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With 'The Mummy,' Universal is back in the monster-movie business

Posted June 14

Sofia Boutella plays the 2017 version of "The Mummy" in the Tom Cruise vehicle that opened last week. (Deseret Photo)

Has there ever been a good mummy movie? I was asked that question last week. True, most mummy movies are pretty regrettable, as in, regretting the money and time spent watching them.

All the same, my answer was yes. The first one was good.

And by that I don’t mean the 1899 “Robbing Cleopatra’s Grave” (mentioned in last week’s Deseret News). I haven’t seen that one, and neither has anyone else among the living. It’s a long-lost, silent two-minute short.

So for all practical purposes, the bandage-wrapped monster’s debut was in the 1932 black-and-white early sound film “The Mummy,” which runs a scant 73 minutes and stars Boris Karloff. That film is actually quite good and holds up very well today, at least for movie buffs like me.

The original “Mummy” is admittedly slow-moving by today’s standards, a percolating, thoughtful chiller, as opposed to the kind of quick-cut, flash-and-dash action romps that movie fans now demand. And in the Universal canon, it’s the one monster movie that is more of a character study.

Made at the height of worldwide King Tut fever after the 1922 discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, “The Mummy” begins in 1921 as archaeologists examine the mummified remains of an ancient Egyptian priest named Imhotep (Karloff), which have been recovered by a British Museum excavation. And we learn that some 3,700 years earlier, Imhotep was wrapped tightly in gauze and buried alive after being found guilty of sacrilege for attempting to bring his lover, Princess Ankh-es-en-amon, back from the dead.

In short order, Imhotep is inadvertently awakened and promptly disappears. The film then leaps ahead a decade to 1932 (modern-day when the film was released) and we see Imhotep passing himself off as an aging Egyptian scholar named Ardath Bey.

He duplicitously directs the British Museum Field Force to the tomb where the princess was buried so they’ll dig her up and take her to the Cairo Museum. There, Imhotep recites incantations to revive her and is soon led to a woman who will prove to be the reincarnated princess.

The plot plays out logically and builds as it goes, and it’s so engaging that it has, with variations, informed every subsequent mummy movie, up to and including the Tom Cruise action film that opened last week.

The 2017 version of “The Mummy” is the first in an effort by Universal Pictures to rebrand its legacy — the monster movie — for the 21st century.

Despite being the oldest of the major studios (founded in 1912), and even with such prestige pictures as the best picture Oscar-winner “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930) under its belt, Universal could not quite achieve the respect earned by such rivals as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Warner Bros. during the first decade of the “talkies.”

So, after the box-office success of “Frankenstein” and “Dracula” (both 1931), “The Invisible Man” (1933) and, of course, “The Mummy,” the studio embraced its monster-movie reputation, and horror, fantasy and supernatural thrillers became its bread-and-butter projects. That was true into the 1940s with “The Wolf Man” (1941) and the ’50s with “Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954), among many others.

As such, it was inevitable that sequels would follow, and “Frankenstein,” “Dracula” and “The Invisible Man” did indeed produce follow-up films that continued each one’s storyline. But for whatever reason, none of Universal’s subsequent mummy movies is directly related to its 1932 hit.

The second film in the series, with Tom Tyler taking over for Karloff, is “The Mummy’s Hand,” which didn’t show up until 1940. Though it contains a brief flashback sequence that includes footage from “The Mummy” (with Karloff onscreen), “The Mummy’s Hand” is not a sequel. Instead, it’s a lower-budget, B-movie reboot (though that word didn’t exist back then). Even the mummy’s name is different, changed from Imhotep to Kharis.

The next three are direct sequels to “The Mummy’s Hand,” all with Lon Chaney Jr. in the title role — “The Mummy’s Tomb” (1942), “The Mummy’s Ghost” and “The Mummy’s Curse” (both 1944). (More than a decade later, in 1955, there was the unrelated spoof “Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy,” changing the mummy’s name from Kharis to Klaris.)

In 1959, Hammer Films, the British studio that usurped Universal’s monster-movie mantle for a time, released a new version of “The Mummy” (the first in color, with Christopher Lee in the title role). Instead of remaking the Karloff film, however, this one takes elements of all three follow-up films (right down to using the name Kharis). Hammer would churn out three more Mummy films through 1971. And, of course, a few other independent Mummy movies popped up from time to time.

But Universal wouldn’t make another Mummy movie for 44 years, when it began the Brendan Fraser trilogy. Despite little resemblance to the Karloff film, the first two in this series — “The Mummy” (1999) and “The Mummy Returns” (2001) — name the title character Imhotep. And, oddly, there’s a completely different character named Ardeth Bay (with the spelling changed from “Bey” to “Bay”).

With the 2017 film, however, Universal is trying to revive (reboot, rejigger, reconnoiter?) "The Mummy" as part of a bigger franchise.

If you went to the Cruise film, you may have noticed that after the familiar Universal logo plays out, the screen switches to black and white for another around-the-world logo, “Dark Universe.”

This signals that this year’s “Mummy” is the first in a series of reboots that Universal has announced, including new versions of all the 1930s monster movies named above.

In fact, “The Mummy” also introduces some new monsters to the Universal oeuvre, assorted zombies (but not the flesh-eating kind; maybe they’re vegetarians) and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And if the ending is any indication, a sort of good-guy mummy will return.

The idea is that eventually all these creatures will come together for a Universal version of the Avengers or the Justice League, to compete with all those Marvel and DC franchises that cross over to each other.

None of which is nearly as frightening as the thought that this may also signal the end of the stand-alone movie.

Chris Hicks is the author of "Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind? A Parent’s Guide to Movie Ratings." He also writes at www.hicksflicks.com and can be contacted at hicks@deseretnews.com.

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