by Francis Friel, The Projectionist
Part Four: The Mummy Eternally Returns
For whatever reason, the Christopher Nolan Batman films keep popping up in my orbit recently. Cab drivers asking me if I like them, writers online prematurely comparing Phoenix to Ledger, my YouTube recommendations shoving analysis videos at me. But it’s got me thinking about the thing that always bugged me the most about them. Taken as a whole, the overarching premise kind of makes no sense, in that the progression of Begins to Dark Knight to Rises covers the span of about nine years wherein Bruce Wayne was dressing up and fighting crime as Batman for about…what, two weeks? The time compression of the storytelling is a little much, is what I’m saying. None of it adds up. But it’s not the first film series to get wonky with its timeline. If you’ve seen the Universal Mummy movies, you know what I’m talking about.
The narrative choice that stands out as the most convoluted - at least on its face and on a first watch - is the idea that these movies are all taking place in roughly the span of time that they claim. This is seriously troubling for a variety of reasons, but first we need to talk about what might be the biggest - and most unnecessary, and most avoidable - plot hole of maybe any franchise in history: the idea that these movies are taking place fifty years in the future.
This is so confusing. I really don’t even know how to break this down. I’ve been seriously depressed recently. The idea that these Mummy movies have been hiding some very distressing and pessimistic philosophical ideals from us for all these years has been driving me up the goddam wall. This might be the thing that breaks me. The timeline of the Mummy movies. It’s a strange feeling, almost like mourning, walking around with this weight on my shoulders, blinding me, it’s like wading through a swamp of thick, hot air, damp, muggy, makes it hard to think. It’s oppressive and overwhelming, this notion. I’m going to do my best to figure this all out but I cannot make any promises. I’ve spent days crying about this, had to call out of work, thought about just, fuck it, quitting altogether. But it’s inescapable. It’s a hard fact of life: The Mummy’s Curse, released in 1944, takes place in 1996. Huh?
So what if the producers at Universal were working out their own long-con cinematic take on eternal return? For a start, that would be impressive. Audiences aren’t really into being taken for a ride, at least not quite like that. And the idea that they would stage this experiment on the back of a series of films obsessed with death and a corporeal afterlife wherein its characters move freely through time and space is also bonkers, since there’s no fucking way anyone was paying attention to shit like that. Why would they? They came for the monsters.
But even the opening shot of the original Mummy movie tips its hand towards this, creating a three-dimensional spinning image of the Sphinx as the title is revealed on the back of the great pyramid. It’s a weird way to kick the whole thing off, but it makes sense, too, as for the next dozen years Universal would unwind a string of films with possibly the most deeply buried hidden narrative of their entire Monster cycle.
Doing this type of thing to your movies is interesting - brilliant, even - but it’s also not all that interesting to watch, at least strictly for pleasure. Sorry! It’s like looking at a bunch of math. It works, and there’s a clockwork perfectionist rhythm to the meta-narrative carrying the story along, with repeated events, characters, motivations, and resolutions that can’t be anything other than intentional. But it’s also boring. In essence, you’re watching the same movie over and over. Even the urtext of Karl Freund’s The Mummy contains the bones of what would take on life after life after life of their own. The story of Imhotep and his attempts to live forever (along with his lost love) is recycled and reframed throughout the run of the films. You can take this cynically and say, yeah, these are cheap movies. They reused the footage, recasting the entire story as the standard trope of continuing a dead narrative by rousing a brother or nephew we never knew or even cared to know existed. But that’s fine. It is indeed pretty silly.
As the films go on, they eventually grow out of the loop of being similar and building on each other and finally we get two, back to back, that are actually identical. Every story beat, every meaningful prop, character death, even the finales are exactly alike. It’s like they simply put out an immediate remake rather than a new sequel. But I think that still holds to the idea that this was all by design. And it speaks to how the character of the Mummy is presented and how it evolves over the course of the series.
Karloff’s original performance is a strange one in the full course of his filmography. Great as usual, the filmmakers nonetheless chop the movie to within an inch of its life. There’s almost nothing left of whatever interesting or important elements we’re supposed to be getting out of all this. Even so, it sets the stage for what’s to come. The invocation of the ancient Egyptian rites, the possession of a kidnapped woman to make her into the new Queen, and the ultimate destruction of the Mummy himself. The difference between the original and the rest of the films that would follow is that Karloff actually has a character to play. Throughout the series, the Mummy character, more and more, simply becomes a henchman for the Big Evil Bad Guy. He gets sent to terrorize the town, to kidnap the woman so she can be possessed and worshipped, and he takes the fall for the main villain. It’s only in Karloff that we get something approaching a human-sized protagonist, an anti-hero even. It’s not his best work, but at the very least he’s tapping into the same vein of deep sorrow we saw in his Frankenstein Monster and the inventor in Night Key. It’s not enough to build a franchise around - and they didn’t, really - but it’s worth it for him alone.
The Mummy series takes on almost Michael Myers levels of confusion once the subsequent films really get rolling. Cursed leaves, more ancient phrases, a piling on of astral possessions that can’t even hope to make sense…it’s always just a little too much to not laugh at. But at its core it's doing something else, carrying that line of circular life and death rituals that other series have attempted but have never really matched, mostly because they inevitably over-do it by either tipping their hand too early or burying the lede so far down that it becomes completely inexplicable. They tell this long, generations-spanning tale to no real end, I admit, but the journey is worth it if you can take them all at once. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to go to these movies every few years. Did audiences flip their wigs when they realized they were being conned? Did they tap into what the meta-narrative was doing? I’d love to read reviews from the time to see what contemporary critics were saying. As it is, it does what it does beautifully at the cost of being not too much fun, at least by Universal horror standards. But just as with other parallel storylines of the time, there was an antidote to this all along. If The Mummy films were about the horror of doing your terrible work right out in the open, the Invisible Man series was the opposite, creating a world of American Psycho hubris out of characters who weren’t even there.
Claude Rains is without question the MVP of the Universal Monsters so far. It’s a cliche to say a performer does so much with so little, but here it certainly applies. That’s not to take away from the formidable arsenal on display, however, since he at once steals the show and barely registers, his Invisible Man being the epitome of the mad scientists we’ve come to know so far. We meet him in the final days of perfecting his invisibility formula, and once he does he only has one thing on his mind: MURDERING FUCKING EVERYBODY. This is quite a stretch from the almost Neo-realist design of the early parts of the film. We see the townspeople as they slowly begin to grasp the full weight of the weirdness going on in that corner room upstairs. We see the completely baffled crowds of people as they witness the effects of an invisible man running through their town screwing with all their shit. It’s another of James Whale’s entries into the Universal series that in every way demolishes everything that came before it and cranks everything up to such surreal heights that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else having made a movie like this. Whale turns this weird little story into a psychological thriller, a body horror nightmare, and a kitchen sink comedy melodrama and makes it all hang together like no one else can. It’s too bad it’s another character and story that would immediately fall victim to Universal’s near-sociopathic need to sequelize the living bullshit out of anything and everything.
Both The Invisible Man Returns and The Invisible Agent suffer from the same reverse-engineered mythology headache as the later Mummy sequels, only this time they jumped in and decided to not give a shit right from the jump. Invisible Agent even goes so far as to get rid of any pretense that the main character needs to be invisible at all, instead slathering white makeup on Jon Hall so he could still appear on screen as himself (more or less) for most of the film. What a shitshow. Invisible Agent also concerns fighting Nazis and the Axis powers, which gives the filmmakers a free pass to start tossing all kinds of racist language around since that’s how these dopey things got audiences riled up back then. Total disaster, these movies.
The Invisible Woman is the only sequel in the bunch that actually makes its own case and works as a film. It jumps way over the rails and goes all in as a screwball comedy. This is the Gremlins 2 of the series, for sure, even commenting on what a bizarre concept this whole invisibility plot device really is. Virginia Bruce and the ensemble cast are loving every second of this thing. You’ve got weird old scientists, bumbling butlers, idiot gangsters (including Shemp Howard!) and a goofy-ass love interest for Bruce to play off of. It never takes anything seriously and I wish more of these films would’ve gone this route and just turned into comedies, at least for one film. If any of them would’ve worked, it would be this series, since after the first film there’s really nowhere to go with the story, as the other two sequels make uncomfortably plain.
We should also never forget that Johnny Depp almost made a new Dark Universe Invisible Man movie. Can you imagine that maniac running around in his Invisible Man makeup, knocking over CGI coffee tables and lighting CGI cigarettes? What a pile of horseshit that would’ve been. He probably would’ve just covered his face in scarves or something and mumbled a lot. But we’ve been spared, at least for now. If the Universal series of horror films has taught us anything so far, it’s that the law of diminishing returns accelerates at exactly the rate at which you allow your characters to run away without a script attached to them. Turn them into comedies, create some convoluted backstories…anything. Just don’t do the same things over and over again. Not that the guy who played a drunk pirate five times for no goddam reason at all would know anything about that.