Nov 17, 2010

24FPS Top 100: No. 68

68: THE MUMMY [1932]
DIR: Karl Freund
Why is it on the list?
Much though I love James Whale’s Frankenstein films, this, for me, is the crowning glory of the justly celebrated cycle of Universal’s monster films. THE MUMMY was the first (and arguably the only really notable) directorial effort of Karl Freund, who had, in his native Germany had been one of the people most instrumental in creating the look of the German expressionist films (most notably as the cinematographer for Fritz Lang on METROPOLIS and for FW Murnau on DIE LETZE MANN.) It was an obvious piece of directorial casting; the Universal horror films all owed a great debt to Freund’s work anyway. It pays off brilliantly in the film, which is always wonderful to look at; devoid of the stagy feel that could often afflict films of the early 30’s, as they adjusted to the technical demands of sound. The film is also packed with evocative shots that, though they may have lost their ability to shock, retain nearly 80 years on the capacity to chill.

The story was obviously influenced by that of the so called curse of Tutankhamun, which had captured the public imagination in the few years since his tomb had been uncovered by Howard Carter’s team. The film sees Boris Karloff (billed on the film’s poster as Karloff the Uncanny) as the ancient Egyptian priest Imhotep, wakened from his cursed burial when archaeologists find his tomb. Ten years later Karloff (now posing as Egyptologist Ardeth Bey) believes he has found his long lost love, the reincarnation of the Princess Anacksunamon (played by the lovely Zita Johann). It’s not the most original tale, but it’s lifted by the telling.

‘Karloff the Uncanny’ may just sound like so much marketing crap, but it’s actually rather apt for his performance here. The film’s opening sequence, with Karloff wrapped in bandages (a painstaking Jack Pierce make up), is striking, but he’s much more creepy as Ardeth Bey. Pierce’s beautifully subtle aging make up for Karloff as Bey gives the suggestion of a mummy without constantly swathing the star in bandages, and along with the wonderful performance that Karloff gives; fragile, but alert, contributes much to the film’s very particular and very creepy atmosphere. Bey is an atypical monster; Karloff plays him with his own natural, soft, lisping voice (which makes the hypnotism sequences very convincing), it is Freund’s framing, and his expert use of light and shadow, that really brings out the monster in this Mummy, never so memorably as when we first see him in close up; Freund’s deep shadows making the wrinkles in Pierce’s make up stand out and Karloff’s face appear almost like a bare skull.

A few of the other performances are a little theatrical, but Zita Johann is effective - and radiant - as the object of Imhotep’s desire. At just 70 minutes THE MUMMY is pacy but unhurried, finding time for a brilliant flashback sequence detailing, in lurid pre-code detail, how Imhotep came to be entombed alive. This is one of the few early horror films that really retains its power to frighten, and that alone makes it one that deserves to be much more recognised than it is as, sadly, it is still often seen as the lesser cousin of the Frankenstein films.

Standout Scenes
Back to life
Some overacting here, but Freund’s sparing use f the Mummy is brilliant, and the moment that Karloff’s hand twitches still sends shiver down the spine.

The curse
Replicated almost shot for shot in Stephen Sommers’ (remarkably not terrible) remake, the original remains the best version.

Ardeth Bey
Karloff’s chilling entrance, and one of the high points of a great performance.

Memorable lines
Sir Joseph Whemple: [translating inscription on box] "Death... eternal punishment... for... anyone... who... opens... this... casket. In the name... of Amon-Ra... the king of the gods." Good heavens, what a terrible curse!
Ralph Norton: [eagerly] Well, let's see what's inside!

Im-ho-tep, alias Ardeth Bey: You will not remember what I show you now, and yet I shall awaken memories of love... and crime... and death...

Frank Whemple: Surely you read about the princess?
Helen Grosvenor/The Princess: So you did that.
Frank Whemple: Yes. The fourteen steps down and the unbroken seals were thrilling. But when we came to handle all her clothes and her jewels and her toilet things - you know they buried everything with them that they used in life? - well, when we came to unwrap the girl herself...
Helen Grosvenor/The Princess: How could you do that?
Frank Whemple: Had to! Science, you know. Well after we'd worked among her things, I felt as if I'd known her. But when we got the wrappings off, and I saw her face... you'll think me silly, but I sort of fell in love with her.
Helen Grosvenor/The Princess: Do you have to open graves to find girls to fall in love with?

Im-ho-tep, alias Ardeth Bey: Excuse me... I dislike being touched... an Eastern prejudice.

To buy the film, and help 24FPS out at the same time, please use the links below. Thanks.


  1. This is one of the greatest of the Universal horrors and I love it. Like Dracula it sometimes comes in for a bit of stick for having a plodding narrative but none of the films in the initial horror cycle have ever been bettered for their atmosphere in my opinion. And to think that Karloff is only ever seen as the "genuine" mummy for less than five minutes of screen time.

  2. I couldn't agree more. I too love James Whale's films the most out the Universal Monster Films, but The Mummy is a treasure, and the only that I believe is actually somewhat scary. I find it fascinating that Freund was the cinematographer on Metropolis. Those German Expressionists really understood horror back then. Would love to see a review of the Sommer's film!