The Mummy (1932)
Written by John L. Balderston
Directed by Karl Freund
Dracula and Frankenstein were massive hits for the former floundering Universal Pictures. Studio head Carl Laemelle Jr. decided to lean into horror as one of the film studio’s major products. That meant coming up with a film for the following year. This time it was three horror movies. Bela Lugosi starred in Murders at the Rue Morgue in February, adapted from the Edgar Allen Poe short story. In October, Boris Karloff played a creep in the horror-comedy The Old Dark House. The year came to a close just three days before Christmas with the release of The Mummy, who would become another iconic monster in the Universal tradition.
The Mummy opens in 1921 as an archaeological expedition led by Sir Joseph uncovers the body of Imhotep (Karloff), a high priest. Imhotep appears to have been buried alive, and a curse is put on him. However, one of the men cataloging the tomb recites the words from a mysterious scroll, and the mummy comes to life. Imhotep snatches the scroll away and disappears into the night. Ten years later, Sir Joseph’s son Frank is on a dig when approached by a local named Ardeth Bey. Bey explains that he happened upon a piece of pottery that hints at the burial site of princess Anck-su-amun. Frank and his team begin digging up the tomb while Ardeth crosses paths with English socialite Helen, who resembles the princess. It’s quickly revealed that Ardeth is Imhotep living in Cairo under this assumed identity. His plan is to resurrect the princess, and he believes Helen is the reincarnation of his beloved.
Unlike Universal’s 1931 horror successes, The Mummy wasn’t based on any single novel. It was an original story penned after the studio couldn’t find a horror book about a mummy. The film’s premise isn’t anything too complicated, and that means it also lacks the complex themes of a movie like Frankenstein. The Mummy is pure melodrama, a pulp novel that comes to life. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it certainly pales in comparison to Universal’s fantastic start. There’s minimal actual horror in this horror movie, as the monster is an intellectual and cunning figure.
The most horrific moments of The Mummy occur at the start when he comes to life and during a flashback where we watch Imhotep get wrapped and buried alive. The image of the Mummy stumbling forward while wrapped in bandages must have come from another source because he does not spend much time in that form at all. It’s a bit deceptive how Universal has marketed this movie in the ensuing decades using an image of the antagonist wrapped in linen. That is certainly what we think of in popular culture, but the actual film is something entirely different. In fact, the sequels to this movie would be reimaginings starting with The Mummy’s Hand. Lon Chaney Jr. plays Kharis, the new Mummy and he does actually stumble around wrapped in bandages.
This isn’t to say that Karloff doesn’t come across as frightening. Ardeth Bey has moments where he is genuinely evil. There are a few well-framed shots where we can see the ancient weathered skin of Bey and are reminded he is a walking corpse. Instead of a monster lurking in the shadows, there’s a battle of wits. Sir Joseph and Frank are trying to outwit Bey before he pulls off his plans. I think what hurts the film ultimately is the staginess of the affair. In Dracula, you have these large open sets, and Frankenstein is incredibly atmospheric. The Mummy’s stages feel cramped and lack the scale you need to convey the grand luster of the Egyptian tombs and treasures. Director Karl Freund was the cinematographer on Dracula, making the small sets even worse; it’s a waste of someone we know can shoot on a grander scale. The bare-bones nature of the store and the limited scale show how lost Universal was without solid source material to work from.
The Mummy would become a box office hit in the U.K. but not fantastic in the States. It wouldn’t dampen Universal’s craze to keep putting horror on the screen. Things would slow down as 1933 would see a single release in the genre: The Invisible Man.