The Mummy (1932)
Boris Karloff. . . . . . Imhotep/Ardath Bey Studio . . . . . . . . . .Universal Studios
Zita Johann . . . . . . .Helen Grosvenor/The Princess Director . . . . . . . . Karl Freund
David Manners. . . . Frank Whemple Story by. . . . . . . . .Nina Wilcox Putnam
Arthur Byron . . . . . Sir Joseph Whemple Richard Schayer
Edward Van Sloan . Doctor Muller Cinematography. . . Charles J. Stumar
Bramwell Fletcher. . Ralph Norton Makeup by. . . . . . Jack P. Pierce
Leonard Mudie . . . .Professor Pearson Edited by . . . . . . . Milton Carruth
Special Effects by . John P. Fulton
Run Time: 72 minutes
Abysmal. Complete trash-- bad acting, writing, cinematography, etc.
Bomb. One or two redeeming qualities, but inferior overall.
Average. Not outstanding in most respects, but worth checking out.
I had a ball. Solid acting, writing, cinematography, etc. Superior in many respects.
Excellent. A true classic. Few, if any, flaws.
The movie opens in the year 1922, during an archaeological dig conducted in Egypt's Valley of the Kings by Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron). Apparently, Sir Joseph has unearthed the sarcophagus of an ancient high priest named Imhotep (Boris Karloff), along with a coffer containing a document referred to as "The Scroll of Thoth". Even though Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan), an occultist on the dig, warns against opening the coffer, the dig's photographer (Bramwell Fletcher) does so, causing the mummy of Imhotep to come to life. After making the photographer collapse into a profound, laughter-filled insanity, the reanimated Imhotep disappears, only to show up ten years later in the guise of a mysterious Egyptian named "Ardath Bey". Visiting a dig supervised by Dr. Whemple's son (David Manners), "Ardath Bey" conducts both him and an associate to the burial site of a long-dead Egyptian princess, promising that it will be the most exciting find since the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb. The younger Whemple does indeed uncover the ancient princess' tomb, and her funerary equipment is ultimately displayed in a Cairo museum. Breaking into the museum after it closes one evening, Imhotep kneels next to the glass-encased mummy of the ancient princess and reads from The Scroll of Thoth. This awakens the spirit of the princess, which now resides in the young, gorgeous body of Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann). Surprise of surprises, Miss Grosvenor just happens to be in Cairo under the wardship of none other than Dr. Muller. Through a series of flashbacks, we ultimately learn that Imhotep was the lover of the princess in times past, and attempted to use The Scroll of Thoth to resurrect her shortly after her death. As punishment for this sacrilegious act, Imhotep was mummified and entombed alive. Nevertheless, by some means not made entirely clear in the movie, Imhotep was able to ensure that the scroll was buried close to his sarcophagus, so that he could himself return to life millennia later. Now, in present-day Egypt, he hopes to kill and mummify Miss Grosvenor in an ancient ritual which will fully reunite him with his long-lost love. The second half of the movie is largely concerned with the attempts of Dr. Muller and the Whemples to frustrate these dark designs.
I can almost feel Boomer wince as I say this, I must admit that I thoroughly
enjoyed The Mummy. More than anything else, the rating I give below
is probably attributable to many of my personal and highly idiosyncratic
predispositions. First of all, the movie was made in the early 1930’s,
the period of cinematic history which I find most interesting and exciting.
Second, I am a great devotee of the horror genre in general. Third, I love
anything that touches upon ancient Egyptian history, no matter how tangentially.
Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, I enjoy drooling over pale, luminous
women who traipse across the screen in skimpy period clothing. All
this being said, however, I would hardly characterize The Mummy as a masterpiece
or a “must-see” for all serious students of film. I nevertheless
encourage you to go out and rent it immediately if you
happen to share one or more of the above-stated predispositions with me. In fact, it would perhaps be most helpful if I presented my assessments of the film, both positive and negative, through the filter of those predispositions.
Like so many movies produced in the early 1930’s, The Mummy is heavy on texture and atmospherics,often to the detriment of both plot and character. From the cramped confines of an archaeological dig to the chic airiness of a Cairo soiree, the film offers a veritable feast for the eyes. Ancient temples, shadowy museum exhibits,and crowded street scenes blend together in a vibrant pastiche of Middle Eastern images, making one wonder just how many aesthetic debts are owed to The Mummy by later films, such as Raiders of the Lost Ark Unfortunately, these exotic trappings do little to buttress the aforementioned weaknesses of plot and character which contemporary viewers of The Mummy may find rather jarring. One must remember that many actors and film-makers of the period had not completely divorced themselves from the methodology of the silent era, during which, by necessity, plot elements were often gimmicky, and characters tended to be more typal than individualized. Thus, the “flaws” of The Mummy merely served to remind me that, by 1932, the “talkies” still had not fully come into their own by exploring the nuances of tone that voiced dialogue can bring to life. The plot of the movie manages to be both simplistic and convoluted, obvious and cryptic, benefitting little from one or two instances of clumsy, unrealistic explication which made me shudder. Also, I found myself unable to feel much pathos for any of the characters, due to the overly formalized and stilted acting of the principals. Exaggerated gestures of face and body abound, as do pregnant pauses rife with an uncomfortable stasis. To give one example of the latter, there is a scene in which Miss Grosvenor (Johann) makes a passing reference to the fact that she has been to the Cairo museum earlier in the evening. As soon as the words escape her lips, she and "Ardath Bey" (Karloff) freeze in a pantomime of anxiety and attentiveness. "Ardath Bey" asks, “You were at the museum, Miss Grosvenor?”, and several moments of uncomfortable silence ensue before Miss Grosvenor responds. In my mind, I supplied the melodramatic riff of music that, shockingly enough, was not provided for me, chuckling all the while. Such instances almost made me wish that The Mummy had been done as a silent film, because, in truth, it probably would have been more successful overall.
As for all you fellow horror movie fans out there, be warned that The Mummy is not very terrifying. Granted, after being exposed to more modern examples of the genre (‘Salem’s Lot and The Exorcist, just to name a few), my sensibilities have grown rather jaded. Even allowing for this , however, I must confess that The Mummy did not inspire the sort of eerie and uncanny feelings within me that some ancient offerings, such as the original Nosferatu, occasionally do. The closest the movie comes to this is a flashback scene in which we see Imhotep being mummified and entombed while still alive. As the linen dressings are wrapped around his mouth and nose and terrified eyes, the true horror of such a situation does sink in for just a moment. Very little else can be found that is truly unsettling, and part of this problem is created by the ambiguity that surrounds the figure of Imhotep. The film tries to portray him as both protagonist and antagonist, to the extent that he never fully operates as either. If you pop the cassette into the VCR in order to see a slow-moving, bandage-swathed figure who strangles his enemies with supernaturally strong hands, you’re in for a disappointment. What you’ll find instead is a resuscitated, millennia-old sorcerer who attacks people from afar through use of a scrying pool and other ancient Egyptian magicks. I assume that the makers of the movie did this in an attempt to emphasize the humanity of Imhotep, yet again, countervailing usages of acting and make-up confuse the whole issue. Karloff is made to look both emaciated and desiccated, and at every turn, he uses his face, body and voice to play the monster to the hilt. While, as always, he does this in a virtuoso fashion, it ultimately detracts from the film’s efforts to portray Imhotep as a star-crossed lover deserving of sympathy. As I commented to Boomer, Imhotep pays some heavy dues for love, but it is a debt he attempts to collect from innocent individuals.
Once again, being an amateur Egyptologist, or, more correctly, Egyptophile, I was excited from the outset by the subject matter of the movie. As you might imagine, however, the makers of the film did not hold themselves to any sort of academic accountability along such lines. Persons with a working knowledge of Egyptian history will recall that Imhotep was, quite literally, a monumental figure, being the designer of the first pyramid (built for the pharaoh Menes). The film, of course, uses the name for a heretical high priest born countless generations later. Although a rough, working knowledge of ancient Egyptian theology and cosmology is displayed, glaring mistakes do show themselves at times. For example, the statue of the god Thoth is wholly anthropomorphic, even though the ancient Egyptians always portrayed him as having the head of an ibis. Interestingly enough, there is no image of Thoth on "The Scroll of Thoth" itself. Instead, in the midst of arcane-looking hieroglyphs and cartouches, a harmless domestic scene from the life of Tutankhamun is incongruously displayed. As for the field practices of the movie's archaeologists, all I can say is that they make Heinrich Schliemann, who violently burst through layers of ancient cities in his search for Troy, look dainty and meticulous by comparison. In a scene near the beginning of the movie, the decaying wood that surrounds an ancient coffer is quickly and unceremoniously pulled away, while the seals of the coffer itself are roughly cut through with some sort of metallic instrument.
Last, but certainly not least, I would be remiss if I did not make a few comments about the lovely Zita Johann. Although her acting was decidedly forgettable, her beautiful face and nubile body light up the screen, so if you're one of those guys who salivates over glam girls of the '30's, grab a lobster bib and head on down to the local video store. Born in Hungary, Johann's dark hair and vaguely foreign facial characteristics made her just "Egyptian" enough to satisfy the mandates of the film without threatening the racial sensibilities of the day. Believe me, every inch of exposed flesh glows with the assistance of that old "whiter than white" powder which make-up artists seemed to be enamored of back then. How much exposed flesh, you may ask? Well, quite a bit by the standards operant at the time. Whether clad in a smart evening gown or the vestments of an ancient Egyptian priestess, Johann gives you your money's worth, and if you'll pardon an extension of the metaphor, she's well worth the price of admission. What to say in closing? Without ruining the end of the movie, I'll just point out that resolution is achieved, most literally, by means of a deus et machina. The blundering "heroes," with their empty heads and blindingly white hearts, do little to rescue the luscious and oh-so-victim-like Miss Grosvenor from the darksome clutches of an ancient and evil foreigner. Although slightly less pathetic than the effete Wiemples, the much-vaunted Dr. Muller is no Abraham van Helsing. Never has so much occult knowledge been of so little assistance to so few. What then, is the lesson for Imhotep and all other would-be violators of the borderland between life and death? If you think you're living large just because you hang with Anubis, don't forget about Isis, lest you get the smack laid down on your dust-covered, undead behind.
My rating for this movie:
This is a new section of our page that we want to try out, in which we pose some trivia questions relating to whatever film has been reviewed. The name of the first person to e-mail us with correct answers to all the questions will be put up on the following week's page, should he or she so desire, along with the title of his or her favorite classic movie.
(1) Some film historians have conjectured that The Mummy was inspired, at least in part, by a novel attributed to Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula. Do you know the title of this novel?
(2) A screen adaptation
of the novel mentioned in Question 1 was made in
1980, starring Charlton Heston and Stephanie Zimbalist. Do you know
the title of this movie?
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