The Franchise Chronicles: THE MUMMY (1932)

By Edward O'Hare

Welcome to the Franchise Chronicles, a movie-by-movie look at the development and evolution of cinema’s most enduring sagas. I am currently exploring the classic Universal Monsters and this week’s movie is The Mummy (1932) directed by Karl Freund.

I know the Universal Monsters are a franchise in a loose sense. However, there is definitely a “house style” that runs through them. Much like the Marvel movies today, each film has unique characters and settings but retains just enough elements that you know they take place in the same world. The Mummy is a strong example of this idea. We move away from spooky European castles to exotic Cairo and encounter mystic legends of a different sort in a narrative structure that is very familiar.

Karl Freund, the director of this film, previously worked as the cinematographer of Dracula, and you can definitely see similarities in the visual style. The film takes place in Egypt and makes good use of stock footage to establish the setting but the interiors are dimly lit and Freund plays with shadow in a way that shows off his German Expressionist background. There is a large amount of exposition-heavy dialogue, but the key scary moments are filled with extended periods of silence that really pour on the eeriness. The museum is filled with artifacts and iconography that make it feel like a Mummy’s version of Dracula’s castle and the home of the film’s British characters looks almost identical to the home where the Count stalked Mina. The music that opens the film is the same excerpt from Swan Lake that opens Dracula.

We also get to see a couple of our old friends from previous films. Boris Karloff gets to headline his second Monster franchise and even gets credited with his full name instead of just a question mark. Edward Van Sloan makes his third appearance in a Monster film, once again playing a doctor trying to convince everybody that something supernatural is afoot. We don’t get Dwight Frye but his spirit is definitely present in the character of Ralph (Bramwell Fletcher) who meets the Mummy for thirty seconds and pretty much laughs himself to death.

I think it’s pretty obvious where I am going with this but I should probably say it plainly: This film is for all intents and purposes is a veiled remake of Dracula. It should be noted that this is the first film we have covered that is not based on a classic novel. Universal was eager to give Karloff a new vehicle so they took a proven template and gave it a fresh coat of paint. Both stories open with a quick introduction to our antagonist who manipulates someone into madness and then takes off. He returns to introduce himself to our heroes, seduce a woman and attempt to force her to suffer the same fate as himself before our heroes can find them both and save the day. Sound about right?

By the way, there is nothing wrong with cloning plot structure. The Mummy adds enough new toys to stand on its own. Karloff’s make-up as Imhotep’s wrapped corpse looks realistic and terrifying. It almost feels like a bait-and-switch that we only get him in the wraps for one scene but his disguise as Ardeth Bey, in which is skin looks worn and craggly, is just as striking. Karloff is not charming here, as Lugosi would be, but his size and stare make him very intimidating.

His hypnosis of the unsuspecting Helen (Zita Johann) is still frightening but for a completely different reason. The story is also padded out with an extended flashback of what brought Prince Imhotep to his cursed state. It pretty much dramatizes everything the characters had already learned about the Mummy over the course of the film. Still it does give the character better context and shows him to be a more tragic figure. Much like the Monster in Frankenstein, Imhotep does bad things but we can relate to his reasoning. In the end he just wants to find peace with the woman he loved.

Next week the director of Frankenstein will introduce us to a villain we cannot see: The Invisible Man.

Edward O’Hare, nickname TBD, has been poking around the deep caverns of pop culture for some years now. His hobbies include making Starfleet org charts and badgering people who haven’t seen the Adventures of Captain Marvel movie serial from 1941. He one day dreams of teaching Bill Simmons that superheroes and pro athletes are not all that different.

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