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Here's another article I've written.� I hope you enjoy my analysis of the "Mummy" films and the High Priests that populated them below.� Please click the following links to read a couple of other articles entombed herein:�

My "Stranger On The Third Floor" Article (A look at a Peter Lorre film gem.)

My "Frights Of Fancy" Article (Recommendations of videos to make your Halloween even spookier)

(The following article first appeared in Monsters From The Vault #8. Since that issue is now out of print and fetching sums in excess of $20 a copy, I am reprinting my article here as a public service!--M.C.)


Who shall defy the temples of the ancient Gods, a cruel and violent death shall be his fate.

So goes the fearsome (although grammatically suspect) Curse of Amon-Ra.

The men who recite this solemn vow -- and orchestrate the murders which back it up -- are the High Priests of Karnak. They're a colorful group, with a collective penchant for tasseled fezzes and reincarnated ingenues. More importantly, they provide the focal point for Universal Pictures' perennially popular mummy movies.

As the most mystical of all classic horror shows, the fate of Universal's mummy features pivoted on the relative effectiveness of the pictures' High Priests. These men serve as living symbols of the spiritual beliefs which lend these pictures their otherworldly charm. As a rule, if the High Priest is good then so is the movie; if the High Priest stinks then you're probably watching The Mummy's Curse.

The rectory of Karnak includes some of the finest actors ever to ply their trade in the horror genre -- among them Boris Karloff, George Zucco and John Carradine. All three of these genre giants contributed performances which rank among their best horror roles. Clearly they understood what becomes clear in retrospect: Universal's mummy films weren't about the mummies at all -- they were about the High Priests!

THE MUMMY (1932)

Far and away the finest of Universal's mummy films remains the original, which stands among the most powerful pictures from the Golden Age of horror cinema. No other film of its era so deftly combines romance, suspense and mysticism. And few films of any era can boast of a leading performance as compelling as Boris Karloff's in the title role.

Significantly, this best film of the series is also the only one in which the mummy and the High Priest are the same person. Unlike later mummy Kharis, Imhotep (aka Ardeth Bey) looms as a truly unnerving adversary. He not only cuts an imposing figure, he possesses terrifying occult powers. Imhotep hypnotizes young ladies with a glance and kills his adversaries by remote-control. Subsequent films in the series divested the mummy of these magic abilities, severely and permanently weakening the monster.

Many of the mummy's powers in this film mirror those Bela Lugosi wielded in his role as Universal's Dracula (1931). This is no coincidence, since screenwriter John L. Balderson penned both films. (For what it's worth, I'd lay out cold cash to see a no-glares-barred stare-off between Lugosi's Dracula and Karloff's Ardeth Bey. First one to blink loses.)

Though he often underplayed his roles to great effect, Karloff never again projected such emotional range with so little movement as he does in The Mummy. The key to his portrayal is its very stillness. As Paul M. Jensen writes in his essay on The Mummy in the Midnight Marquee Actors Series volume, Boris Karloff (Midnight Marquee, 1996): "By doing nothing, he manages to seem constantly in control, both of himself and of the situation."

Karloff's first scene--which climaxes with a crazed Bramwell Fletcher explaining that the mummy "went for a little walk"--ranks among the most laureled in genre history, and deservedly so. Although barely glimpsed in this sequence, Karloff makes a powerful impression. Try not to shudder when Karloff's eyes, hazy as if clouded by a long sleep, slowly open. Good luck.

Karloff's work only improves once Imhotep assumes the guise of Egyptologist Ardeth Bey. This character is 3,700 years old and looks every day of it--not only because of Jack Pierce's make-up, but because of the way Karloff speaks (slowly, in a carefully measured baritone) and carries himself (stiffly, almost perfectly vertical). His manner is delicate, brittle.

Setting a precedent for future High Priests, Imhotep is willing to blaspheme against the gods of Egypt and use the sacred Scroll of Thoth to reanimate the mummy of his dead lover, the princess Anck-es-en-amon. His reconsiders his plan when, starting another trend, he discovers the princess has been reincarnated as lovely young Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann).

Bey finds Grosvenor asleep on a couch and recognizes her instantly. In close-up, Karloff appears baffled, dazed by this woman who is the living image of his lost Anck-es-en-amon. When she awakens, Bey quickly regains composure and asks simply, "Have we not met before, Miss Grosvenor?"

Shortly thereafter, Bey uses his greatest power to dispose of his nemesis, snoopy archeologist Sir Joseph Grosvenor. Kneeling before a sacred pool, burning incense and muttering incantations, Bey reaches out with one hand and slowly clutches his fist. Miles away, Sir Joseph clutches his chest and collapses dead on the floor before he can reach the telephone to call for help.

In the end, Imhotep's free-wheeling approach to the laws of the Gods costs him. Grosvenor (whose memories of her past life have been restored) calls on an idol of the goddess Isis to aid her. In response, a statue of lifts one arm and blasts Imhotep with a ray that reduces the mummy to a pile of ashes. This finale also makes The Mummy is also the only film of the series to validate the High Priests' belief system.

Of course the belief system in question is one dreamed up by Balderson and bears little kinship with actual Egyptian spirituality (a subject thankfully beyond the scope of this article). However, the legitimacy of Imhotep's religion (at least in context of the story) provides vital dramatic thrust.

Later mummy movies soft-pedaled their spirituality, perhaps in fear of offending audiences by suggesting the existence of a non-Christian deity. Such timidity cost the series a great deal in both ambiance and credibility. Shooting a mummy movie while ignoring the Egyptian gods is like filming The Ten Commandments and skipping "the religious parts."


The first mummy sequel lacks most of the original's virtues, chief among them Karloff's commanding presence and Balderson's lyrical script. However, Universal's sophomore Mummy picture boasts some significant strengths all its own.

The Mummy's Hand introduces audiences to the Priests of Karnak, the secret religious sect which guards arcane secrets of life and death and ensures that ancient curses get fulfilled. This is in and of itself a intriguing concept. Unfortunately, Hand also strips away most of the great powers wielded by Imhotep. No longer can the priest will his enemy to sudden death using his psychic abilities. Also missing is the Scroll of Thoth. Instead of reading sacred scrolls, the Priests of Karnak now brew tana leaves, mixing a sort of superpowered mint julep which keeps 3,000-year-old mummies alive.

The set of laws governing the use of these leaves makes the priests seem more like alchemists than holy men: The leaves must be brewed during the cycle of the full moon. The product of three leaves keeps the mummy alive; nine give him animation; under no circumstances should the mummy receive more than nine tana leaves, or else he will become uncontrollable. The source of the priests' apparently bottomless supply of tana leaves, which come from a plant extinct for thousands of years, remains one of the series' more perplexing mysteries.

In the middle of all this hocus-pocus we find venerable George Zucco, who delivers the finest performance from a High Priest to succeed Karloff. This priest's moniker is Andoheb, and his job is protecting the as-yet (but not-for-long) undisturbed tomb of Princess Ananka. Aiding him in this enterprise is the mummy Kharis (former cowboy idol Tom Tyler).

As our story opens, an aged priest (Eduardo Ciarelli) kneels before a sacred pool, delivering his solemn vow: "Who shall defy the temples of the ancient Gods a cruel and violent death shall be his fate. And may his soul never find rest unto eternity. Such is the curse of Amon-Ra, king of all the gods." While not as catchy as writer Curt Siodmak's ditty about wolfsbane and werewolves from The Wolf Man, the High Priests' vow (composed by Griffin Jay and Maxwell Shane) does have the same ring of believability as that other mock legend.

Moments later, Andoheb arrives to assume the mantle as chief defender of the faith from the old master. The High Priest recaps the story of Kharis and his forbidden love for Princess Ananka, as well as the finer points of tana leaf preparation, entrusts Andoheb with a sacred amulet and then promptly drops dead.

Zucco was a fine actor who routinely delivered performances far better than his material deserved (witness his delightful work in otherwise dreary projects like Fog Island and Dead Men Walk). The star is in top form here, his eyes glittering with mad zeal as he accepts the amulet.

Clearly Andoheb loves his work. In the film's finest scene, he tempts naive archeologist Dr. Petrie (Charles Trowbridge) into entering Kharis' tomb. Petrie watches in fascination as Andoheb feeds Kharis a solution brewed from nine tana leaves. As Petrie stands idly by, amazed to watch life returning to Kharis, the mummy rises and strangles the archeologist. As Petrie croaks his death rattle, Andoheb icily decrees: "Not one of you who attempt to enter the tomb of Ananka will leave this valley alive!"

Eventually, like Imhotep before him and nearly every priest who will follow, Andoheb caves in to earthly desires. He decides to use the tana leaves to bestow eternal life on both himself and the picture's heroine (Peggy Moran). "You and I, together forever in the Temple of Karnak," he gushes. "�You shall be my High Priestess!" What girl could turn down a proposition like that?

Zucco's Andoheb, the most interesting character in the film, meets an undignified fate. With nearly a reel to go, Andoheb gets bumped off by the comedy relief. Wallace Ford plugs Andoheb with a three shots from his trusty revolver.

Hand is not so much a child of the first Mummy as the beginning of a new lineage. The picture has only the most tenuous connection to its predecessor. The remaining films in Universal�s Mummy series were actually continuations (or rehashes) of this story. Even Hammer studios' The Mummy (1959) was a remake of Hand, not the original Mummy. Whatever its flaws, clearly this picture had longer legs than the first film.


With this second sequel the mummy saga took a curiously downbeat turn. A better title for the movie might have been The High Priests Strike Back. The story follows newly ordained High Priest Mehemet Bey (Turhan Bey) as he seeks to fulfill the sacred vow that all who violate the sacred tombs shall meet "a cruel and violent death." We watch as Bey and Kharis methodically massacre the entire cast of the last picture!

Mysticism--as well as originality--continued to steadily drain from the series with this installment. Much of The Mummy's Tomb is recycled from the previous entry, and Bey is even less involved with the proceedings than Andoheb had been. The film opens agonizingly slowly, with an overlong recap of Hand which makes extensive use of stock footage. The picture is nearly 15 minutes along before its story even begins!

Zucco reprises his role as Andoheb. (Wally Ford apparently is a poor marksman. Andoheb explains that Ford's hail of bullets, fired at point blank range, merely "crushed my arm.") Zucco's appearance is brief but memorable, repeating the ritual performed by Eduardo Ciannelli in the last film. Thirty years have passed since then, and Andoheb has grown aged and infirm. His hands tremble as he passes the sacred amulet onto his young protege. Yet his eyes still burn with insane conviction as he recites the ancient oath. "Now swear by the sacred gods of Egypt that you will never rest until the last remaining member of the Banning family is destroyed," he nearly pants with blood lust.

"I swear by the mighty power of Amon-Ra, whose anger can shatter the world and by the dread power of Seth that I shall never forsake my trust as a High Priest of Karnak," Bey recites dreamily. His eyes remain fixed, as if staring at a distant star. Given decent material, Turhan Bey could perform admirably (as in The Amazing Mr. X, 1948). Alas, this early sequence is one of his few opportunities to show much of anything in Tomb.

He spends most of the rest of the picture slinking around an old cemetery and giving Kharis orders to throttle various members of the expedition which discovered Ananka's tomb in the last movie. Since by now the priests wield no visible powers other than the ability to count tana leaves and boil water, Bey's command of Kharis seems a little insulting. Kharis behaves like an overgrown lap dog, fetching archeologists and nubile young women at Bey's command. It's difficult enough to take the mummy seriously as played by beefy, bored-looking Lon Chaney Jr. Tom Tyler, in Hand, lacked Karloff's brilliant pantomime but had the proper physique.

Turhan is also saddled with stupid, redundant dialogue. "Kharis, you're back," he reads after the mummy has already lurched into full view. At least he looks good. With his carefully coiffed hair, Bey is the High Priest most likely to appear on the cover of Gentleman's Quarterly.

Like all the priests before him, Bey becomes enamored of the film's leading lady (Isobel Evans). Bey earns points, however, as the only mystic to seek divine assistance to control his raging libido. He prays for the gods for strength to resist temptation and "fulfill the destiny of Kharis." Of course this is futile. Like Andoheb, he decides to brew tana fluid for two and make both himself and the young lady immortal. "For you I am going to forsake the teachings which have been handed down for generations upon end," he explains. I'�s a good line, and Bey wrings from it every available drop of pathos.

Young John Banning (John Hubbard) and a posse of townsfolk burst in before Bey can complete the ceremony. Kharis carries the girl away, and Bey pulls a pistol on Banning. The local constable shoots Bey before the priest can fire on Banning. All of which seems awfully pedestrian, compared to the good old days when High Priests could bump off their adversaries with some incense and incantations.


Due to the presence of high priest John Carradine and because it attempts to recapture some of the original film's mysticism, the fourth mummy movie marks a significant improvement over its immediate predecessor.

Yet again we open with Andoheb (Zucco, in his final mummy film) handing that well-traveled amulet over to an eager new disciple, Yousef Bey (Carradine). Carradine takes the same vow Turhan Bey recited in the last film, but where Bey sounded distant and dreamy, Carradine sounds ablaze with religious fervor. His eyes stare wildly, his voice swells with conviction. No one did crazy crazier than Carradine.

Yousef Bey's mission is to round up Kharis and the mummified remains of Princess Ananka and return them to the temples of Egypt. (Inexplicably, the name of the order to which Andoheb and Bey belong changes from The Priests of Karnak to The Priests of Arkham with this film.) Yousef Bey follows his predecessors steps to Mapleton, USA to recover the princess from her coffin at the Scripps Museum, and Kharis from wherever he's been hiding out since the last picture.

Carradine enjoys a quiet scene in the museum, standing before the remains of the Princess. A group of visitors has just left the room. "Mighty gods of Egypt, forgive us, the Priests of Arkham, powerless now to prevent the gaze of these heretics now resting upon her," Carradine intones softly, with palpable regret. "May the reclamation of her body absolve us of any laxity that may have been ours."

Bey is forced to discard his initial plan when Ananka's mummy suddenly turns to dust. It seems the princess has been reincarnated as a local girl, Amina (Ramsay Ames). The script, from writers Griffin Jay, Henry Sucher and Brenda Weisberg, seizes on the mystic--and romantic--possibilities of the reincarnation element. Each time the mummy strikes, Amina falls into a trance and awakens with a gray streak in her hair. This perplexes her young beau, Tom Hervey (Robert Lowery) and develops into an odd love triangle between Amina/Ananka, Tom and Kharis.

That triangle becomes a square once Yousef Bey sets eyes on the young lady. Like Andoheb and Mehemet Bey, Yousef Bey decides to feed himself and Amina/Ananka with the tana fluid -- but only after a brilliant scene dramatizing his internal struggle.

In this bravura sequence, Bey argues with a voice inside his head. "I live to fulfill my destiny as a Priest of Arkham," he says aloud. "But what of your destiny as a man?" his inner voice answers (via voiceover narration also by Carradine). "You are thousands of miles from the tombs of Arkham. She is thousands of years from her sin. Look at her. She is beautiful. Kharis dared to love her. Are you less brave than he?"

Carradine is one of few actors who could make such hokum work. He turns the scene into a showcase. His reading of the voiceover narration is silky and serene. But on screen Carradine figets and stammers, growing increasingly agitated.

As Bey prepares to administer the tana fluid, Kharis bursts in and, in a fit of rage, tosses Bey out the window to his doom. The moral here must be: Don't try to steal the monster's girlfriend.

The Mummy's Ghost ranks as the best of the three Chaney mummy movies (and, I confess, my favorite of all the mummy sequels) for a host of reasons. It has the best dialogue of the trio. Journeyman director Reginald LeBorg generates a few truly suspenseful moments, and keeps the action rolling merrily forward. Its romantic leads (Ames and Tom Hervey) are unusually likable. But Carradine's performance is the film's greatest virtue.


Universal's mummy series appeared to limp to a close with this penny-dreadful. The Mummy's Curse marks the lowest ebb of the entire saga. The film's High Priest, Dr. Ilzor Zandaab (Peter Coe), is symbolic of the picture as a whole -- he's colorless and forgettable.

The film's sole new idea is a refreshing change of locale from New England to the Louisiana bayou. There, underhanded Zandaab pretends to help a team of archeologists from the Scripps Museum search for the bodies of Kharis and Princess Ananka. By night, he steals away to feed Kharis tana fluid and plot to return the mummy and his mate to their homes in Egypt. Unfortunately, Coe's performance is so listless he undercuts nearly every scene in which he appears. When Zandaab swears, "Kharis, you shall rise again to find your Princess Ananka. That is our vow to you," Coe sounds as if he were reading his grocery list.

Worse yet, the "Egyptian" accent he affects sounds ludicrous. Why did Coe feel the need to affect such an accent even though Karloff, Zucco, Bey. and Carradine had not? Perhaps Coe didn't bother to watch the previous films. It's obvious the actor cared very little about this assignment.

Coe is upstaged by his henchman, Ragheb (Martin Kosleck). Kosleck, a superb actor who seldom received parts worthy of his talent, is tragically wasted in his thankless role as Zandaab's lackey. The Mummy's Curse would have been a far better film if Kosleck and Coe had traded roles.

The scenario follows the standard pattern: A recap of the last film, some bits of business with the tana leaves, a few murders and a lovely young girl who gums up the priest's best-laid plans. This time, however, it's the priest's sidekick who gives in to temptation. (Come to think of it, why does Zandaab need a henchman when none of his predecessors did?) This leads to a climactic confrontation between Zandaab and Ragheb.

After sleepwalking through the preceding 55 minutes, Coe finally springs to life during his fiery exchange with Kosleck. "Your tongue shall be torn from your moth for the vows you have sworn--falsely," he snarls venomously. "The vultures will pick the flesh from your bones when Kharis learns of your treachery!" However, it's too little, too late to rescue Coe�s performance. Moments later, Zandaab is dead--knifed in the back by Ragheb.

To give credit where it's due, Zandaab is the first High Priest to maintain control of his hormones. Unfortunately, the rest of Coe's portrayal is equally flaccid.


The Mummy's Curse appeared to bring Universal's mummy movies to a dreary conclusion. But, like Kharis himself, the series wasn't dead--it was merely waiting to arise again. And so it did, 11 years later, reincarnated as the final "Abbott & Costello Meet" project.

For A&C devotees, Meet the Mummy is a treat--a spirited romp well-stocked with the team's trademark blend of slapstick and verbal jousting. For the High Priests of Karnak, however, the film is something else again.

Top priority for screenwriter John Grant, A&C's longtime gag man, was inserting as many of the team's routines into the proceedings as possible. Fidelity to the established precepts of the previous mummy pictures clearly was a lesser concern. This probably explains many of the film's otherwise unaccountable lapses, such as mistakenly referring to the mummy as Klaris.

Grant seems to have missed the boat on a few other major points, as well. Most importantly, Grant's High Priest does not worship the gods of Egypt but rather the mummy itself. Also, the sacred amulet is no longer worn by the High Priest, but by the mummy. In general, the film does not pay the same degree of reverence for its monstrous guest star as had previous A&C "Meet the Monsters" films (which were not written by Grant).

On the other hand, Grant does a fine job of spinning a fast-paced tale loaded with comic possibilities. The story follows Bud and Lou (obstensibly cast as themselves--while they have character names in the cast list, they refer to each other by their proper surnames in the film) who become embroiled in some intrigue with Egyptian gangsters and the worshipers of Klaris.

The picture's High Priest, Professor Semu (Richard Deacon) is outclassed by the film's other heavy, temptress Madame Rontru (Marie Windsor). Deacon's delivery is tepid and unconvincing, making his High Priest about as intimidating as a ticked-off Ward Cleaver. Not that Deacon gets any help from Grant's script. His dialogue ranges from banal ("Now, I must see if this place is as deserted as it appears") to idiotic ("Two more mice have come to nibble at the golden cheese").

The production gives the cult classier digs, anyway. The expansive, labyrinthian temple sets are far more elaborate than anything seen before in the series. The catacombs contain dancing girls, hidden treasure, bats, skeletons, and even a giant iguana! (Imagine what Andoheb could have accomplished with such resources.) About the only thing not to be found in catacombs is the mummy itself, which is seldom seen for most of the picture. The mummy never walks until the film is 55 minutes along.

The followers of Klaris spend most of their time recovering the mummy from a museum, then tracking down the sacred amulet (which, naturally, Costello comes to possess). There's a great deal of funny business along the way, of course--including a reworking of the team's classic disappearing body routine and even a "Who's on First?"-type riff about gardening equipment. It all ends with Lou inadvertantly blowing the mummy to kingdom come with a few sticks of dynamite.

When the dejected High Priest laments Klaris' demise, Bud insists he has a great idea for how to keep the monster's memory alive. He and Lou convert the temple into a nightclub named Kafe Klaris. Take that, Planet Hollywood!

All this is great fun, yet it brings a sad end to the saga of the High Priests. The idea that the hallowed tombs of Egypt -- once protected by zealous holy men like Zucco and Carradine -- get converted into an upscale watering hole is, well, difficult to swallow. Imagine Parisians knocking down Notre Dame to put in a Hard Rock Cafe! The sect's ignominious fate, however, does nothing to diminish the memorable portrayals of its High Priests.

Praised by critics and fans alike for decades, Karloff's Imhotep ranks among finest acting performances in horror cinema history. Esteemed scribes such as William Everson, Tom Weaver, and Greg Mank have lauded Karloff's work. Author Bryan Senn put it best in his book Golden Horrors (McFarland, 1996) where he wrote: "This film billed Boris Karloff as "Karloff the Uncanny," and his performance lives up to every adjective the Universal publicity department could dream up." I can only add my voice to this chorus of admiration.

Zucco's Andoheb, while not approaching Karloff's brilliance, is something of a milestone itself. Although Zucco was even more impressive in other films (such as The Mad Ghoul, 1943, and The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, 1939) it's as Andoheb, The High Priest, that most genre junkies remember him. The same can be said for Turhan Bey and his turn in the royal Fez. It's not his best performance, but it's probably his most recognized.

Yousef Bey certainly isn't Carradine's best known characterization. The actor is more often remembered for his portrayal of Dracula in Universal's final two monster rallies (House of Frankenstein, 1944, and House of Dracula, 1945) or for any of his ubiquitous mad doctor roles. Nor can the role be counted as his best performance (that would probably be The Grapes of Wrath, 1940) or even his finest within the horror genre (an honor which belongs to Bluebeard, 1944). Still, Carradine's work in The Mummy's Ghost nearly equals that of Zucco in Hand. It surely ranks among the star's most underrated horror portrayals.

Coe is hopelessly upstaged by his flamboyant brethren. Even if he could have mustered the requisite verve for his role, Coe could not have matched the panache of his predecessors. He lacked the charismatic presence of Carradine or Zucco or even Bey. And poor Deacon simply had nothing to work with.

Still, taken as a group these portrayals equal or exceed any similar collection of performances found in the Universal horror canon (such as the studio's legions of invisible men, doctors Frankenstein or--heaven forbid--jungle women). The High Priests, and the men who played them, represent the best this beloved series of shockers had to offer.

My "Stranger On The Third Floor" Article (A look at a Peter Lorre film gem.)

My "Frights Of Fancy" Article (Recommendations of videos to make your Halloween even spookier)

Stuff To Read | All About Mark | "Buy" Mark Clark | Trivia Game | Links | Home | | Coming Soon | Support Film Preservation

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