There were two different Mummies in the Universal Pictures world. Boris Karloff played Imhotep in the original 1932 film THE MUMMY. In that movie he only appeared briefly in the iconic bandages and wrappings, and he was never seen as a moving, shuffling mummy. Instead, he spent most of his time as Ardath Bey, a wizened, hollow-eyed Egyptian who behaves so much like a certain Transylvanian Count that the film is often considered a re-make of DRACULA.
The other mummy is the mummy you think of when you say ‘mummy.’ You know, the decayed wrappings, the dragging foot, the useless arm. The very slow, limping dead. Kharis, the Mummy from the rest of the Universal Mummy movies.
THE MUMMY itself never had a sequel. In 1940 a whole new Mummy cycle was begun, a series of low-budget, adventure-based movies that, when viewed as a whole, is one of the strangest, time-and-space bend-iest film series ever made.
The first one is THE MUMMY’S HAND (1940). The mummy here is called Kharis, and he has practically the same back story as Imhotep, using much of the same flashback footage. He’s played by cowboy star Tom Tyler in this movie and his suffering face registers strongly as he slowly drags his leg and uses his one good arm to relentlessly pursue those who are disturbing the rest of his beloved Princess Ananka. But he is merely a tool for the true evil – Andoheb, the high priest of Karnak, played by George Zucco, who feeds the mummy the tana leaves that bring him to life. He is instructed to only give Kharis nine tana leaves – if he gives him ten he will become “a monster the likes of which the world has never seen.” It’s indicative of the strange, muddled nature of these movies that not once in the cycle does Kharis gets ten tana leaves, so we never really know what will happen if he does. We can only dream.
THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1942) picks up the story thirty years later. That’s where the problems with the series start. Because THE MUMMY’S HAND appears to be set in the present-day – that is, 1940. So doesn’t that mean THE MUMMY’S TOMB takes place in the distant future of 1970? It gets weirder. The setting is Mappleton, Massachusetts and the mummy has been part of the local museums exhibit for years. He is reactivated by the new high-priest of Karnak, Mehemet Bey played by Turhan Bey, an actor who had the advantage of being, if not Egyptian, at least half-Turkish. Anyway, the two heroes of the previous film, Dick Foran and Wallace Ford, wear old age make-up and get killed right away by Lon Chaney, Jr. (who now plays Kharis) thereby rendering the first film rather pointless.
Bey tries to take the reincarnated princess (you knew there had to be one, right?) for himself but Kharis doesn’t approve. He ends up in a blazing fire, and the curse comes to an end. Or does it?
THE MUMMY’S GHOST (1944) – Andoheb is now high priest of Arkam, not Karnak. Was there an H.P. Lovecraft fan in the house? He takes another try at naming a successor, but since he’s played by John Carradine the chances of him being more trustworthy than Turhan Bey are rather slim.
This has the distinction of being the one movie in which the mummy actually gets the girl. That’s right, at the end of the story, Kharis carries his beloved (another reincarnation of Ananka) into a murky swamp, as she decays into an appropriately corpse-like condition to be Kharis’s bride. A happy ending.
THE MUMMY’S CURSE (1944) — By now, if we take the timeline of the films seriously, this movie is set in 1995, but no cell phones or even televisions are in evidence. To make things even odder, the swamp that the Mummy sank in previously has been transported from Massachusetts to Louisiana.
There is actually a masterful scene. A bulldozer uncovers the body of Ananka and the Egyptian princess rises from the dead, the years and the mud washing off her to reveal a beautiful young woman. Ananka is played by different actress than the one who went into the swamp in the last film, of course. To add to the weirdness, at least to people of my generation, Ananka is played by Virginia Christine, who later in life played Mrs. Olson in a series of commercials for Folger’s Coffee. Seeing her, so young and lovely, one can’t help but recognize the features of the older woman, plugging her coffee to dissatisfied housewives.
Well, Kharis brings the walls of a tomb down on himself and the current high priest of Arkam and Ananka is found, all mummified in the next room.
Thus ends the convoluted story of Kharis, time traveler and mummy who never got a break. He never did take the ten tana leaves. If only he had…