Mummy Dearest: A Horror Tradition Unearthed

30 min

Welcome to the gorgeously restored

Vista Theatre in Los Angeles,

which has re-created

the mystical Egyptian dcor

that was so popular

in movie palaces of the 1920s.

Egypt was all the rage then,

in the years following

the discovery of King Tut's tomb,

with all those legends

about its supposedly fatal curse.

So, what better place

could we have chosen

to celebrate Hollywood's

most famous restored Egyptian,

Boris Karloff as the mummy?

When Universal released The Mummy,

it had already established itself

as Hollywood's leading house of horrors,

with films like Dracula, Frankenstein

and The Old Dark House.

But The Mummy was something

radically different.

This time the monster was also

a halfway sympathetic lover,

and the timeless romantic fantasy

of a love transcending time and space

inspired countless other films.

So let's do a little

archaeological excavating of our own,

as we unearth the original story

of our... Mummy Dearest.

What's the matter, man?

For heaven's sakes, what is it?

He went for a little walk!

You should have seen his face!

By the time Boris Karloff took his

legendary midnight stroll in The Mummy,

the public was already familiar

with the mysteries of ancient Egypt

through the spectacular discovery,

a decade earlier,

of King Tutankhamen's

treasure-laden tomb.

Almost as fascinating as the treasures

were the stories,

fuelled by an eager press,

of a deadly curse believed to strike down

all those who disturbed

Tutankhamen's resting place.

"Death, eternal punishment,

for anyone who opens this casket."

Good heavens, what a terrible curse!

If anybody died

who was even distantly related

to anybody who was around when the

tomb was opened, this would be news.

This would be indirect evidence

of the curse at work.

Even if the curse was bogus,

the Egyptian belief in immortality wasn't.

To assure resurrection, an elaborate ritual

of mummification evolved.

The jackal-headed god Anubis

presided over the embalming rites,

which required 70 days for completion.

Curiously, the screenplay

that became The Mummy

was not originally an Egyptian story at all.

Asked to develop a vehicle for the new

horror superstar, Boris Karloff,

screenwriter and journalist Nina Wilcox

Putnam concocted Cagliostro,

based on the legend of a historical figure

who claimed to have lived for centuries.

The historical figure of that name

was a poor Italian in the 18th century

who passed himself off as an alchemist

and a hypnotist, conducted seances,

became a fashionable figure, apparently,

in the aristocratic world of France.

Putnam's story was substantially revised

by John L Balderston,

a playwright who had collaborated

on both Dracula and Frankenstein.

He also knew

a thing or two about mummies.

He was always a student of history.

He loved reading history. We had

all kinds of books around the house.

And Egypt, of course, was one

of the main parts of ancient civilisation,

and he was intrigued by it.

He was in London after World War I -

he worked for the New York World

as a correspondent -

and one of his assignments

just turned out to be

the opening of King Tutankhamen's tomb.

So, of course, he was in his element.

He loved it.

The Mummy marked

the directorial debut of Karl Freund,

the celebrated German cinematographer

who had already photographed

Universal's Dracula,

taking his trademark mobile camera

deep into Transylvanian crypts.

He also shot the highly expressionistic

Murders in the Rue Morgue,

in which Bela Lugosi

played the Dracula-like role

of a scientist who also needed

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David J. Skal

David John Skal (born June 21, 1952 in Garfield Heights, Ohio) is an American cultural historian, critic, writer, and on-camera commentator known for his research and analysis of horror films and horror literature. more…

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Submitted on August 05, 2018

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