The Mummy is often compared to Dracula: similar plot, a supernatural being with hypnotic powers who desires the leading lady while the leading man looks on haplessly and is assisted by a canny professor with arcane knowledge. The leading man and the canny professor are even played by the same actors in both movies (David Manners and Edward Van Sloan). Fortunately, I saw The Mummy before I saw Dracula and I actually prefer it. It is one of my favorite Universal horror movies.
The first mummy film I ever saw was the 1999 The Mummy. I enjoyed it, but it’s not ultimately my cup of tea. It’s more of an action/adventure than anything else. But the 1932 The Mummy is primarily a romance, what I call a cosmic romance; love that spans over time and space. Everything the mummy does is done for love. He does not kill for revenge or sport; but only if you stand between him and his love. He doesn’t even stay looking like a mummy for long. The horror comes in the nature of his being and his seeming unstoppability, a being outside of nature.
The movie begins in 1921, in Eygpt. Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron) and his assistant Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher) have uncovered a mummy and a chest that contains The Scroll of Thoth, which record the words that can restore a person to life when read aloud. There is a warning on the chest that anyone who opens it will be cursed. But while Sir Joseph is deliberating with his friend and specialist in the study of the occult, Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan), Norton opens the chest and reads the scroll.
What follows is one of the most effectively understated moments in horror history. With no music, while Norton reads, the mummy quietly opens his eyes. They don’t snap open with a sudden burst of music; they simply open and he begins slowly to move first one arm and than another. It’s absolutely mesmerizing. Then, while Norton continues to read, a mummified hand appears besides him and takes the scroll. We don’t see the mummy. All we see is Norton’s reaction and then some trailing mummy wrappings sliding out the door. First Norton shouts in horror, then goes completely mad, laughing hysterically the entire time. It’s an unexpected reaction and very unsettling.
Time fast forwards to the present – 1932 – and Sir Joseph’s son, Frank Whemple (David Manners) and another archaeologist are digging in the sands of Egypt without success, until a mysterious stranger named Ardath Bey arrives- a man looking somewhat dry and decayed, but otherwise human – and shows them an artifact he found containing the name of the princess Anck-es-en-Amon. They dig where he said he found the artifact and find the princess’ tomb, with the seal unbroken and all the treasure still inside, which is then brought to the Cairo Museum.
Ardath Bey is, of course, the mummy of 1921. It is later revealed that he was an Egyptian priest, Imhotep, buried alive for stealing the forbidden Scroll of Thoth and trying to use it to bring back his dead love, Princess Anck-es-en-Amon, which was a forbidden love in the first place because she was supposed to be a virgin priestess dedicated to Isis.
But in 1932, he has the scroll of Thoth once again and he intends to use it revive the princess’ mummy. But what he does not initially realize is that though the body is in the museum, her spirit has been reincarnating through the ages and is currently in Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), ward of Dr. Muller, who is half English and half Egyptian. The complication is that Helen is falling in love with Frank, though she nonetheless feels drawn to ancient Egypt and the mysterious stranger. Thus begins a battle for the soul of Helen, who has two powerfully conflicting impulses towards life and death.
I had not seen many Universal horror movies when I first watched The Mummy and my experience with horror films was largely limited to adventure films like the 1999 The Mummy, where no matter how bad the supernatural villain is, the hero can always defeat him. The original is set up completely differently and felt refreshingly original. Not only is it a romance – and a surprisingly poignant one – but there appears to be nothing anyone can do to stop him. There isn’t even a conventional hero who must battle the mummy. The mummy truly is beyond their reach, a mummy that cannot be killed because he’s already dead, with supernatural abilities, which makes him an impressive monster, though he’s not really a monster. He looks like a man and thinks like one and feels love like one. But still, nothing short of supernatural intervention will destroy him.
It’s requires a Deus ex machina, though instead of coming down in a cloud the gods zap him through a statue of Isis.
The poignancy Karloff brings to his character is impressive. Not only does he have one of the most intensely unsettling gazes in movie history, but his face can soften into such longing. This mummy is not on a power kick – though, judging from his expression when he uses his power to kill Dr. Whemple, a power complex could certainly be on the way. He is on a romantic quest, through time and space. And he figures that after all he’s suffered the least she can do is suffer for a minute or two and join him as a mummy (presumably a more beautiful mummy, since she won’t have all the centuries of human decay). But it is at this moment of death that she balks. All that reincarnation as given her a definite taste for life.
Many people find The Mummy a bit slow and static and there is certainly very little action. People mostly talk, with a few confrontations, but hardly any visible, physical violence or contact. But I must confess that the lack of action is partly why I like it; I’ve always had a thing for talky movies. And although all the other actors pale next to Boris Karloff (who is brilliantly nuanced as the mummy) it doesn’t bother me. Their seeming ineffectuality contrasts nicely with the sense that it will not be human agency that stops the mummy.
I also love the look of the film, the atmosphere. The first scene, when they are sitting at the table with the mummy’s coffin leaning against the wall. Ardath Bey kneeling in a darkened museum next to the glass case containing his beloved, reading from the Scroll of Thoth, which is juxtaposed with scenes of Helen at a party, beginning to hear his call. Kneeling in front of a pool in which he can see what others are doing and exert his hypnotic power.
There are Helen’s constant internal conflicts (Zita Johann is definitely more on the theatrical side of acting) and attempts to fight this thing inside her that is irresistibly drawn to Imhotep. She is two people, but it is the princess and not Helen that finally rejects Imhotep and chooses Frank and life. This final rejection turns the cosmic romance into a tragedy and she begs the aid of the gods she offended. And they hear her. It’s as though they decided that it was their responsibility that a mummy was let loose on the world in the first place and finally they set everything right by both destroying the mummy and the Scroll of Thoth so that such an abomination can never happen again. The modern world can return to its natural state where gods and supernatural beings are faded into the past.
The mummy’s tragedy is that he was always fighting, not against man, but against the gods. His very love was taboo, his means of coming back as a mummy and his means of trying to be reunited with Ack-es-en-Amon, all a defiance of his gods. Ultimately, the poor guy just couldn’t win.