In 1921 a field expedition discovers the mummy of ancient Egyptian prince Im-Ho-Tep, who was condemned and buried alive for sacrilege. One night a young member of the expedition reads a Scroll out loud, brings the evil Im-Ho-Tep back to life. Ten years later, disguised as a modern Egyptian, the mummy attempts to reunite with his lost love...
Long before the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb in 1922, filmmakers had been plundering the rich potential of ancient Egypt. Typically, Georges Melies showed the way with Robbing Cleopatra's Tomb (1899), which was followed by The Mummy Of King Rameses (1909) and Ernst Lubitsch's Eyes Of The Mummy (1918). Yet, by the end of the silent era, Hollywood deemed mummified monsters fit only for comedies like Mummy Love (1926).
Indeed, even this classic template for what is, arguably, horror cinema's least successful sub-genre only adopted an Egyptian theme as something of an afterthought. Fresh from photographing The Murders In The Rue Morgue (1932), Karl Freund was asked by Universal to rework the Dracula formula in his directorial debut. Initially, he intended to spin a yarn of longevity and black magic entitled Cagliostro. But Nina Wilcox Putnam's muddled story was completely revamped by John L. Balderston, another debutante who had earned a reputation for adapting literary horror for the stage.
Balderston had been a reporter on Howard Carter's expedition to the Valley Of The Kings, which had just concluded its decade-long excavation. However, King Tut wasn't the only inspiration for the screenplay. Elements of Dracula are clearly evident in the determination of an undead monster to possess the soul of an English rose, while Balderston's simultaneous involvement in a treatment of H. Rider Haggard's novel. She also coloured his thinking. Indeed, the whole enterprise had something of a rehashed feel about it. Sets and props were recycled from Dracula, while David Manners was hired to reprise the part of the anguished beau and Edward Van Sloan was cast as a Van Helsing-style troubleshooter.
Even Jack Pierce was summoned to provide Boris Karloff with makeup to match that of Frankenstein. Much criticism has been levelled at the film for its lack of terror. Certainly Karloff is less menacing in a suit and fez than he is swathed in dust-encrusted bandages. Surviving scripts suggest that the inspired camera movements and subtle edits were Balderston's. But Freund's mark on both the look and tone of the action is indelible. As the cameraman on F. W. Murnau's The Last Laugh (1924), he had pioneered the concept of the subjective view, while his work on Paul Wegener's The Golem (1915) and Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) steeped him in the Expressionist tradition that dominated German filmmaking in the 1920s.
What's more, he had helped introduce Expressionism to Hollywood while behind the camera on Tod Browning's Dracula (1931). The Depression was biting deep by 1932 and it's no coincidence that the shambling figures of the bread queues should have found expression in the mesmerised souls of The Mummy. But shock and social comment were not the story's prime motives. Undying love (which would inspire many a Vincent Price picture and Coppola's Dracula (1993) prompt Imhotep's crimes in both the ancient and modern worlds. Thus, the moments of horror are muted. When Norton's incantation revives Imhotep, we see his slowly opening eyes, his arms across his chest, a hand reaching for the scroll and a straggle of loose bandages as he takes his leave of the stricken archaeologist, now a raving wreck after what he has witnessed.
Similarly, the flashback to Imhotep's incarceration is handled with great skill, with Karloff's wild eyes alone conveying the horror of his
embalming. Indeed, as in Frankenstein (1931), Karloff's ability to communicate through his makeup is vital to establishing his character, even in human form, it's clearly pain and not incarnate evil that dictates his actions. Four indifferent Universal sequels followed before Hammer, inevitably, assumed the mantle, peaking with Blood From The Mummy's Tomb in 1971. Most recently, Stephen Sommers took a highly lucrative Indiana Jones-style approach in the 1999 blockbuster The Mummy.
With its meticulous pacing and brooding atmosphere, The Mummy is perhaps the purest hybrid of German horror film and Hollywood chiller ever made.