As a horror fan, I’m pretty much obligated to watch the classics. If you haven’t seen at least seen the first iteration of the most famous horror franchises – Halloween, Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Saw, Hellraiser, etc. – you’re really missing out. Of course, even an ardent lover of movies pushes aside the classics for one reason or another and never gets back to them. I’m not going to admit to the slew of classic non-horror films that I haven’t seen or have only seen part of, but I will admit that for the longest time I had never seen all the original Universal monster pictures. I’m talking about the films so famous they’re practically the face of the genre even now: Frankenstein, Dracula, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Mummy, The Wolfman, and to a lesser extent even The Invisible Man. I saw Frankenstein as a kid, but only because I wanted to see a horror movie that was tame enough for me to stand. In spite of my frequent forays into horror with the Goosebumps books, I never really got into horror as a kid. It was only when I was a teen that I started seeking horror out and I wasn’t looking back at the classics. Thankfully, I’ve rectified that in recent years and thus far I’ve seen all but The Invisible Man. Since Universal Studios is celebrating its 100th anniversary, it seems only fitting that I review their famous monster flicks this October. Join me as I begin the Universal monsters review-a-thon with The Mummy.
For those of you who haven’t seen the original or the more recent remake, which stays fairly true to the original story, The Mummy starts with a small group of archaeologists who discover Imhotep and a cursed box containing a scroll with the Isis used to resurrect Osiris. When one of the foolish young archaeologists opens the cursed box and reads the spell, Imhotep come alive, in a manner of speaking, and shuffles off into the desert; the young man goes mad and dies. Fast forward ten years later and two of the original archaeologists, Dr. Muller and Joseph Whemple, as well as Joseph’s son, Frank Whemple, are shown the location of Princess Ankhesenamun’s resting place by a mysterious old man named Ardath Bey; the mysterious old man is Imhotep, now in robes and a fez instead of linen wrappings and not nearly so desiccated. The group celebrates their new find with one of Dr. Muller patients, Helen Grosvenor, who’s father is British and mother is Egyptian. Naturally, Frank immediately falls for her, because there has to be a romantic subplot. Although the archaeologists are initially thankful for Ardath Bey’s help, they become suspicious when several murders occur at the museum and Ardath makes eyes at Helen. They make the connection between the disappearance of the mummy Imhotep, an incomplete transcription of the scroll of resurrection found in the museum, and the appearance of Ardath Bey. However, Imhotep uses his unholy powers to kill Joseph Whemple from a distance when the archaeologist tries to burn the scroll. Imhotep steals the scroll by controlling the mind of a Nubian servant and lures Helen by similar methods to a temple. Imhotep shows Helen that she is the reincarnation of Ankhesenamun and tells her that he needs to kill, mummify, and resurrect her so they can be together. Frank and Dr. Muller come to the rescue, but ultimately Imhotep is vanquished by Isis, to whom Helen/Ankesenamun appeals for safety. Imhotep dries out, turning back into his mummified state, and falls apart.
This movie is not particularly scary; old horror movies rarely are. However, the story is well crafted and the movie has style, so it deserves its status as a classic horror movie. Paradoxically, the movie has the timeless quality of a classic, but in some ways it was incredibly topical. The film starts in 1922, the year Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun, and fast-forwards to the present day, which was 1932. The film builds on the era’s excitement about Egypt and most importantly on the rumors of a curse surrounding the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb. Add to all that the exotic flavor of the spells – mind-control, killing at a distance, resurrection – and a 3700-year-old love between Imhotep and Ankhesenamun and you have a movie that should appeal to a 1930s audience. Thankfully, many of the things that made it exciting in that era have been retained in popular culture and the movie is still fun to this day.
While watching this movie, I also learned why there haven’t been more mummy movies, especially in recent years. Part of what makes The Mummy good is that Imhotep spends most of his time dressed and acting like a regular human, though he is wrinkled, acts creepy, and has magic powers. Quick, what’s the first thing you think of when you think of a mummy? If you were thinking “basically an Egyptian zombie who wears white linen,” then you probably see the problem. The modern obsession with zombies makes mummies seem redundant and their geographic limitation prevents us from seeing them in locations other than Egypt or a museum. Just in case you’re thinking I’m not being fair, I watched The Mummy’s Hand not long after I watched The Mummy and found that their take on mummies was to have a mummy that was guarding a tomb and killed people by shambling around beating them to death. I think someone can write a good, original story with mummies, but it’s easy to see why that particular form of the undead doesn’t get around nearly as much as its brethren.
And for those who are interested, my third post of the ongoing novella/short story is over here.