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31 Iconic Horror Films in October: The Mummy (1932) Review

Note: This is a series of 31 iconic horror film reviews I plan on doing throughout October. See the introduction post for more information and the list of films.

“The Mummy,” the third major Universal Monsters film, is in my opinion the weakest I’ve seen thus far. While “Frankenstein” and to a lesser extent “Dracula” are relatively breezy watches, “The Mummy” gets off to a slow, methodical start and the action never really picks up at all. It spends way too much time trying to build up but even during the rising action and climax, its pretty boring to watch. The film is only 73 minutes long and it still feels far too long. There are some positives but if not for its historical value to the horror genre, it probably wouldn’t be worth watching.

“The Mummy” tells the story of an ancient Egyptian priest called Imhotep (Boris Karloff) who had been mummified alive for his attempts to resurrect his lover, Princess Ankh-es-en-amon. A 1921 archaeological expedition led by Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron) and Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan, who played Van Helsing in “Dracula” and Dr. Waldman in “Frankenstein”) finds his mummified body. It isn’t long before Dr. Muller’s assistant stupidly reads the Scroll of Thoth, which gives Imhotep life again. Imhotep takes the scroll and escapes.

After this short set up, the film then moves to the present (1931). Imhotep manages to adapt to modern life and is pretending to be a modern Egyptian named Ardath Bey. He comes to Joseph Whemple’s son Frank (David Manners) and Prof. Pearson (Leonard Mudie) with a lead on where to find Princess Ankh-es-en-amon’s tomb. The archaeologists find the tomb and give the mummy to the Cairo Museum. Imhotep eventually finds a woman named Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), who looks very similar to the Princess. Believing her to be the Princess’ reincarnation, he sets out on a plan to kill and mummify her then resurrect her and take her as his bride.

There’s no question that “The Mummy” is a well-made film for its time. However, I’m guessing it is also a very boring movie for a lot of today’s audience (it bored me for sure). There are some positives about the film but I’m not sure they help it overcome the boring story. First of all, while still not a scary film, “The Mummy” has one of the creepier moments I’ve seen so far this October in my exploration of horror movie history. The scene where Dr. Muller’s assistant reads the Scroll of Thoth, witnesses the mummy coming to life, and descends into madness laughing without a care in the world is quite creepy (probably creepier than any moment in the first two Universal Monsters films).

The mummy is a pretty well-designed character but it doesn’t last for long (Imhotep looks modern and not at all like a mummy when the film moves to the present). The sets are very nice, typical of all these Universal Monsters movies. It’s also nice that a great actor like Boris Karloff has more to do in this film than just grunting and attacking people like in “Frankenstein.” He has a lot of lines and even works together with the protagonists for much of the film. Like the other Universal Monsters film, the movie was pretty well-preserved and has great video quality for its age.

On the negative side, “The Mummy” just has way too boring of a story. The film probably could have been condensed to 30 minutes and still shown everything that needed to be shown. It’s also hard to consider the mummy a bad guy or “monster” for much of the film (until he starts killing people of course) since he has is likable and has a sad backstory. I didn’t particularly love the endings to “Dracula” (not very dramatic) or “Frankenstein” (better but still a bit lacking) but “The Mummy” probably has an even worse one.

“The Mummy” is definitely inferior to Universal Monsters’ previous two films due to a dull story and slow pace. It does some things right but its mostly just worth watching for its historical value to the horror genre. If you don’t like or care about old historical films, I wouldn’t even bother watching it.

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