The rise of horror as a real thing in American cinema was not an uncontroversial process; concerns over propriety and morality kept the genre from ever taking hold in the States during the silent era the way it so vitally did in Germany. When the dam finally broke in the early sound days, with Universal's one-two punch of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931, it was still using the fig leaf that these were actually literary adaptations, not scuzzy little monster shows (even though both of those films bent the literary source into such unrecognisable shapes that it barely counts). This had, in fact, been true of nearly all the meager horror offerings of the '20s, as well: they were based on important, high-toned books and stories, and they just happened to be freakish and scary, and that's how the 1923 period drama based on Victor Hugo's sober social critique The Hunchback of Notre Dame is sometimes held to be the starting point of Universal's horror cycle.

Once horror found its toehold in '31, though, all bets were off, and the explosion of original horror stories the following year created a perpetual motion genre machine that, except for a few rough patches here and there (primarily in the '40s, with smaller die-offs in the '60s and '90s), remains with us even today, 80 years later. Universal itself broke into the world of "original" horror in December, 1932, with The Mummy, the very first monster movie made about a more or less original monster: mummies exist, sure, and the very idea of a carefully preserved corpse is creepy enough that the horror connection isn't a particular leap, but the particular way that this film presents its undead killer isn't derived from folklore like vampires, werewolves, or golems are.

Though you'll note, I did put "original" in scare quotes up there, because John L. Balderston's screenplay is hardly a model of creativity and invention. It's frequently little more than a redressed version of Universal's Dracula, based closely on Balderston's own play; this married to a story treatment by Nina Wilcox Putnam & Richard Schayer for a horror-romance based on the life of Cagliostro, from which comes The Mummy's only real innovation on the Dracula model, the idea of a reincarnated love from across the centuries (with cheerful redundancy, this idea would re-enter many future vampire pictures, most prominently in Bram Stoker's Dracula from 1992).

The important bit in all of this fun but somewhat inconsequential trivia is that The Mummy isn't just a Dracula rip-off, it's a Dracula rip-off that is, in fact, considerably better than Dracula in almost every regard, despite failing to possess anything like the same cachet. I assume this is what being first does for your reputation; that or the fact that vampires have always been popular, while the last time that mummies were brought into the public eye was in the form of Universal's own extremely loose 1999 remake, The Mummy as an action-adventure romp with a dime-store Indiana Jones.

No matter what, the film is still a damn impressive exemplar of 1932 horror filmmaking, one of the few films of that vintage that remains legitimately creepy whatsoever. A huge amount of credit for that falls on Karl Freund, the legendary cinematographer making his American directorial debut (after, perhaps, having kept Dracula propped up throughout Tod Browning's incapacitating drunkenness, depending on which rumor you listen to), and proving just as cunning in charge of the whole visual scheme of a movie as when he was just in charge of lighting it (and while The Mummy's camerawork is officially credited to Charles Stumar, it looks so much like Freund's work in every regard that it seems ridiculous not to speculate that the German master wasn't really dictating all the elements of the image). In Freund's eminently capable hands, The Mummy is the most gloomy, Expressionist of all the Universal films of the '30s, more foreboding and atmospheric than Frankenstein, and easily the equal to the Freund-lensed opening sequence of Dracula, in all its decaying splendor, without having anything resembling Dracula's subsequent lapse into starchy white interiors, overlit with a painfully static camera. It's the difference of a year of technological development and solving the problems of sound filmmaking, that The Mummy has such a more fluid camera than Dracula could dream about, and as Freund has the camera gently sneaking through his sets and moving up tight to the characters in their moments of fear and distress, it all hits much harder than a film of this vintage "ought" to.

Certainly, the film's opening scene benefits enormously from the new freedom available to the filmmakers, and this by itself is possibly the best sequence in American sound horror through the end of 1932. It is the year 1921, and an archaeological dig sponsored by the British Museum has uncovered a particularly wonderful tomb in Egypt, where the disgraced priest Imhotep was buried; it's like nothing that crack archaeologist Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Bryon) or Egyptologist Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan, playing very nearly the same part he had in Dracula) have ever seen. Imhotep was buried alive, it seems, for some unspeakable sacrilegious crime, and one of the treasures in his tomb is a gold casket marked with stern injunctions against opening it for threat of releasing some curse related to the dead priest's infamy. Muller takes this all very seriously, but Sir Joseph and his assistant Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher) do not, and while Sir Joseph has the superstitious doctor outside, haughtily talking Science this and Intellectual Responsibility that, Ralph is busy cracking open the casket and reading from the seal inside.

Everything up to this point has been terrific: dusty old Egyptian tombs are fine places, all the more with the production having been designed by Hungarian fairy tale illustrator Willy Pogany, who gives it a suitable sense of mythic dread. It is an especially velvety kind of blackness that Freund achieves in suggesting the unseen corners of the tomb, and it's a lovely scene overall, and then in one magnificent whip pan from Imhotep propped up in his coffin to Ralph busily studying the Scroll of Thoth, everyone involve ups their game all the way as high as it will go. For it's here that, slowly, almost painfully, the corpse of Imhotep begins to open its eyes, unseen by Ralph, and now we get to talk about the other two people chiefly responsible for The Mummy being so much better than most '30s horror films: Boris Karloff, a superstar after Frankenstein, as the reincarnated Imhotep, and Jack P. Pierce, the makeup designer whose work done to give Karloff the illusion of desiccated flesh is even better, in my opinion, than his deservedly iconic work designing Frankenstein's monster. The mummy version of Imhotep barely gets any screentime - I haven't timed it, but 90 seconds sounds plausible - but oh my Christ, the impact it makes. When Ralph turns around and starts screaming and then laughing madly at the sight, it seems weirdly plausible that he'd actually be driven insane on the spot, so persuasive is the make-up and the haunted house setting where we see it.

At this point, the movie skips ahead 11 years, and ceases to be quite as good, though still much better than it could have been, all things considered. Briefly, there is a new expedition being headed by Sir Joseph's son Frank (David Manners, playing exactly the same character he played in Dracula, the wet noodle romantic lead), and as it is on the verge of finding absolutely nothing useful, a vaguely menacing Egyptian man with unpleasantly dry, flaky skin named Ardath Bey (Karloff) comes to camp to suggest where the English team can find a terrific find, the tomb of the princess Ankh-es-en-Amon. This dig turns out to be quite a big deal, and it receives a splashy display in the Cairo Museum, where Ardath Bey comes one night after hours. He has with him the same Scroll of Thoth, and he's just about to enact a ritual in front of the mummy of Ankh-es-en-Amon herself, when he's interrupted by a guard. Whatever he did was enough to trigger something in an English-Egyptian resident of Cairo, Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), who begins to act in odd ways suggesting a certain confusion about who she is or where. As Frank notes upon meeting her at the museum, where she's arrived in a trance, she looks exactly like Ankh-es-en-Amon would have in life, and whatever a viewer in '32 might have thought, a viewer from any year since then immediately grasps that we're dealing with the modern incarnation of the princess's sole, and that Ardath Bey - who is, of course, the same Imhotep, given somewhat more robust flesh - will stop at nothing to capture her, while Frank, aided by his father and Dr. Muller, looks for some way to break the mummy's spell on the woman he fell in love with, by his own admission, because she resembled a preserved corpse.

Not only is this like Dracula in the abstract, several individual scenes recreate, more or less, individual scenes from the earlier movie, and the biggest problem with both films is the same: the relationship between the bland male lead and his romantic interest is not remotely interesting enough to sustain a scene, let alone a feature. And this is enough to keep The Mummy stuck in "oh, it's great! if you like '30s movies" mode, while something like Frankenstein is great, full-stop. Still, it's a huge step up for Universal's horror films: superior to Dracula not just because of Freund's infinitely more successful visuals (even the chatty exposition scenes in the middle have a softer, more withdrawn lighting style than the bright rooms in Dracula), but to the general improvement of the cast as well. Van Sloan, never a great actor, is still a lot less broad and shrill here (that, and there is less of him), and Johann is a terrific leading lady, with a face that doesn't like half-Egyptian, half-anything (she was Romanian), but still looks amazingly different from the usual leading lady. It's rounder, more inquisitive, more attentive, like Claudette Colbert but with angry eyes. She hated movies and got back to theater as soon as possible (at the time of The Mummy, she was married to future legendary Broadway impresario John Houseman, in fact), and she and Freund quarreled endlessly, but none of that shows in her performance, which is otherworldly in just the right degree to really make an impression, unlike the parade of bland female horror movie stars of that and every other generation. She even gets to save herself from peril at the end! Which is a script detail, not an acting one, but it helps to make Helen a more pronounced and interesting character than women in '30s horror usually tended to be.

The clear stand-out - and, my love for Freund notwithstanding, the reason that The Mummy still works so beautifully - is Karloff, whose bandaged-up mummy is a memorable image, but whose stiff, menacing Ardath Bey is a magnificent performance of a tremendously compelling villain. There's none of the plummy charm that he frequently brought to his subsequent villains; Bey is not without wit (which he uses to cutting effect against the blithely imperialistic British characters), but he is without humor, and Karloff's performance is an unimpeachable triumph of presence and restraint. He moves slowly, and methodically, every bit the incompletely-reanimated corpse, but also like a snake, for whom every movement is weighted with great consideration for the final killing strike. It's easily the most menacing performance that I have ever seen the actor give, and one of the great pieces of villainy of the '30s, and for all that lovers of the grotesque might bemoan the short shrift given to the iconic mummy, I think that Karloff's Bey (with some great subtle makeup by Pierce to make his skin look sandy) is such a profoundly effective character that I wouldn't want to trade a frame of it.

There are, of course, ways in which the film shows its age, mostly due to representational matters. There's no way that any 21st Century viewer can comfortably observe the blithe racism of the film's treatment of native Egyptians or the casual assumption that we'll like the white English heroes by default, because they are white and English and busy taking the cultural treasures of North Africa to the civilised countries that can really appreciate them. On a slightly less profound note, the way that archaeology worked in 1921 and 1932 is so different from the way it works today as to be comical; the way that Sir Joseph chats unconcernedly about a millennia-old wooden box falling into pieces in his very hands would be cringe-inducing if it wasn't so darn absurd. Or maybe I have those the wrong way 'round.

So yeah, it's dated. But many films are this dated without this many compensating factors, and for a movie made so early into America's dalliance with horror, The Mummy is a ridiculously confident, sophisticated piece of filmmaking.

Reviews in this series
The Mummy (Freund, 1932)
The Mummy's Hand (Cabanne, 1940)
The Mummy's Tomb (Young, 1942)
The Mummy's Ghost (Le Borg, 1944)
The Mummy's Curse (Goodwins, 1944)
Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (Lamont, 1955)