The Mummy (1932) … Remembered
The story of The Mummy has been the subject of film for many years, but the 1932 original remains a classic. Universal produced six installments of the horror film and Hammer Films produced four afterwards. Then there were modern action-adventure Mummy films starring Brandon Fraser. Boris Karloff plays The Mummy in the 1932 original and is probably the most memorable of all the leads. I’ve heard the make-up took over 8 hours to apply and was grueling to remove. It is funny that this full-wrapping, make-up job only appears for a few minutes in the film, but is probably the most spectacular part. In review of the movie, film historian Paul Jensen said that the film was very well-cast. I agree. In addition to Karloff, Zita Johann plays his love, who is mysterious and exotic looking, perfect casting for the part.
The opening of the film was supposed to conjure popular notions of King Tut’s tomb, which was found around that time. King Tut’s tomb was painstakingly excavated little by little starting in 1922 and not fully complete until 1932, when the film was written. Jensen has said that the New York Times itself gave weight to “the curse” of King Tut’s tomb, remarking that 14 people had died in connection with the excavation. This mysterious allure was the perfect draw for Universal in 1932. The archaeologist in the opening embodies the notions of fact and science in the modern-day, but also serves as exposition to the film. The history and information we need to know is told gradually and through the characters who argue amongst themselves through the scene. Typically, the older man Whemple is patient and the young Norton is quick to action and demanding, but neither one is ridiculed. It is almost as if both viewpoints are legitimate.
We next see what the archaeologist sees when he looks up and studies The Mummy. The first shot of Karloff in full make-up is amazing. Muller explains how unusual The Mummy is, being that he is fully preserved and buried alive, not embalmed. He studies the casing of Imhotep’s sarcophagus, which has been damaged, and he reports that the sacred spells that may have protected him after death were chipped away. In other words, he was sent to his death in the next world too. Gruesome. He must have been quite an evil guy. Norton quickly suggests they open a mysterious box they found with the body. The actors take out and reposition another box from inside the first, moving it to the middle of the picture frame to draw importance to it. They read an inscription which describes a “curse”, which is another King Tut parallel.
Whemple and Muller leave the room to discuss their findings outside and this discussion gives some motivation to what they are doing. The picture cuts back to Norton, because it knows the audience’s real interest is in the box. Norton examines the unopened box and finally gives in to his impulses, opening it. When Norton removes the scroll, the shot follows him closely. The camera sharply pans over to The Mummy and lets the audience in on the evil of the scroll that Norton now examines, an evil connection to the Mummy unknown to him. The Mummy takes a moment to awaken, move forward, and snatch the scroll from Norton’s table. The whole sequence is perhaps one of the best in all the Mummy series for its slow tension and horror without showing a darn thing. It is truly tense because the sequence, starting when the older men go outside, requires the audience to carefully pay attention to the action. There is very little dialogue and this helps build it all up. Norton’s nervous and horrified laughter perhaps adds to this.
We then jump ahead ten years for some reason and Whemple’s son is now in charge of the expedition. There has to be some dialogue that explains this and this is perhaps the most dragging part of the movie, except for the fact that Whemple spots a visitor coming in the distance. This is anticipation given to the audience, assuring them that something will happen. The actors smoke and busy themselves while discussing what’s happened in the last 10 years and explain Norton’s mysterious death.
Karloff is then introduced as the visitor, Ardath Bay, who is of course the Mummy from before. As he comes in the room, he looks as dark and brooding as in any of his film appearances, even Frankenstein. As Ardath Bay, he is a living person, a man with real human emotions and qualities, much different from the mute, shuffling monster seen in most sequels. He even has a sympathetic quest. Although Frankenstein was sympathetic too, Ardath Bay speaks and has a unique persona. As the excavation continues, a newspaper is shown much like the one that must have been shown to the public at the time of King Tut’s excavation.
The next most important shot is when Imhotep gazes down at the mummy of Ankh-es-an-Amon in a museum. The shot then quickly pans through the city to Zita Johann as Helen at a party, in what can only be a hint of some connection. This is probably the most important building point for the movie. Back at the museum, Whemple tells Ardath Bay aka Imhotep that it is closing time and Bay states that he did not notice the time. This statement is ironic and amusing, in that time is his chief concern or chief enemy, that he has survived and battled the years to find his love. The dialogue for Imhotep is great.
Imhotep finds a way to stay behind at the museum. Kneeling over the scroll, he begins a chant, and Helen is again shown, in a more obvious connection now, a better developed connection that shows Helen’s awareness of evil. She is compelled out of the party and faints outside the museum, unable to get inside. David Manners as Frank finds her and comforts her, playing a sympathetic role in the film. As he talks to her, Frank foreshadows Imhotep’s later discovery of the Helen/Ankh-es-an-Amon connection by saying that she resembles her or reminds him of the ancient pictures of the tomb. This is great film making and builds character development, as one scene introduces both Frank’s interest in Helen and develops the Imhotep connection. Clearly, he is now our main hero. This is why Imhotep later attacks Frank. But first, the archaeologists discover the Egyptian scroll with a dead guard, who Imhotep killed on his way out. There is no explanation why Imhotep left it there after killing the guard and this is the only indiscretion the film makes.
Imhotep visits the house to get the scroll, but he finds Helen asleep on the couch, and the camera looks down on her as if we were Imhotep. Karloff’s size and appearance is intimidating and he’s obviously a good choice for this role. The archaeologists confront Imhotep about his scheme, but he escapes further conflict with the power of his gaze, which is shown with a great close-up of his eerie eyes. Afterward, we are given more insight into the care Frank has for Helen, a typical reaction that reinforces him as the hero, but is a strange parallel with Imhotep. Helen next visits Imhotep where we are given a flashback, a very decorative scene showing ancient Egypt. Indeed, even after the depiction of his tragedy, we still get a little more sympathy for the character of Imhotep as he speaks of his longing for Helen. This is unusual for a typical monster or horror movie threat. He burns the mummy of Ankh-es-an-Amon because he wishes to follow through with his plan to return his love to life and to immortality, which means burning the mummy, killing Helen, and bringing her back to life with the scroll.
The final scene in the museum is shadowy and dark, conjuring parallels to the flashback scene, and to other, unseen evils. We then get more intercutting between Imhotep’s impending murder of Helen to Frank rushing to her rescue. The heroes interrupt Imhotep’s plan and Helen jumps down to the floor in prayer to Isis, speaking as her ancient self. As Helen prays to Isis, we get more answers as to why Ankh-es-an-Amon was condemned. She loved Imhotep and broke her vows to Isis. It is her mistake that caused this whole mess in the first place! Imhotep is unrelenting and tries to carry out his plan to return her to life, a plan that began over 3000 years ago. In answer to her prayers, Isis burns the scroll and Imhotep crumbles away. It is simple and resolves the film. Helen collapses and Frank helps her, thus ending the film.
It should be noted that all of the supernatural elements are easily acceptable and well done, even the watching pool which Imhotep uses to attack others. These elements are established right from the beginning with the reinforcement that the mysticism of Egypt is real, and carry the film’s plot forward. Indeed, if we are to accept the whole lost love romantic notion, we must accept these elements altogether. There are no outlandish effects though and no spear-wielding mummies for our heroes to battle with sword in hand. No, there is only drama and tension, both of which are carefully executed with a patient and well-made movie.
If you’ve gotten to the bottom of this, congratulations. You’re as big a fan as I am! Thank you for reading.