Having made my way through most of the Frankenstein films, I decided to take a detour into a film series I hitherto knew very little about: the Mummy! Oh sure, I’m very well acquainted with The Mummy (1999) and its sequel (I don’t acknowledge the existence of Tomb of the Dragon Emperor), but until this past month I’d never seen the film that started it all, the 1932 film starring Boris Karloff as the titular Mummy.
First I have to say that every assumption I had about this movie turned out to be wrong. This is NOT one of those movies that has the Mummy shambling through the countryside wreaking havoc as he goes (that’s all of the sequels), and really the film only bears the loosest of resemblances to the 1999 remake. But speaking of, I was surprised at how identical the core premises of each film are. In this film, as in the remake, Imhotep is a high priest cursed to be mummified alive for attempting to revive his love from the dead. Here it’s the Scroll of Thoth that gives the Mummy his power instead of the Book of the Dead (no Book of Amun-Ra in sight either), but otherwise it’s the same basic principle.
My initial disappointment at not seeing more of Karloff in his Mummy bandages was quickly melted away when I saw his performance for the bulk of the film as Ardeth Bey (bet that name sounds familiar if you’ve seen the 1999 film). Even if you weren’t paying attention at the beginning, the film leaves no doubt to the viewer that Ardeth Bey is the rejuvenated Mummy. His walk is unnaturally stiff, and he speaks very slowly and carefully, as if used to speaking a language very different form those found in the modern world. I’m beginning to understand why Karloff was so acclaimed. You’d never think that just a year before Karloff had played Frankenstein’s monster. He completely embodies the Mummy with no hint of that other role, and that’s not something all actors can do.
Now on to something I found really cool. Inevitably, the film flashed back to how the Mummy came to be. It only took a few minutes for me to realize that this entire flashback to Ancient Egypt is essentially a silent film, exaggerated acting and all, spliced into the middle of a sound film.This blew my mind until I considered that The Mummy was made in 1932, silent films had been made on a fairly regular basis until just a few years prior. It wouldn’t have been that hard to put together, and it was a fairly ingenious way to make it clear that we are in the past (by using a now-outdated filming style). And that flashback is the most consistent with the 1999 remake: Imhotep steals the Scroll of Thoth to resurrect Anck-su-namum but is caught before he can finish. That’s pretty much beat for beat how the prologue of the remake plays out (minus the Pharaoh being murdered, that doesn’t happen in this one).
I really like Zita Johann as Helen/Anck-su-namum. I was fascinated to learn that Zita was a firm believer in reincarnation, which I think really helped her performance as the ramifications of reincarnation are hinted at here. See, at one point it’s hinted that Helen and Anck-su-namun are both inhabiting the same body, and feeling very confused about it. You really feel for Helen’s suffering, as she clearly doesn’t understand what’s happening to her. You also, believe it or not, feel for Anck-su-namun once she awaken’s in Helen’s body. Here’s an ancient priestess briefly living in the 20th century, and handling it pretty well if I’m honest (though being surrounded by ancient Egyptian relics int he museum probably helped). I loved how ancient magic came into play at the climax of the film. The idea that these ancient spells can still work if only the right words are spoken fascinates me.
Also, I have to talk about how amazing the Mummy makeup is. I’m referring to the Mummy as he’s seen lying in his coffin at the start of the film. In black and white, it looks for all the world like a desiccated Mummy, perfectly preserved. But then…the magic words are spoken….and the Mummy’s eyes blink open! That’s the moment that sticks with me the most out of this whole film, seeing those living eyes open in the middle of an otherwise dead face. Now THAT is horror, something that sends a chill down your spine no matter how old the film is. Also, the moment at the end when Imhotep turns into dust is very well done. I’m a little sad that Imhotep didn’t get some final words, but I understand why they didn’t go that route. Since the Scroll of Thoth is all that was keeping him alive, I can see that its destruction would ensure his immediate demise.
One last thought: I’m glad The Mummy was made pre-Code because otherwise those scenes with Anck-su-namun in her quite revealing Egyptian outfit would never have happened (and I shudder to think what might’ve appeared in its place). It’s still wild to me that such things were considered improper, why Helen looks almost modern in that outfit (yes I know, it was a different time, I just can’t help commenting on it).
The Mummy (1932) has quickly become one of my favorite horror films, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to experience a horror classic. Just for fun, follow up a watching of this film with the 1999 remake (it’s a fun experience I promise!)
Let me know what you think about The Mummy (1932) in the comments below and have a great day!
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