Raiders of the Lost Ark started here. The English Patient and Lawrence of Arabia nod almost imperceptibly in this direction. Stargate owes a huge debt. Okay, we could have done without Stargate, but my point is this: 1932’s The Mummy was the spark that ignited moviegoers’ love of shifting desert sands, adventurous archeology, and the mysteries of the past, a love that inspired some of the greatest films of all time and way too many movies not worth remembering.
A 1921 British Museum expedition to Egypt has unearthed an unusual mummy and the small chest buried with him. The casket has an “unbroken seal,” so the archeologists proceed to break it, and within they discover an ancient scroll, which, unbeknownst to them, is the Scroll of Thoth, which Isis used to raise Osiris from the dead, all those years ago. And wouldn’t you know: some eager-beaver young research assistant reads from the scroll, awakening the mummy right there behind him. Doh!
Eleven years later, another expedition is packing up to return home when local creepy guy Ardath Bey (Boris Karloff: Frankenstein) stalks into the office to drop a bombshell: he knows where some ancient Egyptian princess is buried, and for nothin’ he’ll show the Englishmen where. The team, led by clueless but handsome twit Frank Whemple (David Manners: Dracula), discovers a tomb anointed with “the seal of the seven jackals!” “And its unbroken!” So they break it, thus beginning a chain of events that will result in all sorts of unholiness.
Get this: Bey looks like he’s thousands of years old. He’s got the Scroll of Thoth, which disappeared the same time that mummy did 11 years back, and he’s seen skulking around the Cairo Museum exhibit to which the princess’s remains has been removed. Frank can’t put two and two together because he’s too busy wooing Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), a Hollywood queen of old, with her kolhed eyes and round face that manages to be both innocent and knowing at the same time. And Helen can’t put two and two together because she’s too busy being entranced by Bey… not that he’s particularly entrancing on his own, but he’s got these powers, see? He’s got her under his spell — much to Frank’s chagrin — because he’s convinced that she is the reincarnation of his beloved, that old mummified princess. Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron) — Frank’s father, who led the 1921 expedition — and Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan: Frankenstein), an expert on the Egyptian occult, do catch on, finally, that Bey is Imhotep, the reanimated mummy, though they’re so calm about it that you have to wonder whether they have grasped the all the metaphysical implications raised by a 4000-year-old undead dude walking around modern Cairo.
Directed by Karl Freund, this is a classy film, even if it is awfully easy to make fun of its melodramatic story. The desiccated hand of the mummy, in the 1921 opening, reaching to snatch the scroll, is nasty, but the bare glimpse we get of the reanimated mummy — as the ends of his bandages, dragging across the floor, slip offscreen — is more than enough to swathe you in the fear that drove that young archeologist literally mad with terror. The flashback that takes us to ancient Egypt to witness Imhoptep’s burial alive — for the crime of trying to restore his beloved to life with the scroll — is horrifying.
But the things that endure in moviedom from The Mummy are the pith helmets and fezzes, the ancient curses, the protective amulets, and the rational disdain for the supernatural that invariably comes back to haunt our heroes. “How could you?” Helen asks, dismayed by the disinterment of her ancient soulmate, the Egyptian princess. “Science, you know,” Frank replies cheerily. He’ll be sorry: the wrath of the old gods is rarely merciful.
As Dr. Henry Jones Sr. would say, “You call this archeology?!”