In 1921, an English field expedition, led by archaeologist Sir Joseph Whemple, uncovers an unusual-looking mummy buried with an old box near Thebes. While cataloguing their finds, Whemple's friend, Dr. Muller, finds evidence that the mummy, an ancient Egyptian high priest named Imhotep, was buried alive for sacrilege, and when they inspect the box upon the behest of Whemple's young and impatient assistant, they find a metallic casket inscribed with a warning of death for anyone who opens it. Muller, who believes in the occult, implores them not to open the box for fear of the curse but, when he and Whemple go outside to further discuss the matter, both of them believing the box contains the legendary Scroll of Thoth, which has the power to raise the dead, the young assistant's curiosity gets the better of him and he does open it. Finding the scroll inside, he transcribes a part of it and quietly reads it to himself, resurrecting Imhotep. The revived mummy proceeds to take the scroll and walk out the door, frightening the assistant so much that he loses his mind, laughing uncontrollably when Whemple returns. Over ten years later, in 1932, another field expedition, this time headed by Whemple's son, Frank, and Prof. Pearson, is visited by a mysterious Egyptian who goes by the name of Ardath Bey. He gives them a small piece of tablet that he claims to be from the tomb of the princess, Ankh-es-en-amon, and shows them where to dig for it. After a day of excavation, the scientists indeed find the tomb and everything within, including the princess' mummy, is taken to the Cairo Museum. Late one night, after meeting Sir Joseph in the museum, Bey, who is actually the revived Imhotep, attempts to raise Ankh-es-en-amon from the dead, unaware that his incantations have a strange effect on Helen Grosvenor, a half-British, half-Egyptian young woman who's staying in Cairo with Dr. Muller. After taking a taxi to the museum and trying to get in after closing time, Helen is taken to the home of Frank and Sir Joseph, the latter of whom is shocked to hear her speaking ancient Egyptian and murmuring Imhotep's name. Upon failing to raise his princess, Bey is found by a night watchman at the museum and kills him, although he drops the Scroll of Thoth in the struggle and it's later found there by Sir Joseph and Muller. As Frank becomes romantically interested in Helen, Muller tells Sir Joseph of his theory that Ardath Bey is Imhotep, when he appears at the house to find the scroll and is immediately taken with Helen, who resembles Ankh-es-en-amon. When Muller's suspicions about Bey are proven after Helen is taken back to the hotel, he urges Sir Joseph to burn the scroll but, when he tries, Bey uses his power to kill him and has the Whemples' Nubian servant, whom he has made his slave, bring it to him. Now, convinced that Helen is Ankh-es-en-amon's reincarnation, Bey prepares to kill Frank and ultimately use the scroll to make Helen a living mummy like himself.
Looking back, it's amazing how popular Boris Karloff in only a year, going from being identified as a question mark in the opening credits of Frankenstein (according to some sources, he wasn't even invited to that film's premiere) to having his name listed alongside someone else's underneath the title for The Old Dark House and finally having it appear before the title of The Mummy. He must have also relished a role where he was able to speak and it's a good thing they allowed him to, as well, because, even though I'm not a big fan of this film, I can say that Karloff, who I'm a big fan of anyway, is a major plus for it. His very presence has an air of otherworldliness, with the way he manages to stand completely still and rigid and move very slowly, getting across the notion that he is an ancient creature that has been resurrected from the dead. His eyes are absolutely piercing and you can feel a power to them, which is punctuated by his incredible voice. I don't think I've ever heard Karloff speak in any other movie the way he does here. His voice is low and creeping, barely ever raising in pitch, and yet, has an undeniable power to it, helped by the fact that I don't really hear the lisp that he was well known for. The only term that can be used to describe his voice is hypnotic, and it really helps you to buy the hold that Imhotep manages to place over people, like the Whemples' Nubian servant and Helen when he's showing her their past lives and when she becomes obsessed with trying to go to him. His power is so strong that Dr. Muller need only look at his eyes to know that trying to, "Break your dried flesh to pieces," would be a very bad idea and, when he and Frank Whemple try to stop him at the end, Imhotep merely has to aim his ring at them in order to make them back away. Hell, he doesn't even have to be in the same building with Sir Joseph Whemple to use his power to make him die of heart failure when he tries to burn the Scroll of Thoth and he almost does the same to Frank in order to get him out of the way in order to call Helen to him.
Like many of the classic monsters, despite of all the death and suffering he causes, I wouldn't describe Imhotep as an out-and-out evil character, as he everything he does is so he can be reunited with his beloved Princess Ankh-es-en-amon. During the flashback sequence, you learn that, when Ankh-es-en-amon died, Imhotep dared the anger of the Egyptian gods in order to bring back the woman he so loved with the Scroll of Thoth, which led to him being buried alive and sentenced to death in the afterlife, by scraping off the sacred symbols meant to protect the soul off the inside of the coffin, for the sacrilegious act. Of course, when he's resurrected 3,700 years later, the only thing he cares about is once again trying to raise Ankh-es-en-amon from the dead; otherwise, he'd spend eternity completely alone. He goes to great lengths to do so, waiting over ten years for another field expedition that could successfully dig up the princess' tomb (you have to wonder what he did during the time after he was brought back to life and how exactly he established his new identity as Ardath Bey) and showing them where they could find it. He got awfully lucky that the archeologists happened to have a contract where the Cairo Museum would keep everything they found, including the mummy, and you can see the quiet elation and happiness of being reunited with Ankh-es-en-amon when he looks at her coffin in the museum. Upon learning that the princess has been reincarnated in Helen Grosvenor, Imhotep is so intent upon having her back that he plans to make her into one of the undead like himself, despite her protests, feeling that she should endure the same suffering that he went through for her, if only for a moment, so they can be together forever. While I still don't think he's an evil creature, he's still so single-minded in his resolve that he'll kill anyone he sees as an obstacle, especially Frank when Helen starts to fall in love with him, and tries to forcibly stab Helen with a dagger at the end, in spite of her fear and her praying to Isis to save her, which is how Imhotep is ultimately destroyed.
Even though he only appears like this for a few brief moments at the very beginning of the film, the most iconic image in the film is of Karloff in the full mummy getup, completely swathed in bandages and with a number of different types makeup materials applied to his face and clay in his hair to make him look wrinkled and ancient. It's a really cool-looking makeup job by Jack Pierce and is definitely what you think of when you think of a mummy monster, although it certainly wasn't cool for Karloff, as it took eight hours for him to get made up and two hours for it to be taken off, which doubly sucked because it was 2:00 in the morning by the time he finished shooting. According to his daughter, Sara, it was the most arduous makeup he ever had to endure, as it was also extremely unpleasant to have on for so long and getting off it was quite painful. Fortunately, he only had to go through that for one day, spending the rest of the film in the much more subdued "Ardath Bey" makeup and outfit, although the former still wasn't the most comfortable thing to have on. His look as Bey has become just as iconic as his actual mummy look, although I don't care for it quite as much. I think the makeup design on his face looks good and his eyes add to the effect, looking very unsettling in those close-up shots of him looking right at the camera, but I've never been that crazy about his outfit and especially that fez, which looks really corny to me. I don't know what else they could've put him but I wish his costume wasn't so typical and lame (but, it was 1932, so what can you do?)
Unlike Bela Lugosi in Murders in the Rue Morgue, Karloff is not the only memorable and engaging character in The Mummy but that sentiment, as is often the case, doesn't include the young, romantic leads. As both Helen Grosvenor and Princess Ankh-es-en-amon, Zita Johann (who was a very odd woman who believed in reincarnation, claimed to have had an out of body experience, and did not get along with Karl Freund at all) has a very lovely, exotic look, especially when she's in her ancient Egyptian outfit, but, acting-wise, she doesn't do much for me. She has a lot to play with, though, feeling more drawn to the "real" Egypt as opposed to the modern era she lives, and soon finds herself compelled and manipulated by forces she doesn't understand, forces that both frighten and invigorate her. As Imhotep's hold over her grows after he subconsciously awakens the memories of her past life, her resistance to his mental call starts to literally drain the life out of her. She's very torn during this section, feeling like she'll die if she doesn't go to him but, at the same time, her love for Frank Whemple makes her not want to lose herself to the soul of Ankh-es-en-amon within her. During the film's final moments, when she goes to Imhotep in the museum, she seems to completely lose herself to the personality of the princess but, when his intention to mummify and resurrect her becomes clear, she becomes frightened and doesn't want to sacrifice the youth and new life that she has as Helen to become one of the undead, trying to make him understand that things are not as they were 3,700 years ago. Imhotep uses his power to temporarily throw her back into submission so he can perform the ritual but, when he's distracted by Frank and Dr. Muller's arrival, she prays to Isis, the Egyptian goddess of life, to forgive her and save her, which she does by destroying both the Scroll of Thoth and Imhotep. All of this drags Helen spiritually back to ancient Egypt but when Frank calls to her, her love for him brings her back. So, Johann has a very complex role to bring to life but, while her acting isn't godawful, it mainly comes across as just serviceable and I don't find her to be all that compelling, except for when she's really suffering from resisting Imhotep. She was really good in those scenes.
If you're curious about Muller's wife (Kathryn Byron), she only appears in one scene, caring for Helen during her weakest period and coming off as a very sweet, grandmotherly old woman, although whether or not she knows or even believes in what's going on is never made clear (given her husband's work, she has to believe in at least some of it, I would think. The most noteworthy thing she does is when Helen talks her into letting her get all made up for Frank, unable to resist her pleading, and when she tells Frank to go to her, she tells him, "Please, don't be angry with me. I couldn't resist her."
Balderston's hand in the film may also explain something that a lot of people have noticed about it, which is that it's basically Dracula repackaged. Sure enough, there are a lot of similarities between the two films, particularly in the characters. Think about it: the antagonist is an undead creature with hypnotic powers who has his eye set on the female lead (they even emphasize this in the same manner in which they did in Dracula, by lighting up the eyes in certain shots), the young male lead is her love interest who initially disbelieves what's going on, and there is a scientist who's wise enough to believe in the supernatural and who becomes the villain's archenemy (the confrontation between Muller and Imhotep in Whemple's office is very similar to the one between Van Helsing and Dracula). You can sort of see Sir Joseph Whemple as Dr. Seward, who may not run an insane asylum but is a disbelieving father figure for one of the two young leads for most of the film, and his assistant is pretty reminiscent of Renfield in his lunacy, if you think about it (there was a time where I thought Bramwell Fletcher was Dwight Frye because he reminded me of him so much). You also have a substitute for the vampire-repelling crucifix with a small medallion of Isis that Muller gives Frank in order to protect him from Imhotep's power, with Isis herself being the Egyptian equivalent of Christ who is prayed to in order to ward off the villain. In fact, the movie even begins with Swan Lake playing over the latter half of the opening credits (to be fair, the soundtrack here is completely recycled from the opening of Murders in the Rue Morgue but it's still a bizarre coincidence). This kinship with Dracula isn't surprising when you realize that Balderston was the playwright who revised Hamilton Deane's stage play of the original Bram Stoker novel, which became the basis for the famous film with Bela Lugosi (it's also interesting when you think about how Lugosi was originally meant to play the Frankenstein monster but was replaced by Boris Karloff, who's now playing a virtual recreation of Dracula!) It kind of makes you wish that Balderston would have tried to distance himself and come up with something more original, as he did when he helped out in writing some of the other screenplays he did for Universal, like Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, and Dracula's Daughter.
Another aesthetic that this film shares with Dracula is that it's very understated in its horror, with significant things happening off-camera. For instance, when Imhotep kills the museum night watchman who catches him in the room with the princess' mummy, it happens in the shadows off-camera and you only hear the sound of the guard gagging and collapsing to the floor (it's later determined that he died of shock, so God only knows what Imhotep was doing to him over there in the dark). Another incident, this one even more bizarre, is the death of Helen's dog, whom she takes with her when she goes to see Imhotep at his home in Cairo. As soon as they arrive, the dog becomes frightened, apparently by a hissing white cat that Imhotep has, and he has his servant look after him for Helen. Following the lengthy flashback to ancient Egypt that Imhotep shows Helen in the small pool in his main chamber, she hears the dog yelping in pain in the next room and she runs to see what's wrong. We don't see what she found but when she arrives back at her hotel, she tells Frank that the dog is dead and that white cat was standing on his back, as if it were the cause (interestingly, there's a cutaway shot of that cat leaving the room before the dog is heard, suggesting that is the case). It gets even more bizarre when Frank brings up the cat-like, Egyptian god, Bast, and Helen notes that there was a statue of her there. Is that meant to imply that white cat was some sort of vessel for Bast's wrath or was a physical incarnation of her? However, the best example of the film's subtle nature is Imhotep's resurrection at the beginning, which I think is the best scene period. It's done in a very quiet, eerie way, with no music and subdued sound effects, as Sir Joseph Whemple's assistant transcribes part of the Scroll of Thoth and quietly reads it to himself, with the camera at one point panning over to the mummy and back to the assistant. When he does read it, you see a close-up of Imhotep's face and watch as his eyes slowly open and his arms unfold, which is followed up by a close-up of his hand reaching in from off-camera to take the scroll. You never see a full shot of Karloff walking in the bandages (the only time you see him completely swathed in them are the medium and far-off shots of him standing in the coffin); instead, all you see are bandages from his feet trailing across the floor as he walks out the door, which gets the point across in an effectively, suggestive way.
Staying on the Dracula comparison discussion for one more section, I will say that I think I like it more than The Mummy. It's odd for me to say that, too, because this movie is certainly more alive than and not nearly as stagey as Dracula (although there are still a number of scenes set in drawing and sitting rooms) and they're both very atmospheric, but, for me, Dracula has the edge because of the immensely creepy, classic first act in Transylvania, which beats anything in this film. Also, in spite of how stagey and stuffy the latter half of it can be, the eerie atmosphere of the scenes set in the streets of London and when Dracula enters Lucy and Mina's bedrooms completely silently keep me interested and creeped out, while the slow, dream-like feel of The Mummy mostly just bores me and makes me want to go to sleep. In addition, there are parts of this film that I find to be awkward, such as two exchanges of dialogue early on. When Dr. Muller first arrives at the Whemples' house, searching for Helen, Sir Joseph tells him, "Before you take her away, I must speak to you about something she said a moment ago," and Muller nods... only for him to, in the very next scene, tell Helen, "And now, if you're feeling better, back we go to the hotel," forcing Sir Joseph to say, "Uh, I think she ought to rest a bit, first." Muller, do you have a five-second memory or something? And when he and Sir Joseph return from the museum to find Frank and Helen kissing on the couch, the latter says, "The curse has struck her, and through her, it will now strike my son," only for him to continue denying that there is anything supernatural going on when he, Muller, and Frank are talking in his office. That was a pretty random thing for him to say to begin with but it's so strange how he suddenly starts denying that there is a curse and even more so how, when he hears that Ardath Bey has shown up, he goes back to believing that he is Imhotep, hides the scroll, and acts uncomfortable around him afterward. Maybe he was in denial during that middle part but it comes off as random. And finally, there's a transition from Imhotep looking at Ankh-es-en-amon's mummy in the museum to the introduction of Helen that I cringe at. Between the two of them, there is what's meant to be a panning shot across Cairo but it's so obviously a photo or drawing of the city inside a see-through case or something of that nature. Yeah, it was 1932 and there are definitely similarly archaic shots in other films around that time but that one in particular gets to me.
As with many of these early horror films, one thing The Mummy has going for it is its look. Since the director is a cinematographer anyway, it shouldn't be surprising that it's very well shot, and Charles Stumar manages to capture that Expressionist feel that Karl Freund brought to films like Dracula and Murders in the Rue Morgue. Boris Karloff is particularly well-photographed, looking very imposing when he first appears as Ardath Bey, standing in the doorway of the main camp of Frank's field expedition, and very creepy and ominous when he's kneeling by Ankh-es-en-amon's mummy as he tries to resurrect her, lit only by a small candle in front of him, as well as when his powers are emphasized by the lighting on his eyes. The scene where he first meets Helen and she's instantly affected by his presence is lit very well too, shot almost completely in darkness to make him look all the more seductive, and the same goes for the dark shot of her in the back of the cab when she first feels his power. Another thing I like about the photography is that it gets across how blistering hot the desert is. Most often in those old films, the environments have a feeling of coldness to them in my opinion but not so in the scenes that take place out in the desert, which are so bright that they're almost completely white, and when Helen roams the Cairo marketplace when walking to Imhotep's home. Set-wise, the film also has some well-done pieces of art direction, such as the main chamber of Imhotep's rather fancy-looking home, which has that pool in the center of it that he uses to see what his enemies are up to and to show Helen both their past lives, and that statue in the background. The other, very striking set is the interior of the Cairo Museum, which is clearly a massive place and whose most prominent rooms are where Ankh-es-en-amon's mummy is kept, the "embalming" room where Imhotep plans to mummify Helen, and the room with the statue of Isis with the slab where he attempts to stab her with the dagger.
Aside from the opening, the most well-known part of the film is probably the lengthy flashback to ancient Egypt that Imhotep shows Helen in his pool and it is a memorable sequence, filling in the blanks of his love for Ankh-es-en-amon and the reasons for his being buried alive. You see his final moments with her before she dies, kneeling by the "bed of death," as he describes it, and the coffin containing her mummy being carried into a tomb, with her father overseeing everything. Things take a more dramatic turn when you see Imhotep dare the anger of Isis and steal the Scroll of Thoth from a temple in order to resurrect Ankh-es-en-amon, only to be caught before he can finish reciting the incantation. For this act of sacrilege, Imhotep is condemned to be buried alive and the scroll with him, so that no one else could disgrace the country in that same way. The moment here that really gets to me is when you see Imhotep being completely wrapped up in the bandages, a very frightened and tortured look on his face as it's covered, starting with the mouth and then heading up. Being wrapped up like that and then placed inside a coffin and buried while still alive is a very horrifying thought, as you know it'll be a slow, agonizing death in total, airless darkness. The sequence ends with Imhotep being placed inside a coffin, after which certain parts of the face on the lid are chipped off, no doubt to make clear the lack of pity and the scorn that he deserves, and his burial in an unmarked spot out in the desert. You then get a shocking bit of graphic violence for the time, when the soldiers present spear the men who buried the coffin and you see the blades sticking out of bloody wounds in their torso, something I didn't expect when I first saw the movie (James Rolfe could be correct in his thought that this could be the first impalement ever shown on film). Imhotep says that those soldiers were later killed themselves so that nobody with knowledge of his burial site could possibly leave behind any sympathetic offerings.
Another strike against the movie is how anticlimactic the ending is. Just as Imhotep is about to plunge the dagger into Helen's abdomen (granted, that moment when the tip pushes into her skin, almost piercing it, does make me cringe), Frank and Dr. Muller enter the museum, calling for her. This gives her ample time to get off the slab Imhotep has her on and pray to Isis to save her, and when he attempts to stab her again, Frank and Muller rush into the room. However, Imhotep uses his power to hold them at bay and again raises the dagger, when Helen prays to Isis in Egyptian. This causes the statue to raise its hand and do something that causes an off-screen flash of light that sets the Scroll of Thoth on fire. Imhotep then rapidly turns more and more wrinkled and clay-like until his skull is revealed and his body crumbles apart, undoubtedly because of the destruction of what resurrected him in the first place (I used to think that it was something else Isis herself did to him; it's a pretty good effect, all the same). The film ends rather abruptly when Frank cradles the passed out Helen and calls her back to the world of the living (she opens her eyes but we don't get to see her smile or anything; instead, she just looks confused), as the scroll continues to burn. The music also does something that happens in certain old films that I don't like, which is abruptly change from one theme to another when the ending credits pop up, making it feel all the more truncated. I don't know what's worse, that or when a piece of music keeps playing as the movie fades out, which makes it feel like the movie is actually still going and just stops rather than ends.
Speaking of the music, composed by James Dietrich, it's another aspect of the movie I have mixed feelings about. This is one of the first of these horror films to have a fair amount of music, whereas before, the only music heard was typically during the opening and ending credits, except occasionally when someone was in a concert hall, listening to a radio, or playing instruments. It's not something I particularly, one, because I think it kind of hurts the mood, and two, with very few exceptions (such as Max Steiner's awesome score for King Kong and Franz Waxman's music for Bride of Frankenstein), I find 1930's film music to not be that good. It usually sounds either too overdone or cartoonish, and I don't think it really got good until the 40's, when you had stuff like the great music for The Wolf Man. Some of the music for The Mummy falls into that category for me, mainly the piece that you hear during the panning tour of the Cairo Museum after Ankh-es-en-amon's mummy has been brought there, which I find to be a little too dramatic, with those loud, individual chords near the end and that low, tuba-like bit that sounds laughable to me. The pieces for the scenes where we see Imhotep using power, like when he kills Sir Joseph Whemple and tries to kill Frank, and the distinct theme for the flashback are better but are still a little too big for me in spots. I do genuinely like the big, grand theme that plays when Egypt is established in both time-periods, the very quiet one when Imhotep puts the Nubian under his control and when he prepares to perform the ritual on Helen, and the exotic music that plays over the ending credits.