A retrospective of mummy movies, a horror franchise that just won’t stay buried.
Ancient curses, dusty tombs, a shriveled corpse bound in cloth strips who — provoked by some adventurer hungry for fame and fortune — comes back to life to seek revenge. These are the standards we’ve come to expect from any movie with Mummy in the title. And stories about accursed sarcophagi are about as old as Hollywood itself.
In this piece we’ll cover the good, the bad and the downright hilarious — seriously, there is something absolutely magical I want to show you toward the end — that make up the whole legacy of Hollywood mummy movies, including the latest featuring Tom Cruise due out June 9.
So grab a roll of your favorite cloth wrappings, spin around a bunch to wind yourself up tight, and just make sure to leave one hand free to scroll.
From the Dust of Time
The first time a mummy was seen on-screen — as far back as I could find — was a film released in 1911, long before sound or even the three-act structure we’ve come to expect from films. The silent short The Mummy, while still available in the form of a handful of stills, has otherwise been lost. What’s interesting is that there isn’t any curse that reanimates the mummy here but, instead, a foolhardy young man who sets the mummy up with electrical wire and jolts the thing back to life. Because that’s a good idea. And, as expected, the ol’ guy has some kick left in him, and mummifies the young man — and then marries the guy’s girlfriend. Because, well, that’ll show him for bringing him back to life, apparently.
Though it’s got something of a weird plot, we can only hope a reel of 1911’s The Mummy will be found and restored, much like what happened to the missing portions of Metropolis a few years ago. I’d love to see it.
First the Monster, Then a Mummy
After his massive success as the Monster in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), Boris Karloff took on the role of Imhotep, a mummified Egyptian priest, in The Mummy (1932). This is where we begin to see the staples of the horror subgenre begin to solidify. Not shocked back to life by an electrical wire but instead by — you guessed it — an ancient curse, Imhotep seeks revenge for having been entombed alive. (Way back in the day, he’d tried to bring his old flame back to life. Instead of having his innards become outards and getting the whole hook-up-the-nose routine, he was buried alive. Harsh, bro.)
Together with his daunting height (apparently 5’11” was tall then), his one-of-a-kind face, and some amazing body acting, Karloff created the standard every actor who’d later don the mummy role would try to emulate. As well as those of us who, angling for a cheap Halloween costume, wrap ourselves in toilet paper.
One interesting factoid: among all the Universal monsters (think Dracula, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Frankenstein, The Wolf-Man, The Invisible Man, the Mummy), Boris Karloff is the only actor to have portrayed (and become the most famous example of) two of the famous baddies.
And, strangely, unlike all the other Universal monster movies, 1932’s The Mummy saw no sequels despite its success at the box office. Other mummy movies were made within the Karloff mold, such as The Mummy’s Hand (1940), The Mummy’s Tomb (1942) and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955), among others. However, Karloff would don the wrappings of Imhotep for only one film while going on to wear the flat top and neck bolts of Frankenstein’s Monster a total of three times.
Hammer Takes a Swing
Remembered for their vibrantly colorful horror films of the ’50s and ’60s, Hammer Films — which is still around, with The Woman in Black (2012) being one of their notable recent hits — revitalized the horror genre with their depiction of Dracula in Horror of Dracula (1958), played by the inimitable Christopher Lee, and its many, many sequels.
Christopher Lee is something of a Hollywood legend. Having donned the cape of Dracula a staggering nine times, he also appeared in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, numerous Tim Burton films, the Star Wars prequels, and was the real-life inspiration for James Bond. (He also released a heavy-metal Christmas album, which in my household is traditional tree-decorating listening.)
Hammer Films was also the studio behind countless Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, most of which featured Vincent Price. Hammer Films is remembered for having launched the career of horror icon Peter Cushing, who would go on to appear in Star Wars (and receive the resurrection-via-CG treatment for Rogue One).
In 1959 Hammer Films released their take on The Mummy (1959) with, you guessed it, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing as Kharis/The Mummy and archeologist John Banning respectively. In this particular outing for the Bandage-Wrapped One, it looks as if they took the original Universal film and its sequels, tweaked here and there, added color and put in new actors. While fun on its own, it wears a lot of its inspiration on its gauzy sleeve. Christopher Lee, though, never disappoints and the film’s worth checking out for his performance alone.
Hammer Films would release a spate of sequels of diminishing quality with The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964), The Mummy’s Shroud (1967) and Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971) — the latter of which was an adaptation of a novel by Bram Stoker, author of Dracula.
Lee would go on to appear in another mummy movie, as the archeologist this time, in 1998’s Tale of the Mummy. Unlike other entries to the pantheon of mummy features, this one isn’t that fondly remembered, with criticism volleyed against its bad special effects. For mummy die-hards and completionists only, perhaps.
It Lives Again, Again, Then as a Scorpion-Thing a Couple of Times
The summer of 1999 saw the release of The Mummy starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz and directed by Stephen Sommers. Akin to the Hammer film, and adding more action sequences and lightheartedness than previous incarnations, the blockbuster The Mummy was light on chills and suspense and high on Indiana Jones–inspired thrills. While it was fun taken as its own thing, many horror fans disliked the Brendan Fraser vehicle because of its lack of horror. Loaded with CG — which, at the time, was pretty impressive — 1999’s The Mummy more than made its money back on ticket sales, and a sequel was not only threatened but promised.
In 2001, Fraser, Weisz and Sommers reteamed for The Mummy Returns. With a slightly increased budget — some of which should’ve been reallocated to boost some flimsy-looking moments of CG — The Mummy Returns matched its previous installment’s box office success. That same year was also the one in which Universal decided to create an expanded world for the mummy movies — almost a proto–Marvel Cinematic Universe — with an animated series as well as a spinoff, The Scorpion King, with Dwayne Johnson reprising his role as the titular ponytailed warrior.
While there is an eight-year gap between central installments in the Mummy franchise, the prequel (side-quel?) series, which centers on the Scorpion King, has had an impressive life of its own with numerous direct-to-DVD films, including The Scorpion King 2: Rise of a Warrior (2008), The Scorpion King 3: Battle for Redemption (2012) and The Scorpion King 4: Quest for Power (2015). While Dwayne Johnson appeared in only The Mummy Returns and The Scorpion King, the side series has featured UFC alum Randy Couture and WWE’s Eve Torres.
Merch from Beyond the Grave
The Mummy series saw a whole bunch of action figures produced, as well as some video games. There’s also a ride at Universal Studios in Florida. (Full disclosure: I could’ve experienced it firsthand but was on my third beer of the day and thought the summer heat and all that spinning wouldn’t be a good mix. But a friend of mine tells me it’s “pretty sweet, dude.”)
It’s Still Alive. Seriously. But This Time with Yetis.
Okay, remember that absolutely magical thing I promised at the start of this article? Well, we’re almost there. Now, like most people, I imagine you checked out of the Stephen Sommers Mummy series before the third installment. It was called The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008). (Before I get any tweets: Yes, I know Rob Cohen directed it, not Stephen Sommers, but it’s still in that series. Whatever.) This one happens in China, a place I had no idea was so full of mummies. Huh.
Anyhoo, it’s the usual fare. Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz — I mean Maria Bello, who now plays Evelyn O’Connell — are the only ones who can defeat a grumpy mummy, this time a mostly CG Jet Li who throws fireballs better than Mario.
So, yeah, there are mummies and dragons and stuff. Explosions. Brendan Fraser mugging it up. Maria Bello’s inconsistent accent. But…there is a scene in which yetis come to the rescue of our heroes. Sure, doesn’t sound like anything out of left field — all kinds of monsters are in these newer mummy movies, right? But have you ever seen a yeti kick a henchman like a football for a field go? No? Well, you’re about to.
Still here? Did the sheer stupidity of that scene fail to snatch all the moisture out of your body and leave you a dried husk? Yeah, that actually happened in a movie made by people who (presumably) know how to make movies (supposedly) worth watching. When I saw that — having rented this masterpiece only for this article, mind you — I produced a sound somewhere between a laugh and a shriek of pure agony. I wanted to stick a heated hook up my own nose, dear reader. And I’ve gone on to watch that clip about 100 more times, wondering why that got the green light while a sequel to Dredd is likely never going to happen. Funny how things work out, isn’t it?
The Mummy: Tomb of the Computer Graphics didn’t impress at the box office. Despite some murmurings of a — God help us — fourth installment, Universal picked up the corpse over its head, flung it back into the sarcophagus and kicked some sand over it.
Universal, seeing all that money Marvel was making with their connected movie universe, decided to put the defibrillator pads to their own roster of classic characters and kicked off their Universal Monster Universe with I, Frankenstein (2014). People didn’t like it. Not to be discouraged, they had Luke Evans (The Hobbit films, The Girl on the Train) put in the plastic fangs for Dracula Untold (2014). And, well, people didn’t like it either. Jeez. So, seeing how the third time’s the charm (Universal is hoping), this summer theaters will see The Mummy. Not to be confused with The Mummy, The Mummy or The Mummy, but at least there’s no obnoxious subtitle like The Mummy: Unwrapped (because you know someone suggested that at some point) or The Mummy: Passion of the Yetis.
This time around we’re in modern day, the titular mummy is played by Sofia Boutella (Kingsman: The Secret Service, Star Trek Beyond). Tom Cruise will appear as Tom Cruise in a different leather jacket. Russell Crowe will play the oh-so-suspiciously-named Dr. Jekyll.
Our director this time is Alex Kurtzman, whose name you may have seen in the Transformers credits as writer, in the J.J. Abrams Star Trek films as writer, and in Xena: Warrior Princess as producer. I like a bulk of what this guy’s done, so I feel like this might have some potential…to be fun, at least. Alas, I think the days of creepy, slow-paced mummy movies are long buried.
The trailer is fun, yeah? Tom Cruise is screamin’ that Tom Cruise scream, jumping over things. Running a bunch. There’s the screaming sand-face thing we’ve come to expect from mummy movies. The double eye in the poster looks pretty cool. I dunno, I’ll probably check it out.
Going forward, following The Mummy, per IMDb and as of this writing, there’s an Untitled Universal Monster Project coming in 2019. Maybe they can shake the dust out of mummy movies. Maybe they can fit somebody with fangs and give us a compelling Dracula to rival Gary Oldman’s. Maybe. Either way, it’ll be interesting to see which direction Universal takes their Monster Universe.