Director: Karl Freund
By Roderick Heath
The series of horror films produced by Universal Studios in the 1930s and ’40s has long carried a specific mystique. The epoch of Expressionist horror that ushered the genre’s true arrival on screen had flowered in Germany but was waning by the time of the talkies. Whilst serious horror films were made in Hollywood throughout the silent period, jokey horrors were the most popular, lampooning the same dark and miasmic fantasias that the German filmmakers were revelling in. Many of the talented artistic progenitors of the Expressionist style, like directors F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, and Paul Leni, and camera wizard Karl Freund, decamped to Hollywood, which had already absorbed a lot of their style. A Hollywood horror revolution was officially kick-started by a native son, Tod Browning with Dracula (1931).
Actually an adaptation of John L. Balderstone’s play taken from Bram Stoker’s novel, that film emerged as an awkward compromise, but it still came charged with an enfolding sense of sonorous evil, and expertly exploited Béla Lugosi’s iconic charisma. Freund, who shot the film and helped meld the Expressionist ethic to the theatrical demands of early sound cinema, emerged from the production with standing, as some felt he saved the difficult shoot, often filling in for the distracted Browning. Although more concrete and formulaic than the more fervently dreamlike Expressionist films, the specific power Universal’s approach lay in their dedication to making their horror films densely atmospheric and rarefied, close to cinematic mood poems and fables.
The great movies of their brand, including Dracula, Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Black Cat (1934), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Wolf Man (1941), and a few others, defined the horror film in many minds, and still influence how many envision the classic roster of genre ghouls. Universal eventually turned successes into franchises and hammered those into the ground, although even their silliest later monster pile-ups like House of Dracula (1946) are exceedingly well-made and entertaining. But the earlier Universal output is superior and still casts a spell even when the films show their age.
Dracula proved a gigantic hit, and was quickly followed by James Whale’s brilliant take on Frankenstein, which although very different to Mary Shelley’s source novel, touched on a kind of fairy tale beauty and menace. Perhaps after a few years of the Depression, American audiences were in a mood not all that different to the struggling early days of Weimar; either way, dark, eerie, perverse and violent visions suddenly became wildly popular, an id to accompany the ego warriors of the gangster films soaring in popularity at the same time.
Universal, searching for another realm of the fantastic to explore, next produced The Mummy. It was an inspired and obvious recourse. Since Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb ten years earlier, things Ancient Egyptian held great cultural power. The Mummy was an original property rather than a well-worn literary classic, albeit strongly influenced by Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Ring of Thoth” and “Lot 249” as well much of H. Rider Haggard’s writing. Keeping recent success in mind, the studio gave Boris Karloff, who had rocketed to stardom in Frankenstein, the title role, and had Balderstone pen the screenplay. Barely days before the shoot was to start, the studio pressed Freund to direct. When Universal returned to the idea of the mummy as monster in the Kharis series, kicked off by The Mummy’s Hand (1940), the more familiar version was created, that of a lurching, raggedly bandaged zombie slowly and remorselessly tracking victims. In this regard the original The Mummy can be a surprise, as the notion of a walking mummy is only briefly touched on in the film’s famous opening sequence.
That scene sees respected Egyptologist Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron), his friend and colleague Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan), and young assistant Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher) inspecting their latest discoveries on their 1921 field expedition. Sir Joseph, an old and wise hand, wants to carry on cataloguing in the order of discover as per usual practice, but Norton is too distracted by their big finds, a casket that proves to house a mummy, a high priest named Imhotep, and a box containing a hieroglyphic scroll.
Muller, inspecting the casket, deduces the mummy was in fact a man buried alive, for treason or, more likely, sacrilege. “Maybe he got too gay with the Vestal virgins in the temple,” Norton theorises cheekily, getting closer to the mark than he thinks. Sir Joseph is momentarily shocked by the terrible curse inscribed on the box containing the scroll, which proves on inspection to be the mythical Scroll of Toth, inscribed with a spell for raising the dead. Muller, an occult expert, and Sir Joseph head out to argue the wisdom of prying any further into their find, leaving Norton alone, where curiosity proves far too powerful for him: he removes the scroll, transcribes and translates it, and reads the words quietly to himself. As he does so, the eyes of the mummy behind him slowly flicker open, its desiccated hands twitch and shift. The poor archaeologist is unaware until suddenly one mouldering hand reaches into the frame and lifts the scroll.
The walking dead disappears out the door, still only glimpsed only as a few trailing bandages, leaving behind the instantly mentally shattered Norton, who bursts into hysterical laughter and reports to Sir Joseph when he comes running, “He went for a little walk – you should’ve seen his face!” This opening is so arresting and memorable that it has long overshadowed the rest of the film. The technical limitations of early sound cinema, including sparing use of music, actually helped imbue the early Universal horrors with their power – these films work like stepping into some quieter, sinister antechamber of reality, in spite of the fact Dracula and The Mummy are both set in a contemporary world of motor cars and other noisy paraphernalia (even Frankenstein was set about 1900). Freund turns a static, all but eventless scene into a little minuet of delicate camera movements and judicious cuts. He privileges the viewer at first to the manifestations of something extraordinary occurring, but then cuts the viewer out from seeing the climax of the moment.
He concentrates instead on Norton’s transgressive act as something nudging the edges of an unseen world as he silently recites the crucial text, and then his confrontation with something from beyond the bounds of human experience and sanity. The narrative jumps forward ten years and takes up again with Sir Joseph’s son Frank (David Manners) working with Professor Pearson (Leonard Mudie), on a new expedition on behalf of the British Museum that’s had a total flop of a digging season.
The events of ten years before are an enigma for these men, as Pearson ponders why David’s father vowed never to return to Egypt and David himself glibly theorises the boredom of digging in the desert broke Norton’s mind. A knock at the door of their base hut proves to be the strange, stalk-thin, brittle-skinned man claiming to be Ardeth Bey, who is of course is Imhotep himself, having cast off his grave wrappings and spent ten years practising Osiris knows what acts of dark magic to set himself up in the twentieth century and pass as a living being. Ardeth entices David and Pearson into facilitating his secret plan, by giving a clue to the location of the tomb of the Princess Anck-es-en-Amon.
Intrigued by this seemingly wild surmise and anxious for anything resembling a find, the archaeologists set their diggers to the task and locate the tomb, fully intact with a bounty of untouched relics. So sensational is the find that Sir Joseph breaks his pledge and comes to oversee the removal of the treasure, which is then shipped to the Cairo Museum as prize exhibit. Freund offers another brilliant pirouette of style here as his camera explores the museum like a restless, hungry spirit, eventually zeroing in on the face on Anck-es-en-Amon’s casket. Freund then transitions via a whip-pan and an odd, delightful effect using a scrolling, illustrated cityscape as if the camera is racing across the city, to then halt on the face of Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), gazing out at the pyramids as if staring into the past – the subliminal connection between her and the dead princess instantly stated.
The scrolling effect is deliberately artificial; a nod to the roots of fantastic cinema in magic lantern shows and theatrical effects, with an echo of Freund’s work for Murnau. It also reinforces an idea in the dialogue, a sense of disconnection from the reality of “this dreadful modern Cairo.” Helen is the daughter of the English governor of Sudan and an Egyptian woman “with a family tree a mile long,” and is the repository for a memory of nations and wandering spirits. Helen is being watched over by Muller and his wife (Kathryn Byron), but can’t concentrate on the “nice English boys” because something’s stirring in the night. That something is Imhotep, who breaks into the museum with the Scroll of Thoth and begins chanting her name in a ritual to bring her soul back to her body. Helen is the one who obeys the call as the Princess’s reincarnation, and Frank and his father come across her in a daze banging on the museum door. They take her to her apartment after she faints whilst Imhotep is chased by a museum guard who meets an ugly end in the shadows.
One distinctive quality of the Universal horror brand was that it upheld the notion that horror as a genre was at heart tragic, by concentrating on monsters and antiheroes who are often essentially cursed with existence, doomed to exist outside of the world and often prey on it. This idea stands in complete opposition to the tendency that emerged in the 1960s and still dominates the genre where the forces of evil have become increasingly one-dimensional and symbolic. Whale’s Frankenstein monster captured this idea with such power that it became a recurring motif, whilst Imhotep, in his desperate, eon-long search for his great love, exemplifies it.
Appearing like a sun-dried praying mantis in kaftan and fez, Imhotep proceeds with Mandarin cool, alternately effete and concerted, afraid of being touched (“An Eastern prejudice,” he tells Sir Joseph by way of explanation after asking him not to) in case his skin comes off in mouldy flakes. But his parched and brittle body is belied by the power emanating from his eyes and the fixity of his desires. Universal’s make-up wiz Pierce created both the overtly gnarled and desiccated look of the mummy when first discovered and a subtler look for the revived and rejuvenated Ardeth, who looks just normal enough to pass but whose face bears a thousand tiny wrinkles as if someone tried to shrink his head.
Freund returns more than once to a single, stunning shot of Karloff’s face, every rut in Pierce’s make-up inscribed by the lighting and his eyes in shadow, only for his eyes to suddenly light up and reveal a dread, piercing stare. It’s a very simple effect, and yet it turns the idea of Imhotep’s deathless passion and innate force into a totemic picture. The Mummy also helped codify a now-common form of morbid romanticism popular in the horror genre. Nowadays even Dracula, a human-shaped leech originally, has become a deathless romancer in search of his reincarnated darling in many recent takes on his story. Freund’s channelling of the Germanic liebestod tradition into a Hollywood movie was still a relatively new and powerful notion, and even segues into a perverse joke when Frank, half-jokingly and half-honestly, confesses to Helen that he fell in love with Anck-es-en-Amon’s mummified body after rifling through her personal effects. Archaeology as pick-up art by way of stalking and necrophilia.
The Mummy’s mood of subliminal obsession is mediated through intensely rhythmic visual and editing patterns, particularly the recurring images of Imhotep, swathed in shadow, chanting Anck-es-en-Amon’s name or reciting killing curses, alternately pathetic in his longing or terrible in his malevolence. Music and image build to crescendos as Imhotep screws up a fist to drive home his maledictions like lances. He kills Sir Joseph this way and also almost kills Frank, who is saved only by clasping onto a charm given to him by Muller, who serves as the de facto Van Helsing character.
Van Sloan gets to display even more impressive pith as Muller than he did as Stoker’s savant, as he proclaims his desire to “get my hands on you – I’d break your dried flesh to pieces!”, but knows he can’t even approach the deadly magician. That’s another unusual aspect of The Mummy, too, as most horror films invoke the supernatural but very few place so much emphasis on mysticism as a form of power to be invoked and resisted. Every character in the film feels or wields an invisible influence, locked as they are within patterns of fate, from Sir Joseph’s Sudanese servant (Noble Johnson) who falls under the influence of Imhotep like one his ancestors did to that fallen but still potent empire, to Anck-es-en-Amon whose spirit continues to wander and find new bodies eternally for having broken her vows as a priestess of Isis.
The Mummy is one of the most overtly dreamlike and ethereal of horror films made between the coming of sound and the work of Georges Franju. An otherworldly quality is sustained throughout, a quality glimpsed at its strongest in moments like when Imhotep shows Helen their shared past in a shimmering pool of sacred water, or when Helen, swathed in white nightgown, stalks a corridor in a trance-state, leaving behind Frank’s crumped form on the floor. One the film’s most genuinely weird and jarring asides comes when Helen’s dog, nervous in Ardeth’s house of dark magic overseen by the cat goddess of evil sendings, Bast, is killed off-screen with a horrible wail. Most mummy tales exemplify, and indeed are today the most recognisable version, of a story pattern popular in a lot of Victorian-era fantastic fiction (also crime fiction, a la The Moonstone and The Sign of Four).
In that pattern, exotic, mysterious objects from alien cultures come into the possession of hapless westerners, who find out just how much deadly power there is in the taboo objects of ransacked cultures. The forbidden object stood for a certain suppressed, half-conscious anxiety at the possible surge of forces stirred by colonialism, and reminded of the necessity of a certain stoic acceptance of foreign customs and rules.
This The Mummy has an aspect of this but moves in different directions. Imhotep re-emerges to torment the despoilers of a cultural heritage but also uses them to accomplish his ends. He lets Frank and Pearson commit the heresy he won’t, for he himself is a rebel against the demarcations of the sacred. He also happily reclaims ancient status when he mesmerically suborns the “Nubian” servant: the bath ain’t big enough for two imperialist powers.
Karloff played Fu Manchu the same year in The Mask of Fu Manchu, and there’s a distinctly similar note of paranoia over the possibility of an aristocratic man from a non-Caucasian society creating a different, if no less oppressive, power paradigm. Here that pattern is complicated by Helen’s status as inheritor of dual legacies and existing in multiple ages. A deleted addendum to the lengthy flashback followed Anck-es-en-Amon’s spirit through many ages and places, disseminating the flow of civilisation out of Egypt and into Europe as well as the progress of her spirit. Imhotep is the power of things past but not forgotten; Helen/Anck-es-en-Amon is the life force that graces and never dies.
The vision of their shared history, including his own downfall and terrible death, Imhotep shows to Helen in his mystic pool, glimpsing how Anck-es-en-Amon died and Imhotep, the high priest to her priestess who had fallen in love with her against all taboos, tried to use the Scroll of Toth to revive her, only to be caught and sentenced to be buried alive. This sequence, which was recycled several times in Universal’s later mummy films, is a delight as a throwback to the fast-receding ideals of silent cinema, like a lost reel from some lost Cecil B. DeMille historical epic.
Freund, like DeMille, takes the rectilinear styles of Ancient Egyptian art as a basis for stylising compositions and the movements of the actors within them, creating a ritualised form to evoke the distant past. More interestingly, though, Freund also utilises silent film acting styles to suggest the bygone and archaic – Freund both tipping his hat to the art form that had defined him and other filmmakers but which was already fading into legend. The close-up of Imhotep being wrapped in bandages before burial is excruciating, as Karloff communicates his unutterable fear and suffering even as he submits to his fate: this is, in its way, one of the most violent images ever committed to film. Imhotep’s pathos as a lover and antihero, where before he was merely a menacing ghoul, emerges here and gives context to the priest’s incredible defiance, even of his own death, a character who triangulates the dominating stature of Dracula, the victimised pathos of The Wolf Man‘s Larry Talbot, and the Promethean arrogance of Dr Frankenstein.
The Mummy hinges on Karloff’s ability to paint tortured depths in unlikely figures as well as sepulchral menace, his depictions of the alternations of hate, pain, longing, and a wry and haughty authority that drive the character making Imhotep one of the most genuinely interesting horror film villains. To have seen the film is to have his plangent chant of “Anck-es-en-Amon” forever in mind, reminiscent of that scene in Hour of the Wolf (1968) when the similar chant of “Pamina” in The Magic Flute is explored, the name as spell, love as transfiguring force. Indeed, Ingmar Bergman made that film in part as a tribute to his love for Universal’s horror films. Johann, a stage actress who was showcased as a potential movie star for a brief time but then retreated to Broadway and married John Houseman, is a fascinating presence.
With her deep, silky voice and large-eyed beauty, she was at once able at once to seem the perfect flapper-age woman but also evoked a timeless quality. Her Helen looks and sounds like a being detached from the hoi-polloi of the twentieth century, and it’s easy to imagine her adrift on the rivers of time. Indeed, by the finale Imhotep has regressed her until she is once again Anck-es-en-Amon. Johann projects an easy sensuality and an aura of emotional maturity that belies her standing as damsel in distress, and she constantly nudges the viewer to remember this is a pre-Code film we’re watching. “What girl could fail to make a conquest who collapsed at a man’s feet in the moonlight?” she prods Frank amusedly when he professes instant passion for her, before adding: “Don’t you think I’ve had enough excitement for one evening without the additional thrill of a strange man making love to me?”
Manners, who had played a drippy Jonathan Harker in Dracula, is similarly outmatched here in a way that points to the way familiar romantic heroes were all but incidental in this kind of film long before the days of final girls. But Manners also fares better in playing Frank, who’s a rather oddball hero, a handsome nerd, albeit one whose romantic nerve once touched is impressively ardent: “You can tell me to go to the devil – but you can’t laugh at me,” as he proclaims with impressive determination as he declares his instant obsession to Helen. The Mummy is a flawed film for all its qualities.
Balderstone’s script betrays something of the same stagy thinking that weighed down Dracula. Many scenes unfolds in the theatrical-like environs of the Whemples’ apartment, whilst Manners has deal with the lion’s share of unspeakable lines as romantic ingénue (“How I love you so!”). Freund’s last-minute hiring means that the filmmaking is flatly functional as often as it’s inspired. Freund was a profoundly gifted technician but only directed two horror films, this and Mad Love (1935). The degree to which he could take charge of material remained in question after the second film in particular was badly hampered by an unfocused narrative and excessive comic relief, and he stopped directing after that.
But The Mummy remains almost sui generis in its delicate sense of horror and tension, and resolves with a climax where the heroes, rushing to rescue Helen from Imhotep’s impending sacrifice and resurrection of her mortal form to remake her like himself, find themselves still outmatched by Imhotep’s power. Instead, aptly, it is up to Helen/Anck-es-en-Amon to defeat him by an act of prayer and contrition, calling on Isis to save her. Whereupon the statue of the goddess looking over the scene lifts a stony arm and strikes down the unruly priest with a curse that causes him to crumble to dust and skeletal remains, and Frank is left to try and drag Helen’s persona back from the murk of the past.
This may well have influenced the similar deus ex machina punchline of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Although the staging of the finale is a bit awkward and rushed, it retains power for respecting the strange logic of this tale, where forces beyond rule all and love is an immutable force that distorts and rewrites reality. In celebrating this idea, The Mummy moves beyond Expressionist ideas into the realm of the authentically surreal.