(From now until Halloween, the Canadian Cinephile will be taken over by pure, unadulterated FEAR. No, I’m not commencing an Adam Sandler marathon. I will be reviewing some of the most spine-chilling, bloodcurdling horror movies, with this year’s trip covering those freaky films released prior to 1970. There will be a special focus on Universal’s classic monster pictures, so bring your hot cocoa. It’s going to be a dark and scary ride. Sort of.)
Karl Freund, who handled the cinematography on 1931’s Dracula, helms The Mummy. Word around the campfire is that he was hired two days before shooting was set to begin, with John L. Balderstone in charge of the screenplay. The writer had worked on Dracula and Frankenstein and was tasked with putting together something involving ancient Egypt, what with the 1922 opening of King Tut’s tomb.
While The Mummy is positively ensconced in horror tropes like mankind’s tendency to fiddle with the unknown and the dark shadows that lurk in veiled passageways, it also stands as a foundation for various adventure and fantasy pictures involving the desert and its many ambiguities. The 1999 remake certainly takes the adventure path, while other sandy stories owe a debt to this flick.
The picture opens with the unearthing of Imhotep (Boris Karloff). He was mummified alive for trying to bring his lady friend Ankh-es-en-amon back to life. When archeologists come upon his remnants, they also discover the Scroll of Thoth. After it’s read aloud by an assistant (Bramwell Fletcher), Imhotep returns from the dead and seeks out his lost love.
10 years after his resurrection, Imhotep is living as an Egyptian named Ardath Bey. He visits the son of one of the archeologists (David Manners) and Professor Pearson (Leonard Mudie) and also runs into the beautiful Helen (Zita Johann), who bears a resemblance to Ankh-es-en-amon. That stirs Bey’s long-dead loins to the extent that he wants to mummify and resurrect her.
The best scenes of The Mummy come near the beginning with the rebirth of Imhotep. Fletcher’s character reads the parchment to himself and there is no musical accompaniment. The camera pans over to the cadaver and back to Fletcher’s character, interrupting the strain momentarily to dip outside. When the lens returns, Karloff is alive and ready to party.
The assistant does what anyone would do in such a situation and bursts into laughter. The audience learns later that his hysterics had a price, but his reaction and the escalating tension beforehand nevertheless lays a gripping foundation and proves to be the twitchiest moment in the film.
The bulk of Freund’s movie concerns a sort of treasure hunt as Bey looks for his bae, as the kids say. He hangs around the Cairo Museum in hopes that she’ll pop up, plus he’s hanging on to the Scroll of Thoth so that he’s ready for action. Manners’ character is supposed to be tracking him down, but he’s too busy doing stuff to pay much mind.
Naturally, this drives Bey cray-cray because Helen and Ankh-es-en-amon are probably one and the same. There’s a bit of a love triangle, with Bey’s enchanting eyes going up against Manners’ dimwitted allure. Helen has a past life to count on, which includes the goddess Isis and a little late-in-the-game reclamation that throws Bey’s plans into turmoil.
Karloff makes for an intriguing Bey/Imhotep, especially thanks to Jack Pierce’s makeup job. He’d studied Seti I’s mummy but took a left turn to Rameses III with a pile of clay, cotton and spirit gum holding the job together. The bad news is that Karloff is only in full makeup for a little bit of The Mummy, although he sports some stellar guyliner later on.
Freund’s The Mummy doesn’t quite reach the definitive heights of Frankenstein or Dracula. It has trouble drumming up effective atmosphere past its initial 10 or so minutes and becomes a bit of a parched procedural, with scrolls and secret powers and Bey’s viewing screen and/or magic pool. Still, one later highlight is the flashback that shows the mummification process in magnificent detail.
Make no mistake about it, The Mummy is an enjoyable film. It’s fun to watch Karloff mosey around looking for a way to bring his Egyptian babe back to life, especially when he taps the Nubian (Noble Johnson) to be his henchman. And while Freund’s movie doesn’t live up to its total potential, it’s definitely still a winning horror jaunt from Universal.