#19 in my ranking of the Classic Universal Monster movies.
This third entry in the Universal Monster movies, what was at the time a loose collection of films with generally similar plots and tones, is the first that the lead producer Carl Laemmle, Jr. didn’t base on some piece of 19th century British literature, leaving his screenwriting team, led by John L. Balderston for this film, to come up with something original. Well, without that backbone the director, recent German immigrant and cinematographer Karl Freund (who had previously worked with Murnau, Dreyer, and Lang), given his first directing job in Hollywood, struggled to come up with much of any real interest on any level. There’s a certain competence to everything, a general side effect of the Hollywood studio system of the 30s, but there’s no terror, no horror, and no real emotional investment. It’s generally just kind of dull.
Egypt, 1922, and the British Museum’s research team led by Joseph Temple (Arthur Byron) have found the mummy of the disgraced Imhotep (Boris Karloff) as well as a mysterious box containing the Scroll of Thoth which his friend, Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan), warns him he should rebury and forget. Temple’s assistant Ralph (Bramwell Fletcher) reads from the scroll, raising Imhotep from the dead and driving Ralph mad. Skip ahead ten years to the expedition led by Joseph’s son, Frank (David Manners), and he’s about to give up his two month’s worth of work having found nothing when the mysterious Ardeth Bey (Karloff) comes to him with the location of a hidden tomb to an Ancient Egyptian princess named Ankh-esen-amun. It’s the greatest find since Tutankhamun, and the Egypt Museum in Giza houses it all, unveiling it with a large opening that invites all the right people, including Dr. Muller and the daughter of a friend, Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann).
This is the setup, and I think it’s easy to see where the problem is. Imhotep isn’t really much of a bad guy. Raised from the dead, his sole objective is to raise his long-dead love back to life. Does he want to murder anyone? Does he lead a revolt somewhere? Does he want to take over the world? It eventually morphs into something along the lines of the first when he decides to use Helen to reanimate Ankh-esen-amun, needing to kill her for reasons even though she ends up possessing the girl, and that points to another problem: the magic is really unclearly drawn. First, it seems like Imhotep is actually really fragile. He’s not a physical threat in any way, and one solid punch would do him in. I like that approach in concept, changing the nature of the horror from the previous films which had heavy physical elements into something different, but that requires a clear threat of a different source. What is Imhotep’s threat?
Well, he seems to sit in front of a pool in a house, conjure images, and then gesticulate dramatically towards the image of someone he wants to kill until their heart stops. Except the time with the guard in the museum. Also, it doesn’t work on someone else. It’s not all that clear or dangerous.
The focus ends up moving from this kind of amorphous threat of Imhotep to the more romantic side as Imhotep tries to bring back his girl 3,700 years dead. This stuff is okay, and it’s part and parcel of the early efforts in these Universal movies to make the monsters more than monsters, especially after Frankenstein’s monster. However, his motive for too long is too nice. He’s underhanded about it because he’s a 4,000 year old mummy, which makes sense, but he’s not exactly a threat to anyone. That is, until he kills a guard interrupting him while he’s trying to raise the dead. That’s not really the makings of a great monster, though. The threat is too small in every way.
There are also visual design issues I have. The first two Universal monster movies were opulent to look at. Dracula’s castle and Frankenstein’s watchtower were huge sets with incredible detail. The first fifteen minutes of this film are on a tiny, one-room set with bare furnishings. There’s an extended flashback scene that details the history of Imhotep and Ankh-esen-amun, and it has these smooth floors that look incredibly fake and remind me of the sets in The Silver Chalice. For a series of films that had started with grand sets, seeing them diminished to looking so cheap and small is a disappointment.
Essentially, it feels like Carl Laemmle Jr. was falling into the typical Hollywood pattern of cheaping out on his productions in every way early. The script is essentially Dracula in the grand strokes. The sets are simple and functional at best. The director was probably inexpensive and, having no Hollywood directing experience, probably followed Laemmle’s orders (though I doubt he told Freund to get into a feud with his leading lady Johann). This is Laemmle saying, “This is going to make money no matter what, so just put something out.” According to Wikipedia, the budget for this was just over half of the budget for Frankenstein, and Frankenstein had been a big success. That’s a disappointing mentality that Hollywood fell into for a very long time, and the effect is easily felt here.
Still, it’s functional. The nascent romance between Frank and Helen is there. The romantic angle to Imhotep’s motive is actually kind of interesting. It’s not scary at all since the mummy himself isn’t a threat, though. I don’t think it really works, but it’s far from the worst thing I’ve seen.