Classic Horror and Karl Freund’s The Mummy

The Mummy 1932When Karl Freund’s The Mummy was released in 1932, the horror film cycle was already well established by Universal and other American studios. Critics first began to use the term “horror movie” in 1931, following the release of films like Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein. The early 1930s is now considered the beginning of the horror genre’s classic phase.

Typical themes, dramatic structure, characters, message, and mood place The Mummy firmly within the horror genre and this classic period of Hollywood horror. Nevertheless, through its fantastical setting, transcendent love story, and uncertain ending, the film introduces some new elements that would have an impact on later horror films and films from other genres.

The Plot

Ancient Egyptian priest Imhotep (Boris Karloff) is raised from the dead by an unwitting archaeologist during an expedition hosted by the British Museum. Ten years later, under the false identity of Ardath Bey, Imhotep seeks to resurrect his lost love, the princess Ankh-es-en-amon, by assisting another archaeological team to uncover her tomb.

The princess, however, appears to have been reincarnated as a young half-Egyptian woman, Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), whom Ardath Bey determines to murder and resurrect as his immortal bride. Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron), from the original expedition, and his archaeologist son Frank (David Manners) work with occult specialist Dr. Müller (Edward Van Sloan) to rescue Helen and destroy the mummy. In the end, Helen saves herself by calling upon the goddess Isis for assistance: Imhotep is destroyed and Helen is reunited with love interest Frank.

The Scare Factor

The Mummy reads as much or even more like a romance than a horror film: an impossible love story transcending the ages. Nevertheless, the key elements of the horror genre are present. First, a horror film can be defined, most simply, as a film that intends to scare us. In The Horror Film: An Introduction (2007), Rick Worland suggests that this fear goes beyond the anxiety and fright that may be provoked by, for example, war stories or disaster films. A horror film “evokes deeper, more personal psychological fears in the starkest terms,” fears which are associated primarily with death and damnation.

Death and damnation are central to The Mummy’s story: Imhotep as monster is horrifying because he has been raised from the dead and has the power to destroy (and resurrect, in the case of Helen) the mortal humans in the film. The audience fears the threat of death and eternal suffering that Imhotep represents. In this, The Mummy continues with the themes from earlier films, which are still central to most horror films today.

The Love Triangle

In addition to these common themes, The Mummy presents a typical narrative from the horror genre. In “Children of the Light” (2003), Bruce F. Kawin suggests a relatively consistent pattern in the horror films of the twenties, thirties, and forties: “a perverse or somehow unsatisfactory love triangle among the boy, the girl, and the monster; a happy coupling of the surviving couple that depends on their dealing with the monster…and a romantic resolution that bodes well for society at large.”

Kawin’s love triangle is an accurate depiction of the narrative in The Mummy—Frank loves Helen, Helen loves Frank, but Helen is also Ankh-es-en-amon who loves Imhotep, and so forth—and the reunion of Frank and Helen at the end suggests a coupling much more in line with the interests of society at large. Kawin also notes that in more complex films “there is some real emotional and ethical intercourse between monster and survivor, in the course of which both are changed.” This is particularly apt in The Mummy where we see a dazed Helen, rescued by the intervention of a goddess and not by her rather ineffectual love interest Frank, and are left to wonder about the lasting impact of her interaction with the monster/lover Imhotep. The ending is also a reworking of the classic horror conclusion: the humans do not stake the vampire or burn the monster; they are saved at the last minute by the divine, a much less active and satisfying end to the creature.

The Mummy 1932The Creature

As the typical dramatic structure of the horror film makes clear, the creature is another distinguishing feature of classic Hollywood horror and of the horror genre in general. The star of The Mummy is undoubtedly Imhotep/Ardath Bey and it is this monster, played by “Karloff the Uncanny,” that audiences came to see. The other characters in the film are generally stock characters—the maiden in distress, the wise elder, the ardent young lover—and mostly forgettable.

Whether it embodies our personal fears or social fears on a larger scale, the creature has all the personality and power and acts out its unique drama for us from the safety of the big screen. Rick Worland suggests that the monster is a paradox in that “it incites our fear, compels our attention, and quite often courts our empathy and fascination.” This is certainly true in The Mummy, where Imhotep elicits some pity due to the great love he displays for his lost princess, no matter how morbid his current aims to murder Helen and resurrect his immortal bride. In fact, the empathy we feel for Imhotep aligns with another significant feature of the horror film: the message or warning, which in this case presents the consequences of defying the natural order. We may well sympathize with the lover who wants to bring his princess back from the dead, but we learn that the consequences are, quite literally, monstrous.

The Sinister Mood

Of course, all of the distinguishing features of the horror film described thus far would have little impact without the distinctive mood of foreboding characteristic of the horror genre. Although The Mummy does not present the same gothic influences as its predecessors—the Egyptian setting lends more of a feeling of fantasy than of the gothic sets in Dracula and Frankenstein, for example—the technical artistry of the film and Boris Karloff’s performance combine to create a suitably sinister mood. The sweeping backdrop of the Egyptian relics and their common association with tombs and the underworld is a perfect setting for The Mummy’s tale.

Director Karl Freund, making his debut after working as cinematographer for Dracula, was heavily influenced by German Expressionism and he brings some of this influence to bear on the film through dark and artistically designed sets and careful attention to lighting and shadow. Perhaps the best shots are the close-ups of Karloff that combine Freund’s attention to lighting with Jack Pierce’s stunning makeup artistry. Ardath Bey’s desiccated skin and dark-circled, glowing eyes are unforgettable.

Moreover, there is a subtlety in the directing and in Karloff’s acting that increases the sense of tension throughout the film. The best example of this is the scene where Imhotep comes to life as Sir Joseph’s assistant reads from the Scroll of Thoth. Karloff slowly opens his eyes and peals his arms one by one away from his mummified body…and that is all we get to see, other than a glimpse of an aged hand reaching for the scroll and a trail of bandages leaving the tomb. Karloff carries this understatement into his role as Ardath Bay: he hardly moves and his voice has little inflection, but his power is palpable. This style is certainly not characteristic of all horror films in the genre, but The Mummy must have had an impact on later films where terror and suggestion are given priority over obvious effects and scares.

The Mummy is available on DVD from Universal Studios (2004).

© Jennifer Bertrand, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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