Ancient Egypt has been on my mind for some time. It was the Dark Adventure Radio Theatre audioplay of Imprisoned with the Pharaohs that I reviewed last spring that made me think about going someday. Curse of the Pharaoh followed, as well as two different versions of Death on the Nile, and various Mummy movies from Hammer and Universal. Eventually, I worked my way back to original film–Universal’s The Mummy from 1932, starring Boris Karloff.
This movie was filmed in California with stock footage of the Valley of the Kings and back-screen projections of contemporary Cairo, but very few movies from the early sound era ever filmed on location. Its sets and settings are steeped with imagery and lore from ancient Egypt, though a lot of it is historically confused or fiction created specifically for this story–but one also expects a certain amount of mystical fabrication from a movie about a mummy that’s come back to life. What’s most interesting to me, however, is how little of this movie’s manufactured lore and story template are reused in the numerous sequels and remakes over the 85 years since it was made.
The Mummy begins with the British Museum 1921 Expedition at Thebes. An archeological team headed by a man with the unprepossessing name of Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron) has just discovered a previously unknown and undisturbed tomb. With his colleague, occult expert Dr. Muller (Edward van Sloan, basically playing von Helsing from Dracula again under a different name), and an eager young archeologist named Ralph, Whemple examines the dig’s most interesting finds:
- A 3700-year-old mummy of a man (Karloff, or at least a convincing-looking dummy replica of him at this point). The mummified man did not have his organs removed before burial, as was customary, and shows signs that he was still struggling when they wrapped him up and entombed him. The man’s name, Imhotep, is carved on his sarcophagus, but the sacred spells that would protect his soul in the afterlife have been chipped away. The trio speculates that he must have done something truly horrible and sacrilegious to have been doubly damned in this way. (Ralph quips that perhaps Imhotep “got too gay with the vestal virgins”.)
- A small casket of gold containing an even smaller box with its seals intact and a warning upon it: Death and eternal punishment for anyone who opens it.
Sir Joseph: “Good heavens, what a terrible curse!”
Young archeologist: Let’s see what’s inside!
Dr. Muller and Sir Joseph go outside to discuss the dangers of opening the box and unleashing a millennia-old curse; they both already assume that the box contains the Scroll of Thoth, which the goddess Isis herself is said to have used to resurrect her slain husband Osiris. This scroll, which we were introduced to via text at the beginning of the film, is part of that fabricated mythology, although it is loosely based on the Egyptian Book of the Dead.
While they’re talking, the young archeologist gives in to temptation and opens the box. Inside, there is indeed a papyrus scroll, which he sits down to transcribe.
This leads to my second-favorite scene in this movie. It’s a beautiful sequence in understated horror, analyzed in minute detail by better film critics than I.
The young archeologist reads the hieroglyphics he’s copied aloud in a low murmur. Behind him, unnoticed by him, the mummy’s eyes open just a crack, enough that we see a glister of life. The bandage-wrapped arms crossed over the mummy’s chest slowly move downward.
This is all we’ll see of Karloff as the wrapped-up mummy in motion. No long scenes of leg-dragging staggering around in search of victims for Imhotep!
While the oblivious archeologist continues to read, a wrinkled, aged hand bearing a large jeweled ring reaches into the shot and takes the scroll from the table. The young man only now looks up. We don’t see what he sees. He screams in terror and backs up against the nearest wall, then starts to laugh maniacally.
A couple of trailing bandages are glimpsed going out through the door.
Muller and Sir Joseph, hearing the commotion, return to find an empty sarcophagus, an empty box, a dusty handprint on the work table, and Ralph still laughing as his mind, unable to cope with what he’s just seen, tips over into insanity. “He went for a little walk!”