We all know the Mummy, one of the classic movie monsters, brought into the public's consciousness by Universal Studios. He shares a 'verse with the flat-topped, bolt-necked Frankenstein Monster, the caped-and-tailcoated Count, and the upright-walking, respectably trousered Wolf Man. No doubt he fought and teamed up with all of them. A living dead remnant of ancient Egypt, the Mummy (usually named Kharis) wears the face of Boris Karloff, cracked and crumbling like an ancient temple wall. He shuffles menacingly though slowly, leading the way for movie zombies and mad slashers to come. He cannot speak beyond an inarticulate moan. The pop-culture memory has kept this version alive, despite his successful reinvention in a swashbuckling series at the turn of the millennium, and a less-successful attempt in 2017 to create a cinematic universe based on Universal's classic monsters.
That creature, however, cannot quite be found in any old movie. Just as Dr. Frankenstein never had a lab assistant named Igor, Karloff never played the Mummy we now imagine. That monster who stalks us on Halloween is a composite, different visions held together with ancient bandages.
We must start, of course, with The Mummy (1932), a film reviewed here by others. Universal had scored sound successes with Dracula (1930) and Frankenstein (1931). They were seeking a new monster. With Egyptology still a trend, a decade after the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb, they turned to the practice of preserving corpses and penned an original script.
Boris Karloff, in make-up developed by Jack P. Pierce plays the titular Mummy. The scene where he awakes is a still-unsettling moment of horror, but this isn't the Mummy pop culture recalls. Karloff does the bandaged walk once, briefly, and we barely see him. For the rest of the movie, the familiar-looking, cracked-face, haunted-eyed Imhotep poses as "Ardeth Bay," a dried-up, sinister ancient, clad in robe and fez. Far from a groaning, shambling, monstrosity, he's as educated and articulate as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. He's also (romantic heart notwithstanding) arguably more evil.
Karloff's performance and Pierce's make-up gave the pop-culture Mummy his face his basic backstory, which involves an undying obsession with a forbidden beloved.
Despite the film's success, it would be eight years before Universal brought out anything approximating a sequel. By then, Universal's horror films had grown less serious and atmospheric. They were fast becoming matinee fare, low-budget b-movies churned out for quick bucks.
The Mummy's Hand (1940) takes place in contemporary Egypt. An archaeologist and his comic-relief sidekick join a professor, a stage magician, and a beautiful woman on an adventure that would have suited a period serial. A former cowboy star (and--Shazam!-- first onscreen Captain Marvel) with arthritis plays a mummy named Kharis. The film lifts and modifies his backstory from the '32 film. Indeed, the flashback consists of re-edited footage from The Mummy, though, in this version, "they cut out his tongue, so the ears of the gods would not be assailed by his unholy curses." A secret cult has kept Kharis alive for three thousand years, using something called "tana leaves." They're apparently now extinct, but the cult kept a supply in a moderately-sized box. Given that Kharis requires three leaves each month to keep his heart beating and nine to rouse him to full waking, that's one heck of a lot of dried leaves. In any case, our heroes find themselves up against the cult and this Mummy, the type of the one that now haunts our Halloween dreams. The movie is cheap, but serviceable, and Universal made the most of their resources. In addition to the '32 flashback, we have the temple set from the jungle adventure Green Hell (a faux Mesoamerican temple, but viewers were less culturally sensitive then) and pieces from other productions.
Its success led to a series of movies that stand apart from the other Universal Monster films, self-contained in a strange timeline of its own. Lon Chaney, Jr. took over the role of shambling, mute monster in The Mummy's Tomb (1942) and The Mummy's Ghost (1944), copy-cat films that depict the still-shambling Kharis in New England-- thirty years after The Mummy's Hand! Chaney's mummy then turns up-- twenty-five years later-- in Louisiana for The Mummy's Curse (1944). Universal made no attempt to alter the 1940s setting (save for an absence of any references to the war), creating a temporal conundrum, though one only worth addressing as a playful exercise1. All the films involve a reincarnation of Kharis's lost loved and the same secret cult. They're not great, but they did establish the Mummy as we know him (minus Karloff's face).
Now established, the Mummy was ready for further franchising. In Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955), Bud and Lou encounter a mummified menace named "Klaris," played by stuntman and actor Eddie Parker. Soon thereafter, Hammer Studios nailed the Mummy's place in the popular imagination with a licensed adaptation of the Universal Series. It begins with The Mummy, made in 1959 but set in the Victorian Era. Peter Cushing plays John Banning, based on and named for the archaeologist in The Mummy's Hand. Christopher Lee plays Kharis. The plot draws directly from the 1940s series. Hammer would make three sequels, with the final taking place in the 1920s.
As the retro pop-cult of the Universal Monsters grew, the models and toys and masks often drew upon the post-Karloff incarnations to create the Mummy. Humorous takes on the Universal Monsters, such as Mad Monster Party? and the old comic books, often feature a version of the character.2 It is these later spin-offs that put the Mummy in some kind of larger world of monsters. Over time, Karloff's distinctive Mummy face appears to have become standard, at least on depictions not drawn from more recent reinventions of the character, or which don't simply cover the face with more bandages.
Those reinventions take their own directions, as they should. But pop culture must have access to those ancient tana leaves, because the mute, decaying Mummy continues to shamble, often in Imhotep's mask, especially when more familiar leaves have turned and are falling, and adults send their children out into the night to take candy from strangers.
1. If we place The Mummy's Hand in its year of release, the sequels take place in 1970 and 1995. It's especially amusing to imagine that ...Ghost's college-campus setting has marijuana-smoking students and wannabe hippies protesting, just out of camera range. However, we don't see much of the modern world in Hand (we're in a desert for much of the movie, and Golden Age Hollywood's Egypt for the rest), and we have only the reference to the discovery of Tut's tomb to place us clearly in a specific historic context. The film, therefore, could take place in the 1920s. The next two films would then take place in the 1950s, which really isn't a stretch. The costumes would pass, and the few cars we see would definitely still be in service. Curse would take place in the 70s or 80s, alas, and that makes no sense. A website called Sprocketland suggests that these films really do take place in a shared world of monsters, and the constant need to keep vampires, werewolves, and giant insects at bay has held back social and technological progress.
Continuity was never The Universal Monster Cycle's strong suit. The Mummy's Curse has no real reason to even be twenty-five years later. It picks up exactly where the previous movie leaves off-- except, without explanation, in a completely different American state.
2. Apart from numerous appearances as a usually inarticulate, shambling figure in old Horror Comics, he turns up regularly at the end of Bob Hope's four-color run. DC Comics began publishing The Adventures of Bob Hope in 1950; the early issues gave the comedian adventures reminiscent of his movie and television appearances. Later, they became more comic-book in nature, with a supporting cast that included a nephew with a "mod" superhero alter-ego, an educated, articulate dog, and knock-offs of the Universal Monsters.