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15 March, 2008

Universal’s Unsung Monster: The Mummy Kharis

For those of you totally unfamiliar with me, you may take it as an article of faith that I’m something of a fan of the classic Universal Horrors. Put simply, there is a reason that my nom de plume is Unimonster. I enjoy them all immensely… from Frankenstein’s Monster and Dracula, to the Giant Mantis and the Gill-Man. And of all the great creatures that sprang forth from the storied Universal backlot, none are dearer to me than those reanimated reprobates from the Valley of the Kings, Im-Ho-tep / Ardeth Bey, Kharis, Klaris, and Imhotep.

While I love all eight films featuring these bandaged baddies, the four featuring Kharis—THE MUMMY’S HAND; THE MUMMY’S TOMB; THE MUMMY’S GHOST; and THE MUMMY’S CURSE—are by far my favorite of Universal’s “Big Four” Monster films, and save for Edgar Ulmer’s 1934 masterpiece THE BLACK CAT, my favorite classic horror films, period.

Now, I’m not denigrating the Daddy of the clan, Karl Freund’s 1932 classic, THE MUMMY; nor would I dare to compare Karloff’s brilliant performance as Im-Ho-Tep / Ardeth Bey to Tom Tyler’s creation of the Mummy Kharis eight years later, in THE MUMMY’S HAND. Not even Lon Chaney Jr., when he took up the role in 1942’s THE MUMMY’S TOMB, could approach the quality of Karloff’s acting. I love the original film, and recognize it for what it is: One of the truly great Horror Films to come from Universal in the early ‘30’s, alongside DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, THE INVISIBLE MAN, and THE BLACK CAT. The one thing it isn’t, though, is FUN.

The Kharis films have a quality common to all of the Universal Horror Films of the 1940’s… they are incredibly fun movies. THE MUMMY’S TOMB might not be studied in film school the way the 1932 film is, but it’s a joy to watch. To sit in front of a screen, with a big bag of popcorn and a bunch of your buddies or maybe your best girl, munching away as a host of Universal’s best sent chills down your spine… that’s why these films were made. Whale, Ulmer, and Freund were trying to make art. Cabanne, Young, and LeBorg were trying to make a buck, and to do that, they needed Asses in seats. They couldn’t do that without making movies that entertained, and these movies did that, in spades. Not just the Mummy movies; all of Universal’s Horror Films of these period were hugely entertaining… and still are.

However, from the time I first saw Kharis lumbering across the 13” screen on my older sister’s black and white portable, I’ve been a devoted acolyte of the High Priests of Karnak. None of Universal’s classic horrors (and I’ve seen them all…) can come close to the thrills, chills and plain old good times that these four films inspire.

I’m not sure if it’s the Egyptian theme, or the on-screen terror bred by the reanimated corpse of an ancient Mummy haunting a sleepy New England college town, but they connect with me in a way that few films do. There are times (not often I’ll admit, but it happens…) when I’m just not in the mood to watch a Horror Film; but that never applies to Kharis. I can put my Legacy disc in the player and watch all four, beginning to end, losing all track of time. So much so that, for a few hours, I’m ten again, sitting in my sister’s room on a quiet Saturday evening, watching the helpless residents of Mapleton being stalked by the vengeful Kharis on a TV screen the size of a dinner plate.

Are these movies perfect? No, far from it. They’re full of atmosphere, the acting is good, the photography, at least early in the series, is excellent, and the movies are long on action. But they are also weakly plotted and scripted, with incomprehensible plot twists and continuity errors, including how two Mummies that disappear into a bog in Massachusetts can be found in the next picture in the Bayou country of Louisiana. The photography also suffered in the latter films, particularly in the Day-for-Night process shots.

But none of that mattered to a ten-year old Monsterkid, and none of it matters to me now. I don’t watch these movies to critique them; I watch them to be entertained, and just as they did more than sixty years ago, or thirty for that matter, they never fail to accomplish that.

After THE MUMMY’S CURSE, in 1944, there was an eleven-year gap before Abbott and Costello, in their last film for Universal (and next to last film, period…) journeyed down the Nile to do battle with the Mummy Klaris, a two-bit, pot-bellied imitation of Kharis. The movie is far from the duo’s best work, and the era of Mummy movies at Universal came to an end. It would be forty-four years before the studio would revisit Mummies, but they would do so with a vengeance, with Stephen Sommers’ 1999 winner THE MUMMY. This was followed up by THE MUMMY’S RETURN two years later.

Nor has Universal been the only studio to capitalize on the popularity of the Mummy as a monster. Several production companies, most notably Britain’s Hammer Films, saw the value in exploiting the public’s fascination with the legends and lore of Ancient Egypt. It is interesting to note that, when Hammer decided to reinvent Universal’s classic Mummy movies, it was Kharis they chose to emulate, and not Karloff’s Im-Ho-Tep.

All of these movies are good, entertaining, and enjoyable… but none as much as the four Kharis films. When I think of the Mummy, it’s not Karloff’s cultured tones, Chris Lee’s power and violence, or Arnold Vosloo’s Special Effects that come to mind. It’s Tom Tyler defending the tomb of his lost love Ananka, George Zucco passing the secret of the Tanna leaves on to Turhan Bey, and Lon Chaney Jr. hunting the survivors of the Banning expedition through the streets of a peaceful New England village to exact his revenge.The four films featuring Kharis were good enough when I was ten, and they’re still good enough today.

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