‘A love that defied time drives a beautiful girl to her doom’
The Mummy is a 1932 American supernatural horror film from Universal Studios directed by former cinematographer Karl Freund (Dracula, 1931) and starring Boris Karloff (billed as ‘Karloff the Uncanny’) as a revived ancient Egyptian priest. The movie also features Zita Johann, David Manners, Edward Van Sloan and Arthur Byron.
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 eight 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.
Though massively successful, it was another eight years before another mummy film appeared, the unconnected The 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.
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Of the many horror films released by Universal Pictures in the 1930s, The Mummy was perhaps the most Lovecraftian. The bare bones of the film’s plot could have easily been lifted from one of Lovecraft’s stories: a group of rational and educated men are confronted with an ancient evil that defies all reason. When the title character is brought back to life by a man foolishly reading from the fictional Scroll of Thoth, one is reminded of not only the Necronomicon but also of the dozens of other fictional-but-plausible texts that have appeared in the works of both Lovecraft and his successors. Just the sight of the Mummy coming back to life causes one man to have an immediate nervous breakdown, a fate shared by almost every Lovecraft protagonist who was unfortunate enough to learn about Cthulhu, Azathoth, and the truth concerning man’s insignificant place in the universe.
The story of The Mummy goes something like this: In ancient Egypt, a priest is caught trying to bring his dead lover back to life and, as punishment, he is mummified alive and locked away in a tomb. Centuries later, a group of explorers discover the tomb. The mummy comes back to life and, ten years later, he abducts the woman (played by the very beautiful Zita Johann) whom he believes to be the reincarnation of his former love.
I’ve watched The Mummy a few times and one thing that always surprises me is how little we actually see of the Mummy as a mummy. After he’s accidentally resurrected by Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher), the Mummy steps out of his sarcophagus and stumbles out into the streets of Cairo, leaving a now insane Norton to giggle incoherently about how the mummy just stepped outside for a walk. That is pretty much the last time that we ever see the Mummy wrapped up in bandages. When we next see the Mummy, he’s going by the name Ardath Bey and he bears a distinct resemblance to Boris Karloff.
Karloff gives one of his best performance as the sinister and calculating Bey. Of all the horror films that were released by Universal in the 1930s, The Mummy is perhaps the only one that can still be considered to be, at the very least, disturbing. That’s largely due to the fact that, as played by Karloff, Bey is the epitome of pitiless and relentless evil. I’m always especially shaken by the scene in which Bey uses his magical powers to make a man miles away die of a heart attack. It’s not just the fact that Bey has the power to do something like this. It’s that Bey seems to get so much enjoyment out of it. There’s a sadistic gleam in Karloff’s eyes during these scenes and his expression of grim satisfaction is pure nightmare fuel.
Just compare Bey to the other Universal monsters: The Invisible Man was driven insane by an unforeseen side effect of his formula. Frankenstein’s Monster was destructive because he didn’t know any better. The Wolf Man spent five movies begging people to kill him and put him out of his misery. And while Dracula was certainly evil, he had as many limitations as he had power. He couldn’t go out in daylight. He was easily repelled by both crosses and garlic. He often didn’t do a very good job of hiding his coffin. Ardath Bey, on the other hand, was not only evil but apparently unstoppable as well.
The rest of the cast is pretty much overshadowed by Karloff but fans of the old Universal horror movies will enjoy picking out familiar faces. They’ll recognize David Manners from Dracula. Edward Van Sloan also shows up here, fresh from playing Van Helsing in Dracula and Doctor Waldman in Frankenstein. But ultimately, it is Karloff who dominates the film and that’s the way it should be. There’s a reason why Boris Karloff could get away with only his last name appearing in the credits. He was an icon of both cinema and horror and The Mummy reminds us why.
For a film that was first released 84 years ago, The Mummy holds up surprisingly well. There have been countless movies about homicidal mummies over the years but none have yet to match the original.
Lisa Marie Bowman, guest reviewer via Through the Shattered Lens
“The Mummy has obviously aged and is no longer as frightening as it might have been to it’s contemporary 1930’s audience. And yet this film still has something to offer us. If you go in expecting chills and screams, you’ll walk away disappointed, but, if you instead sit back and take in the atmosphere, the style, and the performance of its stars, you’ll find The Mummy to be a genuinely entertaining experience.” 2,500 Movies Challenge
” …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.” Oh, the Horror!
” …it was well thought of in its day, as the star was such a sensation as his previous monster role that audiences lapped this up as more of the same, but in truth, it was not quite as otherworldly as it initially appeared – indeed, its status has declined in the years since it was judged to be one the studio’s great chiller classics. This was probably down to the pacing which positively crawled along.” The Spinning Image
“Boris Karloff dominates this movie with his eyes and stature. It’s a true testament to his horrific greatness. Van Sloan is his lovable, monster-slaying self…but is reduced to an onlooker as a frantic Zita Johann brings down the hammer. Rest in pieces, Imhotep.” The Terror Trap
“The scene where Imhotep wakes up and scares the archaeologist dude out of his mind is one of the most unforgettable moments in horror film history. It’s so great that it makes you forget about the film’s more sluggish passages […] Director Karl Freund got his start as a cinematographer so you know the flick is going to look great. He gives us lots of atmospheric moments, most of which take place inside the mummy’s tomb.” The Video Vacuum
Cast and characters:
Boris Karloff … Imhotep/Ardath Bey
Zita Johann … Helen Grosvenor
David Manners … Frank Whemple
Arthur Byron … Sir Joseph Whemple
Edward Van Sloan … Doctor Muller
Bramwell Fletcher … Ralph Norton
Noble Johnson … The Nubian
Kathryn Byron … Frau Muller
Leonard Mudie … Professor Pearson
James Crane … The Pharoh
Henry Victor … The Saxon Warrior (scenes deleted)
Arnold Gray … Knight (scenes deleted)
Florence Britton … Nurse (uncredited)
Jack Deery … Party Guest (uncredited)
Bill Elliott … Party Guest (uncredited)
Leyland Hodgson … Gentleman #2 at Cairo Party (uncredited)
Eddie Kane … Inspector’s Assistant (uncredited)
Tony Marlow … Police Inspector (uncredited)
C. Montague Shaw … Gentleman #1 at Cairo Party (uncredited)
Pat Somerset … Helen’s Dancing Partner (uncredited)
Arthur Tovey … Nubian (uncredited)
Cantil, California, Universal City, and the Mojave Desert
Black and white
Aspect ratio: 1.37: 1
Audio: Mono (Western Electric Noiseless Recording Sound System)