The Mummy (1932 film)

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The Mummy is a 1932 Universal Studios film. It was directed by Karl Freund and stars Boris Karloff in the title role; appearing alongside him are Zita Johann, David Manners and Edward Van Sloan.


In 1921, an archeological expedition to Egypt discovers the mummy of a man named Imhotep, buried alive for sacrilege, alongside a casket which bears a curse. Occult expert Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan) warns the expedition leader Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron) not to risk this curse. However, the youngest member of the group decides to open it and finds the Scroll of Thoth, purported to bear the magic words which Isis used to raise Osiris from the dead. He reads the scroll out, and Imhotep's mummy returns to life. When Whemple and Muller return, they find Imhotep missing and the young man insane.

In 1932, Whemple's son Frank (David Manners) is helping on an as-yet-unsuccessful dig in Egypt. He is suddenly approached by a mysterious stranger named Ardath Bey (Boris Karloff), who points him to the location of a tomb belonging to Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon. The tomb is excavated, and the princess's mummy taken to the British Museum.

Hiding in the museum after closing time, Ardath Bey conducts a spell which involves chanting the name of Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon. It has a strange effect on Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), daughter of the Governor of Sudan, who is staying with Muller; she acts as though mesmerised, and begins speaking in ancient Egyptian. Muller and the Whemples realise that she is talking about Imhotep.

A security guard finds Ardeth Bay hiding in the museum; in the resulting scuffle, the guard dies of shock. Meanwhile, Frank Whemple falls in love with Helen.

Ardath Bey goes looking for the Scroll of Thoth, which is in possession of the Whemples. He arrives at their home and is fascinated when he meets Helen, telling her that she looks familiar. Muller confronts him with a photo of Imhotep's mummy, and raises the possibility that Imhotep has been reconstituted through magic.

Bey returns to the museum. Using his magic, Bey causes Sir Joseph Whemple to suffer a fatal heart attack; he then steals the Scroll of Thoth with the aid of a mind-controlled servant. Later, he meets Helen and gives her a vision of ancient Egypt. He shows her that he was once Imhotep, and he loved the princess so much that, following her death, he stole the Scroll of Thoth in an attempt to resurrect her. He was caught in the act, and sentenced to be buried alive for his sacrilege. Meanwhile, the princess was reincarnated through the ages – her current incarnation being Helen.

Helen departs with no conscious memory of this vision. Ardath Bey then uses his magic to draw her to the museum; when she returns to consciousness, she is dressed in ancient Egyptian costume and has regained her memories of her past life as Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon. Ardeth Bay reveals that he plans to ritually kill her so that she can be resurrected as a living mummy herself.

Frank and Muller track her down to the museum, and find her just in time to disrupt the ritual. Helen, still in her persona as Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon, flees the alter and prays to a statue of Isis. The statue becomes animated and blasts Ardath Bey, destroying the Scroll of Thoth in the process. Frank approaches the Princess and, through his love for her, coaxes Helen's persona back to the surface – by which time, Ardeth Bay has crumbled away to mere bones.


  • Boris Karloff as Ardath Bey/Imhotep
  • Zita Johann as Helen Grosvenor/Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon
  • David Manners as Frank Whemple
  • Arthur Byron as Sir Joseph Whemple
  • Edward Van Sloan as Dr. Muller
  • Bramwell Fletcher as Ralph Norton
  • Noble Johnson as The Nubian
  • Kathryn Byron as Frau Muller
  • Leonard Mudie as Professor Pearson
  • James Crane as The Pharaoh


The Mummy was originally conceived when Universal's head of production, Carl Laemmle Jr., had the idea of a film inspired by the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb in 1922 and the curse reportedly attached to the incident. He tasked Nina Wilcox Putnam and Richard Schayer with producing a story; the result was a nine-page treatment entitled Cagliostro.[1] Apparently inspired by two historical figures of the eighteenth century, Allesandro di Cagliostro and the reputedly immortal Comte de Saint-Germaine,[2] the story involved an ancient Egyptian sorcerer who had kept himself alive for 4,000 years by injecting himself with nitrates; betrayed by a woman in the past, he spent his time murdering anybody who resembled her. In the present day, he was able to use radio and television waves to commit his crimes. The project was then passed on to writer John L Balderston – who, writing for the New York World in 1922, reported on the opening of Tutankhamen's tomb. Several elements of the story were changed in Balderston's hands, including a relocation from San Francisco to Egypt and an increased emphasis on mysticism. The title changed from Cagliostro to The King of the Dead, then to Im-Ho-Tep, and finally to The Mummy.[3] [2] [1]

Karloff would later name the make-up sessions in The Mummy as the most arduous of his career: the initial appearance of the mummy required a nine-hour make-up session, while the Ardath Bey make-up took four hours and constricted his throat to the point where he had difficulty speaking.[4]

One scene, removed at the last minute, was to have shown the two Egyptians being reincarnated through the centuries. The only remnant of this in the final film is in the credits list, which identifies actor Henry Victor as playing a Saxon Warrior – even though no such character appears in the picture.[2]

Release and reception

Film poster emphasising the presence of "Karloff the Uncanny"

The film had a limited release in America for Christmas 1932, and went on general release in January 1933; its UK premiere followed in February. When it was first shown at New York's RKO Mayfair Theatre, the cinema lobby contained a faux mummy case attached to a hidden loudspeaker, so that the mummy could appear to engage in question and answer sessions with cinemagoers. Meanwhile, a wall display showed two glowing-eyed Boris Karloff heads.[5] Following his starring role in the successful Frankenstein, Universal branded the lead actor as "Karloff the Uncanny" for the publicity of The Mummy.[6]

Upon the film's release, Variety praised the scene showing "the transformation of Karloff's Imhotep from a clay-like figure in a coffin to a living thing",[7] while the Atlanta Constitution and the Washington Post hailed Karloff as the successor to the late Lon Chaney.[8] The New York Times, however, wrote that "most of The Mummy is costume melodrama for the children."[3] Annette Kuhn's book An Everyday Magic: Cinema and Cultural Memory examines oral testimonies of British filmgoers of the thirties, revealing that fear induced by The Mummy is a recurring topic.[7]

In his 1974 book Classics of the Horror Film, William K. Everson identifies The Mummy as being the only classic in the cycle of mummy films. He argues that in later films the mummy is "not a particularly menacing figure" because of its slow speed, while the 1932 film avoids this pitfall through Imhotep's reconstitution as Ardath Bey. Everson also praises the opening sequence of the mummy's resurrection ("perhaps the only scene in the entire 40-year Mummy saga that is genuinely horrifying") and the flashback to ancient Egypt, citing a false rumour that the latter scene had been lifted from a silent German film.[9]

Jonathan Rigby describes the film as "a macabre tone-poem, rendered in images of limpid beauty by director Karl Freund", while acknowledging that "it remains a poem that doesn't quite scan" due to the slow pacing.[3] James Marriott speaks approvingly of the film's camerawork and Karloff's performance, but concludes that the film "descends into farce."[10] However, both Rigby and Marriott offer high praise for the scene of Imhotep's resurrection.[3][10]

A number of critics have pointed out the film's similarities with Universal's earlier Dracula, which Balderston had also worked on. Dracula becomes Imhotep/Ardath Bey, Mina becomes Helen, John Harker becomes Frank and Van Helsing becomes Muller – the last two overlaps being particularly obvious, as the actors David Manners and Edward Van Sloan appeared in both films.[10][7] Multiple commentators have also cited Arthur Conan Doyle's short story "The Ring of Thoth" as a likely influence on The Mummy,[11][12] while Jonathan Rigby points out that the film's plot shows similarities with Bram Stoker's The Jewel of Seven Stars, Balderston's own play Berkeley Square and H. Rider Haggard's She, a novel that Balderston was working on adapting for the screen in 1932.[3]

Writing in the October 2003 edition of the Journal of Religion and Film, Carolyn T. Schroeder describes the film as presenting "the political, cultural, and religious struggles of the soon-to-be 'post'-colonial age of the Orient" primarily through the internal conflict of the half-British, half-Egyptian Helen. She compares The Mummy to the later film Stargate, stating that both films are "about the conflicts between the 'authentic' discourses of Western science and Judeo-Christian monotheism on the one hand and 'false' discourses of Eastern spirituality and polytheism on the other. Race is the visual codifier of these dualisms, in which the educated and cultured white Westerners fight against or seek to liberate the superstitious 'Egyptians.'" While Schroeder acknowledges that Helen's ultimate salvation at the hands of the Egyptian goddess Isis can be read as a subversion of colonial assumptions, she argues against this interpretation: "Through Helen, the ancient Egyptian mysteries (and by association the Egyptian race) are finally subjected to British rationality and sensibility through their own complicity in the colonial project. Isis colludes with Helen's British self to obliterate her Egyptian self."[13]


William K. Everson cites The Mummy as the film which added the image of the living mummy to horror iconography:

[T]here is no ancient mythology to lend even temporary credence to the notion of an Egyptian mummy walking our earth once again. [...] Egyptian folk-lore is admittedly filled with mysterious intangibles, of curses striking down those who defiled ancient tombs, but the mythology of the revitalized Mummy must be credited solely to Universal Pictures' enterprise... [9]

Universal made a second mummy film, The Mummy's Hand, in 1940. This was not a true sequel as it did not continue the plot of the original Mummy but instead introduced a new mummy character named Kharis.[2][14] However, the film re-used much of the flashback sequence from The Mummy.[15] Kharis went on to be revived in a number of sequels: The Mummy's Tomb (1942), The Mummy's Ghost (1944) and The Mummy's Curse (also 1944);[16] the cycle also gave rise to a self-parody, Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy (1955), featuring a mummy named Klaris.[17]

In 1958, Hammer Film Productions obtained the remake rights to Universal's library of horror films, and subsequently made its own Mummy film in 1959. This picture used ideas from multiple films in Universal's Mummy series, particularly the Kharis episodes; the only direct lifting from the 1932 Mummy is the plot device of a magic scroll.[18]

Imhotep returned in the 1999 remake of The Mummy, directed by Stephen Sommers and starring Brenden Fraser.[19] Comparing this film with the original, reviewer Roger Ebert pointed out that the remake was far more action-oriented, in contrast with the 1932 film which "contains no violence to speak of; there's hardly any action, indeed, and the chills come through slow realisations".[20] The remake itself spawned a franchise, including the sequels The Mummy Returns (2001) and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008), the spin-off The Scorpion King (2002) and the cartoon The Mummy: The Animated Series (2001).[21] The Scorpion King, in turn, received multiple sequels.[22]

Michael Paine's 2006 novel The Mummy: Dark Resurrection is a licensed tie-in with the original film.[23]

Jonathan Rigby points out that the reincarnation plot of The Mummy would subsequently turn up in Dracula films, such as Blacula.[3]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Weaver, Tom; Brunas, Michael; Brunas, John. Universal Horrors: The Studio's Classic Films, 1931-1946 p.64
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Mallory, Michael (2007). Universal Studios Monsters: A Legacy of Horror. New York: Universe. pp.109-113
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Rigby, Jonathan (2007). American Gothic: Sixty Years of Horror Cinema. London: Reynolds & Hearn. pp.125-127
  4. Peirse, Alison (2013). After Dracula: The 1930s Horror Film. London: I.B. Tauris. p.33
  5. Peirse, Alison (2013). After Dracula: The 1930s Horror Film. London: I.B. Tauris. p.29
  6. Peirse, Alison (2013). After Dracula: The 1930s Horror Film. London: I.B. Tauris. p.26
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Peirse, Alison (2013). After Dracula: The 1930s Horror Film. London: I.B. Tauris. pp.18-20
  8. Peirse, Alison (2013). After Dracula: The 1930s Horror Film. London: I.B. Tauris. p.32
  9. 9.0 9.1 Everson, William K. (1974). Classics of the Horror Film. Secaucus: Citadel. pp.89-93
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Marriott, James and Newman, Kim (eds); Horror: The Definitive Guide to the Cinema of Fear (2006). London: Andre Deutsch. p.37
  11. Belanger. Derrock. "A Study in Terror: Volume 2: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Revolutionary Stories of Fear and the Supernatural
  12. Crawford, Joseph. The Twilight of the Gothic?: Vampire Fiction and the Rise of the Paranormal Romance, 1991-2012 p.62
  13. Schroeder, Carolyn T. "Ancient Egyptian Religion on the Silver Screen: Modern Anxieties about Race, Ethnicity, and Religion." University of Nebraska Omaha.
  14. Daniels, Les (1977). Fear: A History of Horror in the Mass Media. London: Granada Publishing. p.161
  15. Rigby, Jonathan (2007). American Gothic: Sixty Years of Horror Cinema. London: Reynolds & Hearn. p.198
  16. Daniels, Les (1977). Fear: A History of Horror in the Mass Media. London: Granada Publishing. p.164-5
  17. Miller, Jeffery S.; The Horror Spoofs of Abbott and Costello: A Critical Assessment of the Comedy Team's Monster Films, pp.114-6
  18. Kinsey, Wayne (2002). Hammer Films: The Bray Studios Years. London: Reynolds & Hearn. pp.144-6
  19. Gordon, Susan. Meet the Mummy. p.39]
  20. The Mummy -
  21. Hamblin, Cory; Serket's Movies: Commentary and Trivia on 444 Movies. p.304
  22. Ryan, Mike. "We Watched All Four ‘Scorpion King’ Movies. This Is What We Saw." - Uproxx
  23. Cardin, Matt. Mummies around the World: An Encyclopedia of Mummies in History, Religion. p.283