The Mummy (1932) is another old horror film where I’ve had the DVD for years but have never got round to watching it. Time to put that right!
It’s another one I hadn’t realised was a Universal monster movie, complete with Boris Karloff in the title role. His name is as big as the film title in all the promotion!
The music over the opening credits is Swan Lake AGAIN, just like they used for Dracula. We then get a caption explaining the (fictional) ancient Egyptian ‘Scroll of Thoth’, which is about Isis and Osiris. (A quick note: my degree was in Ancient History, so I’m likely to get annoyed about various historical inaccuracies in this film.)
The opening sequence is set in the Egyptian-archaelogy-crazed year of 1921, which was only eleven years in the past at this point! A group of archaeologists, Sir Joseph Whemple, Dr Muller, and Ralph Norton, are excited about their new find – an intact mummy and a mysterious box. The makeup on the mummy is great – even in corpse mode, you can instantly tell it’s Karloff, but it also looks really realistic.
Muller delivers a bunch of backstory by reading the hieroglyphics on the tomb, in which he’s apparently very fluent. The mummy is of Imhotep, who was buried alive, as he was sentenced to death for sacrilege. Norton makes a joke about Imhotep getting too cosy with the ‘vestal virgins’, which is a MASSIVE inaccuracy obvious to anyone who’s not completely ignorant about the ancient world. Vestal virgins were a Roman thing – the ancient Egyptians had no social or spiritual values attached to virginity!
The box, meanwhile, is gold, and has an inscription on it. ‘Death, eternal punishment, for anyone who opens this casket,’ translates Muller. He’s the superstitious one, while the others are typical archaeologists of the period – eager to make scientific discoveries and sceptical of such ancient beliefs. Sir Joseph and Muller go outside to argue about it some more. They suspect it contains the legendary Scroll of Thoth. Muller is adamant that it shouldn’t be opened, but Sir Joseph is determined to fulfil his scientific duty.
Norton, meanwhile, is so curious about the box that he can’t even wait for Sir Joseph to get back before opening the box. There is indeed an ancient scroll inside, which Norton handles with absolutely no due diligence whatsoever! He starts to translate the scroll, speaks the words it contains, and the mummy is shown to awaken. Norton immediately goes mad at the sight of the moving mummy, which is how Sir Joseph finds him a couple of minutes later.
Cut to the contemporary year of 1932! Two new archaeologists, Professor Pearson and Frank Whemple (the son of Sir Joseph), are disappointed about their lack of finds in Egypt so far. Pearson delivers a quick bit of backstory about the previous events – Norton ‘died laughing…in a straitjacket’, and Sir Joseph swore never to come back to Egypt.
They’re interrupted by a visitor – it’s the revived mummy of Imhotep, who’s now passing as a normal person. He introduces himself as ‘Ardath Bey’, gives them the gift of an artefact from a princess’s tomb, and tells them where the tomb can be found. ‘We Egyptians are not permitted to dig up our ancient dead,’ he says, to explain why he can’t excavate the tomb himself.
Pearson and Frank set their gang of local workers to work digging up the area, with lots of Egyptian singing to set the mood. There’s a now-uncomfortable detail where the British archaeologists just sit under a parasol relaxing while the Egyptian workers dig! When they inevitably (and easily) find the tomb, they find it’s sealed with ‘the seal of the seven jackals’, unbroken for 3,700 years (dating the ancient Egyptian characters of this film to around 1800 BC).
We then get a classic early-20th-century-film newspaper clipping caption to explain what happens next in the story – Sir Joseph has decided to return to Cairo after all. Cut to the Cairo Museum, where artefacts from the princess’s tomb are on display. Imhotep is in the room, looking at the mummifed princess.
At a posh dance nearby, we’re introduced to a very glamorous-looking girl – Helen Grosvenor, talking to Muller, who’s currently acting as her guardian. She doesn’t like the heat. We find out some more details about both Helen and Muller through the plot mechanic of a very gossipy pair of guests at another table, who are talking about the two of them! Helen apparently comes from a notable family, and her mother is Egyptian.
At the museum, Imhotep speaks to Sir Joseph. Sir Joseph is very grateful to him for instigating the find, but his son Frank is not so happy, as it means that the artefacts have to be displayed in the Cairo Museum, rather than in London.
We then get a scene of Imhotep casting a spell over a silly-looking witch’s type cauldron/pool that allows him to spy on people. This is juxtaposed with the dance, where Helen, caught by the spell, ditches the man she’s dancing with and leaves the venue, requesting the taxi driver take her to the museum. She sits in the back of the car, reciting something in a strange language. At the museum, failing to get in due to the locked door, she’s caught by Frank, and immediately faints (eyeroll – I would really like to see just one of these older films avoid the irritating cliche of young women fainting at the drop of a hat).
At the Whemple house, Sir Joseph speaks to Helen in ‘ancient Egyptian’. How are these characters even supposed to know how Middle Egyptian (which was in its early stages in 1800 BC) was pronounced? Is Sir Joseph fluent in the Coptic dialect of every single Egyptian period? So many questions. Meanwhile, there’s a kerfuffle in the museum, where Imhotep kills the guard on duty.
Muller arrives to see Sir Joseph, having tracked Helen to the Whemple house. ‘Frank, will you make yourself agreeable?’ says Sir Joseph as he heads into the study for a private chat with Muller. Frank takes this as an order to flirt brazenly with Helen, before excitedly telling her all about the moment when they explored the princess’s tomb. Helen is shocked that he and Pearson unwrapped the princess’s bandages, which is kind of bizarre – it’s as if she thinks of the princess as a real live woman. ‘Do you have to open graves to find girls to fall in love with?’ she asks. Frank realises why he’s so drawn to Helen – she looks very like the princess. Given that the princess is a dusty 3,700-year-old mummy, I wouldn’t say this is the greatest compliment of all time.
Muller is suspicious about ‘Ardath Bey’, although at this point there’s no real reason for this suspicion. Sir Joseph receives a phone call about the dead guard, and he and Muller go to the museum to investigate. Apparently the guard ‘died of shock’ and was found with the Scroll of Thoth. Sir Joseph is shocked by the sight of it, which is a bit confusing – he never laid eyes on it in 1921 before it was taken out of the box by Norton and then immediately stolen by Imhotep.
Frank and Helen, who have progressed to making out on the sofa extremely quickly for characters in a film made in the ’30s, are walked in on by Sir Joseph and Muller, which is a very early example of an awkward parental walk-in moment. The older men, however, don’t seem to care much, as they’re too busy discussing the scroll. We’re reminded that Norton made a transcription of part of the scroll before he went mad. Frank suggests burning it, and Muller agrees. Sir Joseph has apparently always assumed that the mummy of Imhotep was stolen, despite the fact that nobody could have done it in the short time that he and Muller were standing outside the dig in 1921.
Imhotep arrives at the house and hypnotises Sir Joseph’s Nubian servant (again, all of these old British Empire details make the film an uncomfortable watch for modern eyes). He approaches Helen, again introducing himself as ‘Ardath Bey’. ‘Have we not met before, Miss Grosvenor?’ he asks. It’s unclear whether this is because he’s not yet realised she looks like the princess (which is unlikely, given that he already deliberately spell-summoned her to the museum) or because he’s trying to stir her spell-memories (which is illogical, given that they’re in a house with people she knows and it would give Imhotep’s true nature away).
Sir Joseph and Muller are interrupted in their argument about burning the scroll (Sir Joseph still doesn’t want to, as it’s officially the property of the museum) by the realisation that ‘Ardath Bey’ has arrived. Muller works out he must have come for the scroll, and tries to ask ‘Ardath’ about how he knew where the princess was buried. Helen, meanwhile, refuses to go back to the hotel as commanded – she is captivated by Imhotep. She’s eventually escorted away by Frank, with great reluctance.
Muller explains to ‘Ardath’ about the guard and the scroll, and shows him a photo of the Imhotep mummy, which is very obviously the same person. ‘Why do you show all this to me?’ asks ‘Ardath’, but soon reveals himself as Imhotep when it becomes clear that Muller knows what’s going on. Apparently, Imhotep can basically hypnotise anyone with Egyptian blood (this is a very silly detail), and smugly announces that the Nubian servant is under his control.
With Imhotep having left, Sir Joseph agrees to burn the scroll. However, Imhotep is watching them through his witch’s cauldron and casts a spell to kill him. This sequence is pretty daft – where has Muller gone? Surely he would have stayed to watch Sir Joseph burn the scroll? Anyway, the Nubian servant comes into the room, takes the scroll from the fire and replaces it with another bit of paper.
In the morning, this is at first enough to fool Muller. ‘Your father destroyed the scroll knowing that it would cost him his life,’ he says to Frank (who, irritatingly, is more preoccupied with his infatuation with Helen than with mourning his father’s death). However, Muller soon becomes suspicious, and while Frank is on the phone to Helen, he pulls the ashes of the paper out of the fire.
During a taxi journey, Muller’s suspicions are confirmed. ‘Your father did not burn the Scroll of Thoth,’ he explains to Frank – the ashes in the paper were newspaper, not papyrus. The previously-sceptical Frank is starting to believe Muller’s theories, at least enough to wear the protective amulet that the older man gives him.
Despite having been told to stay in the hotel by Frank, Helen goes out anyway, of course, with a previously-unmentioned dog for some reason. When she arrives at the museum, the dog is sent away by Imhotep, because his cat companion doesn’t like it. Imhotep shows Helen his memories of what happened in 1800 BC – he was in love with the princess, but she died, and he stole the Scroll of Thoth to bring her back to life. However, before he could use it, he was caught and sentenced to be buried alive with the scroll, so that nobody else could ever attempt the same thing. The live wrapping-and-burying scene is horrible if you’re claustrophobic! The slaves who buried him were killed, then the soldiers who killed the slaves were killed themselves, so that nobody would ever know where Imhotep was buried. This seems kind of overkill (no pun intended).
‘My love has lasted longer than the temples of our gods,’ Imhotep says to Helen, whom he obviously sees as the princess now. The cat runs off, clearly knowing something is about to go down. Imhotep vows to kill Frank, knowing Helen is falling in love with him.
Helen is irritable and confused when she returns to the hotel and encounters Frank, but somehow she knows the cat killed the dog, who is no longer with her. ‘Don’t let me go again…I’ll try to get away but you mustn’t let me,’ she pleads, knowing there’s something else inside her mind. ‘I’ll never leave you alone,’ Frank assures her, but of course he does.
A few days later, Helen’s nurse is far more sensible than Gerda from Horror Of Dracula and won’t listen to any of Helen’s implorations to let her sneak out, but her older servant is more softhearted and allows her to get dressed. Helen is getting more and more ill, and Muller realises that she has to go to Imhotep or she’ll eventually die. He and Frank plan to follow her and destroy Imhotep.
Argh – character stupidity alert! Frank idiotically puts the protective amulet on Helen’s doorknob instead of keeping it around his own neck as Muller instructed, then settles down on the sofa to spend the night guarding Helen’s room. Of course, Imhotep is watching from his witch’s cauldron, and casts a spell on Frank to kill him. Frank grabs the amulet as he falls, but it’s too late – he’s unconscious, meaning Helen can step over him and leave the building.
In the museum, Helen has mentally become the princess. Imhotep plans to kill her, then cast a spell to turn her into an immortal mummy like him. However, when the princess realises the extent of the plan, she refuses – the Helen part of her wants to live too. She tries to run, but Imhotep hypnotises her.
Frank is still alive, just, and Muller wakes him up. ‘Now I know his horrible plan,’ says Muller. How? It’s never explained how he’s worked it out!
Just as Imhotep is about to kill Helen/the princess, Frank and Muller arrive. Imhotep tries to cast a spell on them, but the princess uses an Egyptian god statue to cast one back on him. He withers and becomes dust again, and the scroll burns in the fire.
Frank cradles Helen, begging her to ‘come back’, but the credits roll before we find out if she actually does!
Overall, this was a great story. I loved Zita Johann’s glam portrayal of Helen, who came across as far more alluring and beautiful than other Universal monster movie heroines (they’re usually blonde girls-next-door), and Boris Karloff had so much more to do here than he ever did as Frankenstein’s monster.
Something much more modern tomorrow!