It's the old, Universal Mummy, with Boris Karloff, and goll-dang is it good. Wicked explorers dig up a grave marked with a warning, and what they get is killed off one by one as Karloff--the reanimated mummy--tries to kill the alluring Helen, have the old egyptian princess possess her, then bring her back to life.
Suddenly out of the blue I thought it might be a hoot to see the old Mummy, but what I got first, by mistake, was a 1959 Hammer films production, which was not too bad, and whetted my appetite to see this one. I have to say that my expectations were fairly low... this movie gets far less attention than the classic Universal Frankenstein or Dracula films, and as a monster, the mummy just seems to have faded somewhat into obscurity. Not to mention that the Hammer version was really just okay, and was said to be a close remake of this film. So I expected atmosphere and not much else. Surprise, it was quite good! With the atmosphere you expect, but also a decent story, attractive leads, and the delightful Boris Karloff. So here we go!
So it's 1927 and we're at a dig on behalf of the British Museum. They have found a mummy and a box, which they open and find another box, sealed, and promising "eternal punishment for anyone who opens this casket." The elder gentlemen, Muller and Whemple, go outside and debate whether they should open it (Muller says re-bury it and get out), while inside their young assistant is at work opening the box, in which he finds a scroll. He translates the scroll and, don'tcha know, that brings the mummy to life. The young man goes mad, and the mummy escapes with the scroll.
Speed ahead to 1932. Whemple's son, Frank, who is awfully handsome, is now in charge of the dig, and he and his bud discuss how they haven't found anything. Suddenly this dude Ardath Bey--Karloff--shows up to show them to the secret burial place of Princess Anck-es-en-Amon. We'll just call her the Princess. This was a surprise... I thought the whole movie was going to be about this lifeless mummy running around and killing people one by one, but now he's pretty well fleshed out and just interacts like a person, even though we're supposed to understand that he's dead. Anyway, before you can say boo, they've dug up the Princess and installed it all in an exhibit at the Cairo museum.
So Muller and Frank meet Ardath Bey hanging around the museum. Bey says he doesn't like to be touched. He comes off as quite creepy, as he appears to be seven feet tall, wears a fez, and a one-piece white tunic that just makes him come off as huge and imposing. After the museum has closed, Bey stays behind and reads the scroll, trying to re-animate the Princess. We have a cut from the casket of the princess, pan across a scroll of Cairo, and land on the face of Helen Grosvenor, who we immediately understand looks exactly like the princess. She's also damn gorgeous. There are two guys on hand to provide exposition--they never appear in the film again--and tell us she's half-Egyptian.
SPOILERS > > >
Helen gets possessed by Bey's spell, and tries to get into the museum, where she is discovered by Frank. They take her back home, where she wakes. She and Frank flirt, and he has one of my favorite pieces of dialogue, which seems very Thirties, in here, when he says "When I unwrapped the princess..." and Helen interrupts "How COULD you?" and Frank responds: "Had to! Science, you know!" Frank says he fell in love with the princess, which is thematically important because both he and the mummy are in love with the princess, and rivals for her reincarnation in Helen.
Well, who should show up, but Bey himself, and he sees Helen for the first time and is like "Wowza!" He has a hypnotic effect on her, which is brilliantly accomplished simply by having a light come on that will reflect in his eyes. They stand in the middle of everyone, completely rapt in each other, and it really works! This is the best scene in the movie. Then Muller tells Bey flat-out that he knows who he is, also a surprise, and we cut to this awesome shot of Karloff's face with eyes lit up, seen below. Unfortunately, they use this shot two or three more times in the film, when I think they should have saved for use just once, where it kind of makes you jump.
So Bey goes back home where he makes Frank's dad die from a heart attack via remote curse, and gets his scroll back. He then calls Helen to him and uses his magic reflecting pool to show her the deal: Back in the day, the princess, who looks exactly like Helen, grew sick and died. Inhotep, that's our future mummy, used the scroll we've seen to try to bring her back to life. He was caught, and his punishment was to be wrapped up alive and buried with her to be her eternal guardian or whatnot. She watches and is like "Hmmm, interesting. Thanks so much for sharing." Bey/Imhotep tells her he plans to kill Frank, because he's cock blocking him here in the present.
So Helen is half possessed, and tells Frank not to let her go to him. Well, Frank gets the old remote heart-attack treatment, and Helen ends up back with Bey. He's going to kill her, then reanimate her as the princess, and then they'll be happily undead together. Frank wakes and they rush to the scene, only to find Helen calling on Isis for help, who happily obliges, since Imhotep angered the Gods by messing with this scroll anyway. Soon the mummy is a pile of dust and Helen is back to being herself, ready to run off with Frank.
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It was good! It has atmosphere to burn, Karloff is a fascinating and malevolent character, and the story is pretty involving, especially when all you're expecting is the mummy to run around killing people. Here he's an interesting character in his own right, and interacts with the main characters, this big powerful figure walking among them and messing with them. As opposed to the Hammer mummy, which splits his character into two, Bey, a regular Egyptian, and the mummy, an undead and inarticulate zombie-like figure who does nothing but kill people. Having Karloff play all the sides also helps make the whole backstory involving and tragic, as opposed to having it have happened to this dude who's a zombie now.
You also have interesting and attractive lead characters--Zita Johann as Helen is exotic and gorgeous in just the right way--and the whole thing remains exotic for remaining in Cairo, as opposed to the Hammer mummy, which relocated everything to England. It's nice to see on the IMDb that this maintains a special affection from people who like their early horror evocative and atmospheric, and is of course seen as "boring" by those who need exploding heads. If you're the former, you won't be sorry to spend a night with the mummy.
Yes! It's super-fun, involving and atmospheric.