Written by: Nina Wilcox Putnam & Richard Schayer (story), John L. Balderston (screenplay)
Directed by: Karl Freund
Starring: Boris Karloff, Zita Johann, and David Manners
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Death. Eternal punishment for anyone who opens this casket. In the name of Amon-Ra the king of the gods."
As a franchise, The Mummy has left a strange, almost contradictory legacy. While it spawned several sequels, multiple reboots, scores of imitators, and an entirely new horror sub-genre altogether, it’s fair to say the title creature itself doesn’t rank alongside Universal’s “Big 3.” History remembers that trio as Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolf Man despite the fact that The Mummy bowed nearly a decade before Lon Chaney Jr.’s most famous monster. As such, it’s almost as if the original Mummy has been overlooked, regarded mostly as the progenitor of that long, sprawling legacy. That almost certainly wasn’t the plan back in 1932, when Universal positioned it to be its next horror hit following the twin successes of Dracula and Frankenstein a year earlier. Their thinking—that audiences craved both horror films and movies inspired by the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb—paid off, resulting in another massive hit for the studio that ushered the genre into the talkie era.
In the years following, however, The Mummy has been relegated to second-tier status. While Universal's marquee trio were hanging out in their Monster Rally movies in the 40s, The Mummy lurched on with a set of unrelated sequels, putting it on the path towards the perception that it wasn’t among the studio’s crown jewels. When it was resurrected decades later as an action franchise, it seemed to have little in common with the original film, inspiring legions of fans (including yours truly) to wonder why Universal so steadfastly refuses to revive these monsters in, well, actual monster movies. And though that’s a fair question to ask in regards to the likes of Van Helsing and Dracula Untold, it might not be the fairest criticism to lob at The Mummy, which was the least horror-tinged of the classic Universal Monsters line-up.
Those who recall The Mummy to be a horror movie involving an undead corpse terrorizing unsuspecting victims likely only remember the extended prologue. Set in 1921 at the site of a major archeological dig, it finds a group of British museum curators inspecting the newly excavated mummy of Imhotep (Karloff), a high priest that was apparently executed for blasphemy. His tomb contains scrolls warning of an ancient curse that will befall anyone who dares to disturb it, a foreboding message that does little to deter an assistant (Bramwell Fletcher) from reading one particular scroll aloud. As he yammers on obliviously, Imhotep slowly awakens and staggers out of his tomb, giving viewers a glimpse at one of Jack Pierce’s most iconic makeup designs. Historical accuracy concerning the appearance be damned, it’s a staggeringly effective design even 85 years later, as Karloff’s haunting eyes accentuate the decrepit, rotting appearance. But Karl Freund (making his American directorial debut) most notably only provides that quick glimpse that climaxes in Imhotep’s decayed arm slowly reaching out to recover his scrolls. Fletcher actually does most of the legwork in selling the horror, as he looks on in sheer, delirious horror, eventually cackling away in a manner that recalls Dwight Frye’s manic performance as Renfield.
Dracula continues to cast its long shadow over the rest of The Mummy, which becomes a jumble of several different sources: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Ring of Thoth,” the life of 18th century alchemist Alessandro Cagliostro, and screenwriter John Balderston’s experience covering the opening of Tutankhamen’s tomb. A decade passes and British archeologists are still in England, including Frank Joseph (David Manners), the son of the leader of the expedition in 1921. Following very much in his father’s footsteps, he uncovers a major find of his own with the assistance of Imhotep, now masquerading as a wizened local named Ardeth Bey. The latter very much carries ulterior motives, as the discovery involves his lover, Princess Anhk-es-an-amon, whom he hopes to resurrect. To do so, he’ll have to recover her soul in the body of Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), an Egyptian woman he believes to be the reincarnated princess.
That trope—which has been recycled countless times across various genres throughout the years—is perhaps the film’s greatest storytelling legacy. Even if you haven’t seen The Mummy, you’ve likely seen its story play out at some point. It also signals just what kind of movie The Mummy actually is: yes, it is ostensibly about an undead monster murdering anyone who stands in the way of his deranged quest to murder and mummify a woman, but it plays out as more of a romantic fantasy. Looking at it from this perspective makes it easier to realize why modern reboots have keyed in on that element and gone in such a big, bold direction: truthfully, it’s always been at the heart of The Mummy, a film that pitched the latest Universal spectacle and delivered, even if its scope and scale seems diminished compared to the more recent revivals.
However, relatively speaking, The Mummy is one hell of a production, one that’s bolstered by incredible sets, evocative photography, and magnetic performances. Despite a brief 73-minute runtime and the fact that it revolves around a handful of intimate locations, it nonetheless feels like a big movie, as it spans centuries and swells with grandeur. Freund often indulges spectacle, particularly whenever Imhotep gazes into a magical pool that reveals images from a tragic past that unfurls throughout the film. In one of the film’s more memorable sequences, he recounts he and Anhk-es-an-amon’s history to Helen that transports the audience back to ancient Egypt and all the dark arts rituals and spear-chucking nastiness that ensues. If not for antsy executives looking to make the film move more quickly, it would have been even more sweeping, as the scene originally called for Imhotep revealing all of Helen’s past lives through various stops in history. (This development must have especially irked Johann, who had to share a scene with actual lions, much to the bemusement of Freund, who did not get along very well with the starlet.)
Johann—who was quite the personality off-camera—more than holds her own alongside Karloff. While she’s relegated to damsel-in-distress status for much of her screen time here, she has an aura about her that contributes to the film’s exoticism. She stands in stark contrast to most other women in Universal horror productions in the sense that she has a genuine presence in the film, not to mention honest-to-god agency towards the end. Later Mummy sequels would become notorious for recycling the image of its monster carrying off a helpless dame, but Johann resists that here, at least in spirit. Helen is a restless soul with wild saucer eyes hinting at some subconscious longing or pain, standing in stark contrast to the ingénues that populate these films.
Without her, The Mummy would be stripped of much of its power, which is certainly not to diminish the appeal of Karloff, of course. In fact, his turn as Imhotep is arguably among the meatier roles he took for Universal, at least in terms of range. After dusting off his Frankenstein shambling as the decaying mummy, he brings life to another tragic, wounded soul—only this time with the aid of dialogue and more subtle make-up. His eyes once again play a prominent, haunting role in the striking old-age makeup designed by Pierce (for those counting at home, The Mummy boasts two of the renowned artist’s most iconic works): with one piercing gaze, Karloff masterfully relay’s Imhotep’s despair and rage at having been denied his love for centuries. He certainly towers over the proceedings, drawing the audience to one of studio’s most tragic monsters. That became an oft-recycled trope itself during the studio’s horror heyday, and The Mummy certainly helped to make it viable. In this respect, Imhotep is the archetypal Universal Monster, as he’s both wicked and misunderstood in equal measure.
That said, it’s also the classic Universal horror that most relies on its glamour and technical artistry to compensate for its shaky narrative foundation. Considering the film was hatched with the bare minimum of an idea (“exploit the discovery of King Tut!”) and passed through several screenwriting hands along the way, it’s not surprising that the final product sometimes feels a bit inert in its pacing and storytelling. This is particularly true of its reliance on flashbacks to reveal both Imhotep and Anhk-es-an-amon’s history, both of which stop the film dead in its tracks. One wonders if the film might not be a bit more effective if this were relayed earlier on (in fact, the first sequel, The Mummy’s Hand, does rectify this), though it’s also easy to understand Universal’s approach here. Not only does it allow audiences to immediately glimpse the title monster, but it also provides a central mystery that eventually explains Imhotep’s motivation here. It’s also very much arguable that this is also a byproduct of having been inundated with this storyline over the years—watching it unfold for the umpteenth time lends a sort of stilted, sluggish quality that probably wouldn’t have existed in 1932.
Another sort of déjà vu certainly would have existed for contemporary audiences, though. About midway through, The Mummy becomes an almost shameless rip-off of Dracula’s plot beats, which is perhaps to be expected when you hire that film’s screenwriter. Whether intentionally or not, Balderston especially recycles the second half of Dracula, as another woman is stalked by an undead creature with hypnotic powers before she’s rescued during an abrupt climax. Freund at least improves on the formula with more energetic camerawork this time around, so his wonderful Expressionist chiaroscuro compositions are done even more justice. His decision to reveal even the slightest hint of the grotesque carnage (we hear bones break and see a crumbled skeleton) also makes for a more satisfying ending than the anticlimactic off-screen demise in Dracula. I don’t know if anything in The Mummy is as terrific as the first half of Dracula, but its second half almost feels like the same filmmakers taking second pass and indulging the premise for all its cinematic possibilities.
In The Mummy, one glimpses the breadth and width of blockbuster filmmaking through the ages and realizes not much has changed on this front. We bemoan the crass, obvious cash-ins of today’s Hollywood, yet that’s been part of the formula for decades. The Mummy didn’t begin as a fully formed film so much as it was an embryonic idea attached to a release date, not unlike most studio tent-poles these days. The more things change—and this particular brand has changed quite a bit over the years—the more they stay the same. As Universal preps yet another revival amidst the gnashing of fanboy teeth (including, yes, yours truly again), it’s sobering to revisit the original, which isn’t too far removed from its modern incarnations, as one might be inclined to believe. Maybe the set of Mummy films from the past two decades haven’t been full-on horror movies, but, then again, neither was the original, which might be the most misunderstood and underestimated of the early Universal classics.
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