As far as all of the classic Universal Monsters this film was always my favorite. Boris Karloff plays the cursed and ancient Im-Ho-Tep who is “unearthed” by British archeologists. His main goal is to find his reincarnated princess Anck-es-an-Amon, whom he finds in Helen Grosvenor (played by the at the time “exotic” actress Zita Johann). Enter an archeologist by the name of Frank Whemple (Played by David Manners) who also loves Helen, thus making Im-Ho-Tep step in and attempt to wipe out anyone who would get in his way to his immortal beloved.
The Mummy is basically a retelling of Dracula (The Mummy was written by William Branderson, who also wrote Dracula…go figure). What I love the most about this film is its brooding atmosphere. I didn’t think it was as melodramatic, per se, as Dracula, although it too is a tragic romance much like Dracula. The director of the film, Karl Freund, was a first time director who had worked as a cameraman in Germany with F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang. This is really apparent when you see how The Mummy was shot. Photographically this is the strongest of the Universal films with its subtle horror and amazing visuals.
And the subtlety of the horror is what works best here, and Karloff as Im-Ho-Tep is perhaps the most Machiavellian monster from the period. He’s only the slow, lumbering mummy archetype that became the staple of Mummy films for the next 50 years when he is first briefly seen. The scene of Karloff in a full state of “mummyness” as a younger archeologist accidentally revives him is perhaps one of the best of the film. His motions are barely perceptible at all. The viewer only sees the reaction of the archeologist as he starts to laugh maniacally from the horror he’s witnessing off screen. For the rest of the film Karloff looks incredibly old and haggard, wears a fez, and pretends to be Ardath Bey. An Egyptian gentleman.
Getting back to the nature of Im-Ho-Tep. Unlike later mummy films, he doesn’t lumber up to people and choke them to death. No…he’s an incredibly knowledgeable and dangerous sorcerer from ancient Egypt who kills from a distance with evil spells to achieve his ends. Karloff has no real emotion in this film. His motions, speech and mannerism are all incredibly slow and methodical and really work effectively. Karloff’s Im-Ho-Tep won’t openly show hostility to an enemy. No… he’ll just simply skulk off and kill him from a safe distance. The most memorable and haunting scenes are the close ups of Karloff casting a spell on some one. It’s a tight close-up of his face with deep shadows enveloping his eyes. As his power starts to grow his eyes light up. In this day of C.G., such subtle touches are lost. But here in this film they are extremely powerful. And power is what Karloff’s mummy has in abundance. Ultimately he’s destroyed not by men, but by the Egyptian god Thoth.
Universal recently released the The Legacy Collection of all their great monster films. The set comes with all of the Mummy films that Universal released (The Mummy/Mummy’s Hand/Mummy’s Tomb/Mummy’s Ghost/Mummy’s Curse) and tons of commentary and extras. There is a very enlightening documentary called “Mummy Dearest: A Horror Tradition Unearthed” which I really liked. There is some stuff with Stephen Sommers previewing the film and mentioning his crapfest Van Helsing (please ignore that) as well as his version of The Mummy. Watch the other Mummy films in the set and you’ll probably wonder why they didn’t have a mummy like Karloff in these as well. Instead they have the aforementioned lumbering mummy who chokes the guys and carries away the women.
Any and all horror fans NEED to have these Universal Legacy Collections in their possession. For the cash you can’t go wrong and it’s about 12 hours of things to watch!