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The Mummy (1932)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

THE MUMMY (1932)

Starring: Boris Karloff, Zita Johann, David Manners, Edward Van Sloan, Arthur Byron, Noble Johnson

Written By: John L. Balderston, Nina Wilcox Putnam (story), Richard Schayer (story)

Directed By: Karl Freund

The Short Version

Ever wonder what Karloff would’ve been like as Dracula?  Find out here!

Karloff is, of course, excellent.

As for the rest of the film, you could cut the tension… if it was there.

The final fifteen minutes are worth the whole film.

Whatever its shortcomings, The Mummy remains one of the true classics.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

PIZZERIA PRETZEL COMBOS.

The preserved cheese product is mummified within a salted pretzel wrapping.


Pairs Well With...

VODKA.

Some museums use it as a preservative.  Seriously.

“He went for a little walk.  You should’ve seen his face!”


Eighty years ago, the people at Universal realized that they had a good thing going.  Having found great success with both Dracula and Frankenstein, they wanted to strike the iron while it was hot and present a ready and willing audience with yet another franchise-ready monster.  Though King Tutankhamen’s tomb had been discovered a full ten years before, the excavation had taken a very long time to complete, so Tut was still big news… as were whispers of his alleged “curse.”  The studio decided to take that as starting point, slap it on top of the framework they’d already used for Dracula, and presto!  Instant horror classic!  At least that’s what everyone was hoping for… and hot damn; it worked.

The story – repeated countless times since – is simple enough.  In the early 1920s, a small team of British archaeologists led by Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron, 20,000 Years in Sing Sing) discovers the tomb of an ancient Egyptian priest named Imhotep (Boris Karloff, Son of Frankenstein).  Along with Imhotep’s mummy, Whemple finds a small box inscribed with a curse: “Death – eternal punishment – for anyone who opens this casket, in the name of Amon-Ra: the king of the gods.”  Uh-oh.

While Whemple and his colleague, Dr. Miller (Edward Van Sloan, Dracula’s Daughter), step outside to discuss the matter, Whemple’s eager young student cracks the box right open and begins to read aloud from the scroll within.  Unfortunately for him, the scroll happens to contain the magic spell required to resurrect the mummy propped up directly behind him, and you know that just can’t end well.  By the time Whemple returns, the mummy and the scroll are gone, and the student is a soon-to-be-dead madman.

Flash forward to 1932.  Whemple’s son, Frank (David Manners, The Black Cat), is part of an archaeological expedition that isn’t having a very good year… until a mysterious and rather papery looking old man called Ardeth Bey (Boris Karloff… hey!) suggests that they dig about a hundred yards thataway.  With nothing to lose, they dig, and whaddaya know!  They find the long-lost tomb of Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon!  Can’t imagine how that old Egyptian man knew where to find it, or why he’d be so willing to point it out to be dug up and opened…  Hmm…

Yeah, you know where this is going.  Of course you do; like I said, it’s only be remade and retooled a few hundred times, and served as a baseline for pretty much everything having to do with mummies and/or archaeology ever since.  The fact that The Mummy has been lifted from so often just for the sake of being The Mummy is almost enough to make one forget that a very large portion of this script is itself a scene-for-scene lift from the previous year’s Dracula, only with some of the names and settings altered to protect the not-so-innocent.

For example, the name “Dracula” has been changed to “Imhotep.”  The characters, their aims, and their stories are nearly identical; even the famous “hypnotic stare” created by shining pinpoint lights into the actor’s eyes has been duplicated.  Both undead, both empowered by a piece of paper (for Dracula, it’s the deed to Carfax Abbey; for Imhotep, it’s the Scroll of Thoth), both leaving a lunatic behind, both hating crosses (one a crucifix, the other an ankh), both hypnotically controlling a damsel in distress and slowly draining her of life as a way to make her into an undead bride… and the beat goes on and on. 

However, just as the greatest strength of Dracula was the man playing the title character, so, too, is the greatest strength of The Mummy the man playing the title character: in this case, Boris Karloff.  (Ever wonder how Dracula would have looked with Karloff in the lead?  Here’s your chance to find out.)  Karloff puts in a creepily sinister performance that modern audiences may have a greater appreciation for than Karloff’s contemporaries did, if only because now there’s a popular description for what Imhotep has become: an obsessed lover-turned-stalker gone over the deep end.  What’s more, The Mummy allows Karloff to shine as an actor in a way that Frankenstein could not: it allows the audience to hear him speak.  That rich voice, that intense, oh-so-deliberate delivery, those eyes… Boris Karloff’s performance alone is enough to make The Mummy worth seeing.

This is a good thing, because the rest of the cast isn’t doing so hot.  David Manners’ Whemple is a recycled version of the exact same role that he’d played the year before in Dracula – that of Jonathan Harker, also known as the most useless tool in all of gothic horror – and Manners gives the exact same suit-filling bore of a performance that he did the last time.  Meanwhile, Edward Van Sloan – whose Dr. Miller is easily seen as a recycled Dr. Van Helsing – is normally a treat under any circumstances, but his usual magic just doesn’t work here, precisely because the character is such a weakly written rip-off of the one for which he is most famous.  As for our damsel in distress played by Zita Johann (The Sin of Nora Moran), it’s only the final scene that saves her performance from registering as a complete yawn.

To be fair, though, this isn’t really her fault.  Standard-setting and classic though it may be, the fact is that the script she’s working from is weak, and so’s the direction that’s supposed to be bringing it to life.  Considering that the director in question is legendary cinematographer and former Fritz Lang associate Karl Freund, this is something of a surprise, but that doesn’t change the fact that the majority of the film plays out dishwater dull, with awkward silences taking the place of what in other films would be dramatic tension.  Yes, the actors need to do their jobs well, but when the pancake’s this flat, the director really needs to take some of the blame. 

With that said, though, Freund does shine with his treatment of the film’s flashback sequence (shot in the style of a silent film from the previous decade at an accelerated frame rate) and, most importantly, the last ten minutes of the movie.  The tension that was missing from the first hour suddenly shows up at the end, and it does so in a way that not only makes the rest of The Mummy worth watching (as if Karloff’s performance hadn’t already done so), but which indeed makes this film far more satisfying than the one it’s ripping off: Dracula.  Whatever else is wrong with this flick – and there’s plenty – one can’t deny that it’s got a damn cool ending.

It’s also Boris Karloff’s only turn at being wrapped in linen.  The makeup for Imhotep (both as the wrapped-up Mummy and as Ardeth Bey) may be outstanding, but Karloff hated wearing it, and he never revisited the role again.  But he only needed to do it once to set the bar for everyone else, and of those who have tried since, only Karloff’s eventual next door neighbor, the great Christopher Lee, can be said to have met his challenge.  Meanwhile, the story, derivative though it is in its own right, has become the basis for nearly every mummy tale that has followed (and even for some that don’t feature mummies), so that even now, eighty years later, The Mummy – a film first conceived as a quick way to exploit a ready market – continues to resonate on nearly every plane of popular culture.

If impact defines a classic, then The Mummy has definitely earned that distinction.

Bottom line, you may never appreciate how many times you’ve already seen The Mummy in different forms until you actually see The Mummy in this one.  Whatever this movie’s shortcomings may be, it’s certainly worth your time to do so; a task made all the more palatable by an outstanding performance from Boris Karloff.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, October, 2012


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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