Universal Monsters in review: The Mummy (1932)
Of all the Universal Monsters, the Mummy is one of my favorites. For this reason, I felt inclined to say a few words regarding my affection. Why the Mummy? Certainly, as you will discover here with this review by the most excellent Mr. Chant, The Mummy is not the most flamboyant of creatures. Considering how monster-ish Frank and Drac are and continue to be through the duration of their respective films, one wonders why The Mummy was so…well, droll. And yes, its true, The Mummy is droll to many monster fans. But as it were, still, I adore The Mummy. The Mummy, Ardeth Bay, Imhotep, Boris, what have you, reminds me of another would-be villain from my 90s childhood, Mr. Freeze. In the Batman animated series, Mr. Freeze is both a brooding and terrifyingly stoic, yet tragic and very much human. His motivations make sense and its because of this the character, to me, feels more real and thus more horrifying than a majority of the classic monster tropes. As it were, monsters are of personal taste and perspectives, so without further ado, I present to you this second installment in the Universal Monsters in review. Enjoy!
THE MUMMY: a monstrous retrospective
By: Daniel Marc Chant
The Mummy, directed by Dracula cinematographer Karl Freund, shares a lot of similarities with Universal’s breakout vampire hit. Both films have luscious imagery, a great central concept and a ponderous (if somewhat dull) plot overshadowed by the performance of its titular monster. In other words The Mummy isn’t a great film, even when viewed with a wave of heady nostalgia, but it’s an important one nonetheless and is more often remembered for its legacy than its content.
After the lucrative success of Dracula and Frankenstein, Universal was looking for another monster smash and followed the studio formula we still find in Hollywood today, that of utilising established and proven talent from past blockbusters in the hope of creating a new one.
Inspired by the archaeological find of Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s tomb by the British Museum in 1921, and the subsequent tabloid craze about the curse unleashed by opening it, there was an untapped demand for Egyptian mystery at that time and Universal saw an opportunity to cash in on the craze a decade or so later.
Dracula screenwriter John L. Balderston took the idea and wrote his draft, originally titled Cagliostro, which was largely a beat-for-beat remake of his work on Dracula. His work as a Playwright first and foremost shines through both works as they often play like a theatre production as opposed to a film – set pieces and cast are minimal, it’s as though it were intended for the boards rather than film. Indeed I dare say The Mummy would be better as a stage play than a film but that’s just me.
The film opens with a stereotypically British ensemble of archaeologists uncovering the ancient tomb of high priest Imhotep, buried with the mystical scroll of Thoth, and a warning that whoever disturbs his eternal slumber shall suffer the bitter consequences. Dr. Miller (Edward Van Sloan), Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron) and scenery chewing Norton (Bramwell Fletcher) discuss their findings while the good Doctor and Sir Whemple head outside leaving Norton to mess about with the scroll, reading from it with young foolishness. It’s here that we see the Mummy, and really the only time too, as Boris Karloff’s Imhotep is shaken to life after the reading. As Imhotep stumbles to life and takes the scroll Norton erupts into a camp cackling descent into madness that would embarrass a Lovecraft character.
This is where we flash forward ten years and another expedition by Sir Whemple’s son Frank (played by David Manners) is frustrated by the lack of discoveries. A ponderous Egyptian calling himself Ardeth Bay (an anagram of “death by Ra”) enters claiming he knows the exact location of Princess Anckes-en-Amon’s burial chamber. Ardeth is so obviously Karloff that the ‘bait and switch’ reveal is signposted a mile off but that’s not the real point – Ardeth’s undying love for his dead lover is supposed to resonate with us, creating sympathy for the devil as it were.
It’s here that Ardeth first sees Helen Grosvenor (actress Zita Johann) who possesses many similarities to the deceased Princess and that beguiles him to her charms. And as British born Boris Karloff portrays both Adeth Bey and Imhotep, his performance is fantastic and excruciatingly slow.
While it might be looked down upon to speak negatively of old classics I’ll be the first to say that Universal’s Dracula isn’t that good a film. It’s pacing is monotonous and dull. As I mentioned beforehand the hand of a Playwright writing cinema has created a production better suited for one of London’s great theatres rather than the silver screen.
Director Karl Freund, cinematographer on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis let’s not forget, is capable of delivering stunning imagery – more potent given the technical limitations of the time – and his Germanic expressionist roots made Tod Browning’s Dracula more visually exciting than the director ever could alone. Especially considering that Browning abandoned the set after a well-documented disorganized shoot leaving Freund to pick up the pieces and stitch together the Godfather of horror films.
The Mummy and Dracula also share more than just Freund, actors David Manners and Edward Van Sloan return to essentially play the same characters and screenwriter Balderston imbues The Mummy with the same presence of Dracula within the script. Hell even the framing of Karloff employs the same cinematic methods applies to Lugosi in Dracula. Remember when I said Universal was utilising established and proven talent from past blockbusters in the hope of creating a new one? Here we see it in full force.
The most disappointing thing about The Mummy is the fact that the phenomenal make up by Jack Pierce is only seen for five minutes or so at the start of the film when Imhotep is uncovered. The rest of the time Karloff is playing Ardeth Bay, with aged make up rather than bandages. This is a monster movie without a monster.
Regardless The Mummy stormed to massive success in 1933 and Universal had their new hit to join the ranks of Dracula and Frankenstein. The Invisible Man would soon follow, as would The Bride of Frankenstein and more. There would even be further journeys into Imhotep’s legacy, with 1940’s remake The Mummy’s Hand and its subsequent sequels. Also Hammer Film Productions took their swing at the bandaged bastard in the 1959 film The Mummy, itself based on The Mummy’s Hand rather than the original. And lest we forget Stephen Sommers’ gleefully fun 1999 re-imagination as a rollicking adventure.
The Mummy is a curiosity of a film. A piece of history. A relic. Its legacy is more important than itself. It is wrapped in history like its monster in bandages, unable to escape them but more interesting because of them.
Daniel Marc Chant is the published author of several terrifying tales, including: Maldicion, Burning House, and his newest venture, Mr. Robespierre. Daniel is also one of the founders of The Sinister Horror Company, the publishing team that brought us such frights as, The Black Room Manuscripts and God Bomb!. You can follow Daniel on his blog, here.