It’s hard to imagine how a shambling, vengeance-seeking collection of bones and old cloth ever became a horror film sensation.
And yet: The Mummy.
One of the classic Universal monsters, the Mummy might not have the same level of recognition and shivery admiration as Dracula or Frankenstein or even the Wolf Man, but he’s nevertheless a favorite for some of us, inspiring reboots in recent years and cameoing in movies and cartoons for generations.
Universal’s first entry in the series, “The Mummy,” was released in 1932 and starred Boris Karloff. Made at a time that the world was still fascinated by ancient artifacts discovered – some might say stolen from – ancient Egyptian tombs, the movie was more atmospheric and creepy than monsteriffic.
For me, the best of the Mummy’ moments came with the sequels.
Beginning with the dawn of the 1940s, Universal released four sequels: “The Mummy’s Hand” (1940), “The Mummy’s Tomb” (1942) and “The Mummy’s Ghost’ and “The Mummy’s Curse” (both in 1944).
These movies portrayed the Mummy as a bandage-swathed, limping killer, sympathetic when he’s used by manipulative masters but an inexorable killer – granted, a slowly paced one – that stalks young women who are reincarnated versions of his lost love.
Tom Tyler, who had played Captain Marvel and was best known as a cowboy movie star, played the Mummy, Kharis, in the first sequel. This one was perhaps the creepiest for one of the Mummy’s features: Supernaturally dark eyes visible through gaps in his bandages.
The next three films betray the ever-cheaper budgets Universal was willing to allow for the movies. Each of the four sequels made use of footage from the earlier films, but the practice seemed more standard as the series wore on.
The three final films in the four-movie sequel series starred Lon Chaney – a star for Universal in “The Wolf Man” following in Tyler’s stuttering footsteps. It was a mark of how quickly Chaney’s star had fallen that he went from playing Universal’s most tortured and likable monster to being unrecognizable as the Mummy.
One of the oddest elements of the series was the passage of time, which meant that later installments took place in the 1970s – albeit a very 1940s-style 1970s.
The time jump was nearly equaled in “say what?” by the switch in locales from Egypt to the United States, finding the Mummy and his masters turning up in first Massachusetts then Cajun country.
As much as I love “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein,” there’s something to be said for the comedians’ meeting with the Mummy in 1955 that, for pure and simple thrills and laughs, very nearly beats the A&C classic monsterfest that was originally released in 1948.
As for those cameos: One of my favorite episodes of “Jonny Quest,” the classic 1964 primetime animated adventure series, is “Curse of Anubis,” in which Jonny and the Quest gang go to Egypt when antiquities come up missing and murders are committed. There’s plenty of human villainy, of course, but striding through the mix is a mummy – maybe the Mummy. There’s no doubt the wonderfully atmospheric scenes of the Mummy stalking victims – sights familiar to anyone who had been watching the Universal films in their early TV showings – inspired plenty of goosebumps.
Not bad for a shambling bunch of bones.