by Paul Batters
‘My love has lasted longer than the temples of our gods‘ Imhotep (Boris Karloff)
Directed by the great cinematographer Karl Freund, The Mummy (1932) is one of the great films from the classic horror cycle that began at Universal with Dracula (1931). A huge success at the time, it would cement Karloff (billed by only his last name) as a huge star.
With Boris Karloff now hailed as the heir to the throne vacated by the death of Lon Chaney Snr (and incidentally and arguably missed out on by Bela Lugosi), opportunities for his talents were sought out after his film-stealing performance as the Monster in Frankenstein (1931). Like the Monster ‘created’ by Colin Clive, Karloff’s Imhotep would also be brough to life. However, unlike the determined doctor using science to bring his creature to life, the long-dead mummified body of Imhotep would be re-animated by magic. Thus The Mummy is truly a supernatural horror film, closer in essence to its’ predecessor Dracula and indeed even sharing similar tropes.
What makes The Mummy unique is that the story is one not directly drawn from a literary classic or traditional folklore. Unlike Dracula and Frankenstein, and even The Wolfman, the story of The Mummy was one concocted from the minds of movie-makers alone. True, the idea of a mummy brought back to life had emerged during the silent era but it the story for the 1932 classic came primarily from the writing of John Balderston and the creative team at Universal. Balderston, of course, is famous for the stage-play he co-wrote for Dracula, which would be adapted for the film version. Gifted with the job of writing the screenplay for The Mummy, Balderston borrowed the key storyline from Dracula and adapted it to the idea of a re-animated mummy seeking out the reincarnation of his former love and doing battle with those trying to protect her.
There are carbon copy elements from Dracula down to characterisation and casting as well. Like the vampire count, Imhotep aka Ardeth Bey (Boris Karloff) is a supernatural being with a powerful will, incredible powers of telepathy and hypnotism and great wisdom and knowledge from their dark powers. Perhaps the most important aspect of the story was taken from the stage production of Dracula, was the concept of the undead being seeking out the reincarnation of his long dead love. It was a plot device that worked well and adds a tragic, as well as horrific element to the story. Zita Johann would play Helen Grosvenor/Princess Ankh-es-en-Amun and despite a solid stage career, is primarily known for her role as the object Imhotep’s love and desire. David Manners plays a similar role to the one he played in Dracula as Frank Whemple, the young man in love with Helen and seeking to protect her. And the ever-wise and sagacious expert of the occult is again played by Edward Van Sloan, this time named Professor Muller.
Of course, at the time of the film’s production, the world was still excited by and in the grip of ‘Tutmania’ and the mysteries of Ancient Egypt after the exciting discovery of the Boy-King’s tomb in 1922. Surrounding the discovery was a great deal of sensationalism and mystery, particularly with the story of the ‘curse’ (a completely invented tale to sell newspapers) and the amazing finds in the tomb. Note that the opening of the film starts with the ‘1921 Expedition’ which is certainly a nod to Carter’s 1922 discovery. Indeed the love of Imhotep is named after the wife of Tutankhamun. But of course, in classic Hollywood style, a fair amount of the ‘Egyptology’ in the film is invented and appropriated rather than based in fact and history. But it feels convincing and authentic, which is the key to a film’s success – convincing the audience of its believability.
Yet, interestingly enough there were other influences outside of Ancient Egypt and the already lifted tropes from Dracula. As film historian Paul M. Jensen points out, the story was also inspired and influenced by the short story written by Nina Wilcox Putnam called Cagliostro, a tale of an 18th century Italian occult figure who claimed to have lived through the ages. Balderston would also draw from this to shape the character of Imhotep. Initially, Cagliostro was the vehicle for Karloff which Universal wanted to capitalise on after his amazing success after Frankenstein. The Mummy would be the final result.
From start to finish, The Mummy is an eerie homage to the tragedy of love unfounded, as much as it is an atmospheric horror-melodrama. The opening scenes are unforgettable and perhaps the most memorable in the film, as the audience watches the young archaeologist (Bramwell Fletcher) scream and go mad with an endless, maniacal laugh as the re-animated mummy goes ‘for a little walk’. It remains a remarkable moment in classic film yet the only time that the audience sees Karloff in the celebrated and heavily promoted make-up, created by the legendary Jack Pierce. Yet the dread and menace of Ardeth Bey touched with the pathos and tragedy of his cruel death and lost love, is beautifully conveyed by Karloff. His stiff movement and measured tone barely hides the power underneath. His deathly stare would become famous as well, with Freund perfecting the technique he pioneered in Dracula by directing two lights into Karloff’s eyes. Freund’s camera work lifts the film out of his own sometimes pedestrian direction.
The flashback is also exceptional and gives fascinating back story, as well as give the audiences the depth of the tragedy of Imhotep and the sheer horror of his punishment by being buried alive. It feels like a silent film within the main story and the audience cannot help but feel sympathy for the terrible fate of Imhotep, even if his alias Ardeth Bey emanates fear and dread. It’s a strong visual montage sequence that gives The Mummy a greater depth and perspective.
There are many wonderful moments of supernatural horror and magic, which also make the story unique. The Scroll of Thoth (an invented plot device) is more than superstition but has a magical power that is all too evident to not only Imhotep but the learned Muller – and of course the audience discovers this in the opening scene. Statues come alive to give warning or execute justice and offer protection (as is the key role of the goddess Isis) which is particularly effective and again assists in underpinning the supernatural atmosphere of the film. The effect of Imhotep reaching out to send death to those attempting to thwart his plans add to the tension, as well as highlight how dangerous and determined the risen mummy is in his quest.
Of the classic monsters, the Mummy itself is perhaps over-shadowed by the Frankenstein Monster, Dracula and The Wolfman and does not seem to inspire the same dread and fear as its’ fellow creatures. It is perhaps also unfortunate that it would be nearly ten years before the next cycle of ‘Mummy’ movies would be produced by Universal. Whilst enjoyable and certainly lots of fun, the pedigree isn’t there and they are a far cry from the atmosphere and quality of the original film. In fact, other than the title, the four latter films hold no real connection with the original film, other than exploiting the make-up and re-using scenes from the original. In some ways, the Mummy has suffered the same fate as the Frankenstein Monster, becoming a one-dimensional and mindless automaton instead of the tortured and tragic figure as first portrayed.
Nevertheless, The Mummy is a wonderful showcase for the talents of Boris Karloff. The film remains a jewel in the Universal crown of classic film and one that still gives classic film fans the chills.
Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.