I’ll admit it right here and now. I’m horribly jealous that my brother down in Virginia gets to see one of the best, least-known Universal monster movies on the big screen… The Mummy (1932).
After countless, not so good remakes (early 1990s, I’m looking at you), it’s easy for the original to get swept under the rug with the rest, but to do so would be a mistake. It has a lot of surprises, and packs quite a punch.
The movie opens with the mummy of Imhotep (Karloff) being discovered by Dr. Muller and his impatient young assistant. Imhotep was buried alive for sacrilege, with the Scroll of Thoth in his tomb. The young man reads the scroll aloud, and the mummy walks! The poor man cracks up spectacularly after, and when questioned about what happened to the mummy can only gibber, “It went for a little walk!” A few years later, the very old Ardeth Bey (Karloff, naturally) leads Mullen and his new assistant Whemple to the tomb of the princess, Ancke-es-en-amon. She becomes the Cairo Museum’s main attraction, and at night Bey slips in to read the Scroll of Thoth over her body.
But she doesn’t rise from the dead. Not quite. Across town, however, the beautiful biracial Helen (Zita Johann) falls into a trance and walks to the museum, but cannot get inside. Realizing that she now carries his beloved’s spirit, Imhotep turns his attention to her, and makes it deadly for those who try to stand in his way. But rather than kill them with his hands, he uses sorcery, and those scenes are quite intense. We hear a dog’s death-cries offscreen, and Helen describes it perishing under the claws of a cat. Another archaeologist dies from a heart-attack when Karloff clenches his fist.
Eventually he kidnaps her, dresses her as the princess, and shows her (through excellent flashback) their tragic love story. Imhotep and the princess were lovers, but Ancke-es-en-amon died young from an illness. The bereft priest tried to raise her from the dead via unholy means, was caught, buried alive with the scroll, and the slaves who carried the deed out where killed, so none would know his grave. (Trivia time! This was the first impaling shown in an American film.) He now tries to turn Helen into a living mummy like himself, but she rebels and calls on the goddess Isis for help. The goddess destroys Imhotep as Helen is reunited with her love interest, the young British archaeologist, Whemple.
It’s a very powerful and tragic ending… Karloff’s face registers the hurt his character feels, as well as his anger at being damned. That’s more pathos than the monster, or even villain, usually gets.
Helen’s very existence is also interesting. This was 1932, but she is half-British (white) and half-Egyptian (black). She is played by a white actress, but ends up with a white hero, which is unusual, to say the least. Jim Crow laws were in full-swing, and interracial marriage was illegal. Helen is treated as an equal by the white British upperclass, and gets the guy. Hollywood is still very uncomfortable with the idea of interracial romance and interracial sex, so it’s that much more surprising that during the 1930s that Helen’s British heritage seems to be presented as dominant (no one brings up the “one drop” rule) and that she winds up with Whemple, especially when the rest of the movie is remarkably dated in terms of its views on race and “blood.”
If you have the ability to see The Mummy on the big screen, take it. This poetic, nightmarish film deserves more recognition than it gets, and even provokes thought. That’s more than you can say for a lot of movies, regardless of their genre.