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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

itself.

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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.

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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.

Written by John L. Balderston

Directed by Karl Freund

Starring Boris Karloff, Zita Johann, David Manners, Arthur Bryan, Edward Van Sloan

US Release Dec. 22, 1932

RT 73 min.

Home Video Universal Studios Home Entertainment

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