Summary: An ancient Egyptian mummy seeks his lost love in this classic Universal Studios horror film.
Review: “He went for a little walk.” That single wryly hysterical understatement set the tone of The Mummy perfectly.
Structurally, the film is an unapologetic riff on Dracula, released the prior year. However, writers Nina Wilcox Putnam, Richard Schayer, and John L. Balderston improved upon the formula by fleshing out the characters and their world.
For instance, Imhotep doesn’t hit the ground running as he does in subsequent iterations. Instead, there’s a time jump of ten years during which viewers discover he took the time to assimilate to better achieve his ends. That narrative choice aids Boris Karloff’s wondrously otherworldly performance.
Then, there’s heroine Helen Grosvenor, played with nuance equal to Karloff’s, by Zita Johann. Helen isn’t some random pretty girl. She’s actually Egyptian on her mother’s side with a family pedigree that goes back a long way. That internal logic and the fact that there was a woman on the writing team aided Johann’s performance. As a result, Helen is a leading lady modern women can root for as she and the ill-fated princess she once did a lot to save themselves.
That brings me to the one character who drags the film down — Frank Whemple — played as well as can be expected by David Manners. To use The Phantom of the Opera parallel, Frank is Raoul. When Gaston Leroux wrote his tale of love and madness, he meant Raoul as parody and commentary on the operatic hero to allow his readers to properly contrast The Phantom’s relationship with Christine. However, The Mummy’s writers lost sight of parody and commentary in relation to their Other Man, so Frank is simply an ineffectual wet blanket, who takes up space because of the plot.
As a result of these character dynamics, I’m torn. On one hand, I’m glad a heroine from 1932 was written with enough depth to make viewers believe that she and a character played by Karloff were once a power couple. On the other hand, the other guy is so bland and useless that I’m genuinely sorry Imhotep and Ankh-es-en-amon couldn’t be together. Sometimes, I really hate plot.
The Mummy is available on Blu-ray, DVD, and V.O.D. for viewing on Halloween night or any other.
Nina Wilcox Putnam, Richard Schayer, John L. Balderston
Boris Karloff as Ardath Bey / Imhotep
Zita Johann as Helen Grosvenor / Ankh-es-en-amon
David Manners as Frank Whemple
Arthur Byron as Sir Joseph Whemple
Edward Van Sloan as Doctor Muller