“The Mummy” is a little out of step with the other Universal monsters. It’s not based on a book, and a lot of fascinating, frighteningly in depth work has gone into figuring out what its literary or cinematic inspirations might have been. Perhaps for that reason–without an obvious catalog of characters or lore to draw upon–it never spawned any direct sequels.
It also might feel the most aged out of its contemporaries, and I’m not just talking about how the culturally delicate topic of tomb robbing is one of its plot points. Unlike “Dracula,” which seems to take place in a Kafkaesque void, or “Frankenstein,” which is a delightful anachronism stew, “The Mummy” actually looks like it takes place in the 1930s. However, there’s something to be said for a film that acts its age.
The story of “The Mummy” is surprisingly simple. In 1921, British archaeologist Sir Joseph Whemple (1930s character actor Arthur Byron) leads a dig in the Egyptian countryside. He discovers the mummified remains of a man who appears to have been buried alive. Buried with the mummy is a scroll that claims to bestow life and a curse that threatens death. Whemple doesn’t take either seriously, even when the mummy goes missing and Whemple’s assistant goes insane.
Ten years later, an old Egyptian dude named Ardeth Bay (Boris Karloff, of course) comes to Whemple’s son, also an archaeologist, and helps him locate the tomb of an ancient princess. As fresher bodies pile up, the connection between both mummies, Whemple and a young socialite with the improbable name of Helen Grosvenor will all be uncovered.
How does “The Mummy” hold up if we ask the same three questions we asked of “Frankenstein”–how does it hold up as a movie, a Gothic thriller and a horror film? As a movie, “The Mummy” is admittedly uneven. Its performances are fine, its use of music and silence is appropriate, and its photography and lighting are striking (director Karl Freund got his start as a cinematographer, and his resume includes the silent sci fi epic “Metropolis,” so striking photography and lighting are to be expected).
Script-wise, there’s a little more to be desired. The film starts fast–perhaps too fast–but it slows considerably as it moves on, and it’s not unfair to think of the climax as draggy. Accordingly, the movie never finds its pace. Oh well. At least the Egypt on display is notably contemporary–there are nightclubs and cars and modern dress, so the film never feels entirely exploitative of its location–and barring a quick reference to Bast as a goddess of evil, its religious history is not bad. The final script was by John L. Balderston, a former journalist who had covered the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, so he was up-to-date on the current Egyptology.
As a Gothic thriller, the film might be better than some of its more conventionally Gothic contemporaries. From the start of the film, the themes of knowledge and eternal life are written on the screen (in art deco font no less). Knowledge is power. Knowledge is also terrifying. It’s paradoxical, attractive and repellent. It intrigues humans and destroys them. We fight over it, but it belongs to no one but itself. It is guarded by cosmic forces that we call gods or destiny, but we ultimately have no control over them. Oddly enough, with its Egyptian setting, ancient documents and humans going crazy from revelations, “The Mummy” is probably the most Lovecraftian of the Universal monster films.
The other big theme of life after death is just as compelling, thanks in no small part to the cast. Sure, David Manners as the human love interest is rather ineffectual, but his boyish and tepid interactions with Zita Johann actually make her interactions with Karloff seem much more powerful. Karloff’s performance is intense and understated, but when he’s around Johann he becomes fluid, sensitive, even vulnerable. His efforts to bring her closer to him (by psychically strangling people, to be fair) seem to take something out of the normally unflappable character. It’s a nice touch, and Karloff sells it well.
Arguably, the film’s themes of time passing and repeating, the transmigration of souls, existentialism butting heads with destiny, and an attraction that transcends centuries all had a profound impact on horror as whole. It seems particularly notable in vampire stories and the works of Clive Barker (would we have “Candyman” without “The Mummy?” Maybe not).
But it’s as a horror film that “The Mummy” holds the biggest surprise. Given the film’s odd pace and descent into melodrama, it doesn’t always feel like an effective thriller. However, the atmosphere is consistently dark and appropriate, and more than that, the first 10 minutes are an almost flawless example of what a horror movie should look like.
In those first 10 minutes, the pacing is ideal. Just enough information is doled out by Edward Van Sloan’s occult researcher to intrigue without overwhelming. The camera checks in with the characters like an active spectator. The atmosphere relies on images and spaces of silence, and the monster is carefully photographed, all to ensure there’s enough room for viewers throw themselves into the scene. Tension mounts, and the payoff is an unforgettable performance by Bramwell Fletcher as an unfortunate research assistant.
It is fair–if an easy joke–to say that “The Mummy” has gotten a little dusty with age. It looks as old as it is, and it doesn’t move as well as it could. However, its atmosphere, themes, performances and flashes of brilliance more than balance that out. While it might not have wormed its way into culture as obviously as “Dracula” or “Frankenstein,” it should be required viewing for any horror fan.