The Old Mummy-Master

Here’s a character type from the golden age of Universal horror films who wouldn’t fit well in today’s world–the old mummy-master. The original Universal mummy–Boris Karloff’s Im-ho-tep didn’t need a master, in fact he had a slave of his own. But once poor old Kharis came stumbling along, he needed somebody to feed him his tanna-leaf fluid, thus the character of a mummy-master, a human who controls the revived Egyptian prince, was born. This was a great role for barnstormers, and two of the best–George Zucco and John Carradine–each got a crack at the part. Since Kharis usually just wandered about looking for his tanna-fluid, the script-writers saw to it that the mummy-master  became the real villain of the piece–a fanatic in brown-face, right at home in “Gunga-Din.” Carradine even got to commit the unpardonable offense of coveting the revived Princess Ananka for himself–very bad form! But for the most part Universal offered mummy-masters–Zucco and Turhan Bey–who are actually trying to look after business (i.e.–making sure that Kharis kills the desecrators of Ananka’s tomb). For the final film in the Kharis series they did offer a slight change to the formula by casting Peter Coe as a devout mummy-master, but adding Martin Kosleck to the mix as the unfaithful assistant who stabs him in the back, thus managing to really upset poor old Kharis who brings down the temple in retaliation.

Thus things remained until Hammer Films began remaking the old Universal catalogue in color. They gave us the most righteous mummy-master of them all–George Pastell’s Mehemet Akir. Mehemet loves his work because he really hates the British. Unfortunately, this time around it’s Kharis himself who proves recalcitrant, drawing the line at killing the Englishwoman who is the exact double of his long-dead love. I suppose for worshippers of Karnak, Mehemet dies a martyr’s death–trying to avenge the desecration of Ananka’s tomb, but getting his back broken for his troubles. Hammer always liked putting their own spin on things, so for their next mummy film, although Pastell again returned, but this time as a victim, they entered H. Rider Haggard country by making the mummy-master the mummified prince Ra-Antef’s younger brother Be, played by a suave Ronald Howard–who murdered his sibling and is now cursed with eternal life. He can only die by Ra’s hand, but meanwhile he still must avenge the desecration of his brother’s tomb. Talk about a conflict of interests! By the third film, the nameless mummy-master was played by Roger Delgado as a crazed beggar with not much to do but order the killings and get shot down by a police inspector at the climax.

Now you may have noticed all of these films deal with the same basic idea–foreigners have come and desecrated the graves of long-dead Egyptian notables. The mummy-masters–all of whom, Prince Be excepted, seem to be priests of the god Karnak–are attempting to put a stop to such practices and repatriate the remains. One suspects that in our modern world they would be seen as the good guys.

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