The Mummy (1932), dir. Karl Freund, Universal Pictures
Ten year before the Mummy hit theaters, America was in a pop culture obsession with Ancient Egypt. The tomb of King Tut has been discovered, and the boy king’s remains quickly sparked off an almost cottage industry dealing with mummies. Curses, especially, became a focal part.
We open in 1922 with a dig in the Egyptian desert. Dr. Joseph Whemple (Arthur Bryan) and his partner Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan) have unearthed the tomb of the infamous Imhotep. What makes Imhotep so infamous? Neither man is certain, but the fact that Imhotep’s coffin was desecrated before the tomb was sealed, as well as the traditional hieroglyphics used to usher safe passage to the other side were removed does not say much about Imhotep’s popularity when he was alive. The tomb also contains the Scroll of Thoth, a legendary artifact as well as a curse, promising death and madness to whoever opens the tomb.
Whemple’s assistant translates the scroll and goes mad as Imhotep’s body disappears. Ten years later, Whemple’s son Frank (David Manners) is attempting to follow in his father’s footsteps. To date, he has had no luck, but a chance encounter with an ancient looking fellow named Ardeth Bay (Boris Karloff) seems to be a sign that his luck is changing. Bay shows Frank a relic from the tomb of the Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon, a tomb that has never been discovered and promises to be filled with treasure. Frank follows the old man’s advice and soon enough he’s the talk of Cairo.
While the artifacts are at the museum, Bay waits until closing to begin a strange ceremony. Interrupted, he flees, but not before killing a guard. At the same time, Dr. Muller’s niece Helen (Zita Johnson) goes into a trance and tries to force her way into the museum. She passes out into Frank’s arms as Bay flees. Taking her back to his home, the two doctors and Frank try to determine what is going on when Bay shows up.
Bay makes his intentions known. One confrontation later, and the elder Whemple is laid low with a stroke induced by Bay. We also learn what was suggested by the poster: Bay is in fact Imhotep, cursed. From there Frank, Helen, and Muller try to stop Bay’s plan.
Honestly, this might be the first film to have the ‘character is the reincarnated soul of the monster’s past love’ plot that now seems inexorably tied with the Dracula franchise. The title is a bit misleading, as Bay spends most of the film in clothes rather than bandages. Helen’s role is surprising, as she does a great deal of work to save herself rather than waiting for Frank to save her.