*. Curious, and disappointing. A monster movie without a monster.
*. This should be a good thing because it gives us more Karloff and not just another inarticulate barely ambulatory corpse stumbling around. But not seeing the titular figure wrapped in bandages, looming over his victims before choking them out — all the moments, let’s be honest, that are what you came in for — leaves the film with a not inconsiderable hole in its middle.
*. Audiences must have felt somewhat cheated. The posters and trailer all highlight Karloff’s one brief appearance in full mummy make-up and bandages. This comes in the first ten minutes of the movie, after which the creature is never seen again. Meanwhile, his later incarnation as Ardeth Bay (which is how he appears throughout the rest of the film) was either omitted entirely from the promotional material or played down.
*. Today I think the Mummy’s status as one of the classic Universal horror franchises of the period inflates a lot of expectations. Expectations that are, as I began by noting, disappointed. Not only is there no monster, this is distinctly third-rate work.
*. Critical opinion has been all over the place. Pauline Kael went in to raptures over The Mummy, I think mainly as an homage to Karl Freund, whose first feature as director this was. I think it’s nicely shot, but what Kael says is going too far: “No other horror film has ever achieved so many emotional effects by lighting; this inexpensively made film has a languorous, poetic feeling, and the eroticism that lives on under Karloff’s wrinkled parchment skin is like a bad dream of undying love.” That’s nice, but over the top for such a flick.
*. Consulting David J. Skal’s The Monster Show I was surprised to see that The Mummy only receives the briefest of mentions, written off as only a “remake” of Dracula. “The picture is a good example of the kind of creative conservatism the studio system fostered; virtually every plot element as well as key performers (not to mention some props and set decorations) were recycled from Dracula.”
*. It’s hard to disagree. Not only do David Manners and Edward Van Sloan both reappear, they’re basically playing the same parts as they did in Dracula. They might as well be named Harker and Von Helsing. And the story really is the same, with Imhotep as the Count using his powers of hypnotism to seduce the young man’s girl and make her his deathless bride. Not surprisingly the script was written by John L. Balderston, who had also adapted Dracula. He was just sticking to a formula, and originally he wanted the Mummy to be even more like a vampire, returning to his casket during the day.
*. How strictly he was sticking to formula can be seen from the opening vignette, where Imhotep is awakened by Norman. For some reason the appearance of the Mummy sends Norman into hysterics. This struck me as really sounding a false note, unless you see it as merely meant to echo Renfield’s madness in Dracula.
*. Joe Dante calls The Mummy “an improved remake of Dracula.” I’m not so sure (and I’m not a huge Dracula fan). The rest of the script strikes me as not just formulaic but awkward and sloppy. It was adapted out of a source story that was in turn suggested by the figure of Cagliostro, not a mummy. Paul M. Jensen’s synopsis of the Cagliostro story on the commentary is bewildering, and he concludes by calling it a “tangle of arbitrary events and contrived relationships.” Balderston was called in to add coherence.
*. Take that opening scene. Somehow it has to be arranged that Whemple and Muller will leave Norman alone so he can open the chest and read the scroll. (Why does he want to do this? Just because he’s an idiot.) So Muller says to Whemple “I cannot speak before a boy. Come out under the stars of Egypt.” So smooth.
*. Then, on the level of plot, I was never entirely sure what Imhotep planned to do with Helen. As I understand it the plan is to kill her and then bring her back as a mummy-person. But does that make sense? Why not just possess Helen and cut out the other steps? He says something about making her experience passing through the gates of life and death but that seems like so much mumbo-jumbo to me. The only reason they stuck it in is because Helen has to be physically threatened before being rescued. I think the main point is that she has to die first in order to become immortal, but you have to admit that it’s left kind of vague.
*. Not all of the inconsistencies are the script’s fault. As Jensen notes in his commentary, the script explained why Imhotep hadn’t taken the scroll from the museum guard he killed (he was interrupted and didn’t have time), but this was left out of the film for some reason.
*. Speaking of things left out, you may be wondering where the character billed as “Saxon Warrior” in the cast list appears. This was part of a historical collage representing Zita Johann’s various reincarnations that was cut.
*. I mentioned the immediate source of the story being a script based on the character of Cagliostro. But where did the Egyptian stuff come from? Mainly from the fact that Balderston was familiar with the story of Tutankhamun’s tomb and its curse. But there was actually a silent film from 1911, now lost, that dealt with a revived mummy. And before that there was Bram Stoker’s 1903 novel The Jewel of Seven Stars. So the Mummy wasn’t a wholly original horror creation.
*. The work Jack Pierce did on the other Universal monsters was more memorable, but his Mummy may be better for being more subtle. Karloff’s face seems to have been transformed into a dry scrollwork of lines that’s all the more effective for seeming real. His skin looks as though it might tear if you stuck a finger in it.
*. So it’s a movie full of talk (there’s little action on screen, in keeping with what Jensen identifies as Freund’s German background), and much of the talk is confusing. It is, however, fun to listen to the dialogue in old movies and see how much more literate they were. I was grinning when Helen, in her Egyptian princess identity, says “It is my coffin, made by my father against my death.” I doubt many modern viewers will recognize that use of “against,” but it’s perfectly valid.
*. Another fun bit of usage comes in the trailer barking about “the amazing, incredulous, unbelievable story.” Incredulous is here being used to mean incredible, which is a historical usage that I don’t think you’d ever see today.
*. It’s a weird film. Karloff’s Imhotep has what Jensen describes as an “aura of fragility.” We never see him killing anyone except from a distance by use of his occult powers. He may be so desiccated that he’d crumble at any contact (note how he has to tell the older Whemple not to touch him). Meanwhile, Zita Johann is a striking but unorthodox leading lady. Apparently she was difficult on set (from the stories related in the Mummy Dearest documentary it sounds like Freund was mostly to blame) and she didn’t do many movies after this.
*. Well, I’ve said I don’t care much for this one, but with Freund behind the camera and Karloff in front it’s certainly watchable. I particularly like the wonderful shot where Imhotep and Helen sit by the magic pool and the camera both lifts and then corkscrews slightly before descending into the mists. That’s beautiful, and really striking for the time. I also have to say that compared to the follow-up Universal Mummy movies that came out in the 1940s (The Mummy’s Hand, The Mummy’s Tomb, The Mummy’s Ghost, and The Mummy’s Curse), this one really does feel like a classic. But judged on its own I still find it disappointing.