The Best Mummy Movies and Why There Aren’t More

Between two popular choices, there always seems to be a forgotten third. After all, when’s the last time anyone told you their favorite flavor of ice cream was strawberry?

Classic horror is no different. Between the vanilla of Dracula and the chocolate of Frankenstein, we find our strawberry stand-in: the Mummy.

This was intended to be the next in a series of articles I’ve been writing on the best portrayals of classic movie monsters, but it turned into something different. In trying to find the top five Mummy portrayals, I discovered that there weren’t enough good Mummy movies to even make a list of the three best portrayals!

So, here are the best Mummy movies and why there aren’t more.

The Problem

A female mummy stares into the camera

First, though there are many movies featuring the Mummy as the monster, the designs for them are almost completely identical (and the non-standard ones are often worse).

Second, since the character is almost totally covered in bandages, reading emotion from facial expressions is nearly impossible. This makes telling “personality” differences between depictions extremely difficult.

Another issue is that the source material used for Mummy movies is much looser than Dracula, Frankenstein, or any Stephen King film. While that can sometimes allow for greater flexibility, the lack of a preexisting structure can also lead to less than stellar decisions.

Other than genuine Egyptian history and mythology, the only suitable source material is Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars, which served as inspiration for the few good Mummy films that exist.

Lastly, the sad reality is that the average quality of a Mummy movie is simply lower than most other horror flicks. Often plagued by awful CGI and terrible action clichés, Mummy movies such as the 1999 Brendan Fraser version (you’re wrong if you think it’s good) and the positively putrescent 2017 Tom Cruise film speak for themselves.

Nevertheless, there are two Mummy movies that are truly excellent—masterpieces really.

The Original

Boris Karloff as the Mummy stares with gleaming eyes

The first of the two excellent Mummy films is the original, The Mummy (1932). Based closely on The Jewel of Seven Stars, it is a shadowy slow burn featuring the inimitable Boris Karloff. It also stars the lovely Zita Johann as the leading lady and boasts some truly beautiful and stylish sets.

One thing that really sets this movie apart from others of the same period is the amount of violence it was willing to show. The film came out two years before the famous Hays Code and thus wasn’t subject to the same restrictions as later Mummy films.

Even compared to other pre-Code films like the original Dracula and Frankenstein, The Mummy shows more violence. Notably, there is a scene in which slaves are impaled through the chest by spears. The clip is short but very graphic by the standards of the day (and certainly during the days of the Code). Zita Johann also shows a shocking amount of skin for 1932.

But let’s talk about what we’re really here for: the Mummy itself. The thing that arguably makes Boris Karloff the most interesting Mummy is that he isn’t wrapped in bandages at all! While he starts that way during the first 10 minutes of the film, he rapidly ditches the toilet paper suit for robes which display both a modern sensibility and an ancient flair.

Boris Karloff’s Mummy feels not just undead, but fully immortal, like Dracula without the snide charisma. In fact, there are a lot, and I mean a lot, of Dracula parallels. While we won’t delve too deeply into them, the original The Mummy often mirrors the original Dracula and even features David Manners and Edward Van Sloan in functionally equivalent roles.

Karloff brings an air of agelessness and stoicism to the character that is truly unique and lends him a strangely captivating aura. When Karloff’s Mummy is attempting to ensorcell Zita Johann it feels legitimately hypnotic.

It adds a really rich flavor to the story to have the “love” interest share a deep and unmistakably involuntary bond, a bond so powerful it nearly robs her of free will on several occasions.

Karloff’s Mummy isn’t a mindless zombie in gauze, he’s a cursed undead wizard bent on ensuring his immortality with the reincarnated love of his life. For a Mummy, we’re talking serious panache.

It’s interesting to think how anyone going back to this movie after seeing other Mummy films would find Karloff radically different from the “norm” despite the fact that he’s the original.

Still, just because something is the original doesn’t mean it can’t be topped.

Hammer Time

The Mummy stands beside his master menacingly

Let it be known, I’m a huge fan of Terence Fisher and the early Hammer Horror films.

Often the perfect balance of tension, aesthetics, violence, and skill, a good Hammer flick is a thing of unvarnished beauty. Thankfully, their 1959 version of The Mummy is one such film.
As with many of the great Hammer films, it feels like a spiritual successor to the original Universal one. Taking the best part of the 1932 film, which is Karloff’s performance, the film breaks the character of the Mummy into two separate ones. While definitely risky, this turned out to be a brilliant move.

By creating two separate characters and making them a dynamic duo, it lets each focus on what they do best and go all out. Christopher Lee as the Mummy is great; even with only his eyes to go on, we can see the dramatic intensity in Lee’s performance. The Mummy here is like an unstoppable force, nearly immune to all damage and exceedingly strong. He’s quick too, and never has to say a word to get his point across.Lee’s rendition is exactly what you picture when you hear “the Mummy,” but done with a flair and passion lesser actors couldn’t touch.On the other hand, George Pastel is perfect for his role as the occultist who summons and controls the mummy. If nothing else he has the look. The green sorcerer-style robe couldn’t be more snazzy and the rest of the sets in his home are likewise dead on. His voice is amazing for this character too— soft, soothing, and yet dripping with menace.

Between Pastel and Lee, they make a pair that knocks it out of the park in terms of style, class, and menace.
As a side note, Peter Cushing makes for a much better protagonist than the one from the 1932 version, though Yvonne Furneaux has nothing on Zita Johann.

The Solution

A mummy stands flanked by two Egyptian priests

The way I see it, the classic Mummy story has all the ingredients for excellent horror and desperately needs a good resurrection. Granted, each reboot seems to be worse than the last, but this need not be so.

First, a return to the source material would be helpful. The Jewel of Seven Stars is by no means a great book, in fact, it did pretty poorly when it was published, but the mechanics of the story are still solid. I am in no way suggesting a straight adaptation, but the movies that have attempted to capture the feel of the novel have always been best.

Second, any new Mummy film should take a page out of Hammer’s book and make the Mummy a destructive tool of the real villain. What all the modern Mummy movies lack is depth, and splitting the characters is a way to get some of it back.

Third, lean back into horror instead of a supernatural action film. Since The Mummy (1999), all subsequent adaptations have been action movies—really bad action movies. The basic Mummy story is ill-suited to a standard action film but perfect for a horror film.

Last, go heavy on the occultism and eldritch lore. While many of the modern films try to capture this, they all ultimately fail for the same reasons. Among those reasons? CGI is not magic. Anyone wanting to see what I mean need only watch the scene from the 1932 version where Karloff peers into a divination pool to scry the location of his beloved and uses incantations to place curses on his enemies. All of this is done, of course, without CGI and it looks great.

In the end, while the Mummy has often had the short end of the proverbial stick, this needn’t be the case. Despite the fact that the plot is based on a kind of shaky source, the Mummy still has all the prerequisites of an excellent horror film. Who knows, we may never again get a great Mummy movie…but then again maybe we will. It might just take the right director. Perhaps with a little magic, the Mummy movie could—much like its titular villain—rise to life again.

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  1. If you enjoyed my perspective here on Horror Obsessive, then please consider listening to my Podcast on a very different subject.

    I’m the host of Modernist Monastery, it’s about the connection between ancient philosophical or spiritual practices and modern scientific research. It’s also a show about how to apply that connection to your everyday life

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Written by Dean Delp

A content creator and editor by both passion and trade. Obsessed with the strange, interesting, intelligent and otherwise unusual. Podcaster, writer, filmmaker, narrator, and voice actor.

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