The Mummy (1932) — A love story wrapped up in horror

“No man ever suffered as I did for you.”

Louise’s rating: 3 out of 5 archaeological principles broken.

Louise’s review: One thing you can certainly say for the original Mummy film is that it is short. Seriously, the whole thing comes in about 75 minutes, and that is just as well, because while it is a subtle gothic romance with a game of cat-and-mouse at its centre, I don’t think it has nearly enough to captivate an audience for much longer. I judge it to be a cinematic curiosity rather than a film that can be enjoyed in its own right anymore – I’ve just been spoiled by Brendan Fraser and EXPLOSIONS, I expect – but you may see it and feel differently.

Okay, so what we have here is a rehash of Dracula set in Egypt. Back in 1730 BC, high priest Imhotep fell in love with pharoah’s daughter and priestess Anck-es-en-amon. This was forbidden by the religious law of the time. Moreover, when Anck-es-en-amon died, Imhotep was caught stealing the Scroll of Thoth and attempting to raise her back to life. He was buried alive for his crimes and Anck-es-en-amon stayed dead.

Fast-forward to the 1920s, the golden age of Egyptology, where archaeologist Sir Joseph Whemple digs up Imhotep’s mummy (but not his daddy… sorry, can I not have the ‘his daddy was a mummy’ puns? No? Okay then, spoilsports, he digs up the mummified body of Imhotep) and the Scroll. In a really frustrating twist of fate, Sir Joseph leaves the room for literally five minutes, and his egg-for-brains research assistant recites the spell and revives Imhotep. He lives! The Mummy lives!

And then nothing happens, because Imhotep takes on a new identity as a scholar, allowing him to trick Sir Joseph’s ghastly son Frank into excavating the tomb of Anck-es-en-amon a few years later. And now it all really kicks off, because when Imhotep tries to revive his lost love (in the middle of the museum) he realizes that she has been reincarnated as the fragile half-Egyptian mental patient Helen. So, the scene is set for a mystery and a stand-off between the forces of ancient darkness and the forces of clean-cut modernity, with Helen/Ancky and the Scroll in the centre of it all. On his side, Imhotep has his formidable magical powers (including the ability to compel Helen). Frank (ugh!), Sir Joseph and the occultist/doctor Miller have on their side… basically nothing.

This is not a horror film. It’s a classic monster movie, but its monstrous elements are really played down in favour of the love triangle between Imhotep, Helen and Frank (ugh!). We barely see Imhotep as a mummy – some bandages and a sandy handprint only, before he is ‘reborn’ as a modern Egyptian scholar – and the spells which resurrect the dead are all whispered and muttered, rather than shouted or declared in a dramatic fashion. The romance elements are interesting, sure. Boris Karloff’s interpretation of Imhotep is impassive and stiff, except for when he is with Helen/Anck-es-en-amon, but we can see that as well as a lover he is a bit of a bully.

Helen herself is a great character, funny and brave despite being under the influence of Imhotep, and with a really interesting vulnerability and sentimentality to her. She is a former patient of Dr Miller and has been left in his care while her father has gone to Sudan, and even though it’s never stated why he was treating her, or what his specialism is, something about her makes me think it was a mental/emotional illness. She’s also a brilliant example of 1930s glamour and SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER she really saves herself at the end of the movie. Frank Whemple annoys me. Like Imhotep, all he wants is to possess Helen, but unlike Imhotep he has zero class. He’s also very immature. Dr Miller is a cunning Van Helsing type who uses Helen and Frank’s ‘love’ for her to try and trap Imhotep. I think he’s a better occultist than he is a doctor.

This is a well-made film. Karloff and Zita Johann (Helen) are not at all convincing as Egyptians, but they are excellent in their roles. The locations are completely convincing – we’re probably in California, but if you tell me we’re in Egypt, I’ll believe it. There are some wonderful cinematographic tricks – Karloff as Imhotep has a series of intense stares at the camera, which are emphasized by lightening his eyes, and a flashback sequence is filmed completely silently, in silent-movie style, complete with jerky movements. And the moment where we see the bandages being wound around Imhotep while he is still alive? Absolutely chilling. Without a doubt, the best moment in the film, and far, far better than the analogous sequence in  the 1999 remake.

But is it actually worth watching? Yes, as a curiosity. It’s not that enjoyable, because our movies these days are so very different, and therefore it feels alien and actually quite hard work to watch. However, it’s interesting (and hey, it’s not like it’s very long). You can see why Karloff is still a household name, and now I’m definitely going to look out for his Frankenstein.

Justin’s rating: “Good heavens, what a terrible curse!” (0.1 second pause) “LET’S SEE WHAT’S INSIDE!” [actual quote from movie]

Justin’s review: I don’t know what I was expecting when I decided to dip into the well of the classic Universal Monsters tales, but I certainly had some fears of being bored to tears. While that didn’t quite happen with Dracula and Frankenstein — even though I had my patience tested — The Mummy felt like a bait-and-switch of the worst order.

What I expected was a monster rampage by a very ancient zombie in decorative ACE bandages. What I got was one incredibly short scene of the Mummy in his full wrappings… and then an hour of a more-or-less normal-looking Boris Karloff stomping across Egypt trying to find his lost love. It’s a little bit archaeology, a little bit mystery, and a little bit ill-fated romance… but it’s about zero bits horror or creatures lurching out at me from shadowy sarcophagi.

About the only minorly interesting part of the movie was Zita Johann as the possibly reincarnated princess/lover of Karloff’s Imhotep. And I only say that she was interesting for the fact that she looked like Drew Barrymore with black hair.

It’s dull. Dull as the dust that lay in all of these ancient Egyptian tombs. I couldn’t wait for it to be done.

The Mummy especially suffers from much more famous and well-received iterations on the character from later years, including the 1959 Hammer film, the incredibly excellent 1999 Brandon Frasier vehicle, and even the short-lived entry in the Dark Universe with Tom Cruise. In pretty much all subsequent movies, the Mummy DOES stuff and looks the part. Here, Imhotep is a stilted scholar who can sort of hypnotize people and then stare oh-so-not-suspiciously at folks.

Around the 40-minute mark, I would’ve given about anything for Frasier to kick down the door and start firing about with his twin revolvers. No such luck.

Didja notice?

  • The music at the very beginning was composed by Tchaikovsky for the ballet Swan Lake.
  • Hmm… so Anck-es-en-amon is a wandering soul from ancient Egypt? Does that mean if she’d wandered a little longer, she’d have wandered into a fun 80s movie and fallen in love with Andrew McCarthy during a department-store-at-night montage? He’s certainly more fun than Frank.
  • How much time actually passes during the main action of the film?
  • Anck-es-en-amon is referred to several times as having been a ‘vestal virgin’. Obviously, everyone knows that these were priestesses of classical Rome, approximately 1500 years later than the princess’ lifetime.
  • Do not use this movie as a guide to archaeological processes. These amateurs aren’t even wearing gloves!

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