Assuming there are viewers who have never seen Karl Freund’s The Mummy (1932), this essential of the horror genre may come as something of a surprise. Though there have been scads of movies about reanimated Egyptian mummies, this one is unique in both its (wholly manufactured) mythology, and in the approach to the character. Those expecting the usual bandaged monster prowling the countryside and strangling anyone slow enough not to avoid his grasp will be surprised to find that not only is a mummy of that sort restricted to in the film’s prologue, but we don’t really get to see the old boy shamble about. In the bulk of the movie, the mummy Imhotep (Boris Karloff) presents himself to the world as the un-bandaged, wizened and well-spoken Ardath Bey, who never strangles anybody. (He has much more unsettling powers that brute force.) The Mummy is more a reincarnation fantasy than it is what we think of as a Mummy movie, and it takes (with no credit) a lot of its concept from a relatively obscure Arthur Conan Doyle story, “The Ring of Thoth.”
It’s not, however, as if the film eschews the horrific. Not only do we have Karloff’s silky evil as Ardath Bey, but the film has an extended flashback to ancient Egypt where we get the story of what exactly happened to cause him to have been buried alive. That sequence—cleverly done in the style of a silent movie, with exagerrated acting filmed at a different speed to make it truly feel different from the movie surrounding it—is very unsettling and surprisingly gory. If the film feels a little on the familiar side, that’s because it’s essentially a reworking of Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) and follows its template. However, The Mummy is a much smoother affair than Dracula. It isn’t exactly faster-paced—the last thing you’d ever call it is fast-paced—but it moves in a much less clunky manner that makes it feel faster. It’s also the first Universal horror to boast a music score (by James Dietrich), which heightens the film’s mood throughout, and actually makes it more otherworldly. Weird, creepy and strangely poetic, The Mummy isn’t really like any other horror picture.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen The Mummy on Thursday, June 14, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.