“The Mummy” is the first of Universal’s monster movies to be based on an original idea instead of being adapted directly from an existing work. What it lacks in pedigree, it makes up for in classy production values, attention to detail and continuing the series’ surprising subtextual depth. Where “Dracula” was all about sex and “Frankenstein” focused on humanity’s arrogance and fear of others, “The Mummy” offers a pointed critique of cultural colonialism wrapped up (ahem) in an unexpectedly poignant love story.
In 1921 a field expedition in Egypt discovers the mummy of ancient Egyptian prince Imhotep, condemned to burial alive for his crimes, alongside a roll of papyrus: the Scroll of Thoth, which can bring the dead back to life. When a young member of the expedition reads the scroll out loud, Imhotep comes to life, driving the young man insane. Ten years later, Imhotep returns to the British Museum’s expedition, seeking to use them to reunite with his lost love Ankh-es-en-Amon , who he believes has been reincarnated.
Opening, as is so far customary with the Universal horrors, with an excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake”, the ambitions of “The Mummy” are revealed through the delightful model work used simply to deliver the movie’s title ‘card’. Once again, the set design and production values are superb, especially in a later flashback scene where Imhotep shares a vision of his ancient past life with his beloved.
Karloff is once again immense in the title role, his dedication to and mastery of his craft apparent in every frame of his work. He manages to keep Imhotep a fearful and foreboding figure yet also a sympathetic one as he pursues his single-minded objective of reuniting with his lost love. The lighting of the film, and of Karloff, in particular, lends the magnificent sets a sense of authenticity and antiquity. While the film’s implicit criticism of the pillaging of historical sites by western nations is clear, the characters themselves occasionally lapse into condescension of Egyptian culture as more primitive and superstitious than the supposedly enlightened West.
Unexpectedly, the 1932 version of “The Mummy” has little time for the now favoured cliché of the shambling, bandaged moaning cadaver and much of the action has Imhotep wizened but restored to almost humanity as he pursues his plan to recover the soul of his beloved and restore her to life too. In fact, he rarely kills with his own hands, instead – like the personification of popular myths such as the curse of Tutankhamun’s Tomb – he reaches out invisibly through magic to control, coerce and even dispose of those who stand in his way. Despite the absence of an unravelling, perambulating corpse covered in rotten bandages, the film like its stablemates still sets up many of the tropes and traditions of ancient Egypt’s contributions to sci-fi and horror, becoming a touchstone for everything from “Bubba Ho-Tep” to Doctor Who’s “Pyramids Of Mars”.
While Karloff’s performance is superb, the same can’t be said for his co-star and leading lady Zita Johann. A celebrated and renowned stage actress, she famously feuded with the director Karl Freund, who himself was a famous cinematographer (“Metropolis”) making his directorial debut. However the animosity played out off camera, it clearly has an impact on screen in her wildly uneven performance.
What’s interesting is how much of this movie informed the 1999 remake with Brendon Fraser and Rachel Weisz. While the tone is very different and the emphasis moves from subtle dread to action and adventure, much of Imhotep and Ankh-es-en-Amon’s story and motivations remain intact and form the bedrock for the Indiana Jones-style swashbuckling. Unlike the terrible 2017 Dark Universe reboot, though, there’s no intention here to set up a new franchise. In fact, unlike Universal’s other monster movies, “The Mummy” is the most standalone picture of them all. When they did get around to making another, 1940’s “The Mummy’s Hand”, it was a reimagining of the story featuring a mummy named Kharis, who would go on to appear in a further four movies and bring the bandaged, arms outstretched monster into pop culture.
It’s another atmospheric and classy success for Universal, rewarded by box office success and cementing Karloff’s position as one of Horror’s true greats.