"Knock knock." "Who's there?" "impenetrable dread." Impenetrable dread who?" "KARLOFF."

The Mummy (1932) Review, with Boris Karloff and David Manners

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TheMummy10 TheMummy14 TheMummy9
Imhotep/Ardeth Bay
Boris Karloff
Helen Grosvenor
Zita Johann
Frank Whemple
David Manners
Released by Universal Studios | Directed By Karl Freund

Proof That It’s Pre-Code

  • Several fairly gruesome deaths, on camera and off.
  • Helen gets put in some Egyptian garb, and apparently Ancient Egyptians were big fans of bare midriffs and strategically placed sequins.
  • Our hero’s suggestion as to why a man might have been buried alive and his name erased from history: “Maybe he got too gay with the vestal virgins!”

The Mummy: Love Never Dies

Honesty time: The Mummy was the first movie that ever scared the shit out of me. Strangely, unlike Dracula, which I regarded as cheesy upon its first viewing in my childhood, I caught a clip of The Mummy on a kid’s show when I was young. It was the scene of Frank Whemple, desperate to protect the woman he loves, Helen, putting a medallion of Isis upon her doorknob. But, sensing a weakness, Ardeth Bay (AKA the titular mummy) grabs his heart from afar, and slowly chokes the life out of it.

That sense that there’s something out there– an ardent, pensive, ancient evil– is watching and waiting for you absolutely terrified me. It didn’t help that I grew up Catholic, where the teachings I received demonstrated that God functioned in much the same capacity. (I doubt an Isis medallion would win much good grace with Him either.)

It was an early nightmare, and a fear of the unknown gripped me for much of my adolescence. I’ve gotten over most of that now, but that feeling of impenetrable dread always stuck with me. That’s what makes The Mummy so invigorating decades later; it’s horror that’s inexplicable but persistent, something always there and lurking among the shadows.

"Knock knock." "Who's there?" "impenetrable dread." Impenetrable dread who?" "KARLOFF."
“Knock knock.” “Who’s there?” “impenetrable dread.” “Impenetrable dread who?” “KARLOFF.”

Let’s go over the story real quick, so we can dive into the meat and potatoes of the film (or the falafel and baba ganoush as the case may be). In 1921, a British expedition stumbles upon the remains of a mummy named Imhotep and a box that very clearly says, “Whatever you do, don’t open this. Seriously.”

Unfortunately, an impetuous assistant named Ralph, who is sick of the boring part of archeology, pops open the box to find The Scroll of Thoth, a tome which tells how to resurrect the dead. No sooner does he feast his eyes upon it than does Imhotep reach over his shoulder to grab it. Ralph, having seen the line between death and life so cruelly mitigated, goes completely mad. The head of the expedition, Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron) runs back in, baffled at his assistant’s laughter and the missing artifacts.

Ten years later and Sir Joseph’s son, Frank, is digging in the desert with a new British expedition and having fairly rotten luck. Into his headquarters steps Ardeth Bay, a tall, gravely looking man with frightful eyes. He reveals where they can find the tomb of an Egyptian princess named Ankh-es-en-amon. The discovery is a success, and soon the artifacts are laid in the Cairo museum, ready for eager acolytes.

See? I don't just make up stuff in these movie reviews. Purposefully, at least.
See? I don’t just make up stuff in these movie reviews. Purposefully, at least.

But Ardeth is more than he seems, and hides among the relics, chanting a passage from the scroll. This calls socialite Helen Grosvenor to the door of the museum, where Frank finds her. Through a confluence of hypnotism, reincarnation and ancient, forgotten magicks, Helen is carrying the soul of Ankh-es-en-amon. And Imhotep, AKA Ardeth Bay, used to have a thing with her.

But Helen meets Frank and before you can say ‘ineffectual romantic couple’, they’re making moon eyes and trying to unwind all this business about a mummy. But, with the help of Egyptian expert Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan), the three just might… you know… not die horribly.

While Dracula is about a persecuted, charming monster at the fringes and Frankenstein and The Invisible Man more concerned about science gone too far, The Mummy is about the murky mire of human history. It’s a primordial evil reaching from beyond the centuries, disabusing modern audiences that the past is actually finished but instead endures.

"Hey baby, you into the undead?"
“Hey baby, you into the undead?”

It’s an evolutionary tale, honestly. The idea that mankind lost its connection to nature as technology infiltrated our lives isn’t a new one (I personally think it’s toilet paper that pushed us over), and The Mummy is deftly evocative in tying long ago civilizations to the unsuspecting present. Has mankind improved over the centuries, with technology allowing him the chance to grow and become smarter and wiser? Or has it simply coddled us, removing us from the true world and putting the whole of humanity in a big bubble just waiting to be popped?

This movie believes the latter, and Imhotep is the needle to mankind’s assumptions.

The Mummy, Buried Alive

What is it that’s so enduring about Imhotep? The Mummy has been remade and reinterpreted more than a dozen times at this point, and it’s hard to discount the charm of the monstrosity. Like a lot of great villains, Imhotep’s rationalizations are fairly reasonable. Every step he took are those made by a man in love, formed by millennia of fanatical devotion. That devotion, though, became dark and twisted after Imhotep’s punishment.

"I don't love the princess, I love this scroll!"
“Uh, I don’t love the princess, I love this scroll!”

Or maybe it didn’t? Despite the lengthy back story we get on his origin, Imhotep only shows himself as loyal and desperate. His betrayal of the gods and the consequential punishment– a gruesome scene of the struggling, desperate man being wrapped up and buried alive– may have merely exacerbated a baser human, someone closer to the primordial anger and frustration encased in us all. Surely his new appearance backs this up– his skin has become just as much sand and dirt as it is living flesh. He’s twisted, ugly, and old.

The film takes pains to create a dichotomy between him and our hero, Frank Whemple. Both are obsessed with the same woman in a way: Frank admits that he’d developed an affection for the mummy during excavation, after all, and now he lusts after her reincarnation. This is healthier, even if Frank’s total contributions to the film entail almost dying and distracting someone for a few crucial seconds. He can’t stop the force of centuries of malice, only delay it.

Unlike Dracula, who is driven by a primal bloodlust, Imhotep is driven by righteousness. He has suffered for centuries and given up the treasures of his nation; this devotion has surely won him the right to have Helen. When she rejects him in the finale, he simply ignores it! By his reasoning, her flesh is beyond her possession.

"You heard me, woman, I said dibs."
“You heard me, woman, I said dibs.”

This sense of entitlement reveals Imhotep to be a supernatural stalker, a devotee from long ago who expects acquiescence from the beings he considers beneath him– modern mankind. As it turns out, the old gods are not dead, but merely idle. His failure is one of hubris.

The Mummy closes with the villain defeated, but an existential quandary at hand. Frank and Helen’s brushes with forces they’d previously thought to be fiction will force them into a reckoning with themselves. Imhotep may lose his battle to reclaim the woman he loved from the gods, but he leaves behind an indelible mark on the 20th century.

I do want to step back real quick, before I wrap this one up. My favorite scene of the movie remains that moment I saw when I was a kid. Frank, with his breath choked out of him, crawls across the floor to Helen’s door, desperate to reclaim the Isis talisman to protect himself. He collapses, possibly dead, and Helen’s door opens. A woman so warm and receptive to him earlier walks over his corpse and down the hallway. It’s such a striking and horrifying moment that it’ll always be with me, a place where affection and joy meet the cold reality of the inconceivable. It’s a moment that reminds you that for all the trappings of modern convenience, the unknown and powerful are still be out there. Waiting.

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Trivia & Links

  • Today’s entry is brought to you by the letter ‘M’ and the Great Villain Blog-A-Thon. Click on the banner to check out the dozens of bloggers going on and on about their favorite makers of mischief all across the silver screen!

GreatVillainBlogathon

  • For as successful as it was, The Mummy never spawned a direct sequel. However, it was remade several times:
    • By Universal in 1940 as The Mummy’s Hand. This was followed by The Mummy’s Tomb (42), The Mummy’s Ghost (44), and The Mummy’s Curse (also 44). In the last three, duties as the lead mummy was turned over to Lon Chaney, Jr., if that gives you a hint at their quality.
    • By Hammer in 1959 as The Mummy, though its plot was more of a remake of 1940’s The Mummy’s Hand. This feature also spawned several sequels (though the plots were not related), The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (64), The Mummy’s Shroud (66), and Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (71). The Wikipedia page for Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb insists that a 5.8/10 rating on IMDB makes it equivalent to a 3-star film, a feat of numerical trickery in the service of denial the likes of which I rarely get to see.
    • And by Universal again in 1999 with The Mummy, a blockbuster horror/action film starring Brendan Frasier. This was one of those movies I watched innumerable times as a teenager, and I still really enjoy it. As for its many sequels and spinoffs– The Mummy Returns (01) The Mummy Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (08), and three Scorpion King films– the less said, the better. Except for, of course, that the second Scorpion King movieis a prequel to a spinoff prequel to a sequel to a remake. Layers upon layers, people.
On the off chance it's occured to you, please don't watch Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy (). Trust me on this one.
On the off chance it’s occured to you, please don’t watch Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy (1955). Trust me on this one.
  • As it is a Universal Horror movie and has been extensively written about, I’m just going to point you to the IMDB Trivia page for info.
  • For anyone who needs a stiff drink to get through this one, the guys over at Alcohollywood crafted a drink and a drinking game based on this film, as well as recording a podcast about it and its remake.
  • A friend over at Turban Decay blogged about this one and its representations of Arabians. Besides noting that the film seems to be an anti-imperialist screed, he also gives some background on Egypt at the time of the film’s production.

The violent Egyptian revolution of 1919, spurred on by nationalist Saad Zaghloul, led to the British recognizing Egypt’s nominal independence on February 28, 1922. But with the British continuing to control their foreign interests in Egypt—especially the Suez Canal—and Sudan, there still existed very strong feelings within the Egyptian people that the British still had far too great a presence in their country and culture. Egyptian nationalist thinkers such as Muhammad Husayn Haykal and Muhammad ‘Abd Allah ‘Inan railed against these influences.

Pre-Code dog watch: Helen has this lovely mutt who can unfortunately sense ancient evils and dies off-screen in a particularly gruesome way.
Pre-Code dog watch: Helen has this lovely mutt who can unfortunately sense ancient evils and dies off-screen in a particularly gruesome way.
  • Greenbriar Picture Show posted about the life of a Mummy acolyte way back in 2006. He makes a wry Black Cat reference (well, I laughed at least) and talks about the film’s legacy. One amusing passage:

Boris Karloff and Edward Van Sloan were the lucky ones. They died before us monster kids grew up. Neither of them had to face the prospect of anxious would-be interviewers banging on their nursing home door. Poor Dave and Zita made it into the 1990’s. Manners lived to a ripe ninety-seven. He got to where he was telling fans he’d rather die than submit to another interview. He just wanted to eat pancakes in the dining room with the rest of the seniors. Telling yet another horror fan what it was like working with Bela Lugosi was worse than a rectal exam for him. Not that I’m setting myself above his inquisitors, mind you. I once wrote Mr. Manners a fan letter, back in 1969, and wouldn’t you know it? He didn’t want to talk to me either.

If I were to write a letter to David Manners, it probably would have been about his awesome hat collection. But he's dead now, so why bother.
If I were to write a letter to David Manners, it probably would have been about his awesome hat collection. But he’s dead now, so why bother.
  • The Nitrate Diva delights in this film, comparing it to film philosopher Andre Bazin’s ‘mummy’ theory of film. Besides talking about Freund’s great use of tension in the film’s opening minutes, she also draws parallels between the Helen’s two suitors:

Frank even admits that one of the reasons he loves Helen is because she reminds him of the dead Princess. His “pure” desire for Helen therefore translates into a need for a victory over death, again. Yes, I’m psychologizing, but he has a crush on a corpse, for crying out loud! By having the woman who reminds him of the Princess, he can feel as though he’s conquered death and time. Wait, isn’t that what Imhotep wants, too?

  • From the links that the Nitrate Diva provided is Richard Freeman’s impressive history of not just The Mummy but how the idea of mummies permeated literature. He also breaks down the similarities between The Mummy and Dracula in a rather succinct way:

similarities mummy vs dracula

In a brutal scene the live Imhotep is entombed while not only are the slaves who oversaw the process killed, but their murderers killed as well, so that no one would carry recollection of Imhotep’s “nameless death.” Just before snapping Helen out of her trance Imhotep tells her as Anck-es-en-Amon, “My love has lasted longer than the temples of our gods. No man ever suffered as I did for you,” and suddenly the monster becomes a bit more human.

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Danny

Danny is a librarian who lives on the coast of California with his lovely wife, adorable daughter, and yappy dog. He blogs bi-weekly at pre-code.com, a website dedicated to Hollywood films from 1930 to 1934, and can be found on Twitter @PreCodeDotCom.

31 thoughts on “The Mummy (1932) Review, with Boris Karloff and David Manners

  1. By the way, I saw Boris Karloff in Five Star Final, the other night, about the evils of tabloid journalism. I was very impressed with the film, and Karloff played this creepy divinity school drop-out turned reporter that pretended to be a preacher to get his story. He also couldn’t keep his unwanted hands off women. And he was a fawning toady drunkard. In other words, he was about as welcoming as a mummy.

    1. Karloff is great in that (the name ‘Isopod’ fits him perfectly, too!). Karloff has such a great presence, and the monsters he played really got to show that off.

  2. One of my favorite Universal horror films. Zita Johann’s character actually comes off as a human being, much more than your garden variety damsel for the hero to protect and the villain to menace.

    1. Oh yeah. Compare her to Mina in Dracula (as many others have) and she’s a lot more special. I kept mentally comparing her to The Panther Woman from Island of Lost Souls (Paramount and not Universal, but from around the same time frame) and I think they both embody a nice mysterious detachment. One of the reviews I linked tries to figure out Zita’s character (why is she seeing the doctor at the beginning of the movie?) but makes no head of it. She’s slightly off from the usual mold, which makes her very exciting to watch.

  3. Appreciate the cultural/political context you provided, Danny. It got me thinking about another great mummy program, the “Curse of Anubis” episode of Jonny Quest. In that one, the villain Dr. Kareem steals the ancient mask of Anubis and tries to frame Dr. Quest for it. His purpose was to arouse great anti-Western feeling in the Middle-East, in hopes of finally kickstarting a Pan-Arab political union. Pretty sophisticated for a cartoon! Anyway, Jonny Quest was made just a couple years after Nasser’s push to create the United Arab Republic.

    1. My mom adored Johnny Quest so I got to see a lot of it growing up, but, sadly, haven’t caught too much of it since they stopped showing it on Cartoon Network (and a big boo to that, naturally). I don’t remember the episode you mentioned, but you’ve certainly piqued my interest to seek it out. Thanks!

  4. Thanks for the hat tip, Danny. I don’t know if it’s the setting or the creepiness of Karloff, but this movie is more memorable to me than “Dracula” or “Frankenstein” in ways that you express very well. And to justjack — “Jonny Quest” was so scary it made me wet my pants.

    1. I’ve listened to the Johnny Quest theme song on repeat far too often. Far, far too often. … and I’m probably going to do it again right now.

  5. Fabulous review (as always). I’ve never seen “The Mummy” in its entirety, and it’s obvious I’m really missing out on something.

    Thanks for joining in the Villainous fun, and for featuring our man Karloff. It’s never a party without him.

    1. I’ve yet to see a movie that Karloff is ‘bad’ in, even in small parts. However, my favorite performance of his remains 1968’s Targets.

      And thanks for letting me join up with the blog-a-thon; there are ton of great entries. 🙂

  6. Karloff makes being bad, look so easy. Although on the surface “The Mummy” doesn’t seem that evil, when you get right down to it, he is as ruthless as they come, killing anyone without a second thought in order to be successful. Great post as always, and an important one for this blogathon.

    1. I think it says a lot about The Mummy that it would only take a slight shift in perspective to make Imhotep the hero (and possibly a few less murders on his hands). In America, his persistence would be considered an asset!

    1. God, I do too. Trouble is that Netflix’s pre-Code selection is, right now, 15 titles, with most not even being American films. That’s why I try to link where to find stuff at the end of reviews. Trust me, I wish a lot of this stuff was a lot less obscure as well. 🙂

  7. I love all the Universal horrors, one of movie’s comfort food, but I agree The Mummy is in a class of its own and extra scary. The sunlit scenes provide a nice contrast and gorgeous look that the mostly dark Dracula doesn’t. That Freeman chart is amazing, and I liked all the extras you included. Great post and thanks for joining us in the blogathon 🙂

  8. Danny, your MUMMY post was fascinating and fun! Your affection for it really shows. Granted, Boris Karloff is always a hard act to follow, with so many layers to his performance. He’s scary yet surprising poignant. I got a kick out of your captions, too; “You heard me, woman, I said dibs” especially cracked me up! 😀 BRAVA to you on a fun and affectionate post for the Great Villain Blogathon!

    1. Thanks Dorian, I appreciate it! When it comes to great villains, it’s hard to go wrong with Karloff. I’m just glad such a great performance hadn’t been picked up before I got to it.

  9. Really interesting take on this title and I love all the bonus material from other sites that you touch upon as well. Love this film and always hope that they find the missing footage from the reincarnation scenes that got edited out before release. Irony of that is searching for lost films and scenes has become a class of archeology in itself.

    1. Ha, there is definitely a sense of layers upon layers in your description. It’s a shame that the footage is missing, though it may have only served to slow the film’s pace a bit more– or made it weirder. Either way could have worked.

  10. Unlik you, Danny, I wasn’t scared when I watched the film. Maybe because it was Saturday morning (really, I got up early to see this) and I was 18. Nevertheles, Karloff’s make-up never ceases to amaze me and give a little chill in the spine. As for other stories envolving the film, I think the 1959 version is very weak and once I wrote about this film in an Archaeology course, showing how excavations are showed in movies. I received a couple of compliments on my paper.
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂
    Greetings!
    http://www.criticaretro.blogspot.com.br/2014/04/peter-lorre-o-vilao-subestimado.html

    1. Writing about a mummy film for an archeology class is inspired, Le! There’s probably a lot of material there, though I suppose they’d shy away from wanting you to discuss any curses. And I’ll definitely check out your piece– no such thing as too much Peter Lorre. 🙂

    1. Aw, thanks Karen. But I wouldn’t worry about The Mummy scaring you too much. I mean after all, mummies aren’t real, right?

      Wait, no. They are. Never mind. Don’t watch the movie, Karen, and I’ll be over here never sleeping again.

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