We’ve seen Bram Stoker’s classic Dracula novel come to life with the 1931 movie starring Bela Lugosi, and we’ve seen Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein novel come to life through yet another famous horror movie of that same year staring Boris Karloff. Now let’s look at another classic horror movie from 1932, except this time, it’s not based on a novel. Universal’s “The Mummy” was a completely original concept, and launched a string of sequels, remakes and spin-off’s, resulting in one of the studio’s most successful and long lasting franchises. Unlike most of the other eight classic Universal monsters, I was first introduced to The Mummy through the 1999 remake as opposed to the original, which put it at a disadvantage, however, I’ll still viewed it for what it is, and it turns out to be fairly good. While it’s not as good a movie as “Frankenstein”, I do think it’s a lot better than “Dracula”. Actually, ranking all eight of these classic Universal monster films from least favorite to favorite, I’d probably fit this movie right in the middle.
The movie begins with a dig down in Egypt, where a group of archaeologists uncover the tomb of an ancient mummy, along with a magic scroll that can bring back the dead. One man foolishly ignores all the warnings, and accidently brings the soul of the evil high priest Imhotep to life. 10 years later, the mummy regains a human form, goes under the allies of Ardeth Bay, and tricks a second team to dig up the body of the Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon, who he had fallen in love with back in the days of ancient Egypt. Imhotep soon learns that the princess has been reincarnated in the form of a woman named Helen, who he seeks to slay, and transform her into a living mummy like him. Meanwhile, Helen’s boy friend Frank learns of the threat, and teams up with a doctor named Muller. Together, they must come up with a plan to free Helen, and return this evil spirit back to the land of the dead where it belongs.
This film pretty much laid the template for every mummy themed movie to follow, but its approach is very unique and different from the others. Most movies of this kind rely on thrills and excitement but this movies rather tame, using atmosphere and mood as its tools. It actually comes off more like a gothic romance picture then a horror flick, but it still has an effective tone to boot. Now I’ll be the first to admit that I prefer a more exciting approach over what this film dose, but that’s not to say it’s bad either. In fact I really admire this movie for being so subtle and even daring. I also find it unfortunate that mummies aren’t appreciated as much as other popular monsters like zombies or aliens. True zombies seem a little scarier and more exciting to battle, but mummies have a far more interesting lore and mythos, plus, I just love how classy their designs are. On that note, I should probably mention that this mummy spends very little time wrapped in bandages, and hardly ever kills people. In fact, this mummy actually comes off like a sorcerer because his only method of killing people comes from gazing into a cauldron, and killing his foes with dark spells. Our only real clue that he was a Mummy comes from his skin, which has small remnants of the bandages faded in.
While I said the concept for the movie was very original, the plot also barrows heavily from “Dracula”. They both feature a monster that comes off as more of a humble individual rather than a mindless monster, both villains want to claim the soul of a woman and make her an undead creature, heck, both movies actually begin with music from “Swan Lake”. Even half the cast from “Dracula” is featured in this film, David Manners played the boy friend in that movie, and he plays the same kind of generic boyfriend in this movie too. Edward Van Sloan makes his third appearance in a Universal monster movie, first he played Van Helsing back in “Dracula”, then Dr. Waldman in “Frankenstein”, and now he plays Professor Muller in this movie. He’s basically the exact same character too, discovering the identity of the monster, and he’s the only individual who knows how to fight him. Having addressed all that, I actually think “The Mummy” is far superior to “Dracula”, even if it is the same plot. It’s done so much more effectively, and it just leaves me more satisfied in the end. It just feels like a more complete film, and even though it moves at the same slow pass, it tells the story more effectively, and our lead villain this time is actually superior in many ways.
After his success playing the monster from “Frankenstein”, Boris Karloff was casted in the role of the mummy, making this the second time he brought an iconic monster to life. He’s played a lot of really good villains and memorable monsters throughout his carrier, and his portrayal of the mummy is arguably one of his best performances. Personally, I think it’s far better than his portrayal of the Frankenstein monster, and in many ways, I think he’s even better than Dracula. I like how this isn’t a mindless creature that murders random people, instead he’s calm, sophisticated, and only kills those that would stand between him and his bride, but he’s still just as evil as any classic villain. It gave Karloff more range to act, using a soft, yet deep voice and his eyes are nothing short of sinister. Just like Dracula, his gaze alone is frightening. However, Karloff’s eyes don’t burst out like Dracula’s, instead they seem to just sink in his big eye sockets, which is really creepy. I said in my last review that I felt Karloff had little to work with, but in this movie, he earns his title of one of the greatest horror villain actors of the age.
Also when comparing girl friends, I find the character Helen played by Zita Johann, to be a huge improvement over the girl from “Dracula”. That girl felt like added fluff, while this one is essential to the story, and there’s just more of a character on display, rather than just a damsel that needs to be rescued. That’s not to say she’s completely devoid of clichés either, in fact throughout the movie she shows off a lot of skin, and is always wearing some kind of lovely dress, which makes her feel more like a princess stereotype than an actual person. Still, she does her job well, and obviously she’s the most attractive of the Universal monster movie girls.
The films actually quiet ambitious, showing things that would have never been featured in a movie at the time. The best scene of all is the flashback that shows in full detail how Imhotep became the mummy. For stealing from tombs, attempting to bring back the dead and committing sacrilege against their gods, he was buried alive, which is already disturbing. But then the scene gets more intense as we see the diggers get impaled so that no one discovers where he was buried. It’s probably one of the first impalings ever featured in a movie, and its quiet horrific.
The climax once again improves on the short comings of “Dracula”. It’s the same set up, Imhotep takes the girl deep into his evil lair and is about to perform a ritual that will turn her into a living corps like him. However, this film actual has tension, we see her on the sacrificial table, we even see the knife going into her tummy, and at this point were absolutely cheering for the hero’s when they burst in to save her. The mummy also fights back this time, and in a rare turn of events it’s actually the girl who saves the day and sends the villain back to the underworld, which is a great twist.
Boris Karloff never reprised his role as the mummy, and there actually weren’t any direct sequels. However, there was a spin off series that began in 1940 with a film titled “The Mummy’s Hand”, which was followed by three direct sequels titled “The Mummy’s Tomb”, “The Mummy’s Ghost” and “The Mummy’s Curse”. While none of these movies were as good as the original film, they were fun to watch, and featured a more traditional mummy that stayed wrapped in bandages, killing people mindlessly. There was also another silly comedy spinoff titled “Abbott and Costello meet The Mummy”, which I personally think is one of their weakest films. There have been several other remakes and spin-offs over the years, including a very successful remake in 1959 staring Christopher Lee in the title role. This movie had three direct squeals that were inferior by comparison.
But the big one most people know about is the 1999 version of “The Mummy” staring Brendan Fraser. This film obviously isn’t as sophisticated as the original, but I personally like it a lot more, and to this day it stands as one of my all time favorite entertainment movies. This is also a rare case in which the remake is slightly better known then the original. If you were to ask common movie goers today what they think of “The Mummy”, they’d probably think of the 1999 version first, and may not even realize that it was a remake. That situation would never happen to Dracula, Frankenstein or the Wolf Man, even though they’ve had several remakes over the years. That’s not to say that the original is forgotten, it’s just less popular by comparison. The remake also launched a successful blockbuster series beginning with a direct sequel titled “The Mummy Returns”, which was followed by “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” and there was also a spin off movie titled “The Scorpion King”, which also had a string of direct to video sequels, and there was even an animated Mummy TV series that aired on Kids WB.
What started as a small, black and White horror movie just ignited into a massive franchise. Overall, Universal’s original 1932 motion picture “The Mummy” is still an effective and unique horror film that holds up. It takes everything that worked in “Dracula”, and significantly improves on all its short comings. The film certainly isn’t as entertaining or re-watchable as other horror films, and I still prefer the 1999 remake, but the original is still good. It has a haunting atmosphere, memorable scenes and Boris Karloff in one of his most memorable villain roles.
I give “The Mummy” 3 ½ stars out of 5