For many fans of the glory days of Universal horror, there are certain films that epitomize the era: the Frankenstein series, the Dracula series and The Wolf Man would be among them. Also among them would be Boris Karloff's 1932 The Mummy.
However, I wanted to point out a series of Universal films that gets short shrift from fans of classic horror, partly due to the legendary status of Karloff's 1932 picture. I'm referring to the "Kharis" mummy films of the 1940s, which I recently had the pleasure of rediscovering. I'm even going to go on record as saying that I prefer the "Kharis" series to the original.
This might seem blasphemy to some, but this series, relegated to relative obscurity and almost never mentioned in discussions of Universal horror, delivers the goods much better than Karloff's film. Even as a kid, I greatly preferred these movies, mainly due to the fact that the character of the mummy really lives up to your expectations of what a mummy should be--as opposed to the first movie, in which Karloff only appears as an actual mummy in the beginning, and then spends the rest of the flick as a weird wrinkled guy in a fez. Chances are, when you think of the mummy as a movie monster, you're really thinking of Kharis, whether you realize it or not.
Released between 1940 and 1944, The Mummy's Hand, The Mummy's Tomb, The Mummy's Ghost and The Mummy's Curse are among the most underrated pictures of horror's golden age. The '40s is known for its dearth of solid horror pictures, due in large part to the real-life horrors of World War II. Even the vaunted Frankenstein and Dracula series devolved into the juvenile during this period. I would argue that the "Kharis" series are the finest horror movies put out by the studio during the 1940s--and that's including The Wolf Man.
The quartet of films has nothing to do with the 1932 Mummy, in which Karloff played not Kharis but an entirely different dead Egyptian, Imhotep. This series tells its own story, of a shambling eternal killing machine, many of whose scenes still have the power to chill the blood, and in whose appearance and movements one can see an early influence on the zombies created by the likes of George Romero and Lucio Fulci. Furthermore, it can be argued that Hammer Films' 1959 The Mummy is based much more on these films than it is on the Karloff picture.
The "Kharis" series is not given the credit it deserves, perhaps due to the inescapable shadow of Karloff's earlier classic, or maybe the fact that horror movies had been relegated to B-movie status at Universal by the '40s. But fans of old school horror would do well to unearth this often overlooked series, as I did. Although the quality decreases as the series goes along, they are all highly enjoyable, and the continuity between the sequels is actually stronger than in other Universal horror series.
Although it hasn't been updated in years, here's an excellent site devoted entirely to the "Kharis" series, for those who want to find out more.