Growing up in my house, we had neither basic cable nor a VCR until 1984, the year I turned six years old. Up until that time, if it didn’t come on VHF or UHF, I didn’t see it. And even when we got our first VCR, it was a used, top-loading model that seemed about to collapse under the weight of its own craptasticity. But to a six-year-old, that didn’t matter. Suddenly whole new worlds of motion picture wonder made themselves available to me, and I took full advantage of them.
So it was around that time — even though it had been released a few years prior — that I finally got to see Raiders of the Lost Ark. It had so much that enthralled me — heroism, mysticism, evil enemies, the list goes on — but one of the things that stuck in my mind the most was the setting — Egypt. Up until that time I had had precious little exposure to anything involving ancient Egypt, and suddenly I wanted more — much more.
Besides the treasures and the kings and the strange gods and practices, what appealed to me most was the written language itself — hieroglyphics. An entire written language consisting solely of pictograph? Now THERE was a language that made SENSE to a six-year-old! As such, for Christmas in my seventh year of life, Santa Claus (in what was surely the strangest item to ever leave his workshop) brought me Easy Lessons in Egyptian Hieroglyphics, by Sir E.A. Wallis Budge. Before my parents knew it, I was scrawling scarabs and reeds and ankhs and ibises EVERYWHERE.
But that still wasn’t enough.
I started to pillage the Egyptian section of my local library. I took out books on the various pharaohs, gods and goddesses, and architecture of the culture. I was fascinated by the Valley of the Kings, and the structures at Memphis, Cairo and Thebes. I devoured any and every bit of information I could find about King Tutankamun, the Boy King, whose tomb was discovered by Howard Carter in 1922. I pored over page after page, in full-color splendor, of Tut’s sarcophagus, and his treasures, and every trinket and artifact that was found therein. I learned about mummification and the process involved — the jars in which they stored the organs, how they removed the brain, what flowers and oils they used when stuffing the body, what the different symbols on the sarcophagus menat and how that would impact the person’s journey into the afterlife, and what they expected to find in the next world.
All of that brings us to tonight’s feature presentation. Here is a movie that completely fed everything that fascinated me about that culture, while providing more than just a bit of shock and scare to an impressionable seven-year-old.
Okay. Enough exposition. On with the show!
Oh, YEAH, baby.
Forget the Brendan Frasier movies. Forget CGI sandstorms, ravenous scarabs, and squirrely little thieves. THIS is the version you want to see.
The year was 1932. Universal Studios was still riding high off of the successes of Dracula and Frankenstein, and they needed another monster movie to keep the momentum going. At the time, the world was still gripped in an Egyptian craze following the aforementioned discovery of King Tut’s tomb and rumors of a curse associated with it, so what better subject matter to tap? And, given his meteoric rise from a nobody to a household name in a year’s time thanks to his performance as Frankenstein’s monster, who better to utilize in the starring role than Boris Karloff?
Our story begins in Cairo, in 1921. The British Museum has been doing expeditions for some years, digging among the sands and the ruins, looking for artifacts and treasure. Enter Dr. Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron), who, along with his assistant Frank Norton (Bramwell Fletcher, ostensibly no relation to the character from “The Honeymooners”), have discovered the 3,700-year-old sarcophagus of the high priest Im-Ho-Tep (Karloff), buried alive and cursed to the Nameless Death for sacrilege.
Buried along with Im-Ho-Tep is a small golden casket upon which is inscribed a curse promising death to anyone who opens it. Against the strong advice of Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan, in a role identical in nature to his role of Van Helsing in Dracula a year prior), Norton opens the golden casket and starts transcribing and reading from its contents — the Scroll of Thoth, which, according to legend, the goddess Isis used to bring her brother Osiris back from the Land of the Dead.
At that point, things begin to turn very unpleasant for young, brash Mr. Norton, as the mummified remains of Im-Ho-Tep open its eyes and begins to move. Norton happens to look up as a mummified hand reaches for the Scroll, and he promptly goes mad. Im-Ho-Tep walks away into the night carrying the scroll, leaving Norton alone to laugh himself to death. Whemple and Muller, who had gone out among the stars to discuss the ramifications of opening the casket, rush back in, discovering the insane Norton, the missing mummy, and a dusty hand-print on the desk.
Flash forward eleven years. Sir Joseph has left Egypt, vowing never to return. His son, Frank (David Manners), has taken over operations in Egypt, and things are looking rather bleak for the expedition.
Enter Ardath Bey (an anagram of “Death by Ra”, played by Karloff), who presents Whemple and his assistant with an artifact from the funerary of Princess Anck-es-en-Amon, which he found not a few hundred yards from their present location. The men begin a dig at the location and, sure enough, uncover her tomb, unopened and untouched since before the siege of Troy.
Enter Helen Grosvenor (the very easy-on-the-eyes Zita Johann), half-British, half-Egyptian socialite and guest of Dr. and Mrs. Muller. After a very mysterious sequence of events at the exhibit of Anck-es-en-Amon’s exhibit at the Cairo Museum, she comes face to face with Ardath Bay who, we can infer, believes her to be the physical manifestation of the reincarnated spirit of the princess herself.
And from there, things get REALLY interesting.
The Mummy is, at its core, very little more than a retelling of Dracula: an ancient evil surfaces in search of a bride, and when science fails, it’s up to the mystic to put the evil down forever. There are several scenes in this film that parallel Dracula perfectly. But it works. It works well. Formulaic horror movies have become something of the norm over the last eighty or so years — one need only look at the interchangeability of the Halloween, Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street movies to see that. Different circumstances, same essential plot. But they work. As does The Mummy.
This is due, I am sure, in no small part to the chameleon-like Karloff. One of the truly great actors of his or any age, Karloff had that special ability endemic in only the greats — the ability to completely forget the actor, and focus only on the character. He is not Karloff in this movie; he is Im-Ho-Tep, disguised as Ardath Bey, attempting to resurrect his lost love. And his believability as a mummy is the responsibility of make-up genius Jack P. Pierce, who spent 8 hours applying so many layers of cotton that Karloff was completely unable to speak. (That wasn’t the only hardship Karloff had with the costume; according to IMDB, Karloff was known to have said to Pierce, “Well, you’ve done a wonderful job, but you forgot to give me a fly!”) As Bey, aging make-up aside, the reality of the character is pure Karloff — the slow, deliberate, stiff movements; the charming, intoxicating voice; and a gaze that seems to come from across centuries. There was simply no one else who could have played this role.
No less vital to the success of the film is the Romanian-born Zita Johann, who played Helen Grosvenor, the reincarnated princess Anck-es-en-Amon. Johann only has eight films to her credit, and the others are virtually unknown, which is surprising given her performance in The Mummy. As Grovsenor, she is sexy, alluring and seductive — were I Im-Ho-Tep, I sure as hell would have sacrificed the afterlife to be with her again. She handles the role capably — more capably, in my opinion, than did her predecessor, Helen Chandler, in the role of Mina Harker in Dracula. Unlike other more one-dimensional actresses of her day, Johann has a surprising range of emotion, giving an unexpected depth to a character that was clearly a carbon copy of previous material.
I could go on about The Mummy — the masterful direction by Karl Freund, who also handled cinematography on Dracula; the special effects by John P. Fulton; or the sufficiently menacing and eerie score by James Dietrich and Michel Brusselsmans — but I’ve rambled enough.
Check out The Mummy. For a bit of fun, pick up The Mummy: The Legacy Collection, which contains not only the original but also its four thematic successors.
And then tell me you’re NOT sorely disappointed the next time you see Brendan Frasier kicking around in a sand dune.
Next Week: “We’ll see whether I’m crazy or not!”
Read Part One Here!