“I loved you once, but now you belong with the dead.” Helen Grosvenor
Incredibly, Boris Karloff appeared in nine films in 1932, The Mummy being the last. Previous to this one, he played Sax Rohmer’s Chinese supervillain in The Mask of Fu Manchu for MGM studios, but as that isn’t a Universal film, it’s not eligible to be included in Shocktober this year (sorry).
Once again, and for the third time in around eighteen months, Universal used the same piece of music as the theme. So once again, hit Swan Lake, Maestro – and we’re off. But the titles sequence itself is far better and more inventive than normal. The camera zooms on a diorama of Egypt, with a pyramid and on its side is embossed the title of the film.
Of course, the Mummy is a staple of the horror genre these days. Hammer made a few, there have been some independent films, Universal themselves have tried to reboot the series twice. But this is the first. The prototype, if you will. And it was inspired by the real discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 and the sensationalised curse that became part of the story.
Overall, this is very similar in plot and cast to Dracula (1931), even down to having David Manners and Edward van Sloan cast in pretty much the exact same roles. Manners is the drippy romantic lead, Van Sloan is the wise elder, expert in the occult who knows what’s going on, while Manners falls flaccidly in love with the leading lady who’s quickly becoming under the spell of a supernatural entity.
We start with a British archaeological dig in 1921, where there’s a great deal of excitement over the discovery of a mummified body. It’s this image of the Mummy that remains in the memory long after the film has finished.
But – this make up is never seen in its entirety. We only see Karloff from the mid body up, mainly. The makeup took Jack Pierce approx. eight hours to apply, during which Karloff had to remain still while the bandages, collodium, clay and glue set. And this opening sequence was Karloff’s first day on set. Make-up started at 11:00am, finished around 7:00pm, filming this vignette finished at 2:00am, and it took a further two hours to take the make-up off. Incidentally, Karloff marvelled at what Pierce created, but lamented that there was no fly. Long damn day, then.
So, the expedition has discovered a complete Mummy, in its sarcophagus, in an unmarked tomb with the spells that would protect the soul on its journey to the underworld chipped off the sides of the casing. Worse, the way the muscles are stretched is evidence that the poor occupant was buried alive, and struggled. Also buried is an ancient scroll – the Scroll of Thoth containing the incantation that Isis used to raise Osiris from the dead.
While Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron) and Doctor Muller (Edward Van Sloan) debate the importance of their find, young assistant Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher, looking more himself than he did as a 102-year-old in The Old Dark House) mutters a part of the incantation, which resuscitates The Mummy, who shuffles over and takes the scroll – leaving Norton’s mind completely snapped.
Eleven years later, young Frank Whemple (David Manners) is mulling the failure of this year’s expedition and isn’t relishing the thoughts of returning to Britain empty handed. Good fortune comes his way in the form of Ardath Bey (Karloff) who offers to show him the lost tomb of Princess Ankh-es-en-amonn . In his guise of Ardath Bey, Karloff looks like his skin in made of parchment..
And despite being 5’11 in height, seems to tower over everybody in every scene he’s in. Incidentally, in an ingenious bit of scripting/creative sleight of hand, the name Ardath Bey is actually an anagram of “Death by Ra”, Ra being the Egyptian God of all creation.
Well, we’re told that the Mummy went missing that evening eleven years ago, presumed stolen, along with the Scroll. But we know he’s still around because he’s just popped up, looking a little younger and spry (not much, though).
Meanwhile, Muller who remained in Egypt all these years, has a guest staying with him and his wife, Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann) who is drawn to the Cairo Museum as Ardath Bey (in reality Imhotep the Mummy) performs an ancient ritual with the Scroll. Disturbed, Imhotep tries to escape, but has to kill a guard to do so, while Helen faints outside due to the spell being broken.
Taken home by the Whemples, Helen and Frank fall in love, and David Manners goes straight back to playing the sop he did in Dracula, while Muller arrives and Van Sloan from this scene on is in full Van Helsing mode. Imhotep realises that Helen is the reincarnation of his lost love, Ankh-es-en-amon for whom he died three millennia ago.
She was the Pharoah’s daughter and he was a High Priest, their love was forbidden. She died, and was entombed. Imhotep defied the Gods and tried to use the Scroll of Thoth to bring her back to life, but was discovered and mummified alive, condemned in this world and the next.
Imhotep was using the Scroll to try and revive Ankh-es-en-amon ’s mummified body when he was disturbed, but now he sees Helen, his plans change, and what he decides to do is burn Ankh-es-en-amon ’s mummy, kill Helen then use the Scroll’s spell to resurrect her and they can live happily forever after.
Like Dracula, it’s up to Van Sloan and Manners to make the rescue just before Imhotep can plunge the ceremonial dagger into Helen’s midriff. And like Dracula, poor Imhotep is foiled at the last moment, and the scroll burned. The spell over Helen is broken by the death of her supernatural suitor, as happened in Dracula.
Overall, a more dynamic film than Dracula, with more movement and a great deal of background and incidental music, which Dracula lacked. Karloff’s first major speaking role in the Universal monster movies, and one of his best. To their credit, Universal didn’t follow this up with a sequel. When the Mummy reappeared ten years later, it was as a reimagined monster with a new continuity, leaving this as a satisfying standalone.
As I mention him so many times in this series of Shocktobers, it's only fair that I add in a behind the scenes photo of the great Jack Pierce working on Karloff's make-up, and there's no better way to round off this entry.
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