While The Mummy has inspired plenty of remakes and sequels, it arguably has not achieved the same iconic status as its horror film contemporaries Dracula and Frankenstein. Having seen only one remake (Hammer’s 1959 production with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee) I cannot comment on how similar the derivatives may be to the original. The interesting question is why the mythology of the story has never had quite the same hold on popular imagination as its Universal brethren. One knows the “rules” of a vampire movie in advance; the name “Frankenstein” is synonymously (if erroneously) associated with some larger-than-life monster. Mentioning a mummy, on the other hand, is more likely to conjure up images of the setting, ancient Egypt, than to inspire familiar frissons.
Perhaps one reason for this failure is that mummy Imhotep (Boris Karloff) isn’t really monstrous. True, he is the walking dead, and Karloff gives a suitably creepy performance, but we do not see him in anything other than human form until the very last shot (and that very, very briefly). His spooky presence is conveyed almost entirely through lighting, camerawork and subdued pacing. Director Karl Freund, best known as a cinematographer, does his best to suggest something threatening should occur in this reverie of nooks, crannies and dancing shadows posing as “Egypt.”
But unlike a vampire or monster, the threat remains fairly limited, even intellectual. Familiar clichés like a curse for defiling an ancient tomb, a “scroll of life” with the key to immortality, a love that has survived 3700 years, etc. are trotted out, but lack the simple horror of something like a bite on the neck leading to damnation. The eternal love is particularly problematic because the connection between Imhotep and the woman embodying his lost love, Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann) is almost accidental. Thus, despite his hypnotic stares, Imhotep’s supposed passion for her has to be taken on faith. For that matter, Helen is dropped into the action so suddenly, tardily and inexplicably that she might as well wear a tag saying “plot necessity.”
The secondary characters are equally schematic. Helen’s ineffectual lover, Frank Whemple (David Manners) stands in place, while her guardian, Dr. Muller (Edward Sloan), psychiatrist and master of the occult (?) seems to be there just to explain everything to Frank and his archaeologist father (Arthur Bryon). They do not get in the way of the moody atmosphere, but they stumble over the story’s non-sequiturs. It is as if their inability to do anything useful results not from Imhotep’s power, but from no one knowing what they should do. A little storytelling invention would go a long way.
So maybe the reason a dead man wrapped in bandages has never acquired the staying power of a blood-drinking count or a monster made from spare parts is that the lapidary care lavished on the original suggests it should be powerful, even if there isn’t enough “there” there beyond the beautifully lit sets.