Classic Horror Origins: The Mummy

The modern horror film can trace its roots back to the experimentation of German expressionist filmmaking in the second decade of the 20th century. The country’s filmmakers were especially influenced by the breakout of WWI in 1916. During the war, Berlin became isolated, and there was increased demand for locally produced films. A depressed national sentiment associated with the war as well the resulting sociological and economic impact on domestic life resulted in films that depicted human psychological distress, darkness, and surrealism. The birth of the horror genre came from the rejection of the romantic themes typically found in films of the time period. While there had been films with horror tendencies and plots made previously, it was the influence of these German expressionist filmmakers which helped to spark interest in the genre moving forward.

These German expressionist films may not be necessarily well-known today, but they were a major influence on Hollywood’s first major foray into horror, which helped to establish the genre in the mainstream. Starting with 1923’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Universal Studios began what would later become an entire franchise devoted to darker, more sinister storylines (even if they had comical tones, at times). Today known as the Universal Classic Monsters, these films centered around fictional monsters, many of which had recurring roles over several films. Universal’s Classic Monsters franchise introduced American audiences to horror for the first time, and would help to establish many traits of the genre we recognize today. This month we are investigating the most prolific Universal Classic Monsters, reviewing their on and off-screen origins, and most memorable films. Today, we look at The Mummy!

Character Origin:

Unlike Frankenstein’s monster or Count Dracula, The Mummy was a character created specifically for film. However, the famous monster was inspired by a number of real-life events. The popularity and success of Universal Studios’ Dracula and Frankenstein films pushed the producers to find new characters for additional films. In 1922, archeologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb of the ancient egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun, more commonly known as King Tut. This discovery and opening of the tomb was well-publicized at the time, and it sparked world-wide interest in ancient Egypt when mysterious happenings began occurring shortly after. On the day Carter opened the tomb, it was reported that he sent a boy on an errand at his residence, and the boy found a cobra had eaten Carter’s pet Canary. The Cobra was used as a representation of the Egyptian monarchy, and this finding was seen as a curse in response to Carter’s intrusion.

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The media drummed up “the pharaoh’s’ curse” angle to generate newspaper sales, and the mass appeal was only increased by further strange happenings over the next decade. No fewer than 11 people who had visited the tomb within the first year of it being opened died during this span. For example, Lord Carnarvon, the financial backer for the excavation team, died 4 months after Carter first opened the tomb. Interest in the pharaoh’s curse only grew over time as more people associated with the expedition either died or had strange occurrences happen to them. In the early 1930’s the story was still fresh on the public’s mind, and so Universal Studios looked to take advantage of this fascination.

Cinematic Origin:

In addition to the public’s interest in King Tut’s tomb at the time, Universal Studios also utilized other inspirations for their new film. One of the biggest influences was a 1890 short story by Arthur Conan Doyle entitled The Ring of Thoth. Doyle himself was interested in ancient Egypt, and had been one of the most popular instigators of the “pharaoh’s curse” myth. The studio used elements of their own film Dracula to create a monster who would be resurrected from the dead.

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In the 1932 film, The Mummy, an archeologist unearths the tomb of an ancient Egyptian priest, Imhotep. Imhotep was buried alive as punishment for his forbidden love of Princess Ankh-es-en-amon. When the archaeologists assistant reads aloud a scroll that had been buried along with Imhotep, he is resurrected and escapes. Imhotep disguises himself as a wealthy businessman and finds a woman who he believes is a reincarnation of his long lost love. He tries to capture and kill her in order to resurrect her as the Princess.

Must-See Films:

The Mummy went on to appear in a total of 6 Universal Classic Monster films. The character has since been resurrected to be the star of three additional franchises. First in 1959 as part of a Hammer Films series which lasted for 4 films, and then the Steven Sommers franchise that began in 1999 and produced a total of three films plus 5 spinoffs. The latest version of The Mummy graced the big screens last summer as the anticipated start of Universal’s new Dark Universe franchise.

Image result for the mummy 1959

While the latest Mummy reboot left much to be desired, the first films in each of the previous franchises are the best Mummy films. Starting with the 1932 original, Universal Studios set a dark, but adventurous tone. The original Mummy film was a big hit, and lived up to the expectations of critics and audiences who had enjoyed the previous Universal Classic Monster hits. The 1959 Hammer Films version, also titled The Mummy, was not a remake of the original, but actually of the story arc from the original sequels. In this version, a group of archeologists explore a tomb of a high priestess. When one of them reads from a scroll, he falls into a coma. Years later he awakens with a warning that the scroll has awoken a high priest who takes out his revenge on those who opened the tomb. This film is appreciated for its story and the cast, which includes horror legends Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Finally, the Stephen Sommer’s 1999 incarnation of The Mummy goes back to the original story of the first film, but adds in more adventure, thrills, and of course, special effects associated with a modern blockbuster. Of course, it doesn’t really bring anything new that hadn’t already been done, essentially becoming a late-90’s version of Indiana Jones, but it is still a fun film to watch.

Check back in next week as we examine another Classic Horror Monster!

Previous Installments:

Classic Horror Origins: Count Dracula

Classic Horror Origins: Frankenstein’s Monster