When one thinks of a mummy film, most have that image of a shambling bandaged figure stalking the unwary, who are unable to mysteriously outrun a creature that could lose a race to a toddler. These were the mummy films Universal studios made in the 1940s with Lon Chaney Jr. (and once with Tom Tyler) as the lovesick undead. They were largely B-films and marketed as such, and while enjoyable enough today, they hardly rank among the great horror classics (though I do have a certain affection for The Mummy’s Hand(1940.)
The original mummy film was an entirely different sort of film altogether.
It was a slowly paced, somber picture that more clearly echoed the genre’s German expressionist past as well as it’s literary one, culling concepts utilised by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for several short stories including The Ring Of Thoth and Lot 249.
The film begins with the same musical theme that would come to epitomise the Universal horror picture that of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake which plays over the title credits. Immediately, one is reminded of the earlier Dracula (1931) and the similarities do not end there. The plot structure owes much to that film with its theme of a villainous foreigner threatening Englishmen and with a taste for their women and in Dracula’s case, that was quite literal.
This succeeds as a softer and more melancholic picture with the focus being far more romantic than the “business as usual” attitude taken by Bela Lugosi in the earlier film as the title vampire. In this film, Boris Karloff portrays Imhotep, a high priest who was condemned to being buried alive after attempting to resurrect his love. Centuries later, a group of British archaeologists open his tomb and find something called the “scroll of Thoth,” which is said to be able to bring the dead back to life. There is also a terrible curse placed on the opening of the tomb.
The youngest member of the party (Bramwell Fletcher) goes against the wishes of the wise Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan) and reads from the scroll bringing back to life the body of Imhotep who takes back the scroll and goes off into the night. This brings the young man to hysterics and terrifies the rest in his party.
It is one of the great openings in horror history. Director Karl Freund, who had photographed Dracula and Metropolis (1927) practices admirable restraint as he leaves the majority of the sequence to the imagination of the audience.
Nothing else in the film quite matches that opening scene but the mood and atmosphere never quite dispels, either.
Years later, another expedition is near the same site and a young archaeologist named Frank Whemple (frequent leading man of classic horror, David Manners) is introduced to the mysterious Ardeth Bay (Boris Karloff), who gives him the location of a buried princess, who just happens to be the object of the mummy’s affections. Ardeth Bay is really Imhotep and attempts to resurrect the body but realises that it is merely a shell (shades of The Ring Of Thoth) and finds that his princess has been reincarnated in the beautiful form of a young woman named Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann) and she soon finds herself drawn to Imhotep, though she can’t seem to understand why.
Karloff’s first meeting with Johann is an amazing use of restraint. There’s genuine sexual tension as the ancient mummy sees the woman he has loved through the centuries and is damned not to touch. Karloff plays the scene beautifully and Johann makes her character far more than the wallpaper characters that were often the stock in trade of the classic “scream queen.” She creates a woman who is multidimensional, sad, romantic and mysterious. There’s a certain exotic quality to Johann that made her a perfect choice for the role of the reincarnated princess, as she seems slightly uncomfortable and strange in modern surroundings.
Karloff also has a verbal duel with Van Sloan and it is of course, a highlight, the equal of the similar scene from Dracula (1931) Dr. Muller (aka. Dr. Van Helsing) knows too well of the mummy’s intentions and is afraid that he will use the scroll to make Helen a living mummy like himself!
Karloff reveals to Johann about his past and in gruesome fashion, we see onscreen impalements, as well as Imhotep’s own disturbing burial. Originally, there was also to be further footage showing Zohann through the centuries, including the Roman empire and the Anglo-Saxon period, but these scenes were cut.
In a surprisingly risque touch, Zohann is later dressed much like her ancient Egyptian counterpart and the outfit is pretty revealing for 1932 (this being pre-code, the censors were a tad more relaxed.) Imhotep attempts to make her into a mummy, but she pleads to the gods for salvation and forgiveness and Imhotep is promptly damned and the scroll burned, as Frank and Muller arrive to find Imhotep nothing more than a pile of bones.
The Mummy is rarely picked as a favourite of the Universal horror series. Modern viewers will find it likely slow moving and lacking the action of either the 40s series or the later remakes (including Hammer’s awesome 1959 remake with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing), but The Mummy is a unique and haunting experience.
Boris Karloff, perhaps the greatest of all the horror personalities, delivers one of the genre’s all-time great performances as the lovesick Imhotep. He looks magnificent in Jack Pierce’s chilling makeup and while there is a real sense of evil about the character, there is also a tinge of sympathy, which is found in all those great monster characters. Karloff had been known previously as playing largely mute characters in the horror film, such as the Monster in Frankenstein (1931) This film utilises his other great asset, that wonderful voice, and his line readings are something else. “You will not remember what I show you now. They will awaken memories of love and crime and death…”
Few actors could read such lines so eloquently and with such sadness, such restraint. It’s a masterclass performance, enhanced by one of the all-time great makeup designs.
The Mummy is beautifully photographed, feeling like some moody dream, with only that same year’s White Zombie and Vampyr giving it any real competition in that department. Freud directs this like a German silent film and it’s a haunting and poetic film, underlined by a subtle sensuality and a light romantic flair that keeps it in a position entirely unique in the horror film.
Despite, a change in modern taste, that propensity for action and quick editing, The Mummy still weaves a spell on the viewer and for those willing to take the plunge, it’s a quite moving and creepy little film and one of Boris Karloff’s most memorable.
In this reviewer’s estimation, it’s one of the finest horror films made.