Originally published October 20th, 2012
Got another review for you today and another from the Universal classic monsters series. A bit of back story before we begin: I love the remake of The Mummy, hell I like The Mummy 2 (and I stop there ignoring 3). I didn’t realize until several years after the remakes that they were actually a retread of the 1932 film! When I finally saw this version about 3 years ago I really noticed how much the first Mummy remake paid tribute to the story and I consider both to be separate that share a mummy in between. With that being said I don’t think The Mummy is my favorite Karloff film (that honor would still go to Frankenstein) but it’s a sumptuous mini-epic if that can exist about lost love and Egypt. It’s a fun one with a brief runtime, only 73 minutes, that has some amazing acting and a deep origin story for such a short film.
When a group of treasure hunters discover the tomb of the mummy Imhotep (Karloff) they believe it will lead to prestige and riches. Unfortunately, when an ancient incantation is read Imhotep is brought back to life and disappears. When he finally resurfaces, masquerading as the wealthy Ardeth Bey, he hopes to read the incantation again to resurrect his lost love who has been reincarnated into the body of the beautiful Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann).
The 1930s was centered around Egypt due to the discovery of King Tut’s tomb and this film was the born from that craze. It also cemented Karloff as a major star with his name being the only one prominently featured on the poster. The mania of these two coming together created the tale despite the story being a simple retread of Dracula. Yeah there’s no way to ignore how heavily The Mummy lifts from Lugosi’s masterpiece of the year before. Both films open with the famous theme from Swan Lake (although I can’t really cite that as a comparison as individual film scores wouldn’t happen till the year later with King Kong) and follow the trajectory of an undead man hoping to recapture a lost love. The character of Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan) is an obvious Dr. Van Helsing and David Manners, who plays the lovelorn Frank Whemple, in this film also played Jonathan Harker in Dracula! I can distance both films and each has their own merits but the obvious stories are fairly predictable. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen the events of the other.
Boris Karloff can do no wrong in the horror genre, at least in my eyes, because he’s amazing here. In Frankenstein you felt for the monster in the way Karloff showcased his vulnerability. Here you still have a character trying to find love in an unforgiving world, but he’s not the sweet innocent here. Karloff’s Imhotep is a man willing to murder to get what he wants, who’s been corroded by the world. The various shots utilized in this film do a lot to enhance the fear you’re meant to feel towards Imhotep. When you first see him in the legendary Mummy get-up the camera keeps moving from the mummy to archeologist Ralph (Bramwell Fletcher) who’s reading the scroll. It’s a tested horror technique to keep the camera moving as you wait to see the horrifying thing move but it works to its intended effect here. Once the mummy starts moving the camera leaves Ralph alone, because you know what’s going to happen to him, to focus on the mummy gaining the ability to move. Once he returns, fully resurrected, as Ardeth Bey the film reintroduces him by framing him in the doorway behind our heroes to demonstrate his intimidating figure.
For some reason I always forget how tall Karloff is and this film reminds you “Look at him, he’s not one to be trifled with.” Without all the bandages the make-up used on Karloff still leaves him unsettled and otherwordly and whenever he says his name, Ardeth Bey, Karloff drops his tone down an octave to make it sound sinister. The film also uses this lighting effect around Karloff’s eyes for whenever he’s trying to mesmerize someone. It’s an eerie and haunting effect as if an inner fire is rising up within his eyes, or possibly the dust of the ages but it’s fantastic and I can’t find out exactly how it was achieved….thoughts?
Obviously the rest of the cast doesn’t hold a candle to our star but they do their best. David Manners is another Jonathan Harker and he’s good. Sure he’s a bit of a wimp and his acting is on par with a romance character like Don Lockwood in The Dueling Cavalier. At one point I was waiting for Frank to start kissing Helen’s arm, proclaiming “I love you, I love you, I LOVE YOU!” But that didn’t happen. If you need an example, Frank’s father dies at Imhotep’s hands and he doesn’t mourn but asks Dr. Muller if he thinks he has a chance with Helen! Arthur Byron and Edward Van Sloan are solid as our scientists, Sir Joseph Whemple and Dr. Muller respectively.
To me, the one you can’t take your eyes off of (other than Karloff) is the gorgeous Zita Johann as Helen. It appears Johann didn’t have a lengthy career being a pre-Code beauty, with her career ending in 1934 (although she did have a brief appearance in a film in the late 80s) but she is simply stunning. She looks like an Egyptian princess and her deep voice invokes thoughts of Loretta Young. I’m saddened that she didn’t have a longer career because you can’t take your eyes off her and boy do I want her gowns! Helen is obviously an imitation Mina Seward but that didn’t stop me from finding her entrancing. In one scene she’s supposed to be duplicitous and dupe Frank which she does with zeal. My only issue with it is that she asks to put on some make-up, due to Imhotep making her weak, and Frank and Dr. Muller freak out like it’s detrimental to her health. I don’t think foundation in the 1930s was enough to kill a person but I could be wrong. At the end when Helen is in her reincarnated spirit she discovers she doesn’t want to die for Imhotep. Ain’t that just like a woman, not willing to spend a teensy few minutes in utter agony for the man she loves? Please note the sarcasm. Anyway, she prays to an Egyptian female deity who smotes Imhotep. I’m sure there’s a wave of symbolism there about woman’s inability to vanquish evil but I won’t get into that.
The third act involves a flashback showing how Imhotep met his demise and for a brief film with only 73 minutes that flashback is well-done. It was intentionally meant to be in the style of the silent films with no dialogue and exaggerated manners. It even utilizes the jerky motions and cuts that you see in silent films. And again, Zita Johann in Egyptian wear is beautiful! Once the Egyptian deity kills Imhotep he also takes Helen with him leaving David to call to her, hoping that his love “can bridge the centuries.” Seriously, that’s the last 2 minutes of the film. I’m not sure if this was intentional but as David is calling for Helen the film cuts him off and ends. I read there was an intended resurrection scene that wasn’t in the film due to budget and time, was it meant to be the final scene? As it stands now the film ends abruptly and incomplete.
I enjoyed The Mummy just as much the second time around. The acting is well done, the sets are epic, and for such a short film it packs a lot. Sure it copies heavily from Dracula but that’s also an awesome Universal film and a worthy film to borrow from. It’s available on Netflix Watch Instantly and I recommend it.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.