable character. Look at the roles Cushing played again. You recognize those characters if you have even a slight familiarity with the horror genre. Who can you name that is a mainstay of the mummy movie? There is only a generic “The Archaeologist”. And then there is “The Mummy”. Sometimes.
The mummy doesn’t have a name you recognize. It changes. The mummy doesn’t have the strong, traceable lineage of Dracula or Frankenstein. Perhaps not even the Wolfman.
This is partly because Dracula is based on the Stoker novel which has its birth in a blend of European folklore and history. Frankenstein is based on the Mary Shelley novel and that’s a very popular work, deservedly so, and even taught in high schools in America today. The Wolfman idea at least also relies on folklore for a basis.
And the mummy … well, there were a lot of short stories written in the nineteenth century. But the reality is that Universal hired two writers to draft the screenplay based on a short story published by one of the writers, Inez Coralie Wilcox.
The mummy narrative has no direct, easy to locate birth in a famous work, nor a basis in folklore. At most maybe we can point to the popularity of the myth of the curse of king Tut, and newspaper coverage of the archaeological dig that spawned it.
This should allow for a lot of leeway in storytelling. Unfortunately, as you will see, the majority of mummy movies are remakes, riffing on the original Universal picture, their weak sequels or an unfinished novel by Bram Stoker called The Jewel of Seven Stars. Not a popular work by the author better known for Dracula.
The Mummy (1959) has some wonderful gothic atmosphere here and there. The image of the mummy rising up from the English bog is memorable and actually rises to the level of real horror. The scene in the asylum showcases the “Terminator like”, implacable, slow, but impossible to avoid menace of a mummy in action.
The heavily furnished, Victorian era drawing rooms and the mansion all look plausible. Even by today’s standards what they accomplished with Technicolor still draws the eye into wonderfully color-saturated richness.
Sure, the set design of the Egyptian period scenes is absurd when viewed from the present moment with the profusion of special effects a studio can bring to bear now. But they hold up for the time enough not to distract a modern viewer too much.
But the film has a major structural problem. Two very long, very clunky flashback sequences in the middle completely halt the momentum. Flashbacks are the scourge of narrative flow in mummy films. An abrupt, unsatisfying conclusion left me bewildered.
Christopher Lee plays the mummy called Kareis. Again, I don’t want to outline the plot for you in fine detail. You might enjoy watching it. Lee acts with his eyes and creates a kind of body language for the mummy that works well. He was apparently a dancer and a mime before acting. You can see how he used that to inform what is essentially a silent role.
There is a reprise of Theme One in this film. Isabelle, the wife of the archaeologist, is spared by Kareis because she looks exactly like the Egyptian princess he loved when he was made into a mummy in olden times. His love was forbidden. Forbidden mummy love.
There’s no explanation for this reincarnation theme. It simply is. It does allow for a convenient way out of showing mummy-on-woman violence. All older mummy movies are loathe to do that. Likely this is a sign of early ideas of acceptable violence in film and story. Maybe. I don’t think a single female is ever a victim of a male mummy in any movie.
The film is not a remake of the American original. Instead it’s an amalgamation of elements from three of the sequels to that original film.
Over the next dune…
Stuck in quicksand…
The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb
Next I watched the second mummy film from Hammer after The Mummy 1959. It’s not a sequel. It is, however, a piece of shit.
This one is abysmal. The director, Michael Carreras, did well in his role as producer for Hammer. He also did direct films, but none in the horror genre besides this one. (Technically, he finished directing the last week of Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb when the original director, Seth Holt, died.)
Here’s Carreras in his own words. It’s from an interview which is featured in the documentary, Flesh and Blood: The Hammer Heritage of Horror.
“I liked doing it. In fact, the only two horror films I personally made were the two movies (It sounds like he says, moomies instead of movies as if verbally conflating mummies and movies), or if not three, I can’t remember. I enjoy directing of course, I mean, I don’t know anyone do wouldn’t enjoy directing.”
I don’t know much about Carreras, so I don’t want to put him down. But from this and several other quotes in the same film, he seems like a chap who was good at making money, and not particularly driven to be a director with any distinct vision.
I’m not one to judge the past by the ethics of the present, fluid as they are, but I was reminded of the terribly boring but thought-provoking Edward Said book, “Orientalism” when watching this and several other mummy films.
The black people in the film are always just carrying stuff. They threw in some Indian looking guys to play Egyptians but apparently couldn’t find enough in London so they just cast white dudes half-heartedly dressed up as “Egyptians” and told them to try a foreign accent. It’s lazy. And yes, it was a different time, but some of the problems with this film can’t be excused by an appeal to low budgets.
My complaints continue. This film attempts to take every mistake in all the mummy movies I’ve watched and realize them in one film.
The “natives” are viewed as superstitious idiots in the ways of science when they try to warn the British there are curses about. They are ignored, then they end up being right.
The fight scenes are shoddy. There’s a point where a narrator tells us of two guardian statues during a flashback sequence, but they are played by what are obviously real actors. Perhaps they didn’t want to make the statues.
Lots of narration ensues and the bane of the mummy film structure, myriad flashbacks, chop the film to pieces. It’s bad storytelling. There are some obvious dubbing issues; a very old maid screams and it’s clearly the voice of a younger woman screaming.
The female lead, Jeanne Roland, whose father was British and mother Burmese in real life, plays a stereotypical feckless French woman sans fidelity to her mate. They seem to have dubbed over her voice with an actress who had a thick French accent for every single speaking line.
There are so many problems with this movie. This is the type of film which you can only watch from a removed, ironic perspective which I find to be a waste of time.
The mummy doesn’t even kill anyone until the movie is 2/3 of the way finished.
There is one fine sequence where the mummy takes vengeance in a foggy English alley. It’s the only memorable scene of the film.
Two bandaged thumbs down.
We are low on water…
We can barely go on…
We require something to sustain us in the arid wasteland…
Maybe the Fata Morgana of special effects.
The Mummy 2017
I grew tired of older mummy movies so I turned to The Mummy (2017), Universal’s aborted attempt to launch a shared-universe franchise called the Dark Universe.
The film stars Tom Cruise, the other dude who is his sidekick, and Sofia Boutella who brings a reasonable performance.
Russell Crow is Doctor Jekyl. And Mr. Hyde.
It opens with Tom Cruise and the actor I will refer to as “the other dude” since I don’t think he deserves the effort of me looking up his real name. They are both looting artifacts in Iraq.
They also happen to be part of the Army. Advanced Recon or something.
They fight “insurgents” and don’t die. A typical Hollywood action sequence unfolds. The “other dude” delivers a nauseatingly classic Hollywood quip, “I can’t believe you talked me into this Tom Cruise, you crazy bastard!” as the bullets fly. There are explosions. There are jokes. There are more explosions. I will grant them they spent a lot of money on special effects. And after watching so many older films, I felt in need of some special effects that didn’t make me chuckle.
I got them at the expense of most everything else good about film.
Theme Three Reprise: Where are the mummies?
There isn’t a mummy in this film as a central character. Boutella isn’t really a mummy, though she conjures up some mummies who act like zombies because she’s magical. Why is she magical, you ask?
She made a pact with Set (stand-in for Satan, though the film says he’s the Egyptian God of Death. That’s not correct, that’s Anubis.) after her dad, the pharaoh, has a young son, knocking her out of the line of succession. This is also historically inaccurate because it was only in very limited circumstances over the span of 3,000 years that a woman inherited the title of Pharaoh. So the idea that she would kill her entire family and sell her soul to get the crown seems off given the cultural norms. Granted, this is fiction so there is room to create characters who would act outside of the established rules of their time and it’s not entirely implausible. There were a handful of female pharaohs.
She kills her whole family and worships Satan. So the priests bury her alive and hide her sarcophagus far away in northern Iraq, which is frankly an unreasonable distance to travel to bury an evil princess when the Libyan desert is just to your west.
She isn’t even a mummy because they don’t embalm her. They just bury her alive in an elaborate prison tomb.
(Her sarcophagus is buried hundreds of feet underground, surrounded by a never-ending supply of mercury to “ward off” evil, and guarded by gargantuan statues of Anubis. It’s also easily able to be revealed by means of cutting one rope tied to a pulley system which has somehow managed not to rot for thousands of years.)
It was fun enough to watch after the older films, but I can’t endorse it. Ultimately, you just end up scoffing but for different reasons. If you like action and effects it’s tolerable. Tom Cruise seems more and more like a lizard to me as he ages but I did like how he gave his character a genuinely block-headed aura. Cruise is a decent but uneven actor.
The effects did their job, though the later mummies (which aren’t mummies but insta-zombies transformed by a kiss from the evil awakened Boutella) seem poorly animated compared to the rest of the film.
I’ll let you decide if the attempt to shoehorn in Russell Crowe as Doctor Jekyll makes any sense outside of attempting to create a shared universe of intellectual property.
This is a genius doctor who can’t figure out he needs to reload his medicine after using it. The medicine prevents him from becoming the evil Mr. Hyde. So, this intellectual giant apparently constantly almost succumbs to evil because he can’t afford another syringe or remember to refill the barrel.
Climb with me now away from this foolish mirage.
Let us find the original oasis.
The Mummy 1932
The original lives up to those who celebrate it. Call me Justinhotep, for I am pleased.
(Hotep in ancient Egyptian meant, “is pleased, or is satisfied.” This is why you see it in the names of so many pharaohs. Usually it’s the name of a god followed by -hotep. So their name is akin to saying, “Me being a pharaoh pleases X god.”)
After watching Tom Cruise shoot things, I was prepared to go back to where it supposedly all began.
(It didn’t. Mummy fiction is very much a product of the nineteenth century, and there were dozens of silent films featuring mummies as antecedents, but no one cares about them, including me).
Boris Karloff possessed gravitas. He plays Imhotep, a mummy, briefly anyway, who is unearthed by British archaeologists.
There is only one scene where he appears as the classic bandaged-up mummy and it is shot in a memorable way. It’s the most horrific and realistic looking mummy on film and the scene is almost a century old. Karloff’s mummy looks fragile, crumbling, tired.
He lumbers out of his sarcophagus and scares a young archaeologist into madness and eventual death. A great scene, weighty with real elements of horror. It is what you’d imagine would happen if you saw a walking mummy; you would simply go insane at the impossibility of it.
Then the antagonist, Imhotep the mummy changes and spends the rest of the film as a kind of unwrapped, somewhat dry looking, evil wizard who is attempting to seduce Zita Johann’s character, Helen, since she resembles the woman he loved in ancient times, Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon.
Theme Four: Ancient Love
Ancient love pops up a lot in mummy movies. We see in flashback (of course) a priest who is in love with a woman. He attempts to resurrect her and is punished. This punishment is in the form of being wrapped as a mummy while still alive.
There follows a love triangle involving the mummy, the woman who looks like the woman the mummy fell in love with and her modern lover.
The Mummy (1932) is a film worth watching. There are odd spaces of silence but they didn’t detract. Another artifact is the very abrupt edits and fades but those can be overlooked.
Black and white ends up serving the portrayal of the mummy well even if for only the one scene. While Hammer’s Technicolor vision creates striking effects it also highlights the fake look of the ancient sets. Not so with black and white. There’s no burden of showing the appropriate age of things, when they are lost in the shadows of monotones.
This film had the most horrifying scenes of all the films I’ve watched so far and there is basically no violence at all. It’s an odd scene when Imhotep, dressed like a modern Egyptian, meets Helen. They spend several minutes just intensely staring into each other’s eyes, while she talks in a hypnotized manner and others stand around chatting around the awkwardness. It’s genuinely unsettling and well-acted.
This mummy does kill but he does it at a distance. He throttles the space in front of him while scrying in a pool of water. The gestures of Karloff might later be the reason some mummies are depicted strangling their victims.
The plot is rushed at the end. Suddenly, the heroes know everything and where to find the girl for no apparent reason. I’m not clear on exactly why Imhotep burns the female mummy body. In contrast to some of the later adaptations, the heroine actually saves herself instead of relying on her beau. She is aided by the Egyptian goddess Isis.
You need to watch this. It’s part of film history and borrowed from in nearly every other mummy movie.
The Mummy 1999
I probably should have disliked this more than I did. The reality is despite some aging CGI, the movie holds up as a decent action-adventure. It is not, however, a horror film.
Swashbuckling occurs. A lot of swashbuckling, but Brenden Frasier manages to make it all work. His love interest, portrayed by Rachel Weisz, brings a sort of classical beauty and charm to her role that only fades in the last 1/3 of the film through no fault of her own.
It also makes a good structural move; it begins with the ancient sin of the mummy’s love in flashback and doesn’t interrupt the narrative again with the device.
The bad mummy is named Imhotep and this film makes several references, even in terms of repeating a few lines of dialogue, from the original 1932 film.
There’s an Indiana Jones feel, a healthy budget for wardrobe and set, and action movie consequences to the rampant violence (in other words, there aren’t any). I’ve had a problem really sinking into movies that use violence so casually for the last twenty years, but it makes sense; this isn’t a horror movie, it’s an Action, Adventure, Drama, Horror, Suspense movie according to the “genre” category on Amazon. That’s accurate.
There is one decent horror scene, when Rachel Weisz’ character has her own hand-to-hand bout with the female lover of Imhotep who has just been resurrected. There was something disturbing and consequential about it.
Finally I think I see one reason why mummy movies don’t work as horror films; horror movies need be small. When you have a story set in an era that cries out for the gargantuan, the epic, and the monumental it’s hard to also frame a horror movie. That’s what the Hammer films got right. They were small films and usually limited in scope.
The Egyptian Mummy
I briefly surveyed the silent films about mummies. I had read they were all comedies, but I wanted to see one for myself.
The Egyptian Mummy is a silent film made in 1914. It runs less than twenty minutes long. But to make comparisons with this film is nonsensical. The film is over a hundred years ago.
Consider this. We try to understand the past. Historians try to delve into the lives of people who lived thousands of years ago. But even the cultural norms and references in a film a hundred years old is difficult for us to fully comprehend.
I’ve watched many mummy movies in the last week. Yesterday, I took a break and read a book about birds. Why? Because I’m tired of mummy movies.
They don’t meet the criteria of a horror film for me in almost all cases. Should I continue to watch other mummy films?
The sequels to the original Universal films are considered weak. The last mummy film by Hammer which actually has a mummy in it is supposedly the worst. There are other films of course. The All New Adventures of Laurel and Hardy in For Love or Mummy, Bubba Hotep, and The Awakening.
I feel like an archaeologist whose dig has run dry.
Nobody is afraid of mummies. In case there is someone who is afraid of mummies reading this, I’ll coin the following term for you: Mumiaphobia. You are rare. I expected there to be a word for the phobia already coined. As far as I can tell, there is not. There’s a fear of itching: acaraphobia, a fear of rail travel: siderodromophobia, but alas, no fear of mummies.
Before me is a great challenge and it is this: to write a true horror film or story around mummies. Can it be done? I have some thoughts, some ideas.