The Archaeological curiosity Imhotep walks the modern age as Ardeth Bey, an Egyptian Historian who plans to disinter his lover’s reincarnated soul from its contemporary residence: the beautiful Helen Grosvenor. Legendary Cinematographer Karl Freund helms this fantastic Pre-Code horror focusing his intentions upon the dread and fear of the unknown and not violent action or exaggerated heroics. Actually, Helen’s current admirer, the rather wimpish Frank Whemple and his cohort fail to rescue her; it’s her devotion to the dead god Isis that saves her immortal soul! Freund’s use of low-key lighting upon Karloff’s withered visage combined with Jack Pierce’s makeup are the stars of this drama, making the Mummy and its resuscitation creepy and somehow believable in context. It helps that we never see the titular corpse shamble about as Freund cuts away leaving our imagination to haunt the film!
The opening First Act is spectacular as Freund shows us two Archaeologists disagreeing about opening a treasured box of pure gold as it is protected by a curse. Behind them in repose against the wall is the recently discovered Imhotep, seemingly mummified while still alive without his vital organs expelled and holy words, which would usher his soul to the Afterlife, purposely obliterated at the time of his burial. We get a nice close-up of the centuries old corpse and it seems more catatonic than deceased (it is). The elder Dr. Muller speaks with another cohort under the “Egyptian Stars” leaving the young and eager Sir Joseph Whemple alone with his ambitions. He opens the box which reveals the sacred Scroll of Thoth and as he begins to translate and read the words softly a withered hand reaches into the shot and takes the scroll. It’s a fucking brilliant composition as Freund gives us a deep focus shot of Whemple sitting at the desk working, mummy in shadowy background, which foreshadows what we know is about to happen. He then gives us another close-up of the mummy’s eyes slowly opening. What he doesn’t show us is the ambulatory corpse: we only witness the eyes, its hand grasping and then a ragged shred of its wrappings as it leaves the chamber. Whemple’s screams quickly turn to maniacal laughter as his scientific method is reduced to insanity. Brilliant.
The story then jumps to ten years later with Whemple’s son Frank, the aforementioned Dr. Muller and the lovely Helen Grosvenor in conjunction with the very strange character Ardeth Bey. After a murder and the discover of the lost Scroll of Thoth, they deduce that Bey is after both the magical papyrus and Helen! The story is reminiscent of Browning’s DRACULA where Mina is forced against her will to answer her Master’s call and it takes her lover Jonathan Harker and polymathic Dr. Van Helsing to save her. As Helen is forced to sleepwalk through the narrative and towards her resurrection, Bey shows Helen her past-tense and now the two worlds conjoin and her mind subsumed: she is becoming more Princess Anck-su-namun and less Helen Grosvenor. We also learn that Bast kills her pet German Shepard though this is only heard off-screen. Now the race is on to save her body and her soul! The editing is once again perfect as the cross-cutting creates suspense and anxiety until the very final scene where our protagonists, helpless against the these omniscient powers, watch as the statue of Isis, its godly powers called forth by Helen (Or the Princess?) raises its Ankh and disintegrates Ardeth Bey in a lightening flash. Freund ends the film with no coda, a powerful finish like a stone knife in the thorax.
Final Grade: (A)