Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Mummy (1932)

The Mummy is the third great Universal horror film of the 1930's, after Dracula and Frankenstein, and the only one that does not have a literary source. It was conceived as a sort of collage of successful elements from other films--Boris Karloff's charismatic Frankenstein pasted on top of most of the plot of Dracula, with an Egyptian setting to capitalize on the world-wide craze for all things Egyptian that followed the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun. Although the elements of the plot were thrown together purely based on what the producers thought would sell tickets, the end result is something much greater than the sum of its parts. In particular, the resemblance to Dracula, though remarkable on the surface, does not touch the story's substance. While in Dracula triumph is found through human ingenuity, The Mummy is a fatalistic passion play in which the humans are merely spectators in the world of the gods.

Dracula's story is the very model of a Victorian way of thinking. The supernatural forces that threaten society are no match for the modern ideals of hard work, determination, and most of all, science. Although the heroes of the story must work within a supernatural framework in order to defeat Dracla, it is by applying a scientific methodology to the occult that they are able to understand him. Dracula is powerless in the face of this dissection of his essence, as he understands nothing of the modern world in which he lives, and so cannot retaliate in kind.

The Mummy, although it was based on Dracula in many ways, is at its core something entirely different. It is at least as much tragedy as it is horror. The supposed villain of the piece, the mummy Imhotep (Boris Karloff), is entirely sympathetic, as he seeks over nearly four thousand years to be reunited with the woman he loves, no matter what might stand in his way. His trio of human opponents, Sir Joseph Wheeple, Frank Wheeple, and the Van Helsing-esque Dr. Muller, can do nothing to stop him. He is too strong: his magic, his age and strength, and the powerful psychological control her exerts over the object of his affections, one Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), a young English/Egyptian socialite who also happens to be the reincarnation of Imhotep's lost love, Anckesen Amon. Ultimately, it is not the humans who defeat Imhotep, but the goddess Isis, in answer to the supplications of Anckesen Amon, who used to be her priestess. Although the Wheeples and Dr. Muller are on hand at Imhotep's demise, they are there purely as spectators. Throughout the film they are witnesses to a bigger and grander story than they ever realize, one in which they are entirely inconsequential. 

The Mummy is not really even a horror story. Certainly, there is much in it that raises a sense of revulsion in the viewer, but it is not frightening, and Imhotep is no monster. Although he does commit murder in the film, he does so only when someone stands in the way of his love for Anckesen Amon. Even in the iconic opening sequence, where the mummy returns to life and stumbles away from his coffin, dirty rags dragging on the stone floor, he does not disturb the young archaeologist who witnesses his resurrection. He takes his scroll from the table and leaves, quietly and calmly. The archaeologist goes insane after witnessing the event, because his mind is not broad enough to accept what he has seen. The story of Imhotep is too large and grand for him to process, but his tragedy is hardly of Imhotep's making.

Like Romeo and Juliet, The Mummy is at its core the story of a pair of star-crossed lovers, and the cultural and social constraints that kept them apart. Even though Imhotep braves eternal damnation  to save their love, it is no use, as the walls which separated them so long ago are still just as strong in the twentieth century as they were in ancient Egypt. The weakness here belongs to Anckesen Amon herself. Like Lot's wife who had not the strength of will to avoid turning back to look at the burning of Sodom, and so is lost when she could have been saved, Anckesen Amon has not the strength to trust in their love to overcome the social taboos that keep them apart, and it is her weakness that destroys them both. The spell which granted eternal life to Imhotep is destroyed, and his body is reduced to dust, and the spirit of Anckesen Amon fades away into the recesses of the mind of the far less interesting Helen Grosvenor.

The Mummy is a truly unforgettable film of astonishing depth and beauty. It relies for its impact almost entirely on the screen presence and intense physical chemistry of Boris Karloff and Zita Johann, and no foundation could be more secure. After the first on screen meeting of the lovers, the two Wheeple's and Muller come out of Wheeple's office to find them standing in stony silence, simply staring at each other. It would appear that they would like nothing better than to remain so for all eternity. The intensity of their magnetic eroticism takes my breath away, making the film's other supposed love story, between Helen Grosvenor and Frank Wheeple, seem pale and puny by comparison. Who could believe that any woman would choose the meek and uninteresting English nobleman over the passionate lover who had adored her through the centuries, even through death? Yet she does choose him, in a manner of speaking. Rather, she falls into his arms as a welcome refuge from the all-powerful love of Imhotep that threatened to consume her. She does not love Frank, but she chooses his simple and nonthreatening devotion over the love too big and powerful for her to understand.


  1. Fine look at this classic. I love the old b&w cinematography. Thanks, Allex.

  2. a lovely piece on one of my all-time favorites.