The Surprising Paganism of The Mummy

The_Mummy_1932_film_posterNo, not THAT Mummy! The recent Tom Cruise movie was awful. It got the Egyptian details wrong and the military details wrong – distractingly wrong. The casting (with the exception of Russell Crowe) was horrible. The writing was weak. It was supposed to relaunch the Universal Classic Monsters franchise – it may have buried it for another 15 years.

Nor am I talking about the 1999 version with Brendan Frasier and Rachel Weisz, or their even better 2001 sequel. Those movies were fun to watch and while they weren’t historically accurate, they were close enough I wasn’t yelling at the screen. The third movie in that series (2008’s Tomb of the Dragon Emperor) wasn’t nearly as good, though it was still better than the Cruise movie.

I’m talking about the first Mummy of the talkie era, the 1932 version starring the immortal Boris Karloff.

After my disappointment paying theater prices to see the new Mummy, I realized it had been a long time since I had seen the original. I had it on VHS (I think) but I got rid of our tapes quite a few years ago, and I never bought it on DVD. I found The Mummy: Complete Legacy Collection on Blu-ray last week and bought it. It has the six Mummy movies from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s – most importantly, the original.

It seems silly to give spoiler alerts for an 85-year-old movie, but if you’ve never seen it and you want to watch it as a virgin, you probably should stop reading here.

The movie opens on a 1921 archaeological expedition where an unusual mummy has been discovered, along with a sealed box bearing a curse on anyone who opens it. The movie was made less than 10 years after the opening of King Tut’s tomb and the triggering of the ancient curse on anyone who disturbed it. Several members of the expedition died mysteriously within a few years of the opening – you can draw your own conclusions.

Boris Karloff and Bramwell Fletcher
Boris Karloff and Bramwell Fletcher

Edward Van Sloan, who played Van Helsing in Lugosi’s Dracula in 1931, plays Dr. Muller. Muller is basically Van Helsing with a different name – a man of science who understands and respects magic and the supernatural. Early in the film he warns of the need to respect the curse:

“The Gods of Egypt still live in these hills, in their ruined temples. The ancient spells are weaker, but some of them are still potent.”

Naturally, one of the archaeologists can’t resist the lure of a sealed box. He opens it and finds the Scroll of Thoth, said to be the spell by which Isis restored Osiris to life. Now, there is no Scroll of Thoth (that we know of, anyway) but as a dramatic license, it works. The archaeologist reads the spell aloud and the mummy comes to life. He takes the scroll and leaves the archaeologist first screaming, then laughing with insanity.

But this is the only time we see an actual mummy walking. The scenes of a bandaged mummy pursuing his victims that scared me so much as a kid didn’t start until the first sequel, The Mummy’s Hand in 1940.

Eleven years later, an weathered old Egyptian called Ardeth Bey (actually the revived mummy, played by Karloff) shows up at another archaeological site and shows a frustrated digging team where to find the tomb of the Egyptian Princess Ankh-es-en-amon. 3700 years ago they had been lovers. She died – he tried to resurrect her and was mummified alive for this “unholy thing.”

Zita Johann (who was born in Austria-Hungary, a country that hasn’t existed in 99 years) plays Helen Grosvenor, who happens to be the reincarnation of Ankh-es-en-amon. Ardeth Bey notices her and reminds her of their history together, but Helen is more concerned with living in the 20th century.

Boris Karloff and Zita Johann
Boris Karloff and Zita Johann

Ardeth Bey kidnaps Helen and intends to kill her, mummify her, and then resurrect her, so they can be together forever as living mummies. But as Dr. Muller and leading man Frank (David Manners, who also played Jonathan Harker in Dracula) are rushing to rescue her, Helen manages to get off the stone slab and fall on her knees in front of a statue of Isis and pray:

“O, Isis, Holy Maiden, I was thy consecrated vessel. I broke my vows. Save me now. Teach me the ancient summons, the holy spells I have forgotten. I call upon thee as of old.” Then she says something I can’t follow, presumably in Egyptian.

And then the statue of Isis raises her arm and points her ankh at Ardeth Bey (this is 1932 special effects – don’t expect CGI). The ankh glows, there’s a flash of light, the Scroll of Thoth begins to burn and the mummy begins to crumble.

Fellow Denton UU and retired UNT film professor Gerry Veeder pointed out that The Mummy was directed by Karl Freund, a German cinematographer who had worked for Tod Browning on Dracula. It took directors years to figure out how to make movies and not just film stage plays. Dracula suffers from this – The Mummy much less so. Freund’s experience as a cinematographer shows. Some of the visuals are quite impressive, and not just by the standards of the early 1930s.

Various movie websites say Freund was hard to work with. He kept the cast and crew working till all hours of the night (this was before Hollywood was unionized) and berated them when things didn’t go the way he wanted. And he tried to get Zita Johann to pose naked. One site says she was furious, while another says she told him “I’m fine with it, if you can get it past the censors” – knowing full well he couldn’t.

Regardless, The Mummy deserves its place as one of the classics of horror, and its place on my list of 31 Movies for Halloween.

Helen (Zita Johann) prays to Isis
Helen (Zita Johann) prays to Isis

The Mummy can be watched for free online. I’m not going to link to any of those sites because I’m not certain it’s in the public domain. Copyright laws from that era are complex and I have too much to do to try to figure it out. Google it and you’ll find it. Or buy it in pretty much any format you like.

According to Wikipedia, there are 50 Mummy movies. The 1932 version is arguably the best, and it is surprisingly respectful of ancient Egyptian religion, even if it isn’t historically accurate.

As with most of the classic horror movies, The Mummy is quite short – it runs 1 hour and 13 minutes.

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