Monday, 17 October 2016

Mummy Movie Mayhem!

To keep a long story short, due to several factors my television recap plans are currently being rejigged. I’ll be looking at some more spooky October-themed movies than originally planned, maybe a couple bonus episodes of OTR, or vintage Donald Duck. I’ll do my best to make it work and try to keep a good balance.

But enough about scheduling hiccups! Let’s talk about something fun, like mummies!

Perhaps you’ve heard the announcement that Tom Cruise will be joining the Universal Horror revival sparked by Dracula Untold? If not, here’s a press release.

Regardless of your feelings about Tom Cruise, how disappointed you were in Dracula Untold, or your general skepticism about anyone ever capturing the glory days of Universal Monsters or early Hammer Horror again, it’s probably going to be a solid showcase for Sofia Boutella as the Mummy Queen, and she was pretty delightful in Star Trek Beyond. Silver linings, I guess.

So, to get everyone warmed up and ready for the next ill-advised excavation…

The Mummy (1932)

In the 1930’s, Boris Karloff’s career was hotter than a Scotch bonnet pepper on the surface of the sun. Eager to cast him in follow-up to The Old Dark House, Universal hired magazine writer/flapper gal Nina Wilcox Putnam and paired her with screenwriting pro Richard Schayer to come up with a story. They produced a nine-page treatment about the infamous court magician Cagliostro, with absolutely no elements of Egypt or mummies. In order to live through the centuries, Putnam’s version of Cagliostro injected himself with nitrate, and from what I gather the whole story sounds awesome and weird and more appropriate for a 1980’s audience than a 1930’s one.

(As a quick aside, Orson Welles played a horror-movie version of Cagliostro in 1949’s Black Magic, with Raymond Burr in a weird framing story about Alexandre Dumas fighting with his son. A version of Cagliostro also appeared in an episode of Boris Karloff’s 60’s TV show Thriller, “The Prisoner in the Mirror.” The historical Cagliostro is much less exciting than either depiction.)

Universal didn’t like a lot of the monster angles in the Cagliostro treatment, so they brought in John L. Balderson – who at that time was best known for his adaptation of Frankenstein, but would later go on to earn Academy Award noms for Gaslight and The Lives of a Bengal Lancer – to change things up. Back when he’d been working as a journalist, Balderson had covered the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, and the curse that seemed to befall those who opened it. The real-life story of ominous warnings on tablets and the possible reawakening of dormant, ancient evil was widely known. Balderson decided to use it as his jumping off point, scrapping the Italian magician angle altogether.

When everything was ironed out, the film became the tale of Imhotep, a man buried alive over 3000 years ago for daring to challenge the gods of death. When his mummy is discovered by gentleman archaeologists, he’s brought back to life by the reading aloud of the Scroll of Thoth by the youngest and least superstitious of the group. After regaining his strength, he reappears as a contemporary Egyptian using the name Ardath Bey, and begins leaving mysterious clues to new archaeologists about where certain tombs might be found.

Imhotep is easily my favourite of the Karloff creature roles. Back before Christopher Lee politely seized the crown, Karloff was the most versatile of the horror legends. Imhotep showcases that range as the Mummy gradually regains his strength and human form. You have everything from the mute shambling body language that Karloff invented and is still used as monster shorthand today, to his romantic side in the ancient Egypt sequence, and his remarkable gift for intensity in the stillest moments.

Zita Johann plays the object of Imhotep’s obsession, Helen Grovsner, a woman who bears a striking resemblance to his tragically deceased ancient lover Ankh-es-en-Amon (spellings on that one vary, but the character was named after King Tut’s wife). Johann was a fascinating actress of the period, often referred to as “The White Flame of the American Theater,” which was apparently some kind of compliment? Jazz Age lingo is weird. Anyway, she greatly disliked the process of making movies, and Mummy director Karl Freund didn’t do anything to help things along. He was a gigantic jerk to all of his actors, Johann especially.

Despite the difficult work circumstances, her performance is one of the most nuanced and interesting of all Universal horror leading ladies. Interestingly, she was heavily involved in the spiritualism movement of the time, and believed in reincarnation and a person’s ability to “carry” different souls. In the scenes where her large, glittering dark eyes seem to look thousands of years into the past, it’s easy to believe that’s what she’s doing.

The success of The Mummy was slow to spawn sequels, something unusual for Universal at the time, but it was rebooted a decade later, bringing us to…

The Mummy’s Hand (1940)

Spiderman films aren’t the only things to get started and restarted over and over again. The Mummy franchise has always been in a similar boat. Cast off all notions of the Mummy Imhotep being an elegant, tragic and obsessive figure. Those traits belong to Dracula. Mummies are prototypes for zombies now.

Imhotep is gone. The new Mummy is called Kharis and is played by Tom Tyler, who doesn’t have a hell of a lot to do since all the flashback scenes to Ancient Egypt are lifted directly from 1932’s The Mummy and have an uncredited Boris Karloff in them, and for some reason most of the story is about not trusting magicians.

(It’s weird, because the 1932 Mummy has no evil magicians in it, despite being rooted in the Cagliostro treatment, yet The Mummy’s Hand is loaded with modern day evil magicians. Not even corrupt ancient magicians. Evil 1940’s magicians. I don’t know why.)

But let’s back up a little and explain how we got here.

In the early 1930’s, Universal’s horror films were finely crafted works of art helmed by the likes of James Whale. Pioneers. Experimenters. Meticulous artists. And, jerkiness aside, Karl Freund’s direction in the original film is stunning. The use of atmosphere and the composition of shadow is hypnotic, particularly in the sequence when the mummy first awakes, and a later scene when Ardath Bey brings Helen to a fountain pond to hypnotize her.  

Then Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein managed to be a critical and cinematic hit, and the sequel train left the station. Everyone got a sequel. It didn’t matter if all your characters were dead at the end, it would just be about those character’s sons or something. No big deal.

Gradually, Universal’s interests and artistic levels slid into B-movie territory. Then everybody met Abbott and Costello, and while that is itself an awesomely fun movie, it also signals a change in the public perception of horror films. They weren’t art anymore, they were now schlock.

In 1940, The Mummy got a reboot. Not even a sequel, just a terrible rehashing of its plot, updated to be able to create a more profitable franchise. (What’s kind of funny about this is Nina Wilcox Putnam’s original Cagliostro idea was way better suited to having a series. In it, instead of having one reincarnated love, the monster would’ve been hunting the women of modern cities out of a spiteful need for revenge against the lover who had once spurned him.)

The Mummy’s Hand is bad.

It strips away all subtlety and ices the cake by foisting a “funny” sidekick upon us.

Crucially, though, it’s the actual starting point of Universal’s Mummy Movie Cycle. Also, fun fact: Tom Tyler only appeared as Kharis is this one film. Ever after, Lon Chaney Jr. was the mummy, except when Kharis met Abbott and Costello. That was Eddie Parker in a whole bunch of bandages.

So, after The Mummy’s Hand we got The Mummy’s Tomb, The Mummy’s Ghost (I like that title best because it’s so ridiculously unclear about what the monster is, like wouldn’t it just be the Ghost of Kharis?), and The Mummy’s Curse. None of them winners until Hammer got the rights to The Mummy’s Hand and…

The Mummy (1959)

You would think that the second best Mummy movie of all time would’ve been a remake of the 1932 version and not of the craptacular 1940 film, but no. Due to rights issues, when Hammer finally added the Mummy to its own stable of monsters, it was with the express understanding that they would be remaking The Mummy’s Hand, and any sequels thereafter would be unrelated to the Universal Mummy franchise. That last part suited Hammer just fine, they weren’t big on sequential franchises. Films were linked more by monster type and theme than anything else.

Despite the inelegant pedigree, not only is 1959’s The Mummy a serious contender for the best Mummy movie, it’s a serious contender for the best Hammer Horror. (If you ask me, the best Hammer Horror is The Gorgon, but that’s 90% because of the fake moustaches and the part where… something ridiculous happens. It’s a huge spoiler. My point is that “best” is a subjective label.)

Christopher Lee plays Kharis, revived when archaeologists read from the Scroll of Life, a made-up artifact that acts as the opposite of the Book of the Dead. The cleverest and most likeable of the archaeologists, and the one that happens to be married to Kharis’s dead princess, is played by Peter Cushing. He calls everyone idiots for being murdered, and unnecessarily leaps over a desk while wearing a smoking jacket, proving yet again why you should always open-hand slap people who leave him off their lists of horror icons. 

1959's Mummy a fantastically moody film, full of shimmering golden treasures and plush Victorian furnishings. Plot-wise, it’s thin, but the photography and performances elevate it enormously. The only downside is the swamp at the end. I like my mummies to age rapidly and turn into dust. It’s a personal preference.

If you haven’t seen this one, most reliable movie channels play it at this time of year, so make it your business to check it out. It works especially well on those rainy autumn afternoons where the sky is a muddled grey turning into early twilight, and you happen to have a cozy blanket and some pumpkin spice popcorn.

Hammer being Hammer, there were a few sequels. The Curse of The Mummy’s Tomb, The Mummy’s Shroud, and lastly Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb, which is the most quintessentially Hammer-sounding of the titles. We never got to “Seven Golden Mummies” or “Kiss of the Mummy Swingers” which is sad. People give up on their mummy franchises too soon.

They do run away with the trophy for quality-of-sequels, all jokes aside. The Mummy’s Shroud is a winner, and none of the series are as bad as the Brendan Fraser one in China. Yeesh.

Speaking of the Brendan Fraser series…

The Mummy (1999)

You know what doesn’t suck as much as people say? The 1999 version of The Mummy. (It’s barely eligible for discussion, but 1999 does count as 20th Century, and that’s what’s in my tagline.)

Ostensibly, it stars Brendan “George of the Jungle” Fraser as an American adventurer in 1920’s Cairo, where he meets a very likeable librarian with cinema’s worst eyebrows. Rachel Weisz plays Evelyn Carnahan, whose name is a combination of the names of the people involved in the discovery of King Tut’s tomb. She takes command of the storyline in a way so far unseen since the 1932 version of the story, and becomes the heart of the film and the driving force of the plotline.

There are plenty of fun nods to the Karloff Mummy, many of them more referential than practical, and the flashback sequences borrow heavily from the Hammer films. Ultimately, though, it feels more like adventure than horror. There are elements that echo Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, as well as several Humphrey Bogart films, but that’s not necessarily to its detriment. It knows what it is, and it expands on the idea and embraces it.

Like its predecessors, it spawned a series of sequels. One of them has pygmy mummies, which is the kind of thing you wonder about when you’re drunk but don’t ever expect to actually see in a real film, and another one has a magic pond that turns people into dragons.

Maybe stick with the first one?

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