In The Mummy, "Karloff the Uncanny" stars as Im-ho-tep, an Ancient Egyptian Prince, entombed alive by his Pharaoh's Servants. The year is 1921, the British are excavating ancient tombs left, right and center. Unfortunately, when Im-ho-tep's tomb is discovered, an ancient scroll is also found, containing the magic spells that hold the secrets to resurrecting the dead. Soon, Archeological Assistant Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher) translates the scroll (aloud) and awakens THE MUMMY. It comes to life! Slower than a Lumbering Zombie! More Evil than a Vampire! Able to resurrect hot princesses with an ancient scroll! ... Im-ho-tep ... strange visitor from another time who came to the present with powers and abilities far beyond those of British Archaologists! Im-ho-tep ... who can locate the resting places of mighty pharaohs, bend will with his hypnotic eyes, and who, disguised as Ardath Bey, mild-mannered explorer working with the great British Museum, fights an ever-lustful battle for myth, power, and DEATH BY RA!
Sorry, was that over the top? I can never tell. Although the story and screenplay by Nina Wilcox Putnam, Richard Schayer and John L. Balderston was billed as being completely original, The Mummy has been criticized as a virtual remake of 1931's Dracula. There's a good case to be made for that, too. James Dietrich's score is supplemented by Heinz Roemheld's Main Theme from Dracula. Both stories revolve around an undead prince returning to modern day society and finding his undoing when becoming entranced by a hot woman. Edward Van Sloan is featured here as Dr. Muller, the man who discovers the Mummy's true identity. He appeared in Dracula as Dr. Van Helsing, the man who discovers the Vampire's true nature. David Manners' Frank Whemple is the rival love interest to the object of Im-ho-tep's affections, practically reprising his role as Mina's husband in Dracula. Norton's Fletcher character, with his Joker-esque laughing fits, even fills the Renfield void pretty darned well.
However, The Mummy does come into its own quite well, thanks in no small part to the efforts of its stars, the mesmerizing Boris Karloff and the beautiful Zita Johann! Johann's Helen Grosvenor offers up an enchanting "early talkie" role here, especially when she embraces the idea of her true, reincarnated identity of Im-ho-tep's love Princess Anckesen-Amon! And that's not just because she wears a lot less, but that doesn't hurt either. Women wore more on Miami Vice! The barely nipple-obscuring top she wears is almost as entrancing as her eyes.
It's still Karloff's show, of course, and director Karl Freund does some amazing work surrounding that now-famous grim visage. One particular shot is a tight close up that barely contains all of Karloff's face. The use of light causes a glow that eminates from the whites of his eyes. The affect is as chilling today as it must have been in 1932.
But then, Karloff did have help. The great Jack P. Pierce was the makeup creator on this film (among many others of the Universal Studios Classic Horror movies). His work on 1931's Frankenstein is still considered to be a masterpiece, but he practically outdoes himself here, first with the dried parchment look of the Bandage-Wrapped Im-ho-tep, then with the dark, scary, but whole, Ardath Bey features. Reportedly this was horribly painful for Karloff, especially as the wrinkled affect was obtained with layer upon layer of makeup and prosthetics being applied, dried, reapplied, re-dried... rinse and repeat. This was especially uncomfortable around the eyes, which may explain a lot about that hypnotic look he's got. The makeup effects still stand up as excellent and remarkable to look at, no matter who or when you are. The fact that these were created in 1932 is a jaw-dropper!
The Mummy also shows its age with some of the (minor) insensitivities here, especially toward race. Not that I could complain about having the incredible Noble Johnson (who is fantastic in his role as "The Nubian") in any part, for any reason, but the fact that he's presented as a character named for race, and is treated like a slave is a little disconcerting from seventy years in the future. Let me repeat, though, the man was, and still is, excellent to enjoy in the acting category. In spite of all this the film makers seem almost post-modern in some of the expressed opinions here. While the British seem to be admittedly gleeful grave robbers in many cases, there is a strong message offered by these men (especially Arthur Byron's Sir Joseph Whemple, Frank's Dad) that the antiquities discovered do belong to Egypt, and that their role is to discover and preserve history, not to obtain "Fortune and Glory" (as old Indiana Jones would say). The zeitgeist is certainly reflected here, but this is no Birth of a Nation. The sprinklings of progress shine through here, thankfully.
Derivative or not, The Mummy is still great fun and a very scary Horror Classic of the first rate. Interestingly enough, when Hammer Films produced their own (authorised by Universal) version of The Mummy, as they had done with so many of the Classics, they used two of the sequels (1940's The Mummy's Hand and 1942's The Mummy's Tomb) as their source material. After all... they'd already remade Dracula. Three and One Half Stars out of Five for Universal's Classic Killer Karloff Caper The Mummy. It's not quite the best of the best, but it's still very, very good and worthy of its place on the short list of Horror Greats. I just wonder how many jokes were made on the set with Freund saying "That's a Wrap, everybody." I guess that's better than calling Karloff a "Wrap Star" though. See you in the next gauze-tied reel!
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