“They broke in upon me and found me doing an unholy thing. . . . For thy sake I was buried alive.”
Without doubt the jewel of the early sound Universal horror films is Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934). What is the next-best? Neither Tod Browning’s Dracula nor James Whale’s Frankenstein (both 1931), I would say, but The Mummy, which Karl Freund directed—the cinematographer of German silents and Oscar-winner for The Good Earth (Sidney Franklin, 1937). The plot mines memories of a sensational archaeological event, the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in Egypt in 1921, and draws on elements of stories by Arthur Conan Doyle.
The film begins with script: “This is the Scroll of Thoth. Herein are set down the magic words by which Isis raised Osiris from the dead.” Thirty-seven hundred years ago Princess Anck-es-en-Amon died; her remains were sealed in an elaborate tomb. In despair, Im-ho-tep violated the sacred Scroll of Thoth in hope of being reunited with his beloved. He is caught and punished—wrapped in layers upon layers of cloth strips and buried alive. Excavated in 1921, Im-ho-tep comes “alive”—like Dracula, he is closer to being the “living dead”—when the scroll, which was buried with him, is freshly violated. Eleven years later, as Ardath Bey he directs another team from the British Museum to the princess’s tomb and pursues Helen Grosvenor, who is the reincarnation of the princess. She must die, that is, endure “moments of horror for an eternity of love.” Meanwhile, she has found someone her own age to love.
Bey’s flashback in a pool of smoke, by which he reminds Helen of their history after putting her in a trance, is a silent film accompanied by his voiceover narration. Indeed, the entire film seems driven to embrace a past as ancient as Bey’s minutely dessicated skin. Its story and sensitivities all seem divided—between ancient and modern languages, silent and sound film, West and East, British Museum and Cairo Museum, science and culture, soullessness and soulfulness. Helen’s modern boyfriend, who is part of the British Museum’s expedition, is stiff and proper; he tells Helen, “I know I can make you love me”—an unpleasant way to put things, to say the least. By contrast, Bey’s dead eyes glow with sudden life, warmth and passionate love as he approaches Helen.
Boris Karloff gives a good performance as Bey/Im-ho-tep. Zita Johann is gorgeous as Princess/Helen.
The deliberate, grave pace of the film helps pull us back, too.
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