Lauren Looks Back: The Mummy (1932)

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Universal Studios The Mummy does not need to be introduced. This pre-code horror movie is generally bundled with the other classic horror movies from Universal, including Dracula, Frankenstein, and The creature of the black lagoon. The plot is simple: in 1921, the tomb of Im-Ho-Tep was discovered. It is revealed that Im-Ho-Tep was sentenced and buried alive. Along with the grave is Toth’s scroll, which a member of the expedition reads aloud, bringing Im-Ho-Tep back to life. Ten years pass and Im-Ho-Tep is back, disguised as a modern man Ardath Bey. Ardath Bay enlists a new expedition team to unearth the tomb of Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon. From there, he attempts to resurrect the dead princess who has since reincarnated. If you haven’t seen this movie, you’re in for a treat. Boris Karloff is exceptionally scary, but Zita Johann gives the best performance of the film. Having said that, I won’t be criticizing the film in the traditional way. Countless people who know more than I have already done. What interests me is how the world at the time shaped The Mummy.

The Mummy came out at a particularly interesting point in history. America was teeming with Egyptomania. Even before Universal’s The Mummy, the cinema had explored ancient Egypt. Between 1908 and 1918 there were five film versions of Cleopatra. Cinema did not fear the living dead either. Watching the unknown gave cinema a further boost – the film could reshape time and look death in the face, sparking the imagination. There were already two The Mummy films (1911, 1914) and countless other films featuring a mummy as the subject. But it wasn’t just the movies themselves that were in love with ancient Egypt. The movie theaters were strongly inspired by ancient Egypt. In The curse of the pharaoh, or how the cinema contracted Egyptomania (October volume 59 Lant, Antonia 1992, p. 90), the author draws parallels between cinema and ancient Egypt.

There was an association between the blackened enclosure of silent cinema and that of the Egyptian tomb, both in theoretical texts and in the use of the Egyptian architectural style for auditoriums; a perception of cinema as a necropolis, its mysterious and cursed projections, issuing a warning to spectators; an understanding of cinema as a silent world that speaks through pictorial language, like hieroglyphics revealed by light, and a consequent refinement of the newer visual medium through alignment with some of the oldest word images; a remarkable parallel between mummification for a life beyond life and the ghostly aspect of cinematographic images,… a link between the chemistry of mummification and that of the development and printing of the film; an alliance between modern sexuality, in particular female sexuality on screen, and the myths surrounding the sphinx and its silent illegibility.

Then in 1922, Howard carter discovered of King Tutankamon tomb, throwing popular culture into a drunken stupor with all of ancient Egypt. Combined with the “Tutankamun’s curse” – in which 11 people associated with the excavation team all died within 10 years of the tomb being opened – people’s imaginations have run wild. Scriptwriter John L. Balderston (then a journalist) was actually present when Carter first opened Tutankamun’s sarcophagus in 1925. The Mummy examines these same historical ideas and events, and as we can see, it was truly a product of its time.

Many people also make similarities between Dracula and The Mummy (director Karl Freund was the cinematographer for Dracula), corn The Mummy is still influential in its own way. Sadly, the subsequent Universal Mummy films have nothing to do with the original film. The Mummy kind of got an update with the 1999 film starring Brendan Fraser, but that’s another article for another day. The 1932 version absolutely holds up to this day and is rightly celebrated.

Posted in: Films, Universal | Tagged: Boris Karloff, Brenden Fraser, horror, horror film, Howard Carter, John L. Balderston, Karl Freud, King Tuankamun, Lauren Looks Back, The Mummy, Universal Pictures, Universal Studios, Zita Johann

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