What was it about Boris Karloff that had directors thinking of the walking dead? Karloff rose to stardom in the early 1930’s by playing Frankenstein’s Monster, a creature constructed from the body parts of deceased criminals. In 1932’s The Mummy, the great actor returns to the realm of the dead as the mummy Imhotep, an Egyptian High Priest who, after 3700 years, rises from his grave. Just imagine what Karloff might have brought to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. It’s enough to stagger the imagination!
The year is 1921, and British Archaeologist Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron) has just uncovered the mummy Imhotep, an ancient Egyptian high priest condemned to death 3700 years earlier for sacrilege against the Gods. When Sir Joseph’s assistant reads aloud from a forbidden scroll, the mummy (Boris Karloff) is brought back to life, and promptly disappears into the vast Egyptian desert. Ten years later, Sir Joseph returns to Egypt to assist his son, Frank (David Manners), who is also an archaeologist. Searching for a discovery to rival his father’s, Frank jumps at an opportunity presented by a mysterious stranger named Ardath Bay, who promises to lead the young man to the hidden tomb of an ancient princess. As it turns out, this princess is the lost love of the mummy Imhotep, and Ardeth Bay is none other than Imhotep himself! Once his princess is unearthed, Imhotep will stop at nothing to ensure that she is also resurrected, to join him once again in the world of the living.
Like many of Universal’s horror films of the 30’s and 40’s, the success of The Mummy comes down to the performance of its star. Boris Karloff was an actor who, even when playing a creature, generated a level of sympathy for his characters. In Frankenstein, he was a monster, but only because others saw him as one; in truth, his monstrous behavior was a direct result of the actions of those around him, who both feared his creature and hunted him like an animal. In The Mummy, Karloff's High Priest Imhotep murders several people, and tries to kill even more, yet we learn that he is doing so for love. A well-staged flashback shows us exactly what happened to poor Imhotep all those centuries ago; how he sacrificed not only his life, but also his very soul, for the love of a woman. Even when playing the villain, Karloff finds a trace of humanity in the role, making it impossible to condemn him entirely.
As with many of these old horror movies (such as the original versions of Dracula and Frankenstein), The Mummy has obviously aged, and is no longer as frightening as it might have been to it's contemporary 1930's audience. And yet this film still have something to offer us. If you go in expecting chills and screams, you'll walk away disappointed, but, if you instead sit back and take in the atmosphere, the style, and the performance of its stars, you’ll find The Mummy to be a genuinely entertaining experience.