Bound to Succeed – Universally
by Phil Alexander
In The Beginning
Of all the world’s great civilisations, that of ancient Egypt probably still holds the most fascination for us westerners, fed as we are by an endless stream of new television documentaries on the subject. Through archaeology, many of its secrets have been revealed and we marvel at the scientific knowledge which the ancient Egyptians possessed, enabling them not only to construct such gigantic and complex structures as the pyramids, but also to build them to apparently precise mathematical and astronomical specifications – so precise that some suggest that their science must have come from outside the confines of our own planet. Furthermore, it has been put forward that these mystical people were also guardians of that most awesome of secrets – the key to all knowledge, past, present and future; a secret recently reported to be held in a chamber somewhere beneath the paws of the Sphinx and the discovery of which will herald the end of the world! Whether you consider such ideas credible or not, the very possibility of their truth appeals to our own seemingly unquenchable appetite for stories linking us to extra- terrestrial life. A part of us hopes them to be true and, perversely, really wants to discover that last elusive, dreadful secret, even if it does mean that by doing so we bring about our own doom.
Apart from the mysteries surrounding the science of the ancient Egyptians, their religion and mythology, so beautifully (perhaps even romantically) handed down to us in their writings and drawings, tantalise our imagination. The colourful characters of Amun-Re, the King of the Gods, Re, the Sun God, Osiris, Lord of the Underworld, Isis, wife of Osiris and Goddess of Magic, Horus, the son of Isis and Osiris and the falcon God of Kingship, Anubis, the jackal-headed God of Mummification and Guardian of Cemeteries, the cat Goddess Bastet – there is something intriguing in them which still attracts our attention even thousands of years after their heyday.
Then, there is the ancient Egyptians’ preoccupation with preparations for life after death. The funeral rituals, the fabulous artefacts placed within the tomb to keep its occupant in comfort in the afterlife – and the mummification process itself; a grisly, but sacred, process which has ensured that many excellently preserved corpses have passed right down to our own times. One could almost say ‘survived’ down to our own times, since modern scientists have discovered body cells so perfectly preserved as to be still capable of life. Could a mummy, dead for thousands of years, really be brought back to life? Well, in the normal course of events the answer has to be ‘no’. The mummification process involved the removal of all the internal organs of the body and the circulatory and nervous systems could not possibly be reactivated. Not by science. But, what if a dead ancient Egyptian had been denied the sacred rites and buried intact? Such a person must have led a particularly bad life or committed a crime of blasphemous proportions to be disallowed the blessings of the funeral rites. An evil person perhaps? And, from that premise, a single leap of the imagination associates ‘evil’ with ‘curses’ and, while science certainly cannot resurrect the long dead, the mystical forces governing curses would, logically, doubtless have that power. So it is that, in our mind’s eye, we can see the accursed figure of an ancient Egyptian corpse, swathed in mouldering bandages, brought back from the dead by followers of forgotten sects as an instrument of vengeance against those who desecrate the tombs of the blessed dead. From these dark thoughts and, courtesy of even darker forces, a monster is born, an unstoppable, unassailable creature from the depths of Hell – The Mummy!
Ancient Egypt and the Mummy made various appearances during the cinema’s silent era in films such as Melies’ “Cleopatre” (1899), “‘The Monster” (1903), ‘”The Vengeance of Egypt” (1912), “The Egyptian Mummy” (1913), ‘”The Avenging Hand” (1915), “Eyes of the Mummy” (1918) and “The Beetle” (1919), but public interest really took off, thanks largely to press sensationalism, following some bizarre coincidences which occurred following the discovery of the tomb of the boy pharaoh Tutankhamun in 1922.
Lord Carnarvon was the principal financier of the expedition, which was led by the archaeologist Howard Carter, and the tomb of Tutankhamun was unearthed on the 4th November 1922. Some three months later, the burial chamber itself was opened and it was this act of desecration which supposedly triggered off the curse. Just six weeks afterwards, on the 5th April 1923, Lord Carnarvon died of blood poisoning and pneumonia brought on by an infected mosquito bite. At the precise moment of his death, so the story goes, all of Cairo was blacked out by a power failure and, stranger still, back in England, at Carnarvon’s estate Highclere near Newbury, his three-legged terrier Susie suddenly keeled over and died. More compelling coincidences were to follow. After visiting the tomb, a French Egyptologist suffered a fatal fall and an American financier died of pneumonia; Richard Bethell, one of Carnarvon’s team, died mysteriously and his father committed suicide a short time later; at Bethell’s father’s funeral, a child was run over and killed by the hearse; in September 1923, Carnarvon’s brother died suddenly and unexpectedly; and a radiologist who was to examine the boy king’s mummy died on the way there.
The press had a field day with the curse angle and ignored the fact that in all twenty-six people had been present at the opening of the tomb and most survived unscathed (ten years later only six of them had died). The public’s imagination was caught by the curse and it was only a matter of time before Hollywood would realise the cinematic possibilities of the story. However, it took another seven years, and the advent of sound, for the full potential of the horror genre to be proven with the success of “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” (both 1931) and for Universal to scout round for other additions to their financially lucrative gallery of monsters.
The Universal Years
The screenplay for “The Mummy” was written by John L. Balderston (who had collaborated on the script for “Frankenstein”) and the film was directed (in 1932) by the German Karl Freund, who had photographed “Dracula”. The story starts in 1922, when an expedition in the Egyptian desert led by Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron) unearths the mummified body of a High Priest, Imhotep, along with a mysterious golden chest. An examination of the body reveals that Imhotep was buried without the usual funerary rites, probably as punishment for an act of sacrilege. Doctor Muller (Edward Van Sloan); an expert in the mythology of ancient Egypt, warns Sir Joseph to heed a warning of a death curse inscribed on the chest and pleads with him to abandon the dig, but, as the two of them argue under the stars, it is already too late. For, left alone inside the tomb and overcome with curiosity, young Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher) opens the chest and discovers a papyrus of the Scroll of Thoth (Thoth was the ancient God of Wisdom). Reading aloud the hieroglyphics on the scroll, he unwittingly brings the corpse of Imhotep (Boris Karloff) back to life. Sir Joseph and Dr Muller, hearing Ralph’s screams, rush back into the tomb to find the young man driven raving mad and the mummy of Imhotep, and the Scroll of Thoth, gone! (“He went for a little walk!” Ralph.
Ten years later, another expedition, this time led by Professor Pearson (Leonard Mundie) and Sir Joseph’s son Frank (David Manners), is paid a visit by the sinister Ardet Bey (Karloff again), who shows them where to look for the tomb of the long-dead princess Anck-es-en-Amon. Sir Joseph is called back to Egypt and, sure enough, the tomb and the mummy of the princess are found. The contents of the tomb are removed to the Cairo Museum, to where Ardet Bey, kneeling before the sarcophagus and reading from the Scroll, summons the soul of the dead princess, which now resides in reincarnated form in the beautiful Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), the daughter of the governor of the Sudan who is Egyptian on her mother’s side. As Helen reaches the museum, she is prevented from entering by Frank and the spell is broken, whereupon Ardet Bey flees, in the process killing a museum guard and inadvertently leaving the Scroll behind. During the subsequent investigation into the guard s murder, the Scroll is handed for safe-keeping to Sir Joseph, who then receives a visit from Ardet Bey demanding its return. By now; though, Dr Muller – who also just happens to be Helen’s doctor – has begun to suspect that Ardet Bey is in reality none other than Imhotep himself, brought back to life by magical power, and on his advice Sir Joseph refuses to hand back the Scroll. However, his decision costs him dear, as Ardet Bey later casts a spell which causes the old man to succumb to a fatal heart attack and the Scroll is retrieved and returned to him by Sir Joseph’s Nubian slave. There now follows a battle of wits and wills for control of the soul of Helen/Anck-es-en-Amon between Ardet Bey on the one hand, determined to resurrect his beloved princess, and Dr Muller and Frank, with whom Helen has now fallen in love, on the other. Finally, as she is about to be sacrificed so that she can be reborn as Anck-es-en-Amon, Helen calls upon the goddess Isis herself to protect her and Ardet Bey is struck down by a bolt of fire, releasing Helen from his influence and causing him to crumble to dust before our eyes!
“The Mummy” remains a very stylish horror movie, filled with gloom, doom and foreboding, all accentuated by an excellent performance from Karloff as the unsmiling, obsessive Ardet Bey. The film also contains a memorable flashback sequence set in ancient times, illustrating the events which led to the mummy being entombed alive in the first place. If there is one disappointment, it is that Karloff as the mummified Imhotep is glimpsed only very briefly in the first few minutes, although for the actor himself it was probably a huge relief that he did not have to go through the rest of the film encumbered by Jack Pierce’s all-consuming make-up creation.
The Mummy’s Hand
Once again, it was several years before Universal decided to revive one of their most successful monsters and “The Mummy’s Hand” finally appeared in 1940, marking the start of a series of films, the quality of which went progressively, and very rapidly, downhill. Directed by Christy Cabanne (who?), “The Mummy’s Hand” is far and away the best of Universal’s later Egyptian efforts. Its story concerns the discovery by archaeologist Stephen Banning (Dick Foran) and his wisecracking sidekick Babe Hanson (Wallace Ford) of a broken vase in a Cairo bazaar. Banning takes the vase to a Doctor Petrie (Charles Trowbridge), who agrees with him that it seems to hold directions showing the location of the tomb of the long-dead princess Ananka on the Hill of the Seven Jackals. They then make the mistake of showing the vase to Professor Andoheb (George Zucco), ostensibly a respectable expert in Egyptology but in reality the High Priest of the malevolent cult of the god Karnak.
Andoheb denounces the vase as a fake and ‘accidentally’ smashes it, but Banning, Petrie and Hanson remain convinced of its authenticity and set about organising an expedition into the desert. They manage to get finance for their supplies from a travelling magician, ”The Great Solvani” (Cecil Kellaway), and, together with Solvani’s reluctant daughter Marta (Peggy Moran), they all set off in search of Ananka’s tomb. However, their progress is being closely monitored by Andoheb, who uses the ancient power of tana leaves to revive the mummy of Ananka’s lover, the High Priest Kharis (Tom Tyler), as an instrument of revenge and bloody destruction against the members of the expedition. Kharis’s reign of terror is eventually ended, by fire, and Andoheb is apparently shot dead by Hanson just in time to save Marta from being sacrificed.
The easy-going, jokey first section of the film finally gives way to a far more menacingly atmospheric second half and “The Mummy’s Hand” ends up as quite a reasonably distinguished horror movie, with some fine moments of suspense and terror. Moreover, especially worthy of a mention is the performance of Western actor Tom Tyler as the mummy, which is the more remarkable given the fact that by the time the film was made the poor man was virtually crippled with arthritis and racked with pain throughout. Not surprisingly, he was not to play the part of Kharis again and in 1942 the role passed to an actor who had by then become a firm favourite with horror audiences, Lon Chaney, Jr., for “The Mummy’s Tomb”.
The man presented with most problems for this next film seems to have been make-up wizard Jack Pierce, who, at the studio’s insistence, had to come up with something which, for continuity purposes, closely resembled both Boris Karloff and Tom Tyler, while at the same time enabling Lon Chaney’s many fans to recognise their idol. To make matters even more complicated, Chaney was replaced by a stunt double, Eddie Parker, in the film’s more strenuous scenes. Rather than spending hour upon hour applying layers of make-up, Pierce finally solved the problem by making a mask to cover all eventualities!
© Copyright – 1998 Phil Alexander & Mick Nash. All rights reserved.