The Universal Monsters have been around a lot longer than Brendan Fraser.
When British archaeologists uncover the tomb of Imhotep, a prince of ancient Egypt condemned to be buried alive, a curse is enacted and brings Imhotep back to life! Now stalking the world, the prince seeks to restore the life of his ancient beloved, princess Ankh-es-en-Amon.
To think the classic monsters have been around for eighty-five years, and with The Mummy going through several iterations since then as well as 2017’s Tom Cruise adaptation, it is only fair to look back at one of Universal Studio’s best eras.
Having played the definitive role as The Monster in 1931’s Frankenstein, both horrifying but also capturing the hearts of audiences, actor extraordinaire Boris Karloff must have been a shoo-in only a year later to play Imhotep, the monster in The Mummy. But the term “monster” is almost ill-fitting here. At least by today’s standards of the word.
No, there’s no billowing sandstorms with big faces intent on eating our heroes, no there’s no bullet-riddled immortal foes. The Mummy is a distinctly mellow affair that has a creepiness and menace all of its own.
The film starts out strong with the discovery of the tomb and the foolish releasing of a curse. Much of the scenes are completely silent as our first victim sets into motion the terror that will plague the rest of the film. The lighting and this silent makes everything tense and full of foreboding. There is a sense that the filmmakers researched ancient Egypt thoroughly before making the movie.
The bulk of the film actually involves our protagonists actually conversing, unknowingly, with an Imhotep who has integrated himself into their operation. Karloff’s towering, unsettling presence is clearly off, but our scientifically minded heroes are not going to leap at the possibility their Egyptian liaison is an undead Pharaoh prince! So there’s a lot of suspense and anticipation: how far will Imhotep’s secret plan go before our heroes discover him?
On top of all of the dread that an impossibly strong, undead monster is in arms reach of innocent people, is the idea that Imhotep is doing it all for love; the love he lost thousands of years ago. While Frankenstein’s Monster provoked more literal sympathy, there is an earnestness and fragility with Karloff’s Imhotep.
But, there’s one thing that really bothered me in this movie. This theme of love and Imhotep’s desire to be reunited with his beloved, crossing thousands of years of death and prepared to kill and murder to obtain it, is of course countered with an equally powerful love.
Or at least… it is supposed to be.
Imhotep’s goal is the reincarnated body of Ankh-es-en-Amon, currently Helen Grosvenor (played by Zita Johann). But during the film’s events, the son of one of the archaeologists, Frank, falls in love with her, causing strife between Ankh-es-en-Amon and Helen.
The script and chemistry between Frank and Helen is completely passionless, straying into downright creepy. Frank instantly, instantly falls in love with Helen, who is recovering from a traumatic ordeal and practically passed out, yet he immediately moves in to embrace her. It feels like something is wrong, and that feeling never goes away! Frank (played by David Manners) constantly leers, suggesting they be together, while Helen never shows a particular emotion for him, often completely indifferent to his advances! It is so awkward, not even the film’s climax can set a fire between them, it still feels like Frank is a creeper finally getting the tail he wants.
Boris Karloff is the best thing in this film, as well as the two older actors Arthur Byron and Edward Van Sloan. There’s a great sense of omnipresent menace with Imhotep stalking around, invisible to our protagonists but clear as day to the audiences. Older films had to achieve much with little, these movies especially being made during The Depression.
If only the romance was even slightly felt! For a film that derives much of its themes and poetry from, could they not have achieved more chemistry than this??