“For who shall defile the temples of the ancient gods, a cruel and violent death shall be his fate, and never shall his soul find rest unto eternity. Such is the curse of Amon-Ra, king of all the gods.” – The High Priest
After relaunching the Frankenstein series with Son of Frankenstein the previous year, and the Invisible Man’s reappearance in 1940, Universal decided to reboot another of their golden age classics and it was time to head out to Egypt. Or at least the back lot at Universal City, which looked absolutely nothing like Egypt with not even a model of a pyramid to be seen. Truthfully, the setting looked more suitable for a Western shootout.
Son of Frankenstein was given a large budget and a longer running time. It was a financial success, but Universal’s money men had taken the decision that the monster movies be budgeted with a bit of restraint - more as B movies, despite the fact that they were the studio’s bread and butter. Also, the running times would be shortened. There was a major exception to this – but for that, we have to wait until we reach 1942. Now, we’re firmly in the ear of recycling footage from earlier films and reusing the musical score from Son of Frankenstein. (This is used continually for most of the rest of the monster movie series.)
In the 1940s, Universal seemed to tone down the horror of their subject matter, with the accent more on adventure. The Mummy (1932) was at its heart a love story that transcended centuries, and it carried with it a sense of hopelessness and tragedy especially in Boris Karloff’s performance, his eyes reflected the Imhotep’s eternal wait and suffering, as did the mournful tone of his voice. The whole film has a dreamlike quality and the horror comes largely from the punishment Imhotep suffered for his blasphemy borne of out his love for Princess Ankh-es-en-amon.
There’s no such sweep or scope in this reboot, which is the starter to a whole new series, and bears no relation to the 1932 original. That one’s a standalone. This is where the Mummy series really starts, and shows the Mummy not as a lovelorn immortal looking for the reincarnation of his lost love, but as a robotic instrument of revenge under the control of an evil other. It also kicks off the “Mummy Mythology” of a long, long line of High Priests having kept the mummified Kharis alive over the millennia by feeding him a liquid potion made from Tana leaves. Three leaves during the cycle of the full moon just to keep him ticking over, a nine-leaf brew allows the Mummy movement if there are tomb defilers nearby who need to be taken care of.
We’re brought up to speed quickly with these new rules as a mysterious Egyptian named Andoheb gets off a train in Cairo station, and makes his way to a mysterious temple whereupon he’s told the what he must do by the elderly High Priest of Karnak who promptly dies. We know that Andoheb is Egyptian and he’s up to no good, because it’s a forties film, Andoheb wears a smart suit, and a fez and he’s played by George Zucco who made a career as a supporting “bad guy” actor in movies like this one, along with Lionel Atwill.
One other point from the High Priest in his handover, never give the Mummy more than nine Tana leaves – he’ll become all-powerful. (So, kind of like me with coffee. One keeps me going, two I’m moving around, three plus and Lord knows where I’ll end up or how much trouble I’ll get in to)
The Mummy, Kharis, has a similar but not identical story to Imhotep in the Karloff film, a High Priest who dared seek immortality, was caught and punished by having his tongue cut out so that the Gods couldn’t hear his unholy curses, and was swathed in bandages, buried alive in an unmarked tomb with a large supply of Tana leaves.
This is the bit I don’t understand – Tana leaves are, we’re told extinct, yet he’s been kept alive by a brew of them during the full moon for close to two thousand years. That’s a lot of Tana leaves. And if nobody knew where he was buried (the slaves who dug his tomb and carried him there were slain, and were the soldiers who slew them) did the Pharaoh always mean to keep him alive forever, thus bestowing immortality on him? Actually, giving him what he was being punished for? Maybe I’m overthinking this.
We see a lot more of Kharis than we saw of Imhotep, but we have to wait until around the halfway point of the film. When we finally get to him, he’s worth the wait. Jack Pierce, Universal Pictures’ resident make-up genius revisits the same type of look Karloff had for his all-too brief scene in 1932 with a couple of added twists. Kharis is played by ex-cowboy actor and stuntman Tom Tyler, who didn’t have Karloff’s thin frame and gaunt face. But that’s okay – the Mummy is really more of a robotic henchman. But Pierce tied his right arm up in a sling, as though Kharis has lost the use of it, and Tyler adopted a shuffling walk, as though one of his legs didn’t have its full ability. (Both these traits are conspicuously dropped when Kharis carried the leading lady off). But the most striking and memorable effect was the Universal effects department’s painstaking blacking out of Tyler’s eyes and open mouth in close-ups. It really gives a disconcerting appearance just to see a deep soulless black where the eyes should be. I think this is the first Mummy movie I ever saw, back in my pre-teens and that’s what made the most indelible impression on me.
Of course, there are defilers to the tomb. Leading man Dick Foran as intrepid but broke archaeologist Steve Banning finds an ancient pot which gives the location of a tomb in a bazaar and along with his tiresome comedic sidekick, inexplicably named “Babe” (Wallace Ford) gets funding from a travelling stage magician Solvani (Cecil Kellaway) to set up an expedition. There’s no real reason from a narrative point of view for him to be a magician, other than to pad the film out with some light relief routines with Babe. Also along for the trip is Solvani’s daughter Marta (Peggy Moran) who’s basically just there to be abducted and rescued.
Kharis’s tomb is found, but there’s a secret passage to the tomb of the Princess Ananka, which will undoubtedly contain untold treasures, so Andoheb activates Kharis do get rid of the party. The way this is done is curious – a brew of the Tana tea is left in the tent of the intended victim and Kharis somehow homes in on this and kills the person in the tent. But Andoheb also takes a fancy to Marta and somehow gets Kharis to abduct her. What’s the protocol for making “kill the old dude but bring the pretty girl” Tana tea?
Andoheb takes further liberties with the late High Priest’s relatively simple instructions by announcing his plan to make both himself and Marta immortal by drinking the Tana liquid. (Hang on… if THAT was a possibility, how come the none of the previous high priests thought of it?)
His dastardly plan is foiled, however and he takes an assisted tumble down the temple steps, the assistance being several bullets from Babe’s revolver.
Steve makes it to the sacrificial slab that Marta is tied to before the Mummy’s shuffle, Kharis wants a super strong Tana brew that been made, inexplicably. Steve tips the liquid on the floor, Kharis ponderously gets to his knees to try and lap it up while Steve thrown a flaming brazier on to him…
Low on horror, but high on action. Not a bad movie – just don’t question it too much.
Copyright © 2010 - 2020 Robin Pierce. All Rights reserved.