Master Of Death, Entombed By Love: The Mummy (1932)
In a ramshackle office in Egypt, at the edge of moonlit dunes, a trio of archeologists pours quietly over the day's finds. Against the wall is a sarcophagus, opened to expose the foreboding countenance of the mummy Imhotep. An experienced professor labors to translate an ancient text, but his young associate thinks only of prying into another of their finds, a mysterious chest. The second veteran of their group insists that doing so may unleash a terrible curse. Wanting no part of tempting such a fate, he asks the professor to join him outside, in hopes of dissuading him. Left alone, the young assistant delves into the occult writings of a forbidden scroll that was held within the chest. For his trouble, he bears witnesses to a supernatural event, the awakening of a powerful undead being, one which lumbers out into the desert night.
This remarkably potent opening exemplifies the indelible, eerie power radiated by Universal's Monster films of the 1930's. Deeply atmospheric, simple, and pure, it perfectly evokes in cinematic language the classic tradition of scary storytelling. It relies on shadow and brevity, takes care to execute its monstrous content with a certain style and restraint, more concerned with the cultivation of shivers and goosebumps than blunt shock. Your imagination is craftily coaxed into becoming an accomplice to your fear.
Some years after the prologue, a new group of researchers are led to a previously undiscovered tomb in Egypt. Within is the resting place of the ancient princess Ankh Es En Amon (the lovely Zita Johann). The person guiding them to the site calls himself Ardath Bey (Boris Karloff), and he has his reasons for leading them there. Karloff became an instant legend in his portrayal of Frankenstein's Monster in James Whale's Universal masterpieces. Here he displays another facet of astonishing talent as an intelligent, powerful, ruthless antagonist, one guided by his continued love for a princess from another millennia. Karloff spoke very rarely as the Monster, but here is given the opportunity to fully employ his incredible vocal ability. Erudite, menacing and full of dark wisdom, he manages to create a character as memorable for his voice as he is his unearthly glare and towering, predatory posture. All of this is enhanced further by Jack pierce's flawless make up design, which is finely detailed and subtle, but captures the inconcievable passage of time as etched in its subject's face.
Ardath Bey is, in actuality the undead Imhotep, and he seeks the scroll which can be used to resurrect Princess Ankh Es En Amon. It was his forbidden love for her, so long ago, that led him to be forcibly entombed. Even without this cursed text, he possesses great supernatural power. He is capable of murdering a character from a great distance, watching his victim through a misty pool of vision, in a particularly effective scene. But his revealing of the location of the Princess's tomb to researchers, all of his killing and destructive means, are to achieve that one end - a reunion with his beloved. Within this romantic thread lies a dark poetry that distinguishes the truly great Universal Monster films.
The Mummy, for all its elegance, bears the darker edge of a "pre code" movie, having been made before Motion Pictures became formally regulated for content. The scene of Imhotep being wrapped for mummification is particularly disturbing. For her part, Helen Grosvenor (Johann) is more overtly sexy and casually adult than would become typical after the code was adopted. She gives a convincing, alluring performance as a woman caught in the grip of otherworldly power, vulnerable but resigned. Helen is the modern, physical reincarnation of Princess Ankh Es En Amon. She is the vessel into which Imhotep plans to transmit the soul of his muse. Like the modern viewer, she comes to realize that things from the past can still hold an irresistible power.