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Monday, November 5, 2007

The Mummies (originally published 5/99)

Of all the horrors that haunt our nightmares, few are more frightening than the image of a reanimated corpse. If the dead return as ghosts, mere diaphanous apparitions, that's creepy enough. But for them to drag themselves bodily from the grave and come shambling into our living rooms, rotting flesh and all, is a far more dreadful proposition. In the shadowy world of fantasy fiction, walking corpses (aside from vampires, which are a whole other matter) are collectively known as zombies.

Lots of horror films have told zombie stories through the years, but one particular type of zombie has remained a consistent favorite. I'm referring, of course, to mummies. Brendan Fraser is currently doing battle with the most recent movie mummy down at the local multiplex, but this new version of "The Mummy" is only one of many films featuring ancient mummified remains wreaking havoc. If you're curious about earlier mummy films, look for these titles on home video.

"The Mummy" (1932). Through the Thirties and Forties, Universal Pictures was the acknowledged leader in the production of horror films. In 1931 they had claimed the high ground unassailably by featuring Boris Karloff in "Frankenstein" and Bela Lugosi in "Dracula." Karloff's second monster role was as a living mummy in this stylish 1932 production. Don't expect a lot of action from this one, however. It's a mood piece, drawing its chills from subtleties. Karloff delivers one of his finest performances as Im-Ho-Tep, brought back to life after four millienia to search for the reincarnation of the Egyptian princess for whom he had died. Except for one brief scene, this mummy is not the rag-dragging, bandaged figure of the later Universal mummy movies. Im-Ho-Tep, apart from being a bit withered, appears to be a normal man. In fact, he is, up to a point, a sympathetic figure, caught up in what may be the ultimate story of star-crossed love.

"The Mummy's Hand" (1940). Universal returned to the subject of mummies with this very different picture. Tom Tyler, best known as a B-Western star, replaces Karloff as the mummy. His characterization is the beginning of the mummy we're most familiar with, swathed in bandages, mute, and barely ambulatory with that familiar slow walk. In contrast to the original, this is a low-budget quickie, aimed squarely at the Saturday morning serial crowd. The life-restoring incantations from the "Scroll of Thoth" in the Karloff film are here replaced by essence of "tana leaves" as the mechanism by which the mummy is reanimated. Also, the mummy's name has been changed from Im-Ho-Tep to Kharis.

"The Mummy's Tomb" (1942). With this sequel to "The Mummy's Hand," Universal replaced Tom Tyler with Lon Chaney Jr., who would become their most successful and best known Kharis. The action of the film is set thirty years after "The Mummy's Hand," and involves Kharis being turned loose on a small New England town to take revenge on those who desecrated the tomb of Princess Ananka. Chaney would appear as Kharis in two more sequels, "The Mummy's Ghost" (1944) and "The Mummy's Curse" (1944), despite the fact that he hated the restrictive, uncomfortable mummy makeup.

"The Mummy" (1959). Hammer Films, a British studio, made its mark in the horror genre in the late Fifties by boldly remaking the very films that had established Universal's reputation in the genre some thirty years earlier. Following successful remakes of "Frankenstein" and "Dracula," they undertook a remake of "The Mummy," basing their story on the Kharis films, not the original Im-Ho-Tep film. Christopher Lee, who had played Hammer's Dracula and Frankenstein Monster, once again took the lead role.

"The Awakening" (1980). In a twist on the mummy theme, Charlton Heston plays an Egyptologist who violates the tomb of an Egyptian princess at the exact instant his daughter is born. The princess exacts her revenge by possessing the daughter, leading to the same type of tragic, incestuous father-daughter relationship that led the princess to kill her own father. Based on Bram Stoker's novel "The Jewel of the Seven Stars," this story was actually told much better by Hammer Films in "Blood From the Mummy's Tomb" (1972), but regrettably that film is not currently available on video. Perhaps with a few tana leaves and an incantation from the Scroll of Thoth we can revive it, but until then "The Awakening" will have to do.

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