Welcome to a New World of Gods and Monsters: A Primer on the Mummy in Popular Culture

Friday, June 9, marked the premiere of The Mummy starring Tom Cruise (Jack Reacher and Mission: Impossible films), Sofia Boutella (Jaylah in Star Trek Beyond) and directed by Alex Kurtzman, his second time in the directorial chair. (He made his directorial debut with the 2012 People Like Us.) Categorized as an action-adventure horror film with a reported budget of $125 million, The Mummy is touted as a reboot for the longstanding Universal Mummy franchise, as well as the lead off to the planned “Dark Universe” film series. This series is expected to include the monsters and characters from prior movies including The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Invisible Man, Van Helsing, Wolf Man, Frankenstein, Dracula, Phantom of the Opera, and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. While initially it seems like the selection of a mummy film is an odd first choice to kick off this series in comparison to the more popular monsters of Dracula and Frankenstein, with a little digging into the cinematic archives, one quickly finds a rich history that establishes the wrapped monster on par with many other infamous monsters.

Curiosity in mummies has existed for over two millenniums, but public attention gathered momentum after Napoleon Bonparte’s campaign to Egypt in the closing years of the 18th century. He took an entourage of scientists with him to document their findings into the multi-volume Description de l’Egypte (1809-1827), which was instrumental in creating interest and awe in Ancient Egyptian culture and mummification. As ruins and archaeological digs were carried out, caches of mummies were found. As a result, mummy unwrapping parties and museum exhibitions dazzled attendees and influenced interest for many decades. The trend of Egyptomania disseminated information about the life and death of the ancient civilization, impacting all aspects of cultural expression, such as literature and eventually cinema. Travel journals with accompanying exotic etchings of temple ruins and desert oases were one literature outlet; however, it is no surprise that the imagination of many writers led to stories about pharaohs and mummies.

There were dozens of mummies stories that gained in popularity during the 19th century and into the early 20th century. First and foremost was Jane Webb Loudon who penned one of the earliest mummy stories in 1827. The Mummy: A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century narrates the tale of a revived Pharaoh Cheops (pronounced “kee-ops”) who didn’t lumber around moaning and wreaking havoc, but instead provided advice and the like to others. It is speculated that Loudon may have drawn inspiration from the Description of Egypt volumes, the unwrapping parties, and probably Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Edgar All Poe’s short story, “Some Words with a Mummy,” that was published in American Whig Review in 1845 was directly inspired by the unwrapping parties. His tale provides a pro-Egyptian sentiment, exploiting the lack of historical knowledge of the narrator. Essentially, he gets schooled by a mummy who makes several points affirming that Ancient Egyptians were an advanced civilization that easily put the modern one (at that time) to shame. In 1892, Harper’s Magazine published Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Lot No. 249” which tells the story of a college student who runs afoul with another student who can command a reanimated mummy to do his bidding. This tale is considered one of the first examples of a sinister mummy. Dracula author Bram Stoker took a turn by blending a detective story with supernatural Egyptian elements in The Jewel of Seven Stars in 1903. And, George Griffith’s “The Lost Elixir,” published the same year in Pall Mall Magazine, explored the romantic angle of the mummy motivated to be rejoined with his true love.

Literature was often the “go-to” source for the early silent films. Some of them mimic literature closely, while others were influenced by real-world events, such as the ongoing archaeological discoveries in the early years of the 20th century. Looking at early films, Georges Méliès’ 1899 Cleopatra’s Tomb or Robbing Cleopatra’s Tomb appears to be the first film in which a mummy – an Egyptian one – is featured. In this short film, a man digs up and resurrects Cleopatra’s mummy. This film has the distinction of being one of the earliest examples of horror in film. In 1901, Walter R. Booth directed a two-minute film of an old man who gets tricked by a girl who changes forms, including a mummy at one point. American film company Thanhouser Film Corporation made The Mummy in 1911 in which an electric current brings a mummy back to life, blending romance and humor. In the same year, Romance of the Mummy, a young Englishman excavates a beautiful Egyptian princess and becomes singularly obsessed with her. He is saved when he meets an American girl who resembles the mummy so closely that she could be the reincarnation of the princess. Norman MacDonald’s When Soul Meets Soul from 1913 adds to the mummy narrative where the love between two people transcends death. In addition, the inclusion of an ancient parchment becomes a narrative plot device. A number of other early short films incorporated the narrative structure of individuals who impersonate mummies for personal gain, often to humor effect; regrettably, many of them are considered lost. In all, according to IMDb, there were 37 mummy films leading up to the iconic 1932 Boris Karloff vehicle, The Mummy.

Based on a story by Nina Wilcox Putnam and Richard Schayer, Karl Freund’s film was the first of thirteen films to be released, making up The Mummy franchise. The film kicked off the first of six movies that would make up the Universal Monsters series (1932 – 1955). The four subsequent films, The Mummy’s Hand (1940), The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), The Mummy’s Ghost (1944), and The Mummy’s Curse (1944) incorporated an overarching storyline of Princess Ananka’s tomb protected by the mummy Kharis who is controlled by the High Priest of Karnak. Abbot and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955) was the last film in the series and, unlike the five films before it, this one was definitely a horror comedy vehicle for the well-known comedic duo.

Audiences did not have to wait too long for the next series from Hammer Film Productions to arrive in their local cinema houses. The Mummy (1959) featured the powerhouse team of actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee and director Terrence Fisher. Writer Jimmy Sangster incorporated character names – John Banning, High Priest Kharis, and Princess Ananka – from Universal’s The Mummy’s Hand and The Mummy’s Tomb. The follow-up three films, The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964), The Mummy’s Shroud (1967), and Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971) were each standalone stories, with the last being based on Bram Stoker’s mummy story, The Jewel of Seven Stars.

The mummy returned to its roots – Universal Pictures – when director Stephen Sommers revived franchise with The Mummy (1999) starring Brendan Fraser as adventurer Rick O’Connell and Arnold Vosloo as the reanimated mummy, Imhotep. The Mummy Returns (2001) returned with the main cast of characters, with a couple of new ones - specifically, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as the Scorpion King, a recurring character on a spin-off series, which is separate from the franchise and focus of this essay. The third film of this cycle, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008), continued with Rick O’Connell, but instead of an Egyptian mummy, the villain was the Dragon Emperor of China. All three films were action-adventure with elements of horror, and while a fourth film was planned, the studio abandoned their plans in 2012.

All of the mummy films, for the most part, have shared elements or tropes. To state the obvious, a mummy is featured as the villain. Most often the mummy is a reanimated Egyptian high priest who fell in love with a princess who died suddenly. Their love is considered forbidden because of their respective stations they inhabited during life in Ancient Egypt. In desperation, the priest risks his life to bring his princess back to life by completing a ritual reading of a sacred scroll. Invariably, the priest is caught. He is subjected to having his tongue cut out, wrapped in the linens used during the mummification ritual, sealed in a sarcophagus, and is then buried alive in an unmarked tomb. Two or three millenniums later, the mummy is revived, usually accidentally, when our hero or heroine has read the words from the sacred scroll. The leading lady may be the reincarnation of the dead princess, creating a love triangle between her, the mummy, and the leading man. While the mummy is busy trying to reunite the leading lady with dormant (dead) body of the princess, the hero must triumph over the mummy, who may have supernatural abilities. By the end credits, the hero has saved his damsel from the clutches of the mummy, who is returned to dust or the nearest swamp.

As mentioned at the beginning of this essay, the new Universal film may potentially reboot the franchise for a fourth time, but the planned film is to kick off the studio’s Dark Universe series. While most of the previous mummy films have featured a reanimated high priest as the mummy, in this new film, a young princess is buried alive after a power play for the throne fails. Her tomb is found in contemporary times by an American army unit and she is revived, to the detriment of humanity. The main hero (Cruise) died but comes back to life while still in a body bag, and there appears to be some connection between the hero and mummy. Will the hero be a doppelgänger to the princess’ long-lost love interest? Unlike many of its predecessors which cast one woman, this film includes two other women as main characters. And, there appears to be ancient servants of the mummy – did you see the swimming mummies? - and descendants of the Pharaoh’s guards as represented by Dr. Jeykll (Russell Crowe). Most importantly, The Mummy has promised to root itself squarely in the horror genre, as the 1932 version did.

Given this is a reboot, binge watching all thirteen mummy films or even just the Universal movies ahead of time isn’t required; however, for viewers who would like some context, watching the original 1932 version a must. It has an efficient and tight narrative that establishes the context for recurring tropes throughout the franchise series. The film is enhanced by the casting of Boris Karloff as the mummy Imhotep / Ardath Bey – the opening scene as he is reanimated is chilling – and Zita Johann as the conflicted Helen Grosvenor / Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon provide brilliant performances. I would suggest watching The Mummy (1999), as well. As a remake, Sommers gave nods to the original while blending action with elements of horror and humor. Since it had a bigger budget, $80 million, the visual will be comparable to the new film. The acting and chemistry between the main cast works quite well; it truly is a fun film. Between both films, viewers can take away the staple narrative elements and tropes that have been explored and honed over the years, adding context when watching the new mummy film opening weekend and in the weeks to come.

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