Premise: A resurrected Egyptian mummy stalks a beautiful woman he believes to be the reincarnation of his lover and bride.
A year after making his mark as the monster in Frankenstein, Boris Karloff cemented his icon status with his portrayal of Imhotep in 1932’s The Mummy. Despite having a plot that is heavily borrowed from Dracula, The Mummy showcases Karloff’s strength and range as an actor behind it. The film also features an exotic Egyptian locale and set design that is noticeably different from the Gothic horror of Dracula or the villages of Frankenstein. More importantly, The Mummy has tense atmosphere and a sense of grandeur to its monster that keeps it from simply being a rip-off of Dracula.
The Mummy opens with a prologue set in 1921 that depicts Imhotep’s resurrection and subsequent escape. Although most of the film struggles with dialogue to the point where it feels like The Mummy is a remnant of the silent era, this prologue delivers succinct exposition and a tantalizing introduction to the mythology behind Imhotep. It also benefits from a shocking display of hysteria from research assistant Norton (Bramwell Fletcher) and the notable way the film conceals Imhotep’s true form. We see the mummy wake and his arms move slightly. After that, all we see is the trail of his bandages as he leaves the room and a handprint where the scroll he’s taken previously laid. It’s a highly effective way to bring the audience into the world and elevate their tension for what’s to come.
Following the prologue is a ten year jump to the present day. Imhotep now goes by Ardeth Bey (a clever anagram for “Death By Ra”) and nudges an archeological expedition to the tomb of Princess Ankh-es-en-amon, his lost love. He then becomes convinced modern half-Egyptian woman Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann) is the reincarnated princess and plots to kill her and resurrect her.
The film follows Dracula‘s lead by centering itself as a fight between the mortal and an immortal for the soul of an innocent woman. The Mummy differentiates itself by consuming the audience with a sense of dread through an overpowered monster in Karloff’s Imhotep. Karloff’s performance is incredibly intimidating and benefits from the actor’s tall, imposing stature. Coming off a silent (save for some guttural noises) performance in Frankenstein, Karloff’s delivery is perfectly measured and even.
Since Imhotep’s power remains fairly undefined throughout most of the film, he reaches a level of intimidation that borders on the all-knowing. He’s able to kill and possess from afar in a massive display of power that saps his energy. However, it’s not just the deadly means he engages in to reach his end that makes him frightening. His interactions with Helen are where the film becomes its most disturbing.
In her first interaction with Imhotep, Helen is entranced by him and nearly succumbs to his every whim and wish. Later, she experiences memory loss following times where she is under Imhotep’s spell and is drawn back toward him despite it meaning her potential death. It’s unsettling, to say the least, and something that still resonates today if seen through the lens of the modern “Me Too” era. The underlying ideas of the occult and the concept of reincarnation also help drive the tension throughout the film.
In addition to her very life and soul being at stake, Helen’s sense of identity is central to the story as well. Is she truly the reincarnated Ankh-es-en-amon? If not, how deep does the connection truly run? These questions help separate the plot of The Mummy further from that of Dracula, as it leads to her having an empowered moment in the climax of the film in which she fights for her salvation, instead of her lover and a Van Helsing-esque doctor (played by Van Helsing himself, Edward Van Sloan, no less) coming to save the day.
While the atmosphere and performances are strong, at times The Mummy feels like a remnant of the silent era of film. It is almost as if the film is the work of people not quite comfortable with the jump to talkies yet. One sequence in particular feels like a silent film unto itself as Imhotep shows Helen his backstory through a screen in his lair. It’s a mostly silent montage that benefits from Karloff’s voice-over dialogue, which helps bring some more life to the silence. However, from a storytelling perspective, the dialogue throughout the rest of the film leaves a bit to be desired.
The Mummy still has strong mythology and atmosphere behind it, elevating the tension and intrigue throughout. Karloff’s performance is iconic with his calm, yet intimidating demeanor. The power of Imhotep is amplified by calculated and iconic close up shots of Karloff’s face as well. Even though the plot is a pretty heavy retread of Dracula, these elements, along with an eerily tense plot with Zita Johann’s Helen character, help make The Mummy unsettling in its own right.
About the Writer: Matt Hurt is the creator of ObsessiveViewer.com. He also created, hosts, and produces The Obsessive Viewer, Anthology, and Tower Junkies podcasts. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association and lives in Indianapolis with his cat Pizza Roll.