Karl Freund, 1932
Starring: Boris Karloff, Zita Johann, David Manners, Edward Van Sloan
“Do you have to open graves to find girls to fall in love with?”
The third in Universal’s acclaimed horror series, The Mummy concerns an ancient curse and a love that lives beyond the grave. A prologue reveals that a team of British archaeologist led by Sir Joseph Whemple have discovered the 3,000 year old tomb of a mummy named Imhotep. When a younger archaeologist reads the scroll from his tomb aloud, he accidentally awakens the mummy and dies of fright, ending the exploration for almost ten years. Whemple returns with his son Frank (David Manners) and an enigmatic local, Ardath Bey (Karloff) helps them find the tomb of the ancient Princess Ankh-es-an-amon. Bey is really a revived version of Imhotep and plans to use a local girl who resembles his Princess, Helen, to reincarnate his long lost love. Frank falls in love with her and is determined to stop the sacrifice.
Unlike Dracula or Frankenstein, The Mummy was not based on a specific work of literature. Like these other two films, the script was written by John L. Balderston, who was said to be inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle’s mummy story “The Ring of Thoth,” and by the factual excavation of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922 and the resulting death of 25 people. Despite this, the plot is often a direct rip-off of Dracula (the film, not the novel). An undead, supernatural entity in the shape of a man, a foreigner, desires a young, living woman with morbid tendencies and an overactive imagination. A young man falls in love with her and hopes to prevent this, along with the assistant of an older, wiser man, another foreigner. In this case, the fact that David Manners and Edward Van Sloan reprise their roles from Dracula further confuses things. In addition to the plot structure, there is also the irritating/intriguing repetition of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake that plays in both films. Swan Lake is an opera about a cursed woman who has a dark double and her struggle to win the man she loves; subtle elements of this are in both female protagonists in Dracula and The Mummy.
The major deviation between the plots of Dracula and The Mummy, as well as most horror from this period, is that Helen essentially rescues herself from Imhotep’s sacrificial knife. She desperately prays to a statue of Isis, who takes pity on the girl and gets vengeance for Imhotep’s sacrilege, suddenly turning him into a bile of dust and bones. This is certainly one of the film’s strong points, as Manners is unlikable and bland as Whemple and, as with his Jonathan Harker in Dracula, it would be utterly implausible for him to step up to the heroic role and rescue the female protagonist. The Romanian Zita Johann, a relatively inexperienced actress at this point, is excellent as Helen with her exotic looks and the somewhat unique role that The Mummy provides. Both Helen’s costumes and behavior are more sexual and less restrained than the female leads in Dracula, which The Mummy definitely benefits from. Johann unfortunately clashed with director Freund, who allegedly made her experience on set absolutely dreadful.
Karloff, unsurprisingly, is both the star and main attraction of this film. His portrayal of the Mummy is limited to one scene, where Jack Pierce’s iconic make up is only shown in a few brief glimpses. Karloff’s real performance is as Ardeth Bey, the Mummy in human form. He is subtle, menacing, and thoroughly alien, though, in Karloff’s way, somehow disturbingly sympathetic.
Though the film moves quickly and has a short running time, there is an occasional lag because of the relationship between Whemple and Helen. It will also seem slower if you expect the action of Frankenstein or the constant dialogue of Dracula, or, worse, if you expect this to be a film chock full of Karloff in his Mummy make up. Karl Freund, Dracula’s cinematographer, who was believed to have directed several scenes, as well as cinematographer of Der Golem and director of Peter Lorre vehicle Mad Love, was an excellent choice for director. The cinematography is one of the strongest elements of The Mummy, particularly the eerie, brooding close ups of Karloff. Freund relies on suspense, subtlety, and atmosphere. As a result, I think this is one of the most passed over the Universal horror canon and it deserves a second look and far more admiration.
“I loved you once – but now you belong with the dead!”
Though there were no direct sequels to The Mummy, Universal followed it with four unrelated films all focused on a different mummy named Kharis and starring Lon Chaney, Jr.: The Mummy's Hand (1940), The Mummy's Tomb (1942), The Mummy's Curse (1944), and The Mummy's Ghost (1944). The Mummy and all of these films are included in the two-disc set, The Mummy: The Legacy Collection, which also contains some nice special features. Including a commentary track, there is the featurette He Who Made Monsters: The Life and Art of Jack Pierce and Mummy Dearest, a documentary by David J. Skal. Some later special editions include Universal Horror, a lengthy and excellent documentary from 1998 narrated by Kenneth Branagh.