How The Mummy Became a Classic Hollywood Movie Monster

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How The Mummy Became a Classic Hollywood Movie Monster

On February 16, 1923, a group of explorers led by Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter broke the seal on the entrance to the long-lost tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun. Their discovery, which included some of the most well-preserved artifacts of the era, inspired a worldwide fascination with ancient Egypt. King Tut became a star, inspiring merchandise, books, vaguely racist fancy dress parties and a classic Steve Martin song. Where the world goes, so goes Hollywood, and in the early days of talkies, the allure of the mummy had to be plundered. Only one studio was right for the job, and over the past 90 years, they’ve worked to keep its legend alive.

Carl Laemmle Jr., heir to Universal Studios and head of production there from 1928 to 1936, loved horror films. His father, Carl Sr., thought they were tawdry, but he knew that audiences would devour classic tales of terror in the talkies era, much as they had done when Lon Chaney headlined movies like The Phantom of the Opera in the silent years. Dracula broke the mold in 1931, followed shortly by Frankenstein. The next year, inspired directly by the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, he greenlit The Mummy. Unlike its predecessors, this one wouldn’t be adapted from a novel or well-known story.

The inspiration would come partly from bastardized Egyptian mythology, an Arthur Conan Doyle short story and the lingering fear over the supposed Curse of Tut that had besieged those who opened his tomb. Five months after it was discovered, Lord Carnarvon died of pneumonia. The curse was a press invention, and only eight of the people present in the tomb died within a dozen years of its opening. Yet, to white readers of the tabloids and viewers of cinema, the idea of a millennia-old curse from an almighty and “exotic” king proved too enticing to ignore.

1932’s The Mummy is ultimately a tragic love story. The mummy himself is Imhotep, a high priest who was buried alive and cursed as punishment for falling in love with the princess Ankh-esen-amun. After a careless archaeologist awakens him by reading from the Scroll of Thoth, he assimilates into modern society and passes himself off as an eccentric Egyptian historian named Ardeth Bey. Once he meets Helen Grosvenor, a half-Egyptian woman who looks uncannily like the princess, he seeks to be reunited with his lost love at any cost.

Boris Karloff gets one of his best roles with Imhotep, a figure of pity and fear who is far more interesting than the heroes who we’re supposed to root for. At a lean 73 minutes, it’s one of the tightest Universal monster movies and one more focused on lyrical mood than jumps or scares. It’s easy to be taken in by its drama and its locales, which look fabulous given that they’re all part of a Hollywood set. This is the mummy tale that most potently taps into the post-Tut frenzy of interest in ancient Egypt. It’s a cautionary tale that warns against meddling with the ghosts of the past, although it can’t help but make doing so seem like a hell of a lot of fun.

After The Mummy made a solid box office profit, it quickly joined the horror family at Universal, which meant lots of quickly released rehashes and spin-offs with diminishing returns. It never received an official sequel, but was reimagined for a series of Lon Chaney Jr. films that didn’t do much to build upon the original (and, of course, there was a team-up with Abbott and Costello in the ‘50s). By the end of the 1950s, Universal’s monsters had essentially run their course, and the studio moved on from horror as its defining genre. Hammer, the British studio that became the horror stalwart of the mid-century, made its own mummy films, but they never captured the audiences’ imagination as keenly as their new, suave and bloodthirsty take on Dracula. Horror had moved on, and Universal wouldn’t reopen this particular tomb for over 40 years.

1999 brought us a new take on The Mummy, the one that holds a special place in the heart of many a millennial. Stephen Sommers’ version borrows the basics from the ’32 original but is less interested in being a horror than it is a rollicking old-school action-adventure. Indiana Jones is the most obvious forebear, with our central heroes, Rick O’Connell and Evie Carnahan, playing like the Spielberg icon crossed with Errol Flynn. The mummy comes second here, although the love story remains intact. Instead, the focus is on vintage thrills, the sort of sand-and-guns set-pieces that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Universal B-Movie from the ‘50s. The Egyptian aspects are still here, but the real hook is the action and love story between Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz. Imhotep, played by South African actor Arnold Vosloo, gets a more sympathetic arc in the first sequel, but it’s far less focused than Karloff’s arc in the 1932 original. The locations may be gorgeous (and the effects hilariously ropey, even for the time), but Sommers and company know you’re here for the heroes more than the villains.

If remakes are intended to reflect the changes of the era, then 2017’s The Mummy is clearly the effort of a studio grappling with the domination of Marvel Studios. The expanded universe franchise mold of filmmaking had come to reign supreme over the blockbuster format, but only in one specific manner. Marvel pulled it off and everyone else tried to copy, whether it was DC’s bid at a darker take on the superhero lore or various harried attempts to turn public domain properties with big-name recognition into multi-pronged epics. Guy Ritchie tried it with King Arthur and failed miserably. An “edgy” take on Robin Hood with Taron Egerton fizzled on arrival. Universal decided to revive its classic movie monsters and once more remold them into this action-oriented genre. And since it worked so well in the ‘90s with The Mummy, they would use that film again to launch the endeavor (just don’t ask about Dracula Untold.)

This revamp would be called the Dark Universe, an interconnected series of stories centered on the ever-familiar monsters of Universal’s most iconic films: The Invisible Man would be played by Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem would star as Frankenstein’s monster and Tom Cruise would be the Mummy. Sort of. Cruise’s involvement in The Mummy ensured it would be a major action spectacle, another platform for the megastar to show off the kind of mind-boggling stunts that no other actor in Hollywood is capable of or allowed to do. While the film is ostensibly directed by Alex Kurtzman, The Mummy is all Cruise’s, and therein lies the big problem.

The almighty sun of Tom Cruise is what The Mummy must dutifully orbit, even when it doesn’t make a lick of sense. Story comes second to making him the perfect action man, as does the (admittedly strained and derivative) lore that tries to turn Russell Crowe’s Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde into a Nick Fury-esque leader of a secret society keeping track of paranormal danger. Cruise cannot be an everyman, nor can he even allow himself to be relegated to a suave hero. He must be the best, the most powerful, the most special. This means that the actual mummy, a vengeful Egyptian princess played by Sofia Boutella, is a secondary figure in her own story. By the film’s end, Cruise is the one with the mummy’s powers, the anti-hero (but not really) for films to come. We know how that ended.

The end result, an awkward mish-mash of tones and styles, didn’t win over viewers. Everyone clocked the Dark Universe as a wannabe Marvel without any of the charm or real ambition. Crucially, The Mummy just wasn’t very fun. Soon, plans for the entire franchise were quietly scrapped and Universal let Blumhouse play around with the projects for cheaper, more horror-oriented payoffs. Since then, the mummy has lain dormant, and it doesn’t seem to be a priority for the studio.

Even at its most earnest, these films are classic Orientalism, dependent on the total “othering” of Egyptian people and their history. The most basic aspects of Egyptian history are wobbly at best. The local Egyptians we see in these films, usually in brief appearances in the background of the action, are portrayed as shifty, superstitious and disposable. It doesn’t help that Arab and Egyptian actors are almost non-existent in these films across 90 years of cinema. Whiteness saves the day. In the case of the 2017 version, Cruise’s destruction of the mummy herself plays out like a sexual assault.

Egypt is a backdrop for exotic shenanigans which must be put in their place by the foreigner good guys. The racist stereotypes are tough to stomach, and are somehow more glaring in the ’99 remake than the ’32 original. As noted in the Sight & Sound review of the Sommers film, “the locals are all smelly, venal, lecherous, cowardly, boil-ridden, murderous or ugly here—which were unacceptable in the dignified” original. The 2017 film tries to circumnavigate this by erasing everything remotely Egyptian about the story at every opportunity. The action climax takes place in London.

Ancient Egypt fascinates us for many reasons. So many of the benchmarks of modern civilization can be found there, as well as the earliest forms of art, society and political rule. We’ve never been able to resist the allure of a vast empire, and colonialism’s thrall still has most of us in its clutches. We fetishize that which we are confused by, turning the nuanced and prickly into something cutesy—a toy for the masses. The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb was but one example of the fad of Egyptomania that has never truly gone out of style. To this day, when we think of mummies, the cultural image at the forefront is one of fear and exotic curiosity. It wasn’t uncommon for tourists and archaeologists to take home mummified corpses as souvenirs of sorts in the aftermath of Tut-mania, so strong was the disregard for Egyptian lives.

None of this will stop Universal from cashing in on its own mummy, which is now the stuff of merchandise and theme park attractions. It’s now an icon of cinema that’s mostly divorced from its historical and cultural context. Yet any attempts to reboot The Mummy, which feel wearily inevitable in the current movie market, will need to be done with a deft hand. Perhaps we’ll eventually see a version of this story with Egyptian people front and center.

Kayleigh Donaldson is a critic and pop culture writer for Her work can also be found on IGN, Slashfilm, Uproxx, Little White Lies, Vulture, Roger Ebert, and other publications. She lives in Dundee.

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