Even though retellings of Dracula and Frankenstein have been more ubiquitous over the years, it feels as if The Mummy has been granted the most prolific attention of late, probably because the Brendan Fraser Indiana Jones version, while mostly not very good, was very successful. And the recent Tom Cruise edition, while also not very good, wasn’t nearly successful enough, bringing Universal’s “Dark Universe” crashing down around its ears. This original iteration is very modest in both ambition and intent, but boasts craftsmanship in key areas that ensures it stands the test of time rather better than some of its Universal Horror stablemates.
Director Karl Freund, cinematographer on Dracula (and uncredited director, by some accounts) opts for restraint when it comes to the chill factor – we don’t even see the mummified Imhotep (Boris Karloff) again after the first ten minutes, a decision that couldn’t possibly be countenanced today – but he offers a pervasive, compelling atmosphere. This is very much a warped love story, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake informing the doomed romanticism of the proceedings.
A further difference to later iterations is that, while Ardath Bey (Imohtep minus the swaddling bands) is single-minded in his quest for his lost love, as antagonist, he’s also given the voice and person of a bona fide protagonist; Arnold Vosloo in the 1999 version is quite ineffectual by comparison. Indeed, the biggest mark against him is that his proposed means of blissful reunion is on the batty side. Rather Bride of Frankenstein-like, his mate must be rendered like him, so killed, mummified and resurrected, which Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann, all wild eyes and passionate looks), understandably, blanches at when it comes down to brass tacks. Helen is the reincarnation, Imhotep believes – and it’s fairly convincing on both sides – of Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon.
While bandaged Imhotep can’t hope to carry the kind of iconic legacy of his Frankenstein – even though the mummy makeup job by Jack Pierce is nothing short of astounding – for my money, Karloff is a much more engaging presence here, and thus ensures the film is more effective overall than Frankenstein . Freund avoids the cop out of having to turn the villain (the baron) into the hero, and it isn’t really a problem that Helen’s suitor Frank Whemple (David Manners) is utterly ineffectual (“You know, I’d have liked Egypt better if I’d met you there”).
Rather, it serves to underline that, for all his foibles, Imhotep is the guy (“I have never felt so alive” she tells him). Karloff’s performance is fascinating; he towers over his co-stars (courtesy of lifts) and is all overcast reserve (“Your pardon, I don’t like to be touched. An eastern prejudice” he advises, refusing a handshake from Arthur Byron’s Sir Joseph).
Lead actress Johann’s short-lived screen career was apparently down to being difficult to work with (she ended up concentrating on theatre instead). For this, her third role, she apparently went a bit method, steeping herself in the occult to get into the part (she was a dabbler anyway). If Helen’s required to yo-yo a bit too obviously between overcome and normal repose at times, Johann’s every bit as necessary to the film’s success as Karloff. Everyone else, though, even more than Dracula or Frankenstein, is disposable.
Pauline Kael was positively delirious in her praise of The Mummy, referring to its “long, quiet, ominous scenes” and how “the lighting is so masterly and the moods are so effectively sustained that the picture gives one prickly sensations”; “it’s silly but it’s also disturbingly beautiful”. I wouldn’t be quite so effusive, since it’s clear that Freund isn’t much interested in anything that isn’t Imhotep and Helen, and the ancient Egypt flashbacks, while engrossing aren’t remotely transportive (one such does feature a gruesome bit of gore with a soldier skewered by a spear, though).
But the film has something; indeed, one might wonder if the premise wasn’t lifted for Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (“Love Never Dies”), in which Vlad’s beloved Elisabeta is posited as reincarnated in the form of Mina Harker, were it not itself taking its cues from Dan Curtis’ Richard Matheson-scripted 1973 TV movie with Jack Palance (so I guess the finger possibly points at Matheson).
The Mummy was, of course, Universal’s first self-originated monster, albeit it bears certain similarities to Conan Doyle’s The Ring of Thoth (crucially, though, there’s no mummy on the rampage there, or even one definitively revivified). Other than a ten-years-earlier lead-in section – thus couching itself in escalating untowardness – the picture was set in the present, and it’s easy to see how it has been hugely influential genre-wise (Robert Holmes’ Doctor Who story Pyramids of Mars did something not altogether dissimilar, albeit offering a span of months rather than years following the prologue).
The discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb was a direct inspiration to producer Carl Laemmle, Jr, but the lure of “noble” archaeology (rather than of the plundering and desecration kind) has since fed into Indiana Jones and its ilk and fermented the ideal period for supernatural sensations on the big screen.
There have been criticisms of The Mummy’s cultural cynicism and caricaturing, but the weak-minded, easily influenced Nubian servant (Noble Johnson) dates the movie more obviously than the kinds of Egyptian tropes that have been common even to more recent iterations. As for its legacy, the moderation on display may explain the lack of immediate sequels, until more traditionally scary rampager Kharis arrived in 1940. Tellingly, though, no one’s really waxing lyrical about those pictures now.