“The Mummy” (1932)
The first of the major Universal sound horror films which relied upon the invention of screenwriters rather than a direct literary predecessor, Karl Freund’s “The Mummy” enjoys the luxury in the depiction of the title creature’s origin backstory and continued tale of menace without the critical distraction of source comparisons. That being said, it is remarkable as to how many elements of the film seem vaguely familiar, as if directly lifted, by way of clever transposition, from previous successes, most prominently Tod Browning’s “Dracula”. That Freund, the earlier film’s cinematographer, is promoted to the director’s chair and actors David Manners, Edward Van Sloane are prominently featured in both films, certainly contributes to a certain air of déjà vu; but it is the presence of John Balderston which accounts for the prematurely formulaic sense of reincarnated genre tropes to which the film is attributable (he managed to make a stuffy drawing room drama out of Stoker’s seminal novel, from which every incarnation since has immeasurably suffered).
In 1921, a group of archeologists, including Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron) and an expert in occultism Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan) under the sponsorship of the British Museum, make some remarkable finds in an Egyptian dig (despite early exchanges in which characters complain, with contradictory fervor, that their labors have yielded kittle of value!); a perfectly preserved mummy of the high priest Imhotep (Boris Karloff), and a mysterious chest whose contents are protected by a dire caution of death. As though he were unfamiliar with lesson to be learned from the tale of Pandora’s Box, Sir Joseph’s assistant, the foolhardy Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher), reveals the contents of the casket (Just how would horror films thrive without the cooperation of rational people who recklessly run headfirst to their doom?), the Scroll of Thoth, imprinted with forbidden holy words of resurrection, the substance of which the film foolishly opens, making the text sound like a Pep Squad chant for ancient deities. The revived mummy, shocks the startled Norton into a paroxysm of insane laughter. from which he never recovers; though just how the shuffling Imhotep manages to elude both Sir Joseph and Dr. Muller, who are standing just outside the entrance to the chamber, is a mystery.
Jumping ahead ten years, Imhotep, under the guise of an Egyptian named Ardath Bey, approaches the site of another British dig, this time headed by Sir Joseph’s son Frank (David Manners) whose attention is immediately captured when the mysterious stranger informs him of the heretofore undiscovered location of tomb of Princess Ankh-es-en-amon, who, it will be revealed, was Imhotep’s secret love and the subject of his thwarted forbidden attempt at resurrection, leading to his live entombment. The excavation and exhibition of the tomb’s artifacts will lead to a not always coherent path of telepathically induced deaths, fleeting and unconvincing romance and an attempt by Imhotep to reestablish his romance with the princess with the appearance of a half-Egyptian woman named Helen (Zita Johann) is immediately recognized by the priest as the reincarnation of the princess and whose convenient presence lays the foundation for the more preposterous events of the narrative to transpire, while abandoning the earlier establishment of an indiscriminate supernatural curse befalling the transgressors of the films initial archeological finds.
As mentioned earlier, the film follows a similar simplistic narrative formula in which screenwriter Balderston established a comfortable recipe for success despite the eradication of the source material’s grandiosity of Gothic underpinnings (in “Dracula”) and themes (in “Frankenstein”). With “The “Mummy”, we find Balderston cannibalizing his streamlining method of reducing sensational material with ethereal overtones and bringing it crashing down to earth by reducing exotic theological concepts to dull cocktail party chatter. His evisceration of Bram Stoker’s event filled novel have been duplicated with a startling fidelity that, has it been administered by another author, might have been grounds for plagiarism. Here we have the introduction, in the face of rational enterprise, of an undead figure from centuries past, who drives his initial mortal enabler to madness; then there is the pursuit of a woman, who has as her watchdogs a trio of erudite but fairly helpless academics, including an eminent scientist, a know-it-all expert on all matters of the otherworldly and a completely ineffectual romantic partner with whom there is little or no visible personal chemistry. Both films also feature nocturnal contacts with the increasingly fragile woman when she is at her most vulnerable. Finally, there is the climactic imperilment of the lady in the lair of the villain in order to secure her as an eternal companion; necessitating a breathless (in theory, though in both films the pursuit is rather wheezy and pokey) last minute pursuit of and confrontation with the forces of darkness. Structurally, the two films are carbon copies, differentiated only by cultural differences of timeframe and geography (the Balkans versus Egypt), though the goals of the protagonist and the actions of his antagonists are virtually identical, as Balderston continually proves himself a timid translator of material with both feet in the realm of the fantastic, by relegating the proceedings to a middlebrow sensibility beholden to the tropes of drawing room drama. What results is a film which is, in essence, simply the latest incarnation of the melodramatic love triangle thinly veiled in mummy’s bandages
Freund’s direction is sufficiently imaginative in the sequences emphasizing the more shadowy elements of the story (though an entire flashback sequence dramatizing Imhotep’s transgression and punishment, is ineffectively staged), though he seems defeated by the more conventional passages (as was Tod Browning in “Dracula”) related to endless conversational exposition (too often characters ceaselessly argue over what is going on that we already know), not to mention the supposed romantic interludes between Helen and Frank which are, to say the least, awkwardly written and performed with equal unease by Johann and Manners in a manner best described as “mutually forced shotgun wedding’. For a film whose subject encompasses an unquenchable passion which transcends millennia, there is a surprising dearth of unsullied romantic expression. Imhotep, while a villainous character, should also be regarded as a pitiable figure whose wholly human emotions have been grotesquely disfigured through unnatural circumstances. However, Imhotep is unsparingly used as a figure of menace and there is not a single moment in Karloff’s performance which elicits sympathy, with Freund instead mistakenly fixated entirely on the actor’s unquestioned ability to unnerve. The film might have been an unique horror tragedy of an eternal yet unrequited love, but without allowing a broadening of the characters of Imhotep as anything more than a fez wearing boogeyman (Certainly the modern day incarnation of amour between Helen and Frank feels perfunctory at best, with Johann and Manners generating all of the fire of a bucket of water thrown on an unlit match.), the film emerges as merely a fleetingly interesting but disappointingly generic spook show.