Welcome back to THE HORROR JAR, that column where we look at odds and ends pertaining to horror movies.
Up today it’s the Universal MUMMY series. Never as popular as Universal’s other monsters- Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man— the Mummy nonetheless appeared in five Universal horror movies and one comedy starring Abbott and Costello. As such, the Universal Mummy movies are significant. In fact, one of the Mummy movies, the first one, THE MUMMY (1932) ranks as one of the best Universal monster films ever made.
So, let’s get to it. Here’s a look at the Universal MUMMY movies:
1. THE MUMMY (1932)
73 minutes; Directed by Karl Freund; Screenplay by John L. Balderston, based on a story by Nina Wilcox Putnam, and a story by Richard Schayer; Imhotep/Mummy: Boris Karloff
As I said, THE MUMMY, Universal’s first Mummy movie, is one of the finest Universal monster movies ever made. There are a couple of reasons for this. The number one reason, really, is director Karl Freund.
Freund, a well-respected cinematographer, was in charge of the cinematography in DRACULA (1931). His work here as the director of THE MUMMY, with its innovative camerawork and masterful use of light and shadows, is superior to the directorial efforts of both Tod Browning on DRACULA (1931) and James Whale on FRANKENSTEIN (1931). The only stumbling block by Freund is the ending, as the film’s conclusion is choppy and inferior to the rest of the movie.
The other reason is Boris Karloff’s performance as Im Ho Tep, the Mummy. Unlike subsequent Mummy movies, in which the monster remained in bandages, here, Im Ho Tep sheds his bandages and becomes a threat quite unlike later Mummy interpretations. Karloff of course is famous for his portrayal of the Frankenstein Monster, and rightly so, but his performance here as Im Ho Tep is one of his best.
The story in THE MUMMY is quite similar to the story told in DRACULA, which is no surprise since it was written by John L.Balderston, who had written one of the DRACULA plays on which the 1931 movie was based. In fact, it’s THE MUMMY with its story of reincarnated love which later versions of DRACULA borrowed heavily from, films like Dan Curtis’ DRACULA (1974) starring Jack Palance, and Francis Ford Coppola’s BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992), both of which featured love stories between Dracula and Mina, a love story that did not appear in Stoker’s novel or the 1931 Bela Lugosi film. But it does appear here in THE MUMMY (1932).
And unlike DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN, THE MUMMY was not based on a literary work but was instead inspired by the events surrounding the opening of King Tut’s tomb in 1925.
THE MUMMY also features superior make-up by Jack Pierce, the man also responsible for the make-up on Karloff’s Frankenstein Monster and on Lon Chaney Jr.s’ Wolf Man. The Im Ho Tep make-up is creepy and chilling.
THE MUMMY contains frightening scenes, like when the Mummy is first resurrected by the young man reading from the Scroll of Thoth. The soundtrack is silent as the Mummy’s hand slowly enters the frame and grabs the scroll from the desk.
THE MUMMY also has a nice cast. In addition to Boris Karloff, Edward Van Sloan is on hand as the Van Helsing-like Doctor Muller, David Manners plays dashing Frank Whemple, and the very sexy Zita Johann plays Helen Grosvenor, Im Ho Tep’s reincarnated love.
One of Universal’s best horror movies, THE MUMMY is not to be missed.
2. THE MUMMY’S HAND (1940)
67 minutes; Directed by Christy Cabanne; Screenplay by Griffin Jay; Kharis/The Mummy: Tom Tyler
Universal’s second MUMMY movie was not a direct sequel to THE MUMMY (1932). Instead, it told a brand new story with a brand new Mummy. It also took on a completely different tone. Rather than being eerie and frightening, THE MUMMY’S HAND is light and comical, with the emphasis on adventure rather than horror. The Brendan Frasier MUMMY movies from the late 1990s-early 2000s borrowed heavily from the style of THE MUMMY’S HAND.
THE MUMMY’S HAND follows two adventurous American archeologists in Egypt, Steve Banning (Dick Foran) and Babe Jenson (Wallace Ford) as they seek the tomb of the Princess Ananka. They are joined by a magician Solvani (Cecil Kelloway) and his daughter Marta (Peggy Moran) who agree to fund the expedition. They run afoul of the evil high priest Andoheb (George Zucco) who unleashes the deadly Mummy Kharis (Tom Tyler) on them in order to prevent them from stealing from the tomb of the princess.
Kharis the Mummy is the first of what would become the classic interpretation of the Mummy in the movies: the slow-moving mute monster wrapped in bandages, a far cry from Karloff’s superior interpretation in THE MUMMY, but it’s the one that caught on. People simply love monsters, and Kharis is more a movie monster than Im Ho Tep. Kharis is also mute since in this story when he was buried alive, his tongue was cut. Ouch!
Jack Pierce again did the Mummy make-up, and it’s not bad, I prefer the Im Ho Tep make-up much better.
Tom Tyler is average at best as the Mummy. Any stunt man could have done the same. He doesn’t really bring much to the performance, and for me, Kharis the Mummy is a weak link in this film.
The highlight of THE MUMMY’S HAND is the comical banter between Dick Foran and Wallace Ford. They’re amusing and highly entertaining.
Other than THE MUMMY, THE MUMMY’S HAND is the only other of the Universal Mummy series that received critical praise. I like THE MUMMY’S HAND well enough, but I actually prefer the next film in the series better, and that’s because Lon Chaney Jr. joined the series as Kharis, and would play the Mummy in the next three films.
3. THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1942)
61 minutes; Directed by Harold Young; Screenplay by Griffin Jay and Henry Sucher; Kharis/The Mummy: Lon Chaney, Jr.
THE MUMMY’S TOMB is a direct sequel to THE MUMMY’S HAND. In fact, the first ten minutes of the film recap the events from THE MUMMY’S HAND. The story takes place thirty years later, and Stephen Banning (Dick Foran) is retired in Massachusetts, enjoying time spent with his adult son John (John Hubbard) and his son’s fiance Isobel (Elyse Knox).
All is well until the nefarious Mehemet Bey (Turhan Bey) arrives in town with Kharis (Lon Chaney Jr.) to finish the job of punishing those who raided Princess Ananka’s tomb.
The story here is pretty standard, as are the production values. The Mummy series at this point had definitely entered the world of the 1940s movie serials. Everything about this movie and the next two are quick and cheap. Yet—.
Yet— I really like THE MUMMY’S TOMB, and other than THE MUMMY (1932), it’s my favorite of the Universal Mummy movies. The number one reason is Lon Chaney Jr.’s performance as Kharis. Say what you want about Chaney, as the years go by, his reputation as an actor continues to grow. Back in the day, he received well-deserved praise for his portrayal of Larry Talbot aka The Wolf Man, but that was about it. His other portrayals in horror movies were often dismissed. Not so anymore.
He brings some character to Kharis and imbues life into the monster. He’s been criticized for being too heavy to portray an Egyptian mummy, but you know what? His considerable bulk— not fat, mind you, but solid bulk— is quite frightening! And that’s my favorite part about THE MUMMY’S TOMB: Kharis, in spite of the fact that he might lose a foot race to Michael Myers— it would be close!—is damned scary! Sure, you might outrun him, but if he gets you in a corner, it’s over! Jack Pierce’s make-up here on Kharis is also my favorite of the entire series.
Speaking of best of the series, THE MUMMY’S TOMB has, not only the best ending in the entire Universal series, but I’d argue it has the best ending of any Mummy movie period! Sure, its torch-wielding villagers which chase Kharis borrows heavily from FRANKENSTEIN (1931)— in fact, some of the same footage was used— but once the action reaches the house, and the subsequent chase inside the house, that stuff is all tremendously exciting and well-done.
On the other hand, since this story takes place thirty years after the events of THE MUMMY’S HAND, it should be set in 1970, but in the timeless world of Universal classic horror, the action is still occurring in the 1940s. I won’t say anything if you won’t.
4. THE MUMMY’S GHOST (1944)
61 minutes; Directed by Reginald Le Borg; Screenplay by Griffin Jay, Henry Sucher, and Brenda Weisberg; Kharis/The Mummy: Lon Chaney Jr.
THE MUMMY’S GHOST is my least favorite film in the series, other than the Abbott and Costello film. A direct sequel to THE MUMMY’S TOMB, Yousef Bey (John Carradine) arrives in Massachusetts to reclaim the bodies of Kharis (Lon Chaney Jr.) and Princess Ananka. When Kharis turns out to be still alive, and the Princess reincarnated in the body of a college student Amina (Ramsay Ames), Bey feels as if he’s hit the lottery. He decides to make Amina his bride, which doesn’t sit well with Kharis, since after all Amina/Ananka was his girlfriend back in the day!
The reason I’m not crazy about THE MUMMY’S GHOST is that it doesn’t really offer anything new. It’s just kind of there, going through the motions. Lon Chaney Jr.’s performance as Kharis isn’t as effective here as it was in THE MUMMY’S TOMB, nor is Jack Pierce’s make-up. The use of a Mummy mask on Chaney rather than make-up is much more prominent here.
Even the presence of John Carradine, Robert Lowery who would go on to play Batman a few years later in the serial BATMAN AND ROBIN (1949), and KING KONG’s Frank Reicher doesn’t help. I like the return to the reincarnated lover plot point, but even that doesn’t really lift this one, as that plot element was handled much better and with more conviction in THE MUMMY.
5. THE MUMMY’S CURSE (1944)
60 minutes; Directed by Leslie Goodwins; Screenplay by Bernard Schubert; Kharis/The Mummy: Lon Chaney Jr.
Inexplicably, Kharis (Lon Chaney Jr.) and Princess Ananka are now located in Louisiana, having somehow moved there from Massachusetts! The story here in THE MUMMY’S CURSE is pretty much nonexistent. It’s pretty much just an excuse to feature Kharis the Mummy stalking the swamps of Lousiana.
But that’s the reason THE MUMMY’S CURSE is superior to the previous installment, THE MUMMY’S GHOST. Lon Chaney Jr. returns to frightening form, and watching Kharis terrorize the bayous of Louisiana is pretty chilling. THE MUMMY’S CURSE is chock full of atmosphere and eerieness, in spite of not having much of a story. As such, I always seem to enjoy watching this one.
6. ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE MUMMY (1955)
79 minutes; Directed by Charles Lamont; Screenplay by John Grant; Klaris/The Mummy: Eddie Parker.
After the success of ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948), one of the best horror comedies ever made, the comedy duo of But Abbott and Lou Costello met some other monsters as well, in such movies as ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE INVISIBLE MAN (1951), ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1953), and they would meet their final monster in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE MUMMY (1955).
While Abbott and Costello are almost always good for a decent laugh here and there, this vehicle ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE MUMMY is probably my least favorite of their films where they meet a Universal monster. The gags are okay, but not great. The Mummy, named Klaris here rather than Kharis, is pretty pathetic-looking. And for some reason even though Bud Abbott and Lou Costello play characters named Pete and Freddie, in the movie they simply call each other Bud and Lou. This may have been done to be funny, but it comes off as if they weren’t taking this film very seriously.
ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE MUMMY has no connection to any of the previous Universal Mummy movies. It’s not a bad movie, but neither is it all that great.
Well, there you have it. A look at the Universal MUMMY movies. I hope you will join me again next time for another HORROR JAR column where we will look at odds and ends from other horror movies.
Until then, thanks for reading!