Universal Monsters: The Mummy (1932)
Of all the wonderful elements in Universal’s The Mummy (1932), there’s one that’s largely
absent: a mummy. The cloth-wrapped version of (Boris) Karloff “The Uncanny,” with makeup
by the great Jack Pierce (Frankenstein), is not seen again after the first 12 minutes of the
movie. We don’t even see him walk; we see only a lingering strip of cloth as he exits the tomb
from which he was resurrected by the recital of an ancient curse.
This is great for the mystery and imagination, but how and where did we get the iconic image of
a mummy shuffling along, one arm outstretched or perhaps both arms carrying a beautiful
woman into a swamp? It must have been from a subsequent mummy movie, of which there are
many (at least five more from Universal itself.) Fortunately, we still have Karloff for the entire
movie, as well as fantastically moody direction by Karl Freund.
A year earlier, Freund was the Cinematographer on Dracula. In what is in essence a remake of
Dracula, Freund calls the shots behind the camera and the result is a consistently more
atmospheric and moody production. He loves that strip of light across his creatures’ eyes; used
so effectively in Dracula, he repeats the technique here. It makes Karloff’s unwrapped character
10 years later in the story, Ardath Bey, even more sinister than Bela Lugosi.
Bey is really Imhotep, an Egyptian priest who was buried alive for trying to resurrect the woman
he loved, princess Ankh-es-en-amon. In modern Cairo, he encounters Helen Grosvenor (Zita
Johann), who is the reincarnation of his princess. He plots to kill her, mummify her, and then
resurrect her so that she can be his eternal bride. (“I was buried alive. I ask of you only a
moment of agony.”) Sound familiar? That’s often where the comparison to Dracula is made.
Having forgotten that The Mummy was largely mummy-less until I re-watched it recently, I
now am a little more forgiving of Universal’s 1999 version, an action-packed epic masquerading
as a horror film. In retrospect, it does a pretty good job of harvesting the core elements from its
predecessor. I won’t say one of the elements in The Mummy (1932) is action; however, it is
quite suspenseful and relies more heavily on supernatural forces instead of a particular monster
I’m a little perplexed by the enduring popularity of the mummy as one of the evergreen
monsters, along with Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolf Man and/or the Creature from
the Black Lagoon. What does a mummy actually do? Sure, it’s a frightening image, and the dead
brought back to life is usually scary. But with the insane popularity of faster moving, hard to kill
zombies, you’d think a creature that’s movements are restricted and can easily turn to dust would
be rather ho-hum.
But I digress. The Mummy (1932), regardless of the monster, is a worthy addition to the roster
of Universal Monsters, within the context of their 1930’s origins. It’s the first movie that’s
mystery unfolds during the time it was made; Dracula and Frankenstein took place in the past.
It also gained huge momentum from the public’s fascination with mummies, as demonstrated
following the discovery of Tutankhamun’s (King Tut’s) tomb in 1922.