This article, like today’s movie itself, is going to be a little…complicated. I’ve seen this movie before, and when I decided to begin this series, I knew what I wanted to talk about when I got to The Mummy. Then I actually rewatched it. And while I believe the points I originally wanted to make still stand, there’s also way more material and themes to discuss besides that. Most of it won’t be easy or pleasant, but it can’t rightfully be ignored.
But before we dive into the uncomfortable stuff, we’re going to have a little fun. I want to begin by positing to you an unusual theory. A j’accuse, if you will. It’s going to sound strange, but I believe I can convince you of its legitimacy. And it’s this:
Universal’s The Mummy from 1932 is a very early prototype for the modern vampire romance.
“But Dana!” you say. “That cannot be! The Mummy is not a vampire! He is the Mummy! We can’t have sexy mummies!”
First of all, I deeply regret to inform you that we can and we have. I’ll get more into that later, but for now, blame the Victorians. Second of all, I’m not trying to draw a direct line from this movie to Twilight or some insane thing like that. What I’m suggesting instead is that there are themes and plot points in this movie, largely stemming from the circumstances of its creation, that have found their way into the paranormal romance stories of later decades and especially vampire romances. The seeds don’t fully germinate right away, but they are planted here nonetheless.
So, that will be one of two main topics I plan to cover in this article. The other topic, as you may have guessed, is the one that’s not so fun. See, this is a movie about Egyptians that was made (mostly) by white Americans and Brits in the early 1930s. The question, therefore, is not “Is this racist?” but “How racist is this?”
Let’s get started. We’ve got plenty of bandages to unravel.
The Plot: On an archaeological expedition to Egypt in 1921, Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron) uncovers the find of a lifetime: the sarcophagus of a priest named Imhotep, who was buried alive for the crime of sacrilege, and a chest containing the legendary Scroll of Thoth, able to raise the dead with its words. But the mummy and the scroll both vanish, and the only witness to the disappearance is a man who was driven mad by what he saw. Imhotep, he claims, “went for a little walk.” Eleven years later, Joseph’s son Frank Whemple (David Manners) uncovers the tomb of the princess Ankh-es-en-amon, thanks to a clue given by a mysterious local gentleman calling himself Ardath Bey (Boris Karloff). Both men soon find themselves drawn to Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), a Cairo socialite who bears a strong resemblance to the princess. But that’s not the only weird thing happening: Helen is going into trances and speaking Imhotep’s name, a museum guard is found dead and the Scroll of Thoth turns up in Ardath Bey’s possession. It isn’t long before the Whemples and their friend Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan) start to suspect that Ardath Bey is more than what he seems. Maybe Imhotep’s mummy wasn’t stolen after all — maybe he really did get up and walk away, determined to reunite with the woman he died for thousands of years ago.
Part 1: The Normal Review Stuff
Let’s recap, shall we? We’ve got a sinister undead figure who rises from his tomb, driving a man insane in the process. The undead figure proceeds to pose as an upstanding member of society in order to prey on potential victims. He eventually sets his sights on a helpless young woman who has to be protected by her proper British love interest. And we’ve got Edward Van Sloan as the scholar of supernatural knowledge yet again? (Seriously, I would want this dude on my monster-hunting team. He’s got the experience!) I know what you must be thinking: are we just remaking Dracula already?
Yeah, kind of. Our old buddy John L. Balderston, one of the writers on the Dracula play, is also the credited screenwriter on The Mummy, and a lot of the recycled plot points are too blatant to ignore. But back in 1922, before he was a fiction writer, Balderston was a reporter for the New York World. If you’re familiar with Egyptology, you’ll recognize 1922 as the year when Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun and when the sudden death of Lord Carnavon sparked a modern resurgence of the so-called “Curse of the Pharoahs.” Balderston reported on the tomb’s unearthing, and he carried the memory of that experience with him when Universal asked him to write a new horror film after the successes of 1931. While trying to find new horror material for the studio, writers Richard Schayer and Nina Wilcox Putnam had happened upon some information about Alessandro Calgliostro, an 18th-century Italian occultist. Together they wrote a treatment titled “Cagliostro” about a 3000-year-old magician terrorizing San Francisco, and Balderston was brought on to write the actual screenplay. Balderston combined the Cagliostro treatment with his knowledge of the Tutankhamun story, relocating the narrative to Egypt and recasting the magician as an ancient priest. Add in a few loose pages from Dracula, and that’s the genesis of The Mummy.
We’ve got Karl Freund in the director’s chair this time around. Remember him? He was the cinematographer for Dracula and the guy who ended up directing much of that film (uncredited, sadly) when Tod Browning wasn’t on set. An immigrant from Germany, he had directed one movie in his homeland before, but this was his big directorial debut in the US. Freund actually had a long and fascinating career and was way more influential than most filmmakers realize: he invented the unchained camera, he was the cinematographer for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, he won an Oscar for cinematography in 1937, and — perhaps most surprising — he later worked on a little show called I Love Lucy, where he perfect the three-camera filming system and designed the “flat lighting” system that is still used by many sitcoms today.
It was also a no-brainer for Universal to get Boris Karloff back on screen in the title role following the huge success of Frankenstein. He even gets to talk in this movie! When you’re watching these movies in chronological order like I am, it isn’t until you get to The Mummy that you realize just how much of an overnight sensation Karloff was because of Frankenstein. I didn’t mention this in the previous article, but in Frankenstein, Karloff isn’t even credited onscreen until the very end of the film: the space where his name would be in the opening credits is instead filled by question marks. But in The Mummy, his name is literally the first thing you see after the Universal logo, even before the title of the film. Also, we have a proper Universal logo now.
Something else you’ll notice when you watch these movies in chronological order is how The Mummy feels way more like a conventional film than its predecessors did. There are a few different reasons for this. One is the presence of a genuine musical score instead of a mostly diegetic soundtrack. But the more important reason, I think, is Freund’s camerawork. Of all his achievements, the unchained camera is the one with the most relevance to this film. Having an unchained camera basically means that you don’t have to keep it on a tripod and can move it around the set however you like. Freund was known to put his cameras on carts running along tracks or hang them from cranes or even to walk around wearing one in order to get the best shot. You can see this new creative freedom on display in The Mummy, particularly in one shot where the camera swings above two actors before diving down into a pool of smoke. Actually, there are quite a few instances of early film trickery here. The succession of slow fades to show Imhotep’s decomposition and final death is a departure from the offscreen deaths of previous antagonists. My personal favorite effect is when a painted backdrop fixed to a rolling cylinder is used to simulate the camera rapidly panning from one end of a city to the other. It’s little moments like this which make this movie a visual treat and, in some respects, a technological step forward.
That also includes the makeup, of course. You can’t talk about The Mummy without talking about the mummy. Just like last time, we’ve got Jack Pierce designing Karloff’s character for this film. You might be surprised to learn that Karloff only appears in the traditional mummy get-up — that is, all wrapped up in bandages — in the opening scene where he’s restored to life. That’s partially due to the plot, but also because Pierce’s makeup was so elaborate. Allegedly inspired by the mummies of Seti I and Rameses III, the makeup took eight hours to apply and involved covering Karloff’s face with spirit gum, putting clay in his hair and wrapping him in bandages treated with acid. Karloff actually had trouble moving and speaking in the costume, which is why you don’t really see Imhotep in action until he becomes Ardath Bey. The makeup application process may have been grueling, but the end result is incredible to look at, and Imhotep’s jerky, limited movements make the resurrection scene a lot creepier.
Once the bandages come off, you get to see way more of Karloff’s capabilities acting-wise. Imhotep/Ardath Bey is written as a Dracula stand-in, but Karloff plays him with a different energy than what Bela Lugosi was doing the year prior. The stiff physicality and moments of inhuman behavior are still there: we are dealing with another walking corpse, after all (plus Karloff has the creepy death stare down pat, as you can see above). But Imhotep doesn’t possess the same ruthlessness and arrogance that Dracula does. He’s more calculating, more secretive and more subdued. He’s a guy with a plan, not an apex predator looking for a meal. His mask of normality is fixed on more firmly, and he does his best not to take it off. There’s an element of distaste with his current state of existence and with the original transgession that condemned him to said state. More on that later.
The oher bright spot in the cast besides Karloff is Zita Johann, who makes the damsel-in-distress Helen a lot more interesting and fun to watch than she has any right to be. I also want to point out the great work from Bramwell Fletcher, the actor playing the archaeologist who resurrects Imhotep. He’s only in one scene, but he gives one hell of a performance. Actually, the whole resurrection sequence stands out as one of the best scenes in the movie. In the shadowy silence of the archaeologists’ headquarters, Fletcher’s character hesitantly removes the Scroll of Thoth from its chest after a long internal debate. Hastily translating part of the scroll into English, he whispers it to himself. His voice is barely audible to the viewers, but the mummy propped up across the room seems to hear it just fine: in a close-up, his eyes slowwwwly open as his hands start to come down from their folded position. The hapless archaeologist doesn’t realize what he’s done until it’s too late, until Imhotep is right behind him with the scroll in his hand. He bolts up from his chair screaming, but that’s not the worst of it: he then descends into peals of demented, shrieking laughter as the mummy disappears. It’s a truly haunting sound that’s the perfect finishing touch on a scene with great tension and payoff. The whole sequence is easily one of the most frightening moments we’ve looked at in this series so far. It’s a shame, then, that the rest of The Mummy never quite reaches that same height.
Partially it’s to do with the screenplay. The major flaws there are things I want to save for the later sections of this article. As a whole, however, I would say it’s mostly pretty average and bland. There aren’t many lines or monologues that stick in your head, nor is there much interesting banter between the characters. The most memorable lines we get are the ones that come off as unintentionally funny and/or disturbing, mostly because of how language has evolved since the 1930s. For example…
- “Maybe he got too gay with the vestal virgins in the temple!”
- “Don’t you think I’ve had enough excitement for one evening, without the additional thrill of a strange man making love to me?”
- “Well, after we’d worked among her things, I felt as if I’d known her. But when we got the wrappings off, and I saw her face…you’ll think me silly, but I sort of fell in love with her.”
- “Do you have to open graves to find girls to fall in love with?”
Extra yikes on that last one. It’ll make more sense later, but don’t worry: it’ll still sound terrible even with the context.
The acting doesn’t help matters, either. While Karloff and Johann are both fine, nearly everyone else is just going through the motions here. Edward Van Sloan and David Manners in particular are just copying their Dracula characters. I don’t want to put too much blame on the cast since the script doesn’t give them much to work with.
No, the thing that makes The Mummy never quite deliver on the promise of that opening scare is the same thing that makes it unique and even influential. The Mummy is not really scary after that opening because it is not primarily a horror movie. It is primarily a romance movie.
Part 2: The Vampire Romance Stuff
How in the hell, you ask, can a movie about a dessicated 3700-year-old corpse coming to life be a romance? With the aforementioned corpse as the romantic lead, no less?
I don’t blame you for thinking I’m crazy, but I’m not the only person who’s noticed this. As recently as August 2018, for example, the British Film Institute included The Mummy on a list of “10 Great Romantic Horror Films,” alongside such titles as Bram Stoker’s Dracula (oh, you thought we were done with that nonsense?) and the 1990 film Candyman. I’m singling these two out from the list along with Mummy because, as I will demonstrate, all three of them are on the list for the same reason.
Let us accept, therefore, that this is a love story involving a mummy. The natural first question after that is “why?” As in, why are Imhotep’s behavior and intentions toward his female target romantic in nature? The Universal version of Dracula, which we’re borrowing heavily from here, isn’t a romance. Drac just wanted to eat/enslave the women he came across, not woo them. So why isn’t Imhotep just focused on sucking out Helen’s soul or something like that?
I believe that to find the answer, we only need to look back at the European pop culture of a few decades prior. I think that Balderston, whether he was aware of it or not, was drawing from a literary subject dating back to Victorian times. The subject? Mummy romance.
Yes, you read that right. Mummy romance.
The most blatant examples come from the mid to late 1910s, AKA right as Balderston’s writing career was beginning, and they come in the form of songs. Tin Pan Alley gave us such interesting titles as “Mummy Mine” and “My Egyptian Mummy,” the latter of which I will quote for you so you can understand what we’re dealing with:
My Egyptian mummy from the land of the pyramids,
We were sweethearts years ago.
That's why I know, though you were turned to stone,
I almost hear you moan.
I'm in love with you. I'm in love with you.
If prose is more your thing, we can head back to the Victorian era proper with our old pal Arthur Conan Doyle and his short story “The Ring of Thoth,” published in 1890. The narrator of that tale meets an Egyptian man named Sosra who claims to be 3500 years old and is still mourning the death of his lover millenia ago. With her mummy now on display in the Louvre, he watches over her.
Say, doesn’t the Ring of Thoth sound a whole lot like the Scroll of Thoth? And isn’t the story of Sosra and his lover a lot like the story of Imhotep and the princess? Ankh-es-en-amon dies tragically while Imhotep persists into the modern day, yearning to reunite with his beloved. There’s even a section in Doyle’s story that lines up almost perfectly with a key moment in the film:
In a frenzy I broke my way through the attendants, and rushed through hall and corridor to my Atma’s chamber. She lay upon her couch, her head high upon the pillow, with a pallid face and a glazed eye.Doyle, “The Ring of Thoth.” The Cornhill Magazine, Jan. 1890 edition, page 56
Maybe you could make the argument that Balderston plagiarized Doyle, but that’s not the point I’m trying to make with this comparison. I’m saying that there was a decades-long tradition of stuff like this which Balderston would have been aware of, and it almost certainly would have inspired his screenplay.
But still, what does that have to do with vampire romance and that movie about the candy guy who likes bees? Easy. They’re all connected by the same plot thread, the one that Balderston introduces into his mummy romance narrative as a way to connect Imhotep with the modern-day heroine: reincarnation.
We see it so often in books, movies, songs and the like: a love so powerful that even the wear and tear of multiple lifetimes can’t destroy it. But in 1932, the idea of reincarnation was still more prevalent in Eastern cultures than in the West. Examples of its use in Western stories popped up every now and then, but it had yet to really take hold as a narrative trope. Reincarnation as a plot point in romance stories specifically was even rarer. As far as I can tell, one of the earliest attempts (at least in Hollywood film) to tell a story like this was The Mummy.
So here’s the backstory. Imhotep was a high priest in the pharoah’s court, and his secret lover Ankh-es-en-amon was a priestess of Isis. When she died young, he was so distraught that he stole the Scroll of Thoth and tried using it to resurrect her. Because this was an especially big no-no, he was sentenced to be buried alive without any way for his soul to enter the afterlife. That’s why he was still around to be resurrected in modern times. Meanwhile, Ankh-es-en-amon was reincarnated as Helen Grosvenor, which is why the two look so similar (and it explains that creepy comment from Frank Whemple about falling in love with the corpse).
Bram Stoker’s Dracula would replicate this setup almost perfectly with Prince Vlad renouncing God and becoming a vampire after his wife’s death. And it wasn’t even the first Dracula adptation to use this plotline: the 1973 version by Dark Shadows creator Dan Curtis got there first! It was used in the 2013 Dracula series on NBC as well, to prove that this practice has endured into the 21st century. Candyman focuses on the horror aspect over the romance aspect and only hints at reincarnation, but it’s still the story of a man cursed for the crime of being in love — in this case, a black man murdered by a lynch mob for impregnating a white woman — and enduring into the modern day as a malevolent spirit until he unexpectedly crosses paths with a reincarnation of his lover. And the female lead’s name in that film? Helen. Probably a coincidence, but a fascinating one nonetheless.
And here’s the big thing: The Mummy plays up the tragic romance aspects of its story for all they’re worth. When you see this backstory play out on screen, it’s legitimately sad, due in no small part to Karloff’s acting. He doesn’t have any dialogue as the living Imhotep, but he tells us a lot with nothing but his facial expressions: Imhotep is heartbroken by his loss and aware that what he’s doing is wrong. He knows his punishment is inevitable if he’s caught, but he’s desperate enough to try it anyway. And in the present, the conversations that Imhotep has with Helen are when the movie’s dialogue finally steps beyond just being average and becomes truly poetic:
Ankh-es-en-amon, my love has lasted longer than the temples of our gods. No man ever suffered as I did for you.
It was not only this body that I loved, but thy soul! I destroy this lifeless thing! Thou shalt take its place but for a few moments and then rise again, even as I have risen!Imhotep
It’s the same kind of language that we’ll see in stuff like Bram Stoker’s Dracula several decades later, where it’s meant to be unambiguously hot.
Another thing that The Mummy has in common with modern romance stories is that it’s centered on the female lead. While Mina was mostly a side character in Universal’s Dracula, Helen is the protagonist here despite the presence of a Van Helsing counterpart and Jonathan Harker counterpart. She’s the one who undergoes the most dramatic change over the course of the film, she’s the one with the strongest connection to Imhotep/Ardath Bey, and in the climactic scene of the film, she is the one who ultimately defeats him when she comes to an important realization about who she is and who she wants to be:
I loved you once, but now you belong with the dead! I am Ankh-es-en-amon, but I…I’m somebody else, too! I want to live, even in this strange new world!Helen Grosvenor/Ankh-es-en-amon
I think this particular line is emblematic of the many conflicts that Helen is going through in this film. On one level, it’s a choice between life and death. On another level, it’s a choice between the two men who love her. And on a deeper, more sinister level, it’s a choice between the two parts of her heritage, between ancient and modern. Between white and non-white.
Part 3: The Racist Stuff
As interesting as it can sometimes be, the trope of mummies as horror story monsters is, overall, sketchy at best. We could call it a specific flavor of zombie-type horror, but modern zombies just don’t carry the same set of implications that mummies do. They’re both reanimated corpses, yes, but a zombie is more generic. Anyone can be a zombie. With a mummy, on the other hand, you’re specifically taking the funerary practices of an ancient non-Western culture and using those as the basis for a monster. The mummy is scary because it’s exotic and out of the ordinary for white audiences. It’s mystical and unknowable, and therefore it is difficult to understand and control. And in the late 1920s/early 1930s, when Egypt was an independent kingdom in theory but under British occupation in practice, there’s nothing scarier than a foreign, unknowable force that can’t be controlled.
In The Mummy, these themes of racism and imperialism are on display all over the place. They start with the mythology of the story itself, which is, to use a technical term, “spooky mystical BS.” Absolutely nowhere have scholars and archaeologists found evidence that the ancient Egyptians believed mummies could rise from the dead. The Scroll of Thoth is a total fabrication on Balderston’s part, created because the story needs a magical MacGuffin. The only part that’s somewhat accurate is the presence of Isis as a prominent deity, and even that is on thin ice: the cult of Isis, for example, was definitely not all-female as the film implies.
This is all part of the fetishization of ancient Egypt that happens throughout the film. Characters like Dr. Muller and Frank Whemple speak of it as though it’s a mythical where the old ways and gods are still in control, where the landscape and climate itself have the power to drive a man insane. And then there’s Helen, who shows an obsession with all things ancient Egypt and seems disgusted by the trappings of modern society. While her sentiments are likely intended to represent Ankh-es-en-amon’s spirit, at least one critic, Professor Caroline T. Schroeder of the University of Oklahoma, has noted that it could be a slight against the Islamic culture dominating Egypt at the time.
Helen is literally at the center of this debate because she she’s mixed-race (although the actress was not: it should be noted the main cast and crew were all white with the exception of actor Noble Johnson as a Nubian servant and Boris Karloff himself, who was Anglo-Indian). We are told early on that Helen’s father is the governor of Sudan — “English, of course” — and that her mother was from an old Egyptian family. The other characters keep harping on the fact that she isn’t completely white. It even becomes a source of danger for her, because Imhotep’s powers of mind control only work on other Egyptians. No, that’s not me making an assumption: Dr. Muller literally says that Imhotep was able to brainwash the Nubian because of the latter’s “ancient blood.” Imhotep can attack the white protagonists in other ways, but it’s telling that the film puts this specific limitation on his power: try as he might, he can’t corrupt the good, proper Englishmen.
Speaking of good proper Englishmen, let’s talk about Frank Whemple, our “hero.” I wish I had bigger quotation marks for that, because I can’t stand this character. Looking at the film from a 1930s perspective, i.e. not getting into all the ugly sentiments conveyed by his behavior, he’s just a boring character. He goes from not believing in magic to believing in magic after all, and that is the extent of his character development. But things are different if we’re looking at the film from a modern perspective and analyzing its outdated attitudes. If this character appeared in a modern film exactly the way he’s written here, he would almost certainly be the villain. It’s that bad at times.
This is mostly due to the blatant pro-imperialist stance that Frank exhibits throughout the film. He’s often arrogant and dismissive toward Egypt and its people. He views archaeology as a means to personal glory rather than education. He’s angry that the artifacts from Ankh-es-en-amon’s tomb are going to stay in their native country, saying they should be in the British Museum instead since Englishmen found them (which is an omission of truth at best and an outright lie at worst, since Ardath Bey told them where to dig). All in all, he’s pretty reprehensible, and that’s not even getting into the many ways he’s possessive and creepy toward Helen. And nothing happens to him that causes him to rethink this mindset. If anything, the events of the film only reinforce his ideas and make it look like he’s right. I think that’s one reason why it’s so easy in modern times to view The Mummy as a romance film with Imhotep as the primary love interest: it’s because the love interest that we’re supposed to root for is actually the one that sucks. Well, sucks more, I guess. Imhotep doesn’t smell like roses, either.
And what about Imhotep’s final defeat? It’s worth discussing because of how it plays out. You see, despite Imhotep having critical limits on how he can use his magic against the white protagonists, they are not the ones who ultimately destroy him. Only divine intervention, it seems, can get rid of Imhotep: the film ends with Helen/Ankh-es-en-amon praying for mercy to a statue of Isis, which comes to life and strikes Imhotep dead. It’s a far cry from something like Dracula, where scientific ingenuity and mastery of the monster’s weaknesses help the protagonists kill said monster. But when you think about it, of course the protagonists wouldn’t be able to defeat Imhotep. Not being able to subdue him is part of the horror. Like I said, the foreign unknowable force is scary to the white imperialists because there is no way to bend it to their will. It can only be destroyed by something equally foreign and unknowable and even more powerful, something the protagonists also don’t understand and can’t control. It’s almost Lovecraftian, in a way.
To me, the horror in The Mummy is all based around the idea of established order losing control of something it thought it had subjugated. Ancient artifacts literally run wild, striking back at those who would keep them locked up in museums. Helen, a mixed-race individual, is in danger of having her whole identity overwritten by her non-white heritage. The English protagonists are attacked repeatedly and nearly killed by Imhotep’s magic, which they are ultimately helpless against. It’s a story that, when you analyze it, speaks to the fears born out of the history shared by Britain and Egypt. It is the story of an imperial world turned upside down.
Of all the films we’ve discussed in this series so far, The Mummy is perhaps the weakest. In terms of tone, it lacks the intense eerieness of Dracula and the boisterous theatricality of Frankenstein, leaving it drifting without a clear identity. The script is derivative, most of the characters are flat, and the racist/imperialist themes of the story will make it hard for modern viewers to stomach. I wouldn’t recommend it to a casual viewer, but I can’t in good faith say that you should never watch it. Jokes about vampire romance aside, this is quite an influential movie in several ways. The camerawork and makeup are great technical achievements. Boris Karloff and Zita Johann have wonderful chemistry and elevate the material they’re given. The resurrection scene is an unforgettable moment of horror. It’s great fun to compare the film to later supernatural romances and analyze how it may have influenced the genre. Even the questionable attitudes can be the jumping-off point for a discussion of archaeology, the effects of imperialism and societal fears both past and present. In short, while The Mummy is by no means a great film, it has great potential as a tool for learning about storytelling and history, and that alone makes it worth viewing.
So what’s next for Universal at this point? Doing an original story has paid off well enough, but there must be some more great horror classics the studio can adapt for the big screen. Maybe that H.G. Wells guy has something they could use…
UP NEXT: The Invisible Man (1933)
The secondary sources I used to write this article include:
- “THE MUMMY in context” by Richard Freeman. European Journal of American Studies Volume 4 Number 1. 2009.
- “Ancient Egyptian Religion on the Silver Screen: Modern Anxieties about Race, Ethnicity and Religion” by Caroline T. Schroeder. Journal of Religion and Film Volume 7 Issue 2. 2003.
- Egyptomania: Our Three Thousand Year Obsession with the Land of the Pharoahs by Bob Brier. St. Martin’s Press, 2013.