The Mummy has always been there. Like the best monsters, this creature is omnipresent and unsettling. This is how I felt when finally sitting down to watch the original 1932 version of this Universal creature. The Mummy, along with other seminal creatures, like Dracula and Frankenstein, is something you know even before you have seen it. Whether it was from Saturday Morning Cartoons like Scooby-Doo or dime store Halloween costumes, the Mummy is an absolute fixture. My own personal introduction, strangely, was in a comedy I watched with my father, Abbott & Costello Meet The Mummy. Of course, there have been the remakes, whether it be this weekend’s Tom Cruise/Sofia Boutella action spectacular or the Indiana Jones inspired action adventure starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz. These remakes seem to take a lot of inspiration from the love story of Imhotep and Ankh-es-en-Amon and add many minutes to the runtime in the form of special effects and action sequences.
And even though it is a story that has been retold, the original Mummy is not what you might expect. It is not a typical monster movie, nor is it genuinely frightening, at least to modern viewers. More than anything, The Mummy is a romance that spans literal centuries. It is also clearly a reaction to the mania surrounding ancient Egypt at the time. From a cinema standpoint, it is a strange (and short) film with some tremendous bookends. The opening sequence could teach contemporary directors and cinematographers a great deal about building tension by subtle camera moments and not giving in to the gotcha moment. Karl Freund, directing his first film (although, he was the cinematographer of Dracula), takes the prologue, which amounts to a solid chunk of the film, and teases us with shots of the mummy just out of frame and relying purely on the supporting characters reaction to him to carry the moment. This is a departure from many films of the time, which were inspired by the theater and kept the camera static and let the drama unfold in front of the audience. Freund’s decision is one that not many directors of any era would make and it succeeds in keeping us on the edge of our seats. The other bookend is, of course, the destruction of our villain (or is he?). This is led up to by another wonderful directorial choice to show us his past in a reflective pool which looks almost like another screen for the audience, as well as Ankh-es-en-Amon, to look through.
But what about the middle? Well, that will be much harder to grasp for modern audiences. Our romantic leads, played by Zita Johann and David Manners, are pretty standard melodrama stand-ins. It’s not that their romance does not work, it is that it is dwarfed (physically and metaphorically) by the love that Imhotep carries for her other self, that of Ankh-es-an-Amon. So, it’s not so much that these actors are terrible, but rather that Boris Karloff is a giant in the industry and completely owns every scene in which he appears. This is so true that any moment he is not on screen, the mind tends to wander towards what he could be doing in the interim. In that middle, there are some other wonderful moments of gleeful villainy from Imhotep. He quite literally looms over the action through his reflective pool and terrifying powers. As in any good monster movie, no character feels safe, even when he is not physically present. The efficiency with which this is accomplished is particularly impressive. Imhotep is a deeply flawed, but complete character. We understand his reasoning, even as his actions become more despicable. This, along with Karloff’s performance help us empathize with him, maybe even too much. The film may be designed for us to also root for the two new lovers, but many audiences found themselves fully in the camp of Karloff and the mummy.
No discussion of The Mummy could be anywhere near complete without talking about the makeup. Jack P. Pierce has created truly memorable art in his two versions of our main character. In the stunning prologue, the audience gets a brief look at the desiccated face of the mummy, as well as the wrapping which constrict his movement. The care with which this prosthetic was created is immediately apparent at first glance. But as Karloff slowly opens his eyes and begins to struggle against his bonds, it becomes clear that this is not standard Hollywood fare. Frankly, it looks superior to many prosthetics and CGI which were far in the future. The second major make-up piece is that of Ardath Bey, the mummy’s false persona in 1932. This creation is clearly derived from the mummy’s original makeup. The audience can immediately deduce that this is the same character without needless dialogue. Freund clearly knows what he has been gifted here, as well. There are no fewer than four intense closeups of this make-up and Karloff’s face. These close-ups inspire both awe and intimidation, all while not letting the other characters know anything about him. This work overshadows the limitations of the special effects of the film, including obvious miniature work and the lack of onscreen violence enacted by Imhotep.
It is important for film fans to take a deep dive every once in a while and examine the past which makes the movies we love possible. Whether that be seeing Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, Lon Chaney’s The Wolfman, or this film. This may be one of the first films with a monster that we care about, understand, and even root for. Also, if you love the updates of this creature, many of the story points are lifted directly from Freund’s original film. Despite its flaws and issues with modernity, including difficult romantic characters and sadly, a character in blackface, The Mummy holds up astonishingly well, particularly because of Karloff and the practical effects which immediately transform into a mummy, no make that The Mummy.
Featured Image: Universal Pictures