Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

The Mummy (1932)

THE MUMMY (1932)


Notes: Universal.
Produced: Carl Laemmle, Jr.
Directed: Karl Freund
Script: John L. Balderston
Plot: Nina Wilcox Putnam, Richard Schayer
Special Effects: John P. Fulton

The Mummy / Ardath Bey: Boris Karloff and150 yards of gauze
Helen Grosvenor: Zita Johann
Frank Whemple: David Manners
Dr. Muller: Edward Van Sloan
Sir Joseph Whemple: Arthur Byron
Ralph Norton: Bramwell Fletcher.


Pre-Commentary:Originally, the story (by Nina Wilcox Putnam; screenplay by RichardSchayer) was to have involved Boris Karloff playing Cagliostro,an Egyptian magician whose immortality comes from his self-injectionsof nitrates and who kills all women who remind him of one whobetrayed him, using even radio and television rays. The film wouldhave been called Cagliostro, or The King of the Dead,or Im-Ho-Tep but to align the story better with the recentTutankhamen discovery, the following story was crafted, with thename of Tut’s queen Ankh-es-en-amon serving as that of Im-Ho-Tep’sforbidden lover.

Jack Pierce used photos of the remains of PrinceSeti I of Egypt from the Cairo museum to transform Boris Karloffinto the 3700-year-old, which required eight hours of stretchingthe skin and applying cotton strips dipped in collodion, creatinga wrinkling effect after the skin was relaxed. Pierce brushedFuller’s earth over the results to give the dry look.


Summary: “This is the Scroll of Thoth. Herein are set down the magicwords by which Isis raised Osiris from the dead. ‘Oh! Amon-Ra–Oh! God of Gods–Death is but the doorway to new life–We live today–Weshall live again–In many forms shall we return–Oh Mighty One.'”

A 1921 field expedition of the British Museumhas discovered ancient artifacts and a mummy of Im-Ho-Tep: “Itlooks like he died in some sensationally unpleasant manner”– “the contorted muscles indicate that he struggled in thebandages.” The viscera were not removed, and we suspectthat we’re looking at punishment for sacrilege. An inscriptionon a box reads, “Death, eternal punishment, for anyone whoopens this casket. In the name of Amon-Ra, king of the gods.” Dr. Muller insightfully advises Sir Joseph Whemple to reburythe box, but impetuous Ralph Norton opens it, unrolls a scroll,and murmurs the text as he translates. The mummy grows animate,grabs the scroll, and leaves. Norton screams and loses his mind,laughing insanely.

In 1932, Sir Joseph’s son Frank is about toabandon another expedition. We hear about the consequences ofthe 1921 incident: Norton “died laughing, in a straitjacket.” The weird Egyptian, Ardath Bey, arrives promising them the “mostsensational find since that of Tutankhamen. . . . I will showyou where to dig” for the tomb of the Princess Ankh-es-en-amon. The archaeological findings are brought to the Cairo Museum,where the question of Cairo keeping English findings arises (!)and Ardath Bey acts weird: “I dislike to be touched — aneastern prejudice.”

Dr. Muller’s local party includes the half-Egyptiandaughter of the English governor of the Sudan, Helen Grosvenor,who muses about “dreadful modern Cairo.” As ArdathBey reads from a scroll, Helen is long-distance entranced andleaves the party. She rides to the Museum, bangs on the door,and faints into the arms of FrankWhemple. Later, on the Whemples’couch, she utters words in ancient Egyptian “not heard onthis earth for 2000 years.” When awake, she talks to Frank,asking about his archaeological violations, “How could youdo that?” “Had to! Science, you know!” Frankconfesses his attraction for the Princess when they opened hertomb. “Do you have to open graves to find girls to fallin love with?”

A museum guard discovers Bey with the scrolland is killed. The scroll is taken to the Whemples, and Bey comesseeking it but is also taken with Helen. She seems in a tranceagain and insists that she has “never felt so alive.” Bey wants the scroll; Muller shows him a photo of the mummy Im-Ho-Tep;Bey starts to cast a spell on Sir Joseph; and when Muller threatensto destroy the scroll, Bey leaves.

He kneels by a pool in his home, performs mysticrites whereby he chokes Sir Joseph to death long-distance, andhas a Nubian servant retrieve the scroll. He draws Helen to hishome where a servant takes her dog. He “shall awaken memoriesof love and crime and death” by showing her visions in hispool.

In 18th-Dynasty Egypt, c. 1730 bce, the PrincessAnkh-es-en-amon, a priestess of the temple of Karnak, died. “Iknelt by the bed of death.” The High Priest Im-Ho-Tep pinchedthe Scroll of Thoth from the compartment in the statue of Osirisin order to revive her: “I dared the god’s anger and stoleit.” He attempted to perform the rites over her corpse,but “They broke in upon me, and found me doing an unholything.” “Thy father condemned me to the nameless death”:live mummification and burial in an unmarked grave. The scrollwas buried with him so that there would be no more “disgraces.” The slave gravediggers were killed and the soldiers who killedthem were in turn also killed. “My love has lasted longerthan the temples of our gods. No man ever suffered as I did foryou.” Now reincarnated in Helen, she must undergo the “greatnight of terror and triumph until you are ready to face momentsof horror for an eternity of love.” [Footage shot of Helen’sother incarnations (an early Christian, a Viking woman, a Frenchnoblewoman) were left out of the film.]

Helen’s dog has died, something to do withBey’s white cat and Bast “the cat-goddess of evil,”by the time she has returned home to a fretting Frank. She istreated as ill and the men vow to destroy Ardath Bey / Im-Ho-Tep. Bey transmits a curse to Frank, but an Isis charm saves the youngunconscious ass.

Helen goes to Bey again and appears in Egyptianroyal garb, speaking as if she were the Princess. He explainsthat he could just raise the remains of the Ankh-es-en-amon, “butit would be a mere thing that moved at my will without a soul.” So he must kill and embalm her to get rid of the Helen shell,and then resuscitate her in immortality. She freaks: It is notlawful for me . . . to touch an unclean thing!” in the embalmingroom. “I’m young! . . . I loved you once but now you belongwith the dead. I am Ankh-es-en-amon, but I- I’m somebody elsetoo. I want to live! . . . You shall not plunge my body intothat!” Bey bays, “For thy sake I was buried alive.. . . Let the deed be done.” Princess Helen appeals toa statue of Isis. Frank and Muller arrive but are held at bayby Bey. When he is about to stab her, the statue raises its handand zaps Bey, who dries and disintegrates. Helen has faintedagain and Frank must “call her” back as the Scroll ofThoth burns.


Commentary: The mummy as mummy, the bandaged monster, appears only in theopening scene; the “monstrosity” in this film is actuallythe horror of static obsession. We have light but ample evocationsof necrophilia, which Helen picks up on in Frank’s moronic commentsabout unsealing tombs and which seem repressed just below thesurface of Im-Ho-Tep’s line about the “disgrace”: “Theybroke in upon me, and found me doing an unholy thing.”

The weirdness of what the Beatles would call”filthy eastern ways” doesn’t particularly work welland seems more arbitrary than mystical — that is, the visionarypool, the remote-control spells and oppressions, and the caninocide. What does succeed in lending a modicum of the haunting qualityso desireable here are the disturbed musings of Helen: that shefeels ill-at-ease in “dreadful modern Cairo,” irrationallyrecoils at archaeology, and does vaguely remember her Ankh-es-en-amonlife. But she has “moved on,” with several lives infact (although the final editing cut this aspect), whereas Im-Ho-Tephas emotionally fossilized, which is the real death, for as JosephCampbell says in The Power of Myth, “holding on toyourself and not letting yourself become food is the primary life-denyingnegative act. You’re stopping the flow! And a yielding to theflow is the great mystery experience. . . . You, too, will begiven in time.” At the root of this myth, then, is the demonstrationthat denial of death is an even worse death.


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