Following the release of Frankenstein, Boris Karloff, at nearly 45 years of age and having spent twenty years as a professional actor, became an overnight sensation. As the film was still raking in its rewards, Universal signed him to a star contract and immediately began searching for a property for him. As it turned out it took nearly a year, between his outstanding commitments to other studios and Universal’s inability to find a suitable script, for Karloff to appear in his first starring role for the studio. The film was a decidedly different, but no less remarkable, from Frankenstein. Instead of being quickly paced and sensationalistic, The Mummy was deliberately plotted with a slowly unfolding story, but its restrained direction and masterful performances made it a unique entry in Universal’s growing library of horror cinema of the early 1930s.
Writer and journalist Nina Wilcox Putnam was tasked by Universal to write a vehicle for their newest horror star and she set about writing Cagliostro, based on the story of a mysterious historical figure who claimed to have lived for thousands of years. By the end of February, Putnam had presented a treatment and full script, but the studio felt it needed much more work. The story was then revised by John L. Balderston who had been responsible for reworking the British stage versions of Dracula and Frankenstein, written by Hamilton Deane and Peggy Webling respectively, for Broadway. Balderston’s reworked versions of these plays had served as the primary bases for Universal’s hugely successful film versions and the studio felt he could fashion the material into their next horror hit. Taking just a few ideas from the Cagliostro script, Balderston expanded upon the Egyptian elements he found in it, combining them with popular tales about the supposed Curse of Tutankhamun and a “love across time” story to create the final script.
Approved script in hand, Universal hired one of their best cinematographers, Karl Freund, who had served as Director of Photography on Dracula (1931) and Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) for the studio, to direct. Many early horror films were heavily influenced by the German Expressionist movement of the 1920s. Freund, however, was not only inspired by the movement but one of its key players, having served as cinematographer for many Expressionist films including important works by F.W. Murnau, Paul Wegener, and Fritz Lang. Though the film lacks the “unchained” camera of a film like The Last Laugh (1924) it does capture the mood and dread created by the best horror films of German Expressionism, which was largely a movement of light and shadow. The subtlety of the direction is one of the keys to The Mummy’s enduring effectiveness and why its reputation has only grown over time. Unfortunately, Freund was also something of a tyrant behind the camera and he and female lead Zita Johann were constantly at odds.
As for its star, Karloff had appeared in a number of films throughout 1932 but none were the showcase for the breadth of his acting talents like The Mummy. Early in the year he appeared in James Whale’s follow-up to Frankenstein, The Old Dark House in the role of Morgan, a part not all that far removed from the creature. Though it was a supporting role, Universal felt it necessary to place a message at the beginning of the film stating that it was the very same Boris Karloff that thrilled audiences in Frankenstein. He also appeared in a small role in Howard Hawks’ Scarface, which was filmed before Frankenstein but delayed due to censorship issues. His first leading role was in The Mask of Fu Manchu for MGM, a notoriously troubled production due to constant rewrites to the script throughout shooting. The film is filled with troubling racial stereotypes that were not uncommon for the era and its overall incoherence as a film made it a production that Karloff was glad to leave behind.
The Mummy, on the other hand, was based on a well-crafted script by a respected writer. It had been through several revisions and a final approval before cameras rolled and the director, eager to please and thrill with his debut film, had a clear vision in mind. As a result, Karloff’s characterization is thoughtful, subtle, and sympathetic as his performance as Frankenstein’s monster had been but with the added dimension of speech. His London-accented sibilant baritone is put to full effect in The Mummy with the best dialogue written for him since The Criminal Code (1931), his first important role of the sound era.
Legendary makeup artist Jack Pierce created another superb makeup for Karloff for the film. The fully mummy makeup, including face, hands, and wrappings, reportedly took eight hours to complete, twice as long as his makeup for Frankenstein. Luckily for Karloff he only had to wear this intensive makeup for one day, apparently lasting about eighteen hours from application, through shooting, and removal. Unfortunately, Pierce did not think to include a fly in the wrappings and Karloff was unable to relieve himself for the entire time. The full makeup only appears in the opening scene of The Mummy but is one of the most iconic of Pierce’s storied career. Freund’s restrained direction for the film is on full display in this sequence as the makeup is never given full focus and we do not see Karloff in the full makeup in motion beyond opening his eyes and a moving hand. Much of the scene’s horror is conveyed on the face of the character who has awakened the mummy Imhotep from his centuries of slumber, Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher), and his madness that follows.
Luckily for Karloff, the makeup worn as the unbandaged mummy’s alter ego Ardath Bey required only about an hour to apply, and was likely an old age stipple, in which the skin is stretched out, spirit gum is applied, dried, and release creating an exaggerated wrinkle effect in the applied area. Karloff added to the effect of age by carrying himself stiffly and moving with deliberate effort. Every movement made and every word spoken by Karloff in the role is done with complete purpose and control bringing great weight to every moment he appears on screen. His great power is conveyed primarily through his penetrating eyes and a subtle lighting effect, a refined version of the one used on Bela Lugosi’s iconic stare in Dracula.
The power of the plot comes from its love story that crosses thousands of years. In it, the resurrected Imhotep, now living under the guise of Ardath Bey, falls in love with Helen Grosvenor, played by Zita Johann, the reincarnation of Princess Anck-es-en-amen, the priestess of the Egyptian deity Isis. In the film’s most memorable sequence (with the possible exception of its opening) Imhotep reveals the story of their love to Helen in a sacred pool. Because he attempted to resurrect her after her untimely death by stealing the Scroll of Thoth from the temple of Isis, Imhotep was captured in the midst of his sacrilege and sentenced to being buried alive in an unmarked grave, the protective spells that would guide his spirit to the underworld removed from his sarcophagus. This kind of story of love enduring beyond death has been used time and again, perhaps most notably in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) in which the vampiric count (Gary Oldman) endures through the centuries to encounter the reincarnation of his lost princess Elizabeta in the form of Mina Murray, played by Winona Ryder. The concept was also brought back to The Mummy story in the 1999 remake from director Stephen Somers, which intentionally captures the basic story elements from this original version.
The Mummy spawned several sequels and most later versions of mummy monster movies tend to draw more from those films than the original. A case in point is the Hammer version from 1959 starring Peter Cushing as archeologist John Banning and Christopher Lee as the mute, bandaged living mummy Kharis, the name used in the Universal sequels. The most successful remake is the aforementioned 1999 film, which combined some of the basic ideas of the original with an Indiana Jones-style adventure story and spawned a franchise of its own. Sommers attempted to capture lightning again for other Universal monsters with Van Helsing (2004), but the film failed to succeed on several fronts. The Mummy was remade once again in 2017 in an attempt to start a “Dark Universe” to compete with the rising tide of the MCU, but the film was a critical and box-office failure. More recently, Suspiria (2018) and Bones & All (2022) director Luca Guadagnino mused aloud to Collider about a few ideas he had for a new version of The Mummy, but it remains to be seen whether that will come to pass.
But for all the versions that followed, there is a singular quality to the original that has never been captured again. It is surprising that this quiet and subtle film has spawned so many reimaginings. Perhaps it is the deliberate pace of the film with its slow, creeping dread, that allows space for the imagination to flourish as it deftly works its way under the skin. Of all the iconic monsters, Imhotep is the most unexpected, spending the majority of the film blending in among the human characters. He is not conflicted like the Wolf Man, tormented by others like Frankenstein’s monster, a madman like the Invisible Man, or merely defending his territory from invaders like the Creature from the Black Lagoon. He is a man who will do anything to be with the woman he loves, making him as relatable as any of the classic monsters. This is the key to why these characters endure. In these creatures meant to horrify, we see a reflection of ourselves and are beckoned to examine that reflection to find the humanity behind the horror. Perhaps above all, the reason The Mummy endures is Boris Karloff. In it, he creates another sympathetic monster, one whose passions and desires reflect our own, perhaps more than we would like to admit.
In Bride of Frankenstein, Dr. Pretorius, played by the inimitable Ernest Thesiger, raises his glass and proposes a toast to Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein—“to a new world of Gods and Monsters.” I invite you to join me in exploring this world, focusing on horror films from the dawn of the Universal Monster movies in 1931 to the collapse of the studio system and the rise of the new Hollywood rebels in the late 1960’s. With this period as our focus, and occasional ventures beyond, we will explore this magnificent world of classic horror. So, I raise my glass to you and invite you to join me in the toast.