Boris Karloff and Zita Johann in The Mummy (1932)


(director/writer: Karl Freund; screenwriters: Nina Wilcom Putnam (story)/Richard Schayer/John L. Balderston; cinematographer: Charles Stumar; editor: Milton Carruth; cast: Boris Karloff (Imhotep/Ardath Bey), Zita Johann (Helen Grosvenor), David Manners (Frank Whemple), Arthur Byron (Sir Joseph Whemple), Edward Van Sloan (Doctor Muller), Noble Johnson (The Nubian), Leonard Mudie (Professor Pearson), Bramwell Fletcher (Norton); Runtime: 73; Universal; 1932)

“The story was fascinating hokum and its originality spawned a flood of such horror genre films.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A classic horror film told in a sobering way without going for shock effects, but with plenty of spooky scenes. Director Karl Freund was born in Bohemia and grew up in Berlin. He was primarily known as a great cameraman who emigrated to the States in 1929 and first worked on The Boudoir Diplomat. In 1931 he teamed with Tod Browning to do Dracula. He makes his auspicious debut as a director in The Mummy.

The film was created by Nina Wilcom Putnam who wrote a nine-page story entitled “Cagliostro,” based on the Svengali-like hypnotist. Richard Schayer, head of the Universal story department, developed the short story into a treatment. John Lloyd Balderston (he worked on the Dracula script) took this story, retained a few elements, and fashioned a new one designed to tie it in with the idea of a mummy’s curse, based on the sensationalized stories of King Tut’s tomb which were popular during the early 1920s. The idea of walking mummies was never a part of Egyptian folklore and was merely Hollywood hokum. This is according to Dennis Fischer the author of “Horror Film Directors, 1931-1990.”

The film opens with a shot of the Scroll of Thoth which contains the arcane spell by which Isis, the goddess of fertility, raised Osiris from the dead. A translation of it follows: “Oh Amon-Ra-Oh! God of Gods — Death is but the doorway to new life –We live today — We shall live again — In many forms shall we return — Oh, mighty one.” In the background Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” music is heard fading into “Egyptian” music.

The location of Egypt is proclaimed as the film’s setting, and the title says a 1922 Field Expedition by the British Museum is in progress. There are three archeological scholars intently examining their latest discovery: Imhotep’s Mummy (Karloff-with a great makeup job by Jack Pierce) and a gilded sealed box containing the fabled Scroll of Thoth. The three scholars are: Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron) and his assistant Norton (Bramwell Fletcher), who are examining their find but are warned by their other colleague, the occultist Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan), that whoever opens the box and brings the Mummy back to life will receive an ancient curse of eternal damnation.

In a brilliant scene — Sir Joseph and Dr. Muller go outside to argue the validity of the curse and young Norton when left alone, without hesitation, opens the box and examines the scrolls. There is a great shot of the Mummy’s hand moving from out of its wraps as Norton starts to babble to himself, soon going insane with maniacal laughter after he finishes reciting the incantation that revived the Mummy. The Mummy walks away and disappears, just leaving a print of his hand on the scroll.

The film now picks up to the year 1932 and Sir Joseph is no longer a skeptic about the curse and refuses to go on any more archeological expeditions. But his son Frank (David Manners) is in Egypt with his colleague Dr. Pearson. Frank says the expedition is a failure because no great discoveries were found and he feels they let the museum down. But into his office walks an odd looking Egyptian called Ardath Bey (Karloff with another great makeup job by Jack Pierce). He points the scholars to the direction where to dig up the tomb from 3,700 years ago, the one of Princess Anck-es-en-Amon. She was Imhotep’s ancient lover, who died at a young age and he was punished for attempting to revive her. He was caught trying to use the sacred Scroll of Thoth to resurrect her body and was forcibly wrapped while alive in bandages and mummified, and then his sarcophagus was desecrated so his soul can never find the afterlife.

As Bey stalks the streets of Cairo looking for his ancient beloved he recognizes in the half-English and half-Egyptian aristocratic Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), a woman under the care of Dr. Muller (Why would she be under the care of an occult doctor?), someone who has a direct link to his princess’s soul. Bey has discovered that the body of the princess in the tomb does not have her soul, so it would be useless to revive her. So it is now Helen whom he seeks, because she’s got soul.

When Helen is in danger of being controlled by Bey, Sir Joseph puts Frank in charge of taking care of her and presents him with an amulet to wear for protection from the priest. He soon falls in love with her and engages in a battle of wills over the old gal with Imhotep. The ruined high priest Bey will kill anyone who keeps him from his loved one. But Helen wises up by fighting his control over her, and tells him she doesn’t want to die by his sacrificial knife and become a mummy beholden to him; that she’s young and alive, and she’s in love with Frank. It all comes down to a battle between the powers she revives from her vestal virgin days under Isis and his immortal spells. But in the end, it comes down to whether Dr. Muller’s knowledge of the occult will help Frank to bring her back to earth. In the film’s last shot, he calls out: Helen, come back, it’s Frank.

Boris Karloff gave an amazingly restrained performance that fits the mood of the film to a tee. The story was fascinating hokum and its originality spawned a flood of such horror genre films, but few could come close to it in spirit and integrity of storytelling. My favorite line is when Sir Joseph says, ” The British Museum is interested in knowledge and not treasures.”