Universal’s original version of “The Mummy” wasn’t quite what I was expecting.
With the myriad ways mummies are portrayed in pop culture (and also thanks to a bombastic, action-packed remake in 1999 starring Brendan Fraser), it was hard not to have a certain idea of what this might feature. That vision of a shambling re-animated corpse loosely wrapped in bandages certainly didn’t originate here, that’s for sure.
It tells the story of Imhotep (Boris Karloff), an Egyptian priest buried alive after an attempt to resurrect his forbidden lover, Ankh-es-en-Amon. Now, several millennia later, Imhotep is revived when archaeologists mistakenly bring him back to life upon uncovering his tomb. Now, after disguising himself as a modern-day Egyptian, Imhotep sets out to once more bring his lover back, even if it costs the life of her latest reincarnation, Helen (Zita Johaan).
As a whole, the film is frustratingly uneven. With a slim hour and fifteen minute runtime, there’s not a whole lot going on here, and it takes a surprisingly long time (about half the movie at least) for things to really get interesting. And then, just as things really get cooking, the film swiftly ends. It also hurts that Imhotep is given relatively little to do (until the later parts of the film, at least) other than shuffle around and glower at people.
That said, it is Karloff (and the superb makeup job) that carries the entire film. Having made quite the splash as Frankenstein’s monster the year before in “Frankenstein,” it’s no wonder why Universal decided to use Karloff’s name as one of the main selling points for the film. He’s fantastic here, communicating an unshakable menace often with little more than a steely glare. His presence is only amplified thanks to the definitive makeup (which reportedly took up to eight hours) put on him by Jack P. Pierce.
When Karloff’s character is actually given something to do besides shuffle around and look menacing, the movie becomes quite fun and manages to make you forget how tediously slow things were in the beginning. The man became a legend for good reason.
What’s pleasantly surprising, though, is that it’s hard to hate the film. Clearly the studio and filmmakers were in the midst of experimenting with these odd characters and stories and figuring out what works and doesn’t, and the passion they had for bringing it all to life is very evident, uneven as it all may be.
Next week, I’ll wrap up this series on classic horror films with one final entry, a review of the original “Dracula,” starring Bela Lugosi.
Every week, Entertainment Editor Stewart Smith brings a new entry in “Catching Up On…” an ongoing series attempting to fill in the gaps of his cinematic education.