‘A love that defied time drives a beautiful girl to her doom’
The Mummy is a 1932 supernatural horror film from Universal Studios directed by former cinematographer Karl Freund and starring Boris Karloff (billed as ‘Karloff the Uncanny’) as a revived ancient Egyptian priest. The movie also features Zita Johann, David Manners and Edward Van Sloan.
Above all others, The Mummy is the Universal horror film of their golden period for which repeated viewings are essential to truly grasp the almost ethereal atmosphere and multi-layered plot.
An archaeological dig in Cairo by starchy Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron, an American with a very convincing English accent) and his wet behind the ears assistant, Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher), leads to the discovery of a mummy, that of the 2700 year-old Imhotep (Karloff, to bill him under just the one name, as the credits and posters do) and a lost long box found with him.
Unable to resist the temptation to open it, despite the curse written on the outside, Norton discovers a scroll within and awakens Imhotep from his dusty slumber by reading the hieroglyphics written on it.
Norton goes instantly loony, gibbering the famous lines, “He just went out for a little walk – you should have seen his face!” whilst Whemple vows never to return to Egypt. Some ten years later, Whemple’s son, Frank (David Manners, John Harker in Tod Browning’s Dracula), Professor Pearson (Leonard Mudie) and Doctor Muller (the redoubtable Edward Van Sloan, seen in Dracula, Frankenstein and many others of the era) return to Africa to seek out the tomb. Along the way they encounter the mysterious Ardath Bey, actually Imhotep in a slightly more human form, Scroll of Thoth under his arm, seeking out his reincarnated lover from the past, Ankhesenamun.
Showing the pair where to dig to find the tomb, the sarcophagus of his beloved is taken to the museum of Cairo. It transpires, through flashback, that Imhotep was mummified alive as punishment for attempting to resurrect Ankhesenamun, who had died tragically, by performing heretical rites.
Upon meeting Helen Grosvenor (Broadway star Zita Johann, wearing surprisingly few clothes, almost falling out of them entirely in one scene), he is convinced she is the reincarnation of his lover and vows to finally reunite them by killing her and bringing her back to life in the same manner he was.
If this sounds rather tangled, you’d be forgiven. Ten years before the release of the film, the imagination of the whole world was captured by the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb and more especially the stories which quickly circulated of curses and the mishaps which befell Carter and his fellow raiders. Egyptian iconography and gaudy faux-Pharaoh decorations were commonplace in cinemas and bars and the public’s appetite for all things mummified was unquenchable, the more twisted and convoluted the plot, the more fact and fiction seemed to merge.
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If there’s one factor that puts off fans of the other Universal Monsters, it’s that Karloff’s performance in bandages is surprisingly brief, the majority of his role being as the tall and imposing Bey, initially at least, far less iconic and immediately frightening. This is unfortunate.
Rather like Frankenstein’s Monster, the titular creature is actually a sympathetic character, having died for love centuries before, he means only to be reunited with his bride. As such, the mood is distinctly misty-eyed, almost dreamlike as well as the desert locations, adequately standing in for Egypt, adding a heavy dose of the exotic.
It is unfortunate that the stand-out sequence in the film, the resurrection of the mummy, happens so early on in the film. One of Karloff’s most subtle scenes on film, the barely perceptible opening of his eyes is haunting, almost moving, the agony and agelessness of his torment communicated without a sound. Of course, as well as Karloff’s terrific acting, this was largely down to the skill of Universal’s in-house make-up genius, Jack P. Pierce.
After studying the mummy of Egyptian Pharaoh, Set I, Pierce elected to use Egyptian cotton which was treated with acid and baked. An 8-hour process of applying the bandages with spirit gum and collodion, as well as clay to his hair, left Karloff unable to speak and, anecdotally, go to the toilet. It was not only lengthy, taking even longer than the techniques used to create Frankenstein’s Monster but incredibly painful, though the relationship on this film between Pierce and Karloff was more cordial than usual. It is still the most staggering realisation of a walking mummy, modern techniques not even coming close. The make-up took another 2 hours to remove.
Much work also went into Karloff’s appearance as Ardath Bey, his skin stretched and then spirit gum applied. Many layers of collodion-soaked cotton were then applied, which, when dried created the wrinkled, desiccated effect. The high ether content in the plastic-based collodion sent stinging fumes up into the actor’s eyes. Also of note is the appearance by Noble Johnson, Bey’s aide, ‘The Nubian’. Johnson had previously appeared in The Most Dangerous Game (‘whited-up’, an unthinkable act nowadays) and the following year in King Kong.
Director Karl Freund, was only given the job two days before filming began. He was best known as a cinematographer, most famously for Dracula and Murders in the Rue Morgue, both heavily expressionistic. His plans for the scenes depicting Imhotep’s life when he was alive were eventually heavily cut, the original intention being that these would be played in a highly exaggerated manner whilst also being slightly speeded up, giving the impression of being an archival relic.
The musical score is easy on the Egyptian motifs, actually using the main theme from Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’ as the opening theme as it had in Dracula the year before. The other, uncredited themes were mostly the work of James Dietrich and Heinz Roemheld, though it is the great passages of silence which really give you the creeps. The film is the first of Universal’s Monsters to not be based on a previously published literary source.
Bey’s actual Fez – his ring was purchased by Famous Monsters of Filmland’s Forrest J Ackerman.
Though massively successful, it was another eight years before another mummy film appeared, the unconnected Mummy’s Hand. Despite being financially inferior, as well as in quality, this did spawn sequels — the Lon Chaney Jr-starring The Mummy’s Tomb in 1942, The Mummy’s Ghost in 1944 and The Mummy’s Curse from the same year.
Later efforts, swathed in CGI rather than bandages (The Mummy (1999), 2001’s The Mummy Returns and two further debacles are to be ignored, though the Hammer contributions to mummy lore – The Mummy (1959), The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964), The Mummy’s Shroud (1967) and Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb are much more fun.
Daz Lawrence, MOV!ES and MAN!A
Cast and characters:
- Boris Karloff as Ardath Bey / Imhotep / The Mummy
- Zita Johann as Helen Grosvenor / Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon
- David Manners as Frank Whemple
- Arthur Byron as Sir Joseph Whemple
- Edward Van Sloan as Doctor Muller
- Bramwell Fletcher as Ralph Norton
- Noble Johnson as The Nubian
- Kathryn Byron as Frau Muller
- Leonard Mudie as Professor Pearson
- James Crane as Pharaoh Amenophis
- Henry Victor as The Saxon Warrior. Henry Victor is listed in the credits but never appears in the film. The Saxon Warrior was originally part of a long flashback sequence showing all of Helen’s past lives from ancient Egypt to the present. The sequence was cut from the film to improve pacing.
- C. Montague Shaw as Gentleman [uncredited]
Cantil, California, Universal City, and the Mojave Desert.