Welcome to Silver Screams! Every month, I’ll guide you through a deep dive into a classic horror film or hidden gem and reveal its history and juicy behind the scenes secrets, as well as its legacy and influence on modern horror. November is Monster Mash Month here at Nightmare on Film Street. We would be remiss not to dive into the world of Universal’s Classic Monsters for the occasion. So to celebrate, let’s look at Universal’s first fully original monster, and a bit of an underdog in the monster world, The Mummy (1932).
In the world of horror, the hallowed status of Universal Studios’ classic monsters can make it easy to forget how improvised their births were. Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolfman, and The Invisible Man are as close to The Avengers as horror will ever have, in terms of cultural recognition and sheer longevity. Universal has famously coined the term Dark Universe and attempted to create their own lucrative modern film franchise juggernaut out of their monsters on multiple occasions, to varying degrees of success. But in the breathless, desperate, and Great Depression-fueled early years of Universal horror, studio head Carl Laemmle Jr. was more accurately throwing every macabre idea at the wall to see what stuck. Yet a perfect storm of creativity and luck gave the movie house hit after hit and gave our culture the pantheon of horror superstars that still reign today.
Among these early films, none demonstrates the unique process and lasting effects of Universal’s approach more than The Mummy. The film broke the tradition of its predecessors as a wholly original story. Yet it’s inspiration and execution makes for the perfect window into why the Universal horror films worked — in their own time and beyond.
Ancient Times, Contemporary Inspiration
Fresh off the success of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931, Carl Laemmle Jr. was of the mind to keep the horror films going strong. Searching for the next spooky theme to tackle, Laemmle looked not to another work of classic literature, but to a sensational bit of recent news. In 1922, Archeologist Howard Carter uncovered the tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamen, a discovery that kicked off a new wave of “Egyptomania” that lasted well into the 1930s. The cultural obsession with all things Ancient Egypt took a spooky turn after the untimely death of Lord Carnarvon, Carter’s financial backer, six months after the discovery.
The events lead to a media frenzy alleging a supposed “Mummy’s Curse” that would strike down anyone who disturbed an Egyptian tomb. Despite the fact that historical examples of any such curses are rare, and none were found in Tutankhamen’s tomb, the idea caught on and lasted well into the 1930s. Any misfortune suffered by someone even tangentially related to the excavation was labeled by the media as the work of the curse. Suddenly, the arena of Egyptology was fitting for horror in a way it hadn’t been before.
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Energized by the horror potential of the mummy’s curse, Laemmle decided that Universal’s next monster movie would also be its first entirely original story. Unlike Dracula and Frankenstein, there wasn’t a work of classic literature on which to base an ancient Egyptian horror. And they looked. Laemmle sent studio story editor Richard Schayer on the hunt for an existing novel that fit the theme, but he came up short. Instead, Schayer and screenwriter Nina Wilcox Putnam began work on a tale of a 3,000-year-old magician loosely based on the 18th-century occultist Alessandro Cagliostro. The story treatment seemed to abandon the Egyptian theme — the magician, though Egyptian in origin, lives in present-day San Francisco and is decidedly not a mummy. Still, with some tweaking, Laemmle thought it was the perfect foundation for Universal’s next film.
A Love Across Lifetimes
To transform the story into an Egyptian-based horror, Laemmle appointed playwright, screenwriter, and journalist John L. Balderston. Balderston had previously worked on Universal horror scripts for Dracula and Frankenstein, but his key experience for this project lay in his journalism background. While writing for the New York World, Balderston covered the opening of Tutankhamen’s tomb. His knowledge of the archeological event made him the perfect choice to infuse the story with an ancient Egyptian feel — or at least as filtered through a contemporary Western lens.
Beyond the signature setting, it was Balderston who added the crucial romantic angle that has survived as central to The Mummy’s lore. In the first story treatment, Cagliostro was motivated by revenge against a woman who wronged him. In The Mummy, the resurrected Imhotep (Boris Karloff) is driven by the same undying love that got him buried alive in the first place. The romance angle was a departure for Universal’s sound film fare. Erik (Lon Chaney) in The Phantom of the Opera (1925) was toxically lovelorn, but his primary mood was still murder. And although Universal tried to sell Dracula (1931) as a supernatural romance (complete with a Valentine’s Day release date), a romantic angle to the vampire’s actions remained strictly subtext.
But with The Mummy, the idea that a monster could be primarily driven by a tragic romance was given the full horror treatment. Many more movie monsters would play the part of the tragic lover — Francis Ford Coppola used the same reincarnated soulmate plot point in his gothic romance take on Dracula in 1992. And Imhotep’s motivation survived into the Stephen Sommers reboot of the franchise.
The Director and the Uncanny
For the starring role of Imhotep, Laemmle had no one else in mind but Boris Karloff. After the success of Frankenstein, the actor was poised to become the next horror superstar, and the studio obliged by billing him as simply “Karloff the Uncanny.” He was famous enough by then to be referred to only by his last name, and as the top-billed selling point of the film. Karloff would be given far more dialogue as Ardath Bay — the alias of the mummy as he masquerades as human — than he ever had as Frankenstein’s Creature. He would also wear far less makeup for the majority of the film, at least to an audience’s eyes. In fact, like an actual mummy, Karloff was covered in cotton pieces to give his skin a subtle crepe-like texture. His makeup for the brief moments of the actor in full mummy form was even more grueling, but mercifully not needed for the entirety of production. Perhaps the greater emphasis on a refined style of performance was something of a consolation prize for the actor. As Imhotep, Karloff could demonstrate a subtle, hypnotic type of horror that would broaden his roles going forward.
To direct Universal’s first original horror film, Laemmle picked the cinematographer Karl Freund. Although he had never directed before, Freund had proved his creative merit on Dracula and Frankenstein. Freund worked extensively in Germany before emigrating to the United States in 1929. Freund was a cinematography revolutionary — for the Fritz Lang film The Last Laugh, he invented the so-called “unchained camera,” an early handheld camera, that completely transformed the visual language of film. By releasing the camera from the confines of a tripod, Freund could achieve motion such as tracking, panning, and crane shots. Through his work on films such as The Golem and Metropolis, Freund created some of the most iconic imagery of German Expressionism. And as cinematographer on Universal’s first two sound horror films, Freund helped bring that signature style to Hollywood. The influence of German Expressionism is critical to what we think of as Universal horror, and Freund was a crucial factor in realizing that influence.
“But with The Mummy, the idea that a monster could be primarily driven by a tragic romance was given the full horror treatment.“
In his directorial debut, Freund made The Mummy a visual masterpiece. His cinematographer’s eye is clear throughout, as The Mummy is one of the most visually stunning of all the Universal horror films. It presents a restrained, haunting, and dreamlike vision as if the events of the film are themselves but images of a past life. The brilliant opening sequence where Karloff’s mummy rises, grabs the Scroll of Thoth from the desk of a young archeologist, and walks away, is a testament to Freund’s vision and restraint. Much of Universal Horror’s style was about showing audiences the monster — and showing off the spectacular effects makeup of Jack Pierce. And while Karloff does get to transform into a mummy for some highly effective shots of subtle movements in the sarcophagus, the actual moment remains just slightly off-camera, with nothing but a withered hand, a trail of bandages, and the archeologist’s unnerving, hysterical reaction to suggest the horror of the moment. It’s one of the most effective scares, if not the best of the early Universal years.
Today, The Mummy is less celebrated than many of its contemporaries. Imhotep is hardly the household name of say, Dracula, Frankenstein, or the Bride of Frankenstein. But the impact of Universal’s first original outing cannot be understated. The film made the idea of a mummy as a member of the horror pantheon a cultural given, and it paved the way for more horror cinema to delve into uncharted, original stories. The film was a serviceable box office success for Universal, though it received mixed reviews from critics at the time. Today the film — and the Ancient Egyptian themed horror sub-genre it spawned — is subject to important criticism about the depiction of ancient North African civilizations as a source of horror and modern Egyptians as more susceptible to this influence than white colonizers. It’s also worth noting how the underlying theme of The Mummy and its successors; don’t mess with mummies; can — though mostly unintentionally — amount to a condemnation of imperialist plundering. It’s important to watch The Mummy with these perspectives in mind. To a modern viewer, The Mummy is a flawed but underrated gem of Universal’s early horror. It’s a quiet little chapter between Frankenstein and The Invisible Man, easily overlooked but unforgettable. Like a memory from the ancient world, it gets in your head and stays there…a haunting desert dream of love and horror.
Until next month, classy fiends, enjoy those Silver Screams. Share your thoughts on The Mummy with the Nightmare on Film Street community on Twitter, in our Official Subreddit, or in the Fiend Club Facebook Group! Or, while you’re here – check out previous editions of Silver Screams for your classic horror fix! And for a deep dive into actual Egyptian horror films, be sure to check out the Nightmares on the Nile column by Hazeem Fahmy.