The Mummy (1932)


Rating 5

Directed by Karl Freund

Written by John L Balderston, from a story by Nina Wilcox Putnam and Richard Schayer

Starring Boris Karloff, Zita Johann, David Manners, Arthur Byron, Edward Van Sloan and Bramwell Fletcher

An ancient Egyptian burial site is discovered during a British Museum expedition led by Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron). The mummy of the priest Imhotep and a gold casket are recovered. The casket contains the Scroll of Thoth, which, when read out, brings the mummy back to life. Ten years later, during another British Museum expedition, this time led by Whemple’s son Frank (David Manners), a mysterious Egyptian called Ardath Bey (Boris Karloff) leads them to the undisturbed tomb of the princess Anck-es-en-Amon. Sir Joseph Whemple is sent for following the discovery of the tomb and he quickly realises that Ardath Bey is actually Imhotep, who is searching for the soul of the dead princess.


Universal Pictures released ‘Dracula’, starring Béla Lugosi, in February 1931. It was the first of a classic sequence of horror films made by the studio and was immediately followed by ‘Frankenstein’, starring Boris Karloff, in November 1931 and ‘The Mummy’, again starring Karloff, in December 1932. Karloff was 44 years old at the time of ‘Frankenstein’ and had already appeared in more than seventy films, dating back to 1916. The film made him a star and he remains, 40 years after his death in 1969 at the age of 81, one of the legends of the horror genre.

Karloff had a screen presence that was perfect for roles like the monster in ‘Frankenstein’ and Imhotep in ‘The Mummy’. His acting was understated and really rather modern in style. While he was adept at suggesting menace, he had an uncanny ability to portray pain in his eyes, which is what really sets him apart.

‘The Mummy’ was inspired by the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. It was directed by Karl Freund, the German cinematographer famous for his work on films like German silent-era classics ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’ and ‘Metropolis’, the aforementioned ‘Dracula’ and the 1948 John Huston film ‘Key Largo’.

Anyone expecting something similar to the 1999 remake would be disappointed. There is no ‘Indiana Jones’-like derring-do here. The film is slow-moving, with several long lingering shots to slow things down even further, and has a strange almost dreamlike quality. There is little in the way of action and most of the thrills and deaths occur off-screen, Freund relying on suggestion and the imagination of his audience.

‘The Mummy’ is rather creaky looking by our standards today and it is complete hokum, but it remains a classic of the genre. It also sealed the reputation of Boris Karloff; one of horror’s greatest ever stars.

Review posted 21 February 2009


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