The Mummy (1932). 73 minutes. Directed by Karl Freund. Starring Boris Karloff (as Ardath Bey/Imhotep), Zita Johann (as Helen Grosvenor/Princess Ankh-es-an-Amon), David Manners (as Frank Whemple), Arthur Byron (as Sir Joseph Whemple), Edward Van Sloan (as Dr. Muller), Bramwell Fletcher (as Ralph Norton), Noble Johnson (as the Nubian), and Leonard Mundie (as Professor Pearson).
The Mummy is one of the classic Universal monster movies, which also include Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), and The Invisible Man (1933). Directed by Karl Freund, who worked as a cinematographer for such silent landmarks as The Last Laugh (1924) and Metropolis (1927), as well as for the Universal Dracula, The Mummy is atmospheric and visually pleasing, even though it is staged using only a limited number of sets. Part of the reason for its success is no doubt owed to actor Boris Karloff, who manages to infuse the titular character with both creepiness and, perhaps unexpectedly, a fair amount of rebel chic. Although Karloff’s skin appears to be falling apart in many of the scenes, he nevertheless conveys the qualities of a suave, cool supernatural antagonist who lives not in the periphery of our dreams but rather appears right in the middle of our houses, chatting and interacting with us as one of our own. In this way, the movie creates an intriguing tension between foreign unknowableness and utter familiarity through Karloff’s character, suggesting that monsters, even mummies, are perhaps more like us than we might expect. The Mummy thus stands in contrast with some of its Universal counterparts, which in general make their monster antagonists freakish, bolted-neck anti-humans who fail to blend in with mainstream society.
The movie begins in 1922, when a British expedition led by Sir Joseph Whemple in Egypt unearths the curious mummy of the high priest Imhotep. Although he has been wrapped and entombed as per tradition, his organs have not been removed, and sacred prayers along the edge of his sarcophagus have been scratched out. He is found buried with the scroll of Thoth, said to bring the deceased back to life, and when one of the excavators reads it out loud, the mummy is indeed revivified, taking the scroll with him as he lumbers off.
Ten years later, Sir Joseph and his son Frank continue to dig when a strange man named Ardath Bey enters their camp and tells them of an unexcavated site nearby: the tomb of Princess Ankh-es-an-amon. They unearth the tomb and put her burial relics on display at the Cairo museum. Soon we learn that Ardath Bey is actually Imhotep come back to life, and that he was buried alive in punishment for betraying the pharaoh. Ardath Bey seeks out Helen Grosvenor, a half-Egyptian woman visiting Cairo from Europe, whom he believes is the reincarnation of Ankh-es-an-amon. Helen is drawn to him, and eventually he brings her to the museum at night and into the room containing the princess’s relics. Dressed in ancient clothes, she learns that he plans to kill her and revivify her as Ankh-es-an-amon. She pleads with the goddess Isis to intervene, and a status of Isis in the museum chamber strikes down Ardath Bey, turning him to dust.
The movie is fueled by the Egyptology craze that began in the United States and Europe with the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. The renewed interest in Egyptian history, art, and culture influenced everything from architecture to women’s jewelry, and was anticipated and then capitalized on by the famed Egyptian movie palace opened by Sid Grauman in Los Angeles, which began construction just before the tomb was discovered. This efflorescence had the potential to expose people to Egyptian culture, ancient history, and archaeological science in new ways, yet Egyptomania was also rooted in some good old-fashioned grave exploitation: Tutankhamun’s gold-drenched sarcophagus and mummified remains were taken out of his private tomb and put on display to the public as part of a museum exhibit, something that the pharaoh and his associates presumably never intended and could not have expected.
The Mummy makes the strange practice of putting ancient, private selves on display even stranger by associating it with the dark side of the supernatural: a scroll that can summon the dead via the power of Egyptian gods. Through the scroll, the movie falls in line with so many other depictions of Egypt, ancient cultures, and foreign cultures by suggesting that as their possessions are seized for study and incorporation into our museums and societies, a more nefarious, untamed, and uncontrollable side of those peoples and times emerges, something so horrible that we are unequipped to handle it with our own culture. Hence in the movie when characters try to protect themselves from Ardath Bey (a.k.a. the mummy), they use an ancient Egyptian amulet, worn around their neck or tied around a door handle. Or they pray to the goddess Isis, the only one who, through her statue, can revoke Ardath Bey’s immortality in the final scene, turning him to dust. The Mummy gives, in its way, power and respect to the practices of old, but it also makes those practices seem sinister and irrational, a part of the same world as the mummy’s evil.
In spite of being a creature of evil and a master of supernatural spells and conjuring tricks, Ardath Bey spends a surprising amount of time merely hanging around with the other characters without resorting to magic, even though he strives against them and, in many cases, seeks to kill them. There are so many scenes where he simply visits the Whemples and stands around chatting nonchalantly with them, having been admitted to their place with their consent and without suspicion. It is easy for them to accept him as one of their own, a man who in spite of his Egyptian name and clothes nevertheless speaks with an English accent and observes their customs, interacting with them as an equal. In other words, as a monster, he fits in surprisingly well with their crowd, even as he is hell-bent on upending their rational scientific work, extracting one of society’s prize females for use in his ancient ritual, and rubbing out anyone who stands in his way.
But Ardath Bey is not their equal in another respect. To put it colloquially, he is considerably cooler than any of them. True, his skin is wrinkly in extreme close-up, and he is rather tall, gaunt, and without discernible shape beneath his traditional Egyptian dress. He reminds me a bit of a smaller Richard Kiel, the giant who played Jaws in the James Bond movies of the 1970s and Eegah the caveman in the film of the same name from 1962. Like Kiel, Boris Karloff as Ardath Bey walks with a slight stoop, but that only serves to accentuate how, in spite of his cultural fluency, he differs from the rest of the characters. He towers over them powerfully, and his casual posture suggests he is comfortable and at ease, even when he is visiting on serious business and even when the other characters exhibit concern and fear.
Just as he antagonizes the Whemples effortlessly, Ardath Bey also shows that he is a suave seducer. Monster status aside, he nearly successfully woos the movie’s female protagonist. Although she turns on him in the end, it is clear that he intrigues her, much more so than to Frank Whemple, who is also interested in her. (The charms of Frank fail to work such potent magic. When he explains why he and his father excavated the princess’s tomb, she tellingly asks, “Is that what you have to do to meet girls?”) True, the mummy has some powerful magic up his sleeve that he uses liberally on her and others, but the charms he works on Helen have decidedly erotic undertones that infuse him with an odd sexual strength. When she is drawn to him on the night of the Cairo party and seeks him at the museum where he is lying in wait, she reaches the entrance and dramatically pounds on the doors, then in an overwhelmed swoon collapses at the entrance. She is under his spell, but her behavior resembles that of a frenetic lover, determined to reach her mate—not of a dispassionate zombie.
It is not a stretch to suggest that The Mummy is actually about a kind of necrophiliac desire on the part of both Helen and Ardath Bey, a sort of weird impulse to have a romantic relationship with the dead (or undead, as it were). Later on the night that Helen collapses at the museum, she encounters Ardath Bey in person and exchanges long stares with him while still wearing her revealing cocktail dress with its plunging neckline. Throughout, images of a scantily clad Helen, often lying prone on a lounger or tucked into bed, circulate with close-ups of Ardath Bey’s disintegrating face. She is strategically dressed and placed to suggest that she is at ease and accessible to her decaying pursuer. The implication is that there is a shared sexual passion between the two, begun long ago and carried over through the ages, now characterized by mysterious desire and eroding flesh.
Thanks to the movie’s pre-Code elements, we follow the adventures of the murderous reincarnated mummy, observe his criminal power, and register a potent corpse-sex undertone without any moralizing contingent to stand in our way of perceiving and enjoying the weirdness of all three things. But given that we are permitted to admire Ardath Bey’s malevolent campaign to the extent that we are, we might wonder how we should process the movie’s final punishing moments in which the mummy is destroyed. Are we being cautioned to beware of the dangers of foreign cultures? Of the provocative appeal of hypnotic residue from the ancient past? Of the allure of strange men who emerge from the sands of the desert? Of the archaeological processes associated in the movie with all three? The Mummy dabbles in each of these underlying themes to a certain extent, but its most effective theme exhorts us to beware of monsters who walk among us, matching and even outdoing us in terms of coolness and sexual desire—the evil outsiders who pass for us and whom we inadequately scrutinize, whose power to overturn order is lingering beneath a veneer of social propriety.
Ultimately, however, whatever warning is attached to the film is weakened by the fact that if the story succeeds, we are as enticed by the mummy as Helen is. In this regard, Ardath Bey reminds me of other subversive protagonists who are pitted against the world in 1930s cinema but are weirdly celebrated within their film universes, including the central characters of pre-Code gangland dramas. The Mummy thus closely resembles controversial gangster films such as Scarface (1932) and Little Caesar (1931), with their slick criminals who threaten to overturn their on-screen societies and our own with their communicable and unrepentant lawlessness.
The Mummy shares more in common with those films than with the tepid monster-movie franchise it spawned. The movie’s many indirect sequels and remakes, which stretch into the present day, drain away the original concept’s potency and the exceptional nature of Ardath Bey; they lack the right balance of cultural fantasia, naughtiness, and monster terror that make the 1932 Mummy so special. The Mummy is far more exciting than these successors or their vague echoes in Halloween costumes and sugary cereals would lead you to believe. But it is also more compelling than even it at times seems to know: more interesting than the thrills and scares it promises; more tantalizing than its special effects; and more socially provocative than the impressionistic cultural voodoo it sometimes conjures. Adventurous, perverse, and delightfully macabre, it remains one of the best horror movies of the Golden Age.