“We live today – We shall live again – In many forms shall we return”
Years ago, when I first bought The Mummy Legacy Collection, I was excited to see Boris Karloff as his second-best-known movie monster. I popped the DVD in with some anticipation only to find The Mummy to be soooo boring. “I prefer dark, cobweb-filled castles to dry deserts and pyramids,” I said to myself. Needless to say, I wasn’t looking forward to seeing it a second time. I am very happy to report that this time…I loved it.
Universal Pictures wanted a new film for its most recent megastar Boris Karloff. The initial idea devised by Universal story editor Richard Schayer and writer Nina Wilcox Putnam was based on 18th century Italian occultist, adventurer, alchemist, hypnotist and self-appointed magician Alessandro di Cagliostro, who claimed to be centuries old.
Called Cagliostro the film would’ve taken place in San Fransisco and followed a 3000-year-old magician who kills any woman who looks like his ex-lover and who survives by injecting himself with nitrates.
Thankfully, that ridiculous idea was scrapped when the movie’s script was turned over to John L. Balderston. Besides heavily influencing Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931), he was a history nut and former journalist who covered the popular unearthing of Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s tomb in the 1920s.
Balderston transported the action to Egypt. Tutankhamen became the inspiration for Imhotep (Karloff), an ancient Egyptian high priest who was mummified and buried alive after he dared to steal the sacred Scroll of Thoth to resurrect his lover, Princess Ankh-es-en-amon.
In 1921, archeologist Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron) and Egyptian occult expert Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan in yet another role similar to his part in Dracula) discover Imhotep’s sarcophagus in Cairo.
Imhotep is accidentally brought back to life when Whemple’s assistant, Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher), reads from the Scroll of Thoth, despite deathly warnings of a curse inscribed on the chest the scroll was found in. Norton goes insane when the Mummy comes back to life and walks away. The young assistant eventually dies from his hysteria.
Eleven years later, Imhotep, now unbandaged and mostly rejuvenated, is going by the alias Ardath Bey. After looking for his lover’s tomb all this time, something more interesting catches Imhotep’s attention: Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann).
Imhotep believes Helen, who is staying at Dr. Muller’s place, is the reincarnated form of Ankh-es-en-amon. Imhotep is desperate to bring back Helen’s memories of her past life and make her an immortal like himself. At his beck and call are hypnosis powers and the ability to kill people from far away.
Dr. Muller, Sir Whemple, and Whemple’s son Frank (played by Dracula star David Manners), are set on keeping the Scroll of Thoth out of Imhotep’s hands, lest he use it to complete his deadly deed.
The Mummy has a deliberate pace that makes the most out of its short run time. Dr. Muller is a great nemesis for Imhotep, and the battle between the two is exciting and nail-biting.
Its opening scene slowly builds up the curse as it invokes a sense of history, danger, dread and horror. It’s expertly shot, highlighting the great use of light and shadow visible throughout the whole film.
This was the first directorial effort of Karl Freund (cinematographer for Metropolis, Dracula and, later, I Love Lucy) in the United States. You couldn’t tell The Mummy was made by a director with such little experience. Freund’s understanding of mood, energy and emotion are all perfect, and he creates a wonderful tone of horror and ancient menace.
There’s a strong air of authenticity to the film. The movie isn’t 100 percent accurate to Egyptian culture and customs, let’s be honest about that. Heck, the very idea that ancient Egyptians thought it was possible to raise the dead is complete nonsense.
But it’s clear Universal put some real time in energy into research and construction. The hieroglyphics, mummy wrapping, and costumes that we see in the present and in flashbacks all look and feel genuine.
The flashback sequence, where we’re told the origins of Imhotep and Ankh-es-en-amon, is told mostly through images and features stunning and highly detailed sets for Ancient Egypt. The sets are only enhanced by the terrific score, which helps tell the mostly visually driven scenes.
While I’ve heard Freund was rather mechanical in his direction and rapport with the actors, he brings out the best in them.
David Manners as the romantic lead is the most surprising. His forgettable, wooden performance as Jonathan Harker in Dracula didn’t inspire confidence. Thankfully, he surprised me with a charming, likable character whose only downside is the ridiculously short amount of time it takes him to fall in love with Helen, a few days at the most.
Karloff plays a formidable, multi-dimensional villain. Although there are times when we see Imhotep’s anger flare up, revealing the dangerous man within, he’s mostly reserved with a stiff posture and unemotional attitude. We’re never in doubt, however, of his command of a situation. It’s his cold nature, his ability to so easily and off-handily kill someone, that makes him so frightening and threatening.
Like the Monster in Frankenstein, Imhotep also shows humanity. He clearly loves Ankh-es-en-amon. All his restrained anger and villainous qualities are pulled away in his scenes with her. He’ll go to the ends of the Earth to save Ankh-es-en-amon and destroy anyone who gets in his way. You understand where he’s coming from while also being horrified by how lost and terrible he’s become.
It’s once again a testament to Karloff, who doesn’t give us a simple black-and-white villain but a complex character that has become realistically warped by his centuries-long mission of love.
We have more fine makeup work by Jack Pierce. Actually, it’s better than fine; it’s a damn masterful job.
Karloff is only wrapped up in the opening scene of the movie. Even then, we get few shots of it and even fewer of those shots show Karloff actually moving. We’re never given a master shot showing him from head to toe while he’s in motion.
I’m of two minds about this. Sporadic looks at Imhotep in the opening add to the horror since we fill in the missing images in our minds and what we come up with will probably be scarier than any image the director or writer can devise.
On the other hand, I really love this makeup. It’s probably my favorite out of all of Karloff’s work. The bandages are intricate and the skin is dry and dusty. It feels real. It’s sad to see so little of it.
The makeup Karloff sports throughout most of the film is subtle but good. While Imhotep has regenerated, he still has this wonderfully parched skin, hinting at his origins and immense age without hitting us over the head with it.
The Mummy was a great surprise. If you’re looking for a short, well-paced monster movie that delivers a great fight between good and evil with a twist of romance, then check this one out.