Universal Monsters Week: The Mummy (1932)
“My love has lasted longer than the temples of our gods. No man ever suffered as I did for you. But the rest you may not know. Not until you are about to pass through the great night of terror and triumph. Until you are ready to face moments of horror for an eternity of love ..."
I was fortunate enough to be introduced to the Universal Monster movies at a fairly young age. My family happened to have two of them on VHS: Frankenstein and The Mummy. The first time I watched Frankenstein, I was hooked. Everything from the haunting atmosphere of Frankenstein’s castle to Boris Karloff’s heartbreaking performance and Jack Pierce’s iconic makeup captivated me. Needless to say, I was hungry for more. The box for The Mummy featured the original poster, which to this day is still as beautiful a poster as I've ever seen, and the tag line, “It comes to life!” remains one of my all time favorites. As I watched the film, however, I realized it wasn't grabbing me. Sure, the opening scene had Karloff as a mummy, he comes to life, and then...that was it. The rest of the movie he’s just Karloff in a fez. Where did the mummy go? To say I was disappointed is a bit of an understatement. It wasn’t until I revisited The Mummy years later as an adult that I realized just how wrong I was.
In 1932, riding high on the success of Dracula and Frankenstein, producer Carl Laemmle, Jr. was looking for the next big thing to terrify audiences. Inspired by the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 and the Curse of the Pharaohs, an alleged curse cast upon anyone who disturbs the tomb of an ancient Egyptian Pharaoh, Laemmle commissioned story editor Richard Schayer to find a novel to adapt into a new film for Universal Studios’ wildly popular horror series. When a novel could not be found, Schayer and writer Nina Wilcox Putnam instead developed a treatment based on the magician Alessandro Cagliostro. Set in San Francisco, the story told the tale of a 3,000-year-old magician who kept himself alive using nitrates and sought revenge on women resembling his ex-lovers. Pleased with this idea, Laemmle passed it off to screenwriter John L. Balderston, who had already been involved with Dracula and Frankenstein, and had covered the opening of King Tut’s tomb as a journalist for the New York World.
Balderston moved the story to the more exotic Egypt, changed the title character’s name to Imhotep, and instead of a revenge story, it became one of an ancient Egyptian high priest seeking to revive his long lost love. It was the first original story to enter the Universal Monsters canon. With the script finished, Laemmle hired Dracula cinematographer Karl Freund to direct, cast the red hot Boris Karloff as Imhotep, and they were off to the races.
The Mummy begins in 1921 as a British archaeological expedition, led by Sir Joseph Whemple, uncovers the 3,7000-year-old mummy of Imhotep. Whemple, along with his friend Dr. Muller and his assistant Ralph Norton, deduces that Imhotep’s internal organs had not been removed prior to burial, indicating that he was buried alive. It turns out Imhotep was buried alive after attempting to resurrect the princess Ankh-es-en-Amon, his forbidden lover. Despite Dr. Muller’s protests, Whemple’s assistant reads aloud the Scroll of Thoth, said to give life to the dead. Imhotep, now resurrected, takes the Scroll of Thoth, and shambles out into the world to find the princess.
Ten years later, Whemple’s son Frank is leading his own expedition in Cairo when he is confronted by Imhotep, under the guise of a wealthy Egyptian named Ardath Bey. He leads Frank and his team to Ankh-es-en-Amon’s burial spot where her mummy is discovered and transported to the Cairo Museum. Within the museum, Imhotep is fast at work, reading from the Scroll of Thoth, attempting to resurrect the princess, when his spell draws the attention of Helen Grosvenor, the half-Egyptian daughter of the English Governor of the Sudan, who bears a striking resemblance to Ankh-es-en-Amon. Convinced she is his his lover reincarnated, Imhotep stalks her relentlessly, hoping to kill and resurrect her so they may be together forever.
Upon its release, The Mummy was not particularly well-received by critics, but has since achieved its status as a horror classic and for good reason. Karl Freund, having shot Dracula, was an expert at moody, atmospheric horror and thus, the film is absolutely gorgeous, brimming with spooky, sparsely-lit sequences, with long, dramatic shadows. Karloff, as the titular mummy, is both striking and frightfully realistic. Working from photographs of real Egyptian mummies, Jack Pierce spent eight hours transforming Karloff into the mummified Imhotep and boy, does it pay off. Though he only appears in the makeup for a few minutes, it is hands-down the scariest sequence in the film. From then on, Karloff turns in a much more subdued (but no less haunting) performance as Ardath Bey, contrasting nicely against Bela Lugosi’s charismatic Count Dracula and the brutish Frankenstein’s monster with sheer cunning and steadfast resolve, not to mention a little sorcery.
He is perhaps one of the greatest personifications of pure evil the Universal Monsters franchise has to offer, second only to Dracula. The rest of the cast is equally great: David Manners turns in an solid performance as the dashing young Frank Whemple, and Zita Johann, previously a stage actor, is absolutely stellar as the tortured Helen/Ankh-es-en-Amon. Fans will also be happy to see Van Helsing himself, Edward Van Sloan, as Dr. Muller.
Sure, The Mummy is certainly one of the drier films in the Universal Monsters lineup, especially when you compare it to its countless spin-offs and the more modern mummy films, but that’s what I love about it. Rather than be an in-your-face, effects-driven monster movie, it plays out like a slow burn thriller with a compelling love story at it’s core. A really messed up love story, to be sure, but a love story nonetheless. And it proved that Karloff was every bit as effective outside of the makeup as he was beneath it.
Over the years, proving they never stay dead for too long, mummy films have endured and evolved with the times, moving away from horror and more towards action, but none of them even come close to capturing the beauty and sophistication of Karl Freund’s original film. It’s my sincere hope that those who found themselves disappointed their first time around, as I did, will give it a second look because it really is a wonderful, underrated classic with more than a few scares left in it.