Those who got their primary fix of undead Egyptians from 1999’s The Mummy (or even Tom Cruise’s 2017 version, Anubis forbid) have some cinematic archeology to perform… Long before Brendan Frasier flexed some Indiana Jones style muscles and went toe to toe with the giant CGI sand-head of Arnold Vosloo, Universal Studios minted the bandaged bastard into their Universal Monsters line back in 1932.
Giving Boris Karloff an honest to god speaking role after his dynamite turn as the mute Frankenstein’s Monster launched him into pop culture immortality, we now see him portray ancient prince Imhotep, a dusty, undead curse machine, desperately searching for his reincarnated lost love.
However, while the film has entered the pantheon of classic movie monster mashes, The Mummy isn’t generally regarded as top tier Universal – so let’s prise open that sarcophagus and try to find out why…
It’s 1921 and very British archeologists are cracking open a mysterious tomb in the Egyptian desert only to find the mummified remains of a poor sod who was buried alive for some unknown sin. Virtually every scrap of hieroglyphics in the place scream that a curse has been placed on the tomb and anyone who would dare open an accompanying box is basically going to fucking know about it. Cue the box instantly being opened by the youngest member of the group (with the awfully british reasoning of “We had to! Science, you know!”) who promptly awakens the long slumbering (ie. dead) Imhotep who, instead of reaching force strong cup of coffee, nabs the all-important Scroll Of Thoth and buggers off into the dessert.
Jump ahead 10 years and Imhotep has impressively reinvented himself as the parchment-skinned, money-bags Ardath Bey (quite the impressive glow-up from a raggedy corpse) who helps archeologists find the tomb of his lost love Anck Su Namun in an attempt to locate her reincarnated form. He ends up finding it in the body of Helen Grosvenor (it’s always in the last place you look…) and thus launches a campaign against her burgeoning love interest, Frank. As Imhotep fires off curses like the bullets of a jittery sniper, his claiming of Helen almost seems complete; but can anyone stop this supernatural form of blind dating before it reaches it’s unnatural conclusion or will Imhotep manage to get the girl?
The Mummy is a perfectly fine movie in it’s own right with a solid plot and characters, but I’ve always felt it would play better if it wasn’t part of the classic monsters lineup. Despite being crisply directed by Karl Freund and having solid performances that don’t suddenly lurch into melodrama (remember, unlike Frankenstein and Dracula, The Mummy mostly takes place in 1931 and therefore is technically taking place in a contemporary setting) it’s a monster movie that doesn’t really feature a monster at all as it’s protagonist’s face lift kind of takes him out of the “creature” category and makes more kind of a mystic or wizard sort of guy. I realise I’m splitting hairs but I kinda want my Mummy movie to have a Mummy in it. Proving my point is the fact that the film blatantly shoots it’s bolt early with a majestically eerie scene which sees the titular creature stirring into life and turning the idiot who woke him into hysterical madman simply reaching past him to grab a scroll. It’s a remarkably subtle moment because we never actually see Imhotep in his bandaged guise fully lope around chasing people around the pyramid like something out of Scooby Doo (we only see his rags trail across the floor on his way out the door) but this ends up being both a gift and, ironically, a curse. Having the primary villain plot and scheme in order to claim the soul of his reincarnated lady love may give Karloff a more practical bad guy to perform, but this means that aside from that early, opening scene, the movie fails to capitalise on it’s strongest resource: that of Jack Pearce’s original Mummy design. Denying us of at least half a movie where the wrapped up wrong doer could have stalked his prey through the sandy corridors of his tomb is a missed opportunity and while the restored Imhotep gets to hit his victims with curses and heart attacks from afar, he oddly seems less of a threat than the slow moving corpse that graces the poster.
Nevertheless, Karloff still exudes menace despite being force to parade around in a fez and the repeated times he uses his mind control powers (a static close up of his weathered face as the whites in his eyes glow) are nicely intense. He’s also boosted by the fact he has probably the most fleshed out back story of all the Universal Monsters with his tragic past feeling more substantial than just being dead (Frankenstein), alive (The Creature From The Black Lagoon) or just horny (Dracula) and makes the whole affair ring as classy as the great sets.
The rest of the cast fall into the usual roles (dashing lead, elderly mentor, endearing damsel) and honestly feel a little interchangeable from all the other times those stock characters have been dusted off and deployed in a monster movie.
However, the film doesn’t really do much to dispel the myth that Mummy’s aren’t really all that dangerous – even the one in The Monster Squad gets taken out fairly early during the final reel – and you can see why subsequent attempts at the creature have blessed them with devastating super powers to control sand, unleash plagues and hoover the life force out of victims like it’s an unholy form of liposuction. Sure, Imhotep a dab hand at cursing people, but he could achieve much the same effect with a gun or knife if he was actually willing to be bothered to leave his living room…
Despite all this, The Mummy is a solid entry into the Universal cannon, even if it does choose to keep it’s more overtly monstrous elements under wraps…