Director: Karl Freund
Cast: Boris Karloff, Zita Johann, David Manners, Edward Van Sloan
If such a thing as poetry can exist within the horror film, than The Mummy is that film, a beautifully poetic love story that has managed, like it's title character, to transcend time and achieve a level of immortality. Besides creating one of the genre's most identifiable creations, the film also cemented it's lead star, Boris Karloff, as the true king of movie horror. Universal Studios had scored a major success with both Dracula and Frankenstein, solidfying the horror film as a legitimate film genre in the process. They rushed to get more terrors to the screen and had already released the highly expressionistic, Murders in the Rue Morgue with Bela Lugosi that year and the brilliant, The Old Dark House, directed by James Whale, and also starring Karloff.
The Mummy was originally designed as Caligostro, about a centuries old magician who harnesses a death ray, but was changed considerably by screenwriter John Balderston, who had also contributed to Dracula and Frankenstein, to it's current form. The film played on the public's fascination with all things Egyptian and captured the mystery and intrigue of it's vast history and wonders, especially the curse that surrounded the opening of King Tut's tomb in 1922, which screenwriter Balderston was present as a reporter.
The film opens in 1921 in Egypt at the excavation of a tomb by a group of British archaeologists who are studying a mummy they found in a finely preserved state. His name was Imhotep and they believe that he was buried alive for some unholy desecration. With him, is also the scroll of thoth, which contains with it, a curse that reads, "Death and Eternal punishment for anyone who opens this casket!" This warning is taken deadly serious by senior archaeologist, Dr. Muller(Dracula's Edward Van Sloan) who still believes there is potency in such curses.
Sir John Whemple(Arthur Byron) and the youthful, Ralph Norton(Bramwell Fletcher) scoff at the claim, and when the two older men go to talk outside, the youngest archaeologist does what no movie adventurer should ever do: he reads the scroll of life.
In one of the most memorable horror movie scenes of all time, Karloff's Imhotep, opens his eyes and slowly beings to move. We see a mummified hand reach for the sacred scroll and the young man screams and begins to cackle wildly as bandages are seen trailing behind through the open doorway. The older men arrive back to ask what happened and Bramwell Fletcher replies with the unforgettable remark, "He went for a little walk" as the scene fades on a dusty handprint on the table.
This is what opens Karl Freund's The Mummy and it's one of the most striking openings of any horror film ever produced. Karloff's makeup here, the only time we see it, is the definitive mummy makeup and a triumph for makeup man, Jack Pierce, Universal's ace monster creator, who had also made up Karloff for Frankenstein(1931).
The scene than shifts a decade later and a new team of archaeologists are digging in the area including Whemple's son, Frank(David Manners, another Dracula alumni) and they have no success, until a mysterious man named Ardeth Bay arrives who turns out to be Imhotep in human form! He leads them to teh burial site of a princess, Anck-es-en-Amon, which makes the team heroes and they chart off their findings to the Cairo museum. It turns out that Imhotep wishes to ressurect his lost love, who was the princess and the scenes of Karloff looking over the sarcophagus of his lost love are quite touching.
Meanwhile, in Cairo a woman named Helen Grosvenor(Zita Johann) looks out towards the pyramids from a dinner party and dreams of ancient Egypt. She is the guest of Dr. Muller and has Egyptian heritage, more than she suspects. Imhotep reads from the scroll and Helen ends up in a trance and wanders towards the museum, being stopped by Frank who takes her to his home, where Imhotep follows, after having to leave the museum and slaying a guard in the process. He goes to the Whemple home and meets Helen and sees his Princess reincarnated. Karloff's acting here is about as good as it gets, his use of restraint and look of remorse of finding what he lost, but cannot feel is devastating. The scene that Johann and him share is a mesmerizing one, as each feel a bond to one another. Muller suspects something is afoot and shows him an Egyptian symbol that offends the Mummy who reacts by attempting to control the doctor, whose will is too strong( a similiar scene plays in Dracula, between Van Sloan and Lugosi and is a highlight in that film as well).
In another of the film's best moments, Imhotep shows Helen through the pool of time how things came to be and who she really is. He speaks, beautifully, "You will not remember what I show you now, and yet I will awaken memories of love and crime and death."
We discover that the princess dies young and Imhotep is so distraught over losing his love, that he steals the scrolls of life so that he may ressurect her from the grave. He is captured and buried alive in the hills with the sacred scroll.
The acting is also top notch, with Karloff leading the film, delivering one of the finest performances of his career, or any career, as the lovestruck Imhotep, portraying his character with a mixture of power and vulnerability that seemed to define the actor's horror persona. Imhotep is a noble villain, one we can pity for he is not mad for conquest or vengeance, but simply for a love that he cannot hope to feel again. His pain and sorrow come through in his performance, even through the great makeup job of Jack Pierce, with those eyes of his, were probably never put to better and more sinister use than here.
Zita Johann was not in many films, which is unfortunate, because she is one of the most complex heroines of the golden age of horror and delivers a classy and seductive performance, well ahead of it's time. Her exotic looks and mature voice create the perfect Anck-es-en-Amon reincarnated, and her scenes with Karloff are spellbinding and even have a touch of a sensual quality. Certainly, her wardrobe towards the end make for one of the most sexy segments in classic horror and her unique personality and look are something that the later Mummy heroines failed to match.
The Mummy is one of those timeless classics filled with memorable performances and a story that has more to it than mere shocks or scares. It may seem slow moving, but the pace actually enhances the film's mood, becoming like it's lead character and involving us in the mystery and grandeur of the whole drama. This is great cinematic terror and shares no equals in it's kind, for it is truly a unique experience. It was a shock for many film fans when Fangoria magazine recently ran a list of the 300 greatest horror films and failed to include this film! That was an act of blasphemy that should evoke the wrath of the Egyptian Gods upon them, for how can one afford to pass up such a classic thriller? The Mummy is simply put, one of the very best that this genre has to offer. It's also in my top twenty favorite films of all time, though I don't feel so prejudiced to rank this among the immortals.