Mummy films are unique among classic monster movies in that they’re neither primarily based upon myths or literature. Only Isaac Henderson‘s 1902 play, The Mummy and the Hummingbird and Bram Stoker‘s 1903 novel, Jewel of the Seven Stars, have inspired cinematic adaptations (the latter spawning four to date) with its subject of an archaeologist attempting to revive a mummy. There were a few examples of the mummy in literature, as with Edgar Allan Poe‘s “Some Words with a Mummy,” ThÃ©ophile Gautier‘s The Romance of a Mummy, Ambrose Pratt‘s The Living Mummy, Louisa May Alcott’s “Lost in a Pyramid or, The Mummy’s Curse” and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s “Lot No. 249” and “The Ring of Thoth” all deal with mummies, albeit not always in a horror setting, and have never even loosely been adapted into film.
The rise of mummy films seem to be directly related to a then-widespread interest in archaeology and, more specifically, an enduring western vogue for Orientalism and fascination with the Near East. Several major discoveries in the field of Egyptology occurred in the 20th century and helped renew and increase interest in one the the planet’s oldest, most complex and enduring civilizations. Yet fascination with Egyptian mummies, with their tantalizing ties to the ancient past, never really translated into a healthy monster subgenre, only sporadically rising to the level of more continually popular monsters like vampires and ghosts.
In 1912, the famous bust of Nefertiti was rediscovered and rekindled broad interest in ancient Egypt. Filmmakers of that decade responded by producing more mummy films than any subsequent decade till the current, although they usually depicted people pretending to be mummies or the theft of them rather than reanimated monsters. In 1922, Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered. Completely hidden for ages, it was and is the most complete, un-plundered Egyptian tomb ever found to date. Following its discovery, the tabloids spread a rumor that a curse of death was placed on whomever entered the tomb and this, along with Stoker’s plot involving re-animation of mummies, seems to have influenced practically all mummy movies that followed.
As opposed to Dracula amongst vampires, Frankenstein’s monster amongst golems, or the Wolf Man amongst werewolves, no one mummy has ever managed to rise to dominance amongst their kind, a fact which I view as critical in its remaining a second string monster. In the 1930s, Imhotep was the first big mummy, played by Boris Karloff and then revived in the 1990s in loose remake and its sequels. In the 1940s, Universal‘s Kharis was the main mummy. King Rutentuten (aka Rootentootin) appeared in two Three Stooges films. Yet all these mummies are virtually interchangeable. Despite the well known mummies of the Guanches (of the Canary Islands), the Incas, the Tibetans and the Chachapoyas, filmmakers again and again depicted lumbering, unstoppable Egyptian mummies, except, notably, in Mexico, which got into the mummy movie game. Popoca starred as the Aztec mummy in a whole slew of films and even pitted a werewolf mummy against Tin Tan.
In addition to no single mummy achieving widespread name recognition due to inter-mummy competition, they also all suffer from the absence of engaging personalities and conversational abilities. By comparison, Frankenstein’s monster practically seems like Oscar Wilde. Even a ghoul might express its love of brains, but the Mummy, on the other hand, usually broods in silence, single-mindedly obsessing over his long dead girlfriend.
The monster rally subgenre began with Frankenstein’s monster’s meeting with the Wolfman in 1943 in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. The mummy, criticized by some for being little more than Frankenstein’s monster in bandages, would seem like an obvious choice of combatant. That almost happened with 1944’s House of Frankenstein. There, the scientist’s monster was joined by Dracula, Wolf Man and even a hunchback frighteningly named Daniel. Early drafts of the film had included the Mummy (as well as the Invisible Man and the little-known Mad Ghoul) but the monster didn’t make the cut. The following year, in House of Dracula, the Mummy wasn’t even considered and it became clear that the Mummy was perceived by most as a B-list monster who would remain absent from exclusive monster rallies like Van Helsing, only showing up in more democratic affairs like Groovie Goolies, Carry on Screaming, Monster Squad, Mad Monster Party, El Castillo de los Monstruos, The Halloween That Almost Wasn’t, and Mad, Mad, Mad Monsters.
Perhaps no other example illustrates the Mummy’s comparative unpopularity than General Mills’ monster-themed cereals. When introduced in 1971, it was Count Chocula and Franken Berry that came first. They were joined by Boo Berry in ’73 and Fruit Brute in ’74. It wasn’t until 1987 that Fruity Yummy Mummy was born, only to be discontinued in 1993.
The mummy was a natural in the silent era, since he never had much to say anyway. The first known mummy picture was 1909’s La Momie du roi. The 1910s, as previously noted, were a heyday of mummy films, including Romance of the Mummy (1911), The Mummy (1911), The Mummy (1912), The Vengeance of Egypt (1912), The Mummy and the Cowpuncher (1912), The Mummy (1914), When the Mummy Cried for Help (1915), The Avenging Hand (1915), The Mummy and the Hummingbird (1915), The Live Mummy (1915), The Missing Mummy (1916), Die Augen der Mumie Ma (1918) and Mercy, The Mummy Mumbled (1918).
The 1920s witnessed a dramatic decrease in mummy movies, with only one example, the comedy The Mummy (1923), produced in the decade.
The 1930s began with Boris Karloff‘s famous portrayal in 1932’s The Mummy. It was the first Universal horror film not based on an earlier source, although it owed both to Dracula (with an ankh substituting for a crucifix) and Frankenstein (also starring Boris Karloff as a re-animated monster) which may’ve worked against it. Unlike those two predecessors, it spawned no sequels. The other two mummy films in the ’30s were the animated Tom and Jerry (but not the cat and mouse) film, The Magic Mummy (1933) and the Three Stooges’ We Want Our Mummy (1939).
With the 1940s, the mummy was again the star of Universal films, albeit relegated to B-movies. This time the mummy was Kharis and a few, somewhat feeble attempts at creating some mythology came with the introduction of tana leaves, which like Popeye’s spinach, give Kharis his strength. Kharis largely popularized the portrayal of mummies as a stiff, slow, relentless and almost unstoppable ghoul and zombie-like monsters. In the Mummy’s Hand (1940) he was played by western star Tom Tyler. In the follow-ups, The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), The Mummy’s Ghost (1944) and The Mummy’s Curse (1944), Kharis was played by Lon Chaney Jr, more famous for playing the Wolf Man. The mummy comedy subgenre endured with the British quota quickie, A Night of Magic (1944) and another Three Stooges mummy film, Mummy’s Dummies (1948).
After two Three Stooges movies with mummies, it was obligatory for Abbot & Costello to do one, which they did with Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy (1955) — they’d already met Dracula, Frankenstein, Jeckyll & Hyde, Captain Kidd, “the Ghosts” and even Boris Karloff. Strangely, the American mummy then almost completely disappeared from the screen. In Mexico, however, the Aztec Mummy made several appearances beginning with La Momia Azteca (1957) and continuing with La Maldicion de la Momia Azteca (1957) and La Momia Azteca vs el Robot Humano (1957). Another Mexican mummy appeared in the Tin Tan vehicle, La Casa del Terror (1959). In the UK, Hammer takes over with Christopher Lee as Kharis in The Mummy (1959), following up with a couple more. Pharoah’s Curse (1957) depicted a blood-sucking mummy, doing little to dispel the notion of the mummy being a derivative monster.
The 1960s weren’t terribly kind to the monster movie genre in the US, although Europe, Japan and Latin America made many. La Momia Azteca was re-cut and edited together with new footage and released in the US as Attack of the Mayan Mummy (1963). In Mexico, Luchadoras contra la Momia (1964) pitted the mummy against female wrestlers. In the UK, Hammer produced The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1965) and The Mummy’s Shroud (1967). In America, the little-seen Mummy and the Curse of the Jackal (1967) finally pitted a mummy against another monster (a were-jackal) in Las Vegas.
By the 1970s, most mummies rested in peace, coming out of their tombs in a TV movie here (The Demon and the Mummy – 1976), a Santo appearance there (Santo en la Venganza de la Momia – 1971) and Las Momias de Guanajuato – 1972) and the occasional Spanish Eurohorror movie (1973’s La Venganza de la Momia and El secreto de la momia egipcia). Somewhat surprisingly, Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb (1971) was the first mummy film to adapt Brams Stoker’s mummy novel into a film. It was also noteworthy for having one of the first female mummies in film and one played without bandages by Valerie Leon.
The 1980s followed with more of the same. The Awakening (1980) again adapted Stoker’s novel. The Curse of King Tut’s Tomb (1980) was another TV movie. Dawn of the Mummy (1981) was a low budget, Zombie-inspired film. La momia nacional (1981) was Spain’s obligatory offering. O Segredo da MÃºmia (1982) was Brazil‘s first mummy picture. Time Walker (1982) was unique in its portrayal of an alien mummy. The Tomb (1986) was one of Fred Olen Ray’s early directorial efforts.
In the 1990s, the mummy failed to be revived until the end of the decade. First, Tony Curtis filled in for a recently-departed Tony Perkins in The Mummy Lives (1993). Under Wraps (1997) was a made-for-TV children’s film. The Mummy aka Eternal aka Trance (1998) was probably the first mummy film about an unintentional mummy, one mummified by natural occurences, with a protagonist who was mummified in a peat bog. Cult Australian director Russell Mulcahy made Tale of the Mummy (1999). The mummy genre only really came back to life with the Brendan Fraser adventure/comedy/fantasy franchise, beginning with The Mummy (1999), which returned Imhotep, albeit with re-imagined origins, and the mummy film.
The 2000s have truly re-animated the mummy genre in a variety of forms. There’ve been many low budget, direct-to-video titles and even a handful of softcore skin flicks.
Ancient Evil: Scream of the Mummy (2000)
Lust in the Mummy’s Tomb (2000)
The Mummy Returns (2001)
BelphÃ©gor – Le fantÃ´me du Louvre (2001)
Ng goh haak gwai dik siu nin (2002)
Mummy’s Kiss (2002)
Mummy Raider (2002)
Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)
Attack of the Virgin Mummies (2003)
The Mummy: Evil Unleashed (2003)
7 Mummies (2005)
The Fallen Ones (2005)
The Kung Fu Mummy (2005)
The Mummy’s Kiss: Second Dynasty (2006)
Terror in the Pharaoh’s Tomb (2007)
Mil Mascaras vs. the Aztec Mummy (2007)
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008)
My Mummy (2008)
In addition to the man mummy films, there have been several mummy characters in cartoons over the years, including Hakushin in InuYasha, Mumm-Ra in Thundercats, the cast of Mummies Alive! and Tutenstein in Scooby-Doo in Where’s My Mummy?
Computer Games saw a minor revival in mummy interest beginning in the late ’90s with Mummy-Tomb of the Pharaoh (1997), Choose Your Own Nightmare: Curse of the Mummy (1999), Mummy Mystery Starring Mercer Mayer’s Little Monster Private Eye (2001) and Sherlock Holmes: The Mystery of the Mummy (2006).
The video game industry has also benefit financially from re-awakened interest in mummies with The Mummy (2001), The Mummy Returns (2001), The Mummy (2002), Mummy Maze (2003), Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy (2003) and Mummy-Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008).
In music, the mummy has failed to inspire anywhere close to as much devotion as other classic monsters but there have been rare examples. The Verdicts did “The Mummy’s Ball,” The Distortions had “The Mummy” and Bob McFadden memorably performed “Mummy.” There was the band The Mummies, and last October Babl Bijits were mummified for a Halloween performance here at Amoeba.
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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