The dusty, shuffling dead don’t have the sex appeal of vampires or the tragic dimension of werewolves. And yet the poor mummies are always with us — if by “always” we mean since 1922, when British Egyptologist Howard Carter first peered into the long-lost tomb of fourteenth-century-BC pharaoh Tutankhamen and set the world’s morbidly romantic imagination on fire. So brew up a pot of tanis tea, wrap yourself in a cozy blanket, and, whatever you do, don’t read the ancient scroll of Thoth aloud, because the time has come to rank the ten greatest mummy movies in history.
10. The Cat Creature (1973)
Directed by Curtis Harrington, this unjustly forgotten TV movie pays homage to low-budget horror movies of the forties without being camp. Granted, once the Bast-worshipping Egyptian priestess is reincarnated in modern-day Los Angeles, the mummy looks just like Meredith Baxter in ugly seventies fashions, but, hey, she turns into a killer cat. And the supporting cast includes B-movie greats such as John Carradine, Gale Sondergaard, Kent Smith (Cat People), and David Hedison (The Fly).
9. Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy (1964)
Okay, not a good movie, but it’s one hell of an entertaining Mexican-wrestler-monster mash. You get lushly built luchadoras, a crumbly mummy that turns into a bat, and an evil Fu Manchu type looking to steal some ancient treasure. What you don’t get is a whole lot of mummy-on-mujeres action. Have a few more cervezas and you won’t care.
8. The Eternal (1998)
A wealthy alcoholic couple (Alison Elliot and Jared Harris) moves to the Irish countryside in hopes of sobering up, but the wife’s dotty relatives think her body would be an excellent new home for the spirit of ancient Celtic witch Niamh (whose mummified remains are stashed in the basement). If there’s another movie featuring a bog mummy, I’ve never heard of it.
7. The Awakening (1980)
Bet you didn’t know that Dracula creator Bram Stoker also wrote (but never completed) a mummy novel, called Jewel of the Seven Stars. And that would be because it’s pretty lame. Even so, it’s been filmed three times, starting with a silent version in 1917. If the casting of Charlton Heston as an obsessed British Egyptologist loses you at “hello,” hang in there; there’s incestuous creepiness when long-dead Queen Kara takes over the body of the archeologist’s daughter (Stephanie Zimbalist). Plus, the film was actually shot in Egypt.
6. Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb (1971)
What’s not to love about this garish, goofy version of Stoker’s novel? Same question for voluptuous Hammer starlet Valerie Leon, who plays Queen Tera, an Egyptian who wears her years — and her clothes — lightly. So what if she’s evil incarnate and has only one hand? Of Legend of the Mummy, the fourth and last version of Jewel of the Seven Stars, the less said, the better.
5. The Monster Squad (1987)
You know what’s wrong with most old-movie mummies? The guy under the bandages: you need a skinny dude, not husky Lon Chaney Jr., which is what Fred Dekker realized. In The Monster Squad, the mummy has to share the screen with Dracula and his witchy brides, the Gill-man, Frankenstein’s monster, a werewolf, and a bunch of spunky preteen horror-movie junkies who save the world from them. Trust me: that brittle, dessicated mummy is just plain freaky.
4. The Mummy (1999)
Give props where they’re due: Steven Sommers’s big-budget action-comedy blockbuster single-handedly made mummies work for a generation of cliché-savvy smart-asses who laugh at the arthritic shambling of traditional mummies. And South African actor Arnold Vosloo (assisted by a barrage of CGI effects) is one kick-ass Imhotep.
3. The Mummy (1959)
Hammer’s third pass at reinventing golden-age monsters for atomic-age audiences wasn’t as radical a rethinking as Curse of Frankenstein or Horror of Dracula, but it reteamed Christopher Lee (as the imposing, fast-moving mummy Kharis) and Peter Cushing (as icy archeologist John Banning), and that’s all fans needed to know.
2. Bubba Ho-tep (2002)
Don Coscarelli’s slyly hilarious shaggy-dog story pits a mummy against the residents of a bleak Texas old-age home. Finally, plausible victims: frail old folks who can’t outrun the shambling monster! But feisty residents Elvis Presley (Bruce Campbell) — long story — and John F. Kennedy (Ossie Davis) — longer story — join forces to rout the life-sucking stranger.
1. The Mummy (1932)
Less than ten years after Carter unearthed Tutankhamen’s grave, expat German filmmaker Karl Freund (now best known for shooting the legendary sitcom I Love Lucy) directed Boris Karloff in the best mummy movie of all time. Heedless British archeologists accidentally revive Egyptian priest Imhotep (“He went for a little walk,” giggles the now-mad wretch who read the forbidden scroll that set him free), who, posing as modern-day Egyptian scholar Ardeth Bey (Karloff), schemes to resurrect the woman he loved and lost almost 4,000 years earlier. The ultimate dead man walking, Karloff’s mummy is a thing of bone-dry delivery and dusty, papery skin, a phoenix reborn from the ashes of ancient desire. Mummy movies don’t get better than this.