In 1932, Universal Pictures released The Mummy. The studio was coming off a financial high from 1931, when Frankenstein and Dracula were substantial hits. Capitalizing on a heightened interest in ancient Egyptian antiquities, that was triggered by the 1922 discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb, Universal shrewdly selected its next monster. The film’s narrative unfolds in 1922, to provide historical verisimilitude for the scenes about a notorious archaeological expedition. It then fast-forwards ten years to be contemporary. Universal wound up with another box office success, and the production garnered significant praise.
Director Karl Freund had been the cinematographer on Dracula, as well as having directorial input on that film. Freund possessed expertise and savviness. His knowledge of cinematography gives The Mummy much of its splendid style. For example, he brilliantly highlighted the makeup created by Jack Pierce, giving Boris Karloff as The Mummy/Ardath Bey a mesmerizing sinister quality.
In addition to the casting prize of Karloff, Freund received a bonus with actress Zita Johann. Her enormous wide-set-apart eyes and alluring exotic looks are visual short hand for the part she plays: an ancient Egyptian priestess reincarnated as a 20th Century woman. Freund allows the camera to fall in love with her, making Karloff’s character’s undying passion perfectly comprehensible.
Karloff gives a primo performance: perfectly essaying the role of a tormented and obsessive lover, while conveying a disturbing lurking malevolence. The chilling magnetism of his Ardath Bey works beautifully with Johann’s otherworldly charisma.
The screenplay by John L. Balderston borrows bits from 1931’s Dracula. This isn’t too surprising given that Balderston had adapted the vampire story into a stage play, and has a writing credit on that film. The respective movies each feature an occult specialist, who is portrayed by Edward Van Sloan in both films. A confrontation scene in which Dracula and Dr. Van Helsing engage in a battle of wills is mimicked in The Mummy. The corresponding sequence has Ardath Bey and Dr. Muller squaring off with almost identical editing, and dialogue that is quite comparable in content and composition.
Further Dracula déjà vu is evident in another section of The Mummy. The scene in Dracula, in which the imperiled focal female feels her life among the living ebbing away, is almost duplicated. In each film, the gal gets gussied up to bid adieu to her non-supernatural love interest, in a febrile last ditch attempt to totally seduce him. Actor David Manners is the non-threating paramour in the two motion pictures; a repetitive and thankless role, especially considering his two screen rivals’ potent paranormal appeal.
The Mummy delivers marvelously subtle scares. One of the most unnerving segments occurs when Johann’s character brings her large dog along with her to an assignation with Ardath Bey. The canine registers fear and is taken away by a servant, followed out of the room by an ominous white cat. What is alluded to off-camera is far more disquieting than a graphic depiction.
There are creaky elements about the film, including a backstory that suffers from overwrought music and droning voice-over narration. In general, however, The Mummy remains a winner on most levels. It is one of Universal Pictures finest explorations into the realm of gods and monsters.