The Mummy is often unfairly dismissed as an inferior attempt to emulate the success of Dracula. It’s from the same writer, John L. Balderston, and the credits are even set to the same music – the powerful Swan Lake theme that opened that other iconic horror. I’d argue that the influence of Frankenstein can also be keenly felt on the picture, and not just in its leading actor. However, I think The Mummy is often unfairly overlooked when examining the Universal Monster Movies, playing more like a creepy existential romantic epic than a conventional creature feature horror film.
Boris Karloff rather famously only spends the first few minutes of the picture in that iconic and instantly recognisable outfit. He spends the rest of the movie wandering around in a snazzy fez with a flash walking stick and a naff ring. Sure, there’s some nice make-up on his face to give us the impression that a light breeze might scatter his character to the wind, but Karloff gets to spend most of the movie being Karloff. It’s nice to see that actor get title billing (appearing before the title of the film, even), especially since the opening credits of Frankenstein had credited him as “?”
Still, The Mummy doesn’t really get much love in the Universal pantheon. While Dracula and Frankenstein went on to spin-off entire movie franchises, The Mummy would earn a “reboot” almost a decade later in the form of The Mummy’s Hand. While the creature is iconic, he remains a good tier below the old stand-bys of Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolfman, despite the fact he arrived only a year behind them.
However, unlike Dracula or Frankenstein, The Mummy doesn’t have a direct literary predecessor. It has been suggested that this is why the creature and the film tend to get overlooked:
One reason why mummy films suffer in comparison to other films of the classic horror genre is that they have, as Kim Newman describes it, no “foundation text” (Newman 225). The other famous monsters either have a literary source beginning with Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, and ending with Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera in 1911, or they have a mythical origin such as the vampire or werewolf.
To be fair, the notion of a reanimated Egyptian Mummy does have some literary precedent towards the end of the nineteenth century. By the time the film was developed, interest in the subject had, of course, been driven by the wealth of discoveries in Egypt in the early twentieth century – the most famous, of course, being the discover of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922 and the rumour of the curse which plagued those who opened it.
However, despite the fact that The Mummy is one of the most overlooked of the classic movie monsters, it is worth noting that it is the only one of these monsters that has been successfully leveraged into a remake film franchise. It seems that every few years somebody will try to make a “Dracula” vampire film, but the character has been absent from the most successful vampire films of the past few decades. Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein was a mess. The Wolfman squandered a lovely cast and some great production design.
In contrast, The Mummy spawned a trilogy and a successful spin-off. Indeed, there’s even the suggestion that the film will get another remake. My inner cynic suggests that the new take on The Mummy will reach the screen long before the oft-mentioned Bride of Frankenstein or Creature from the Black Lagoon remakes. Not bad for a character who is often treated as a second-though in the great monster movie pantheon. Of course, you could argue that the creature’s relative obscurity and lack of any essentially iconic attributes beyond his bandaged appearance allows the adaptations to be more flexible than those of more recognisable properties.
To be fair, although there’s no direct source for the story of The Mummy, beyond a fascination with the Egyptian tombs and mythology, the film does borrow quite heavily from Dracula. An undead monster decides to make a beautiful woman his undead bride while her male companions (a boyfriend and some older men) try to save her from his nefarious clutches. Like Dracula, Imohotep has the power of mind control, and the film has a wise old expert played by Edward Van Sloan. The creature even sleeps in a coffin in its familiar pose.
However, I’d argue the film also borrows considerably from Frankenstein as well, and not just in the form of its leading man. Like the monster from Frankenstein, Imhotep is awakened by a bunch of arrogant jerks sticking their nose where it doesn’t belong. Both Frankenstein and the archaeologists are explicitly warned about hubris, and yet both tempt fate and provoke the wrath of a sinister (yet tragic) figure.
“Our job is to increase the sum of human knowledge of the past, not to satisfy our own curiosity,” the wiser Whemple advises his arrogant young student.Even Whemple is tempted when the wiser Muller warns him of what may be waiting. “If you are right about the legend, then this casket may contain the Scroll of Thoth, from the holy of holies in the temple, and I can hardly wait to get back to find out.” Like Frankenstein, Whemple’s belief in the value and importance of scientific discovery is absolute. He advises Miller, “In the interests of science, even if I believed in the curse, I’d go on with my work for the museum.”
Whemple is only slightly smarter than his student and – as such – gets to continue a sane existence just a little while longer. Ralph, Whemple’s young student, doesn’t heed the advice from either of the two older gentlemen on his expedition. Instead, he allows his curiosity to get the better of him. Like Frankenstein, Ralph’s curiosity and his desire to see and understand the universe drives him mad. Like Frankensein, Ralph gazes into the impossible… and he responds with insanity as some sort of defence mechanism. The moral is quite clear, and familiar to those who know Frankenstein. There are some things that man is clearly not supposed to know.
However, what really distinguishes The Mummy from Dracula or Frankenstein is the focus on romance, and also a stronger colonial commentary. The action in The Mummy doesn’t take place somewhere in Europe featuring mostly native characters. The adventure unfolds in Cairo. The surrounding gives the movie a relatively unique flavour when compared to the distinctly European gothic settings of most of the rest of the Universal canon. Imhotep seems much older and much more eternal than even the immortal Dracula. time is a recurring theme here. When Ralph explains his impatience, Whemple puts it in context, “This is your first trip. I’ve been here ten years. I’m more curious about the mummy than you. And even more about that box.”
The film opens in 1921, which is an interesting choice. The Tomb of Tutankhamen would not be discovered until 1922, so one would have assumed that year would make the perfect starting point. However, Egypt declared its independence in 1921, and it colonialism is a very strong subtext throughout the movie. Despite being set in Cairo, most of the speaking roles are given to obviously Caucasian characters.
Non-white actors are reduced to placing servants (one of whom is referred to as “the Nubian” pretty much exclusively) and taxi drivers. On meeting Helen, Frank observes that he felt so alone on his trip to Egypt, “I’d have liked Egypt better if I’d met you there. No such luck! Stuck in the desert for two months, and was it hot!” It seems like the natives literally don’t exist as far as he is concerned and he can only really notice Helen because she’s only half-Egyptian.
Frank complains about the terms of their survey. “It’s a dirty trick, Cairo Museum keeping what we’ve found.” It’s clear that he feels entitled to the wealth he has found, regardless of the fact that the land no longer belongs to him or any colonial power. Whemple advises him, “That was the contract. The British Museum works for science, not for loot.” There’s all sorts of hints of colonialism to be found here – and not just British.
When the movie wants to illustrate that this is a foreign country, the white cast speak in French. (It’s not “the History Museum”, it’s “Le musée des Antiquités.”) Doctor Muller is clearly German, another of the European powers that carved up Africa during the era of colonialism. When the movie introduces Helen, we’re told, “Her father’s governor of the Sudan. English, of course. Her mother, Egyptian.” I love the “of course.” It just makes things so casual.
The spectre of slavery is also present. When Imhotep breaks into Muller’s house, and even after he plans to kidnap Helen and ensnares Muller with his telepathy and mind control, the good doctor is only really offended when Imhotep reveals that he has mentally enslaved Muller’s African house servant. “So you have made him your slave. If I could get my hands on you, I’d break your dried flesh to pieces.”
Appropriately enough, the only member of the white cast “half Egyptian”, it’s Helen who finds herself caught between the old native ways of her people and the colonial advances of Frank. Indeed, you could argue that Frank’s interest in her is archaeological:
The hitherto prosaic and insensitive Frank falls insanely in love with her as soon as he sees her. In the course of their first conversation, he astonishingly confesses that in opening Anckesenamon’s tomb, in handling her personal belongings and seeing her in her sarcophagus, he fell in love with her and his passion for Helen stems from her resemblance to the ancient princess. Helen responds by joking: “Do you have to open graves to find girls to fall in love with?” From this perspective, Frank’s attempts to win her away from Imhotep can be seen as a sort of an archaeological work, as battling with the past for rights of possession over its treasures. But for Helen, her identity and affections torn between a necrophiliac and a walking corpse, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that the boorish Frank is preferable to the elegant Imhotep.
Appropriately enough, Helen’s central crisis is one of identity, as she finds herself battling between her current persona and that of an ancient princess. She protests, “But I don’t want to lose my own mind and be someone else. Someone I hate.”
It feels strange she’d use the adjective “hate”, as Ankh-es-en-amon doesn’t seem that objectionable as a character. Unlike Imhotep who violates the laws of nature, Ankh-es-en-amon did not ask for any of this – and her ancient gods are obliging enough to respond to her desperate pleas for assistance. Although the ending implies that Helen’s more colonial personality has won out, the film cuts away from her revival relatively quickly, leaving at least a shadow of doubt. (Or simply not wanting to bore the audience once the climax was over.) Still, it’s interesting that it’s the colonial leads who are completely powerless at the climax of the film, it’s only the intervention of the old and forgotten gods that saves the day.
Unsurprisingly, given the nature of the story – a truly romantic epic featuring an undead monster – there’s a lot of overt necrophilia-related subtext. It’s remarkably uncomfortable at times, despite remaining ambiguous and only suggested. In many respects, The Mummy is even more explicit in this regard than Bride of Frankenstein. Imhotep’s fascination with his dead lover is the most obvious example. We see the scene play out, but there’s a sinister implication in his description of his arrest in the room with his dead girlfriend’s body. “They broke in upon me and found me doing an unholy thing.”
When he finally gets Helen alone, in the persona of Ankh-es-en-amon, he’s literally unable to touch her. (He flakes to dust, his presence impotent.) In order to accomplish their union, he must kill her. In the moment that he goes from sympathetic victim to outright monster, he assures her, “For thy sake I was buried alive. I ask of thee only a moment of agony. Only so can we be united.” It’s far more unpleasant than Dracula’s neck bites, which are much less explicit.
Even the relatively normal character, Frank, has a somewhat creepy obsession with dead girls. He’s clearly excited talking to Helen about his discoveries, boasting, “The 14 steps down and the unbroken seals were thrilling. But when we came to handle all her clothes, her jewels and her toilet things… They buried everything with them they used in life. When we came to unwrap the girl…” The imagery is distinctly sexual, as he talks about stripping a body that has been dead for millennia. Helen asks, “How could you do that?” He replies almost casually, “Had to! Science, you know!” It seems like a justification. He then explains the intimacy that followed, “Well, after we’d worked among her things, I felt as if I’d known her.”
Michael Delahoyde has suggested that this none-too-subtle theme is one of the reasons that the Mummy never really caught on as a movie monster. After all, it’s pretty distinct from the sexual lust of vampirism:
In both cases, the texts flirt with the notion of necrophilia. This perhaps is the potential psychosexual creepiness, since other monsters seem to involve other taboos. The zombie, for example, “is really a mummy in street clothes with no love life and a big appetite” (Twitchell 261). Vampires, the undead, have a sexual aspect to their predations, but it doesn’t seem quite the same as necrophilia. The problem may be that necrophilia just simply is not a repressed impulse, so the implicit facets of it playing beneath the surface of the key mummy stories are not enough of a lurid taboo to hold us.
It’s an interesting theory, and perhaps that’s why the public never responded to the Mummy in the same way they did to Dracula as a movie monster.
After all, Dracula is pretty much a thrill show with none-too-subtle sexual thrills thrown in. That undead ghoul isn’t talking about eternal love, just some light necking before he flies out your window in the middle of the night. In contrast, the Mummy is about genuinely undying romance. Imhotep seems much more like a romantic hero than Dracula did. He was killed for love, enduring ages of being entombed as punishment for his love of Ankh-es-en-amon.
As played by Karloff, he even looks more human than Dracula ever seemed. He goes so far as to adopt a false name to fool his hosts. (An anagram of “death by Ra.“) He wanders around in the clothes of the time, with his face looking like it just had a really bad sunburn. In contrast Dracula wore a cape and pretty much just asked the world to deal with his distinctive “otherness.” Bela Lugosi created a sense of pathos around Dracula, but The Mummytreats Imhotep as a far more tragic (and pitiable) creature.
It’s great to see Karloff in a role like this, afforded a relatively human appearance. Karloff was always a better actor than popular opinion would concede – if you doubt it, I recommend you check out Targets. Here, as with the other iconic movie monster, he uses his body as a tool. He plays Imhotep as arch and stiff – he creates the impression that this feeble body might collapse into dust at the slightest contact. The make-up is superb. Obviously the opening sequence is iconic, but even the look of Karloff’s face during close-ups is beautiful.
Karloff’s portrayal is ably assisted by director Karl Freund, who had worked as the cinematographer on Dracula and brought a distinctly expressionist vibe to proceedings. He cleverly keeps the murder of the museum guard by Imhotep off-screen. This touch allows Karloff to continue looking frail – rather than leading us to ask how he could overpower a man in his prime. Allowing the death to happen, but without showing it to us, also keeps Imhotep sympathetic for as long as possible. (It’s implied that he didn’t even touch the guard, as we’re told, “So he died of shock.”Similarly, Ralph is driven mad by the sight of him. It makes these seem like accidents rather than malice.)
Of course, keeping the death off-screen is also just a nice directorial trick. What we don’t see is often scarier than anything shown. Freud gives the film an impressive and stately appearance with any number of beautiful shots and sequences. The moment where the guard finds Imhotep in the museum still looks as impressive as ever, and that shot of the camera zooming in on Imhotep’s “vision pool” is still an exampled of great film making.
There are other nice touches. There’s a nice shot early on of Ralph unrolling the scroll, with the Mummy sitting upright in his coffin behind him – the audience suspecting that he might spring to life at any moment. Looking back at Imhotep’s past life, Freund makes the inspired choice to shoot it as a silent black-and-white film, as if to emphasis the difference between the two eras. “You will not remember what I show you now,” Imhotep promises, “and yet I shall awaken memories of love and crime and death.”It sounds like he could be introducing a film.
I think the real beauty of The Mummy is that it plays more like a grotesque epic romance than a straight-up horror film, with Imhotep’s obsessive love of Ankh-es-en-amon transcending time itself, but in a way that is ultimately more creepy and subversive than the romantic fantasy the premise teases. The Mummy feels like an older story than it is, and not just because it’s clearly modelled on at least one (I’d argue two) classic monster stories.
The obsession with reincarnation gives the film a weird zen spirituality that anchors it in the nineteenth century, when the belief became popular. Like the movie’s exploitation of the fascination with Egyptology that grapsed the public imagination, it anchors the story and its themes in the same murky past as Dracula or Frankenstein. Dracula reads in the shadow of Victorian attitudes to sexuality, and The Mummyfeels informed by these late-nineteenth-/early-twentieth-century fads.
After all, the introductory text will seem familiar to any genre aficionado. “Death is but the doorway to new life,” we’re warned. “We live today — We shall live again– In many forms shall we return.” It’s an idea that really distinguishes the timelessness and immortality of The Mummy from the same thematic concepts in Dracula, and I think it gives the movie its own uniquely pulpy angle. Imhotep promises his lover, “Your soul is in a mortal body, renewed many times since we loved in Thebes of old.”
I think The Mummy is sorely underrated as a Universal Horror, and I will continue to hope for its reappraisal. Maybe one of my reincarnations will live to see it.
You might be interested in our other Universal Monster reviews:
- Dracula (1931)
- Frankenstein (1931)
- The Mummy (1932)
- The Invisible Man (1933)
- Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
- The Wolf Man (1941)
- The Phantom of the Opera (1943)
- The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
Filed under: Non-Review Reviews Tagged: | Boris Karloff, British Museum, BritishMuseum, creature from the black lagoon, dracula, Edward Van Sloan, egypt, Egyptian Museum, film, Frank, frankenstein, Helen, Imhotep, John L. Balderston, Karl Fruend, Karloff, Kim Newman, Mary Shelley, Movie, Mummy, Mummy's Hand, non-review review, Reincarnation, review, Scroll of Thoth, Sudan, swan lake, Tutankhamun, Universal Monster, universal monsters