Scared away by the horrid reviews, I passed on seeing the newest version of The Mummy. But I did not despair, for in my DVD collection is the original film, released in 1932, and directed by Karl Freund. It certainly does not have the action of the new film, it hardly has any action at all, but it manages to create an atmosphere of creepiness and dread that enthralls (and it’s only 73 minutes long).
After the success of Dracula and Frankenstein, Universal chairman Carl Laemmle wanted to add a mummy picture to his stable of horror characters. There was no definitive text, unlike the others, so he commissioned story ideas. The discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922 had captured the public’s imagination, and Egyptian decor (including Hollywood’s Egyptian Theater, which still stands today) swept the nation. There was also the added element of a so-called curse, which killed anyone who was associated with the discovery of the tomb.
Finally a script by John Balderston, who had adapted the plays of Dracula and Frankenstein, was made. Freund was the cameraman for such classics as Metropolis, The Last Laugh, and Dracula. He was noted for a moving camera (interestingly, at the end of his career he worked on I Love Lucy). This being the 1930s, when special effects where rudimentary, much of the action happens off-screen, letting the viewer imagine what is happening.
This starts in the opening scene. A tomb has been unearthed, and the mummy discovered has not been embalmed, indicating he was buried alive. The archaeologists determine that his name was Imhotep, and he was punished for sacrilege. They also open a box, which warns anyone not to open it lest they be cursed. Inside is a scroll that we later learn has a spell that can raise the dead. Imhotep (Boris Karloff, under eight hours worth of makeup) awakens. But we don’t see him move. Instead, we see a closeup of his hand on the scroll, snatching it. The worker bursts into hysterical laughter seeing the mummy walk, but all we see is a few bandages dragging out the door.
Cut to a few years later. Imhotep now goes by the name Ardath Bey. He helps the archaeologists find the tomb of Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon, for the ulterior motive that he was in love with her. He had been buried alive when he tried to revive her dead body, now he wants to try again. But then he discovers a woman (Zita Johann) who looks uncannily like her. He realizes she is the Princess reincarnated, and instead of reviving her mummy, can simply kill her and immediately raise her from the dead.
For today’s audiences, The Mummy may be very slow going. The joke about Mummy pictures was how could anybody be hurt by one, they’re so slow. Well, Ardath Bey has certain powers that defy distance. He has a pool that can look into the past or present (he shows Johann her past life). He can look into it on a subject and by squeezing his hand give them a heart attack. And, of course, Karloff has one of the best stares in all of movie history. The key lighting on his eyes make his closeups very unnerving. “He’s a strange one,” one of the characters says about him. He has no idea.
This version of The Mummy is one of those romance across times, very much like Dracula (and the Dracula film made by Francis Coppola years later) that gives the monster some sympathy.
The rest of the cast is fine. Johann was an established stage actress who looks like Betty Boop; she later quit Hollywood, disenchanted with it. She marched into Irving Thalberg’s office and asked him, “How can you make such garbage?” Thalberg replied, “For the money, Zita.” Edward Van Sloan is, I believe, the only actor to appear in Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy. He played Dr. Van Helsing in Dracula, and plays pretty much the same part here, the only scientist who believes in the supernatural elements of what is going on.
The Mummy spawned a number of lesser sequels from Universal, but this film is the one to watch, especially if the new one leaves a bad taste in your mouth.