Universal Studios has a gold mine when it comes to adaptations. The studio released three of the best known horror films, each featuring a now classic monster – 1931’s Dracula and Frankenstein, and 1932’s The Mummy, the latter two starring Boris Karloff in the title roles. Each of these films presented the villain as something other to be just feared. Two, Dracula and Frankenstein, were adapted from literature written by Bram Stoker and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly, respectively. The Mummy, though, was an original film and the second to star Boris Karloff.
The discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922 kept Egyptology in the minds of audiences for a decade. Even after the opening of the tomb, the careful examination of recovered artifacts, including Tutankhamun himself, took years. Adding to the mystique was the alleged curse dooming anyone who had opened to tomb. Fertile ground for writers, indeed.
The script went through several drafts and changes before reaching what is seen on screen. The original story, Cagliosto by Nina Wilcox Putnam and Richard Schayer, went through rewrites to move the film from San Francisco to Cairo, using the interest in Egyptology to tell a story of forbidden love enduring across time.
The film begins at a British Museum archaeological dig in Egypt of 1921. Sir Joseph Whemple, played by Arthur Byron, and his assistant, Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher) are busy cataloguing the finds, including the mummified remains of Imhotep (Karloff the Uncanny, as he was billed for the movie) and gold box holding casket with a scroll. Whemple’s friend, Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan), arrives at Sir Joseph’s request to examine the items. Muller examines Imhotep and his tomb and determines that the mummy was buried alive with all invocations to protect the soul removed, chiseled away. Dr. Muller also confirms that the Scroll of Thoth, which returns life to the dead when read, is in the casket, though there is also a curse that will kill whosoever removes the scroll.
Muller and Whemple go outside to talk about the findings. Whemple wants to continue his investigations, but Muller insists that everything should be buried and forgotten. Norton, though, lets his curiosity get the better of him and reads the scroll. Behind him, Imhotep opens his eyes and begins to move. Norton, though, remains unaware and continues to read the scroll until Imhotep puts a hand down on the table. Looking up, Norton sees the mummy and laughs like a madman as Imhotep takes the scroll and walks out.
Ten years later, Whemple’s son Frank (David Manners) is working with Professor Pearson (Leonard Mudie) to help the British Museum and the Cairo Museum with another dig. Imhotep arrives, now fleshed out and calling himself Ardath Bey, with information on the resting place of Princess Ankh-es-en-amon, a priestess of Isis and his illicit lover. Pearson and Frank take a team to recover Ankh-es-en-amon and bring her and her treasures to the Cairo Museum, where she is put on display.
Imhotep uses a ritual to call for his lover. Elsewhere in Cairo, Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), a woman studying in Cairo, hears the call. She leaves the nightclub she’s in to go to the Cairo Museum, where she collapses in front of Frank. Frank helps her inside and a spark of love ignites in him and in Helen. She recovers, but later runs across Imhotep. He hypnotizes her, reawakening her past life as Ankh-es-en-amon. In the past, when she died, Imhotep stole the Scroll of Thoth in a bid to revive her, much as Isis did with Osiris, but was found and stopped. For his transgressions, he was wrapped and buried alive.
To ensure that Ankh-es-en-amon won’t die again, Imhotep must go through a ritual where he turns her into a mummy herself, then read from the Scroll of Thoth to bring her back to immortal life, allowing them to live together for all eternity. The exhibit at the Cairo Museum has everything Imhotep needs. As the ritual begins, Frank realizes what is about to happen to Helen and races to the museum with Pearson. They arrive in time, but are unable to stop Imhotep. Instead, the mummy incapacitates them with his ring. Helen recovers just enough to realize what is happening and calls on her memories to plead to Isis. Before Imhotep can kill Helen, Isis raises her ankh and creates a beam of light that burns the Scroll of Thoth, breaking the spell keeping Imhotep in a state between life and death, destroying him.
Karloff made a name for himself with his portrayal of Frankenstein, giving the Creature a child-like sensibility. As Imhotep, he uses his physicality to convey both strength and weakness. He moves stiffly, like his body is still not what it was. Lighting casts dramatic shadows across his face. The moment when Norton finishes reading the Scroll of Thoth, the merest opening of his eye carried more weight for the scene than anything else there. Karloff played a man who would do anything for his love, no matter the cost, ensuring that The Mummy would be a classic Universal monster.
Studios know when they have a marketable character. While Imhotep wasn’t in further films, the mummy as a monster reappeared in several work, including The Mummy’s Hand, Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy – both from Universal – and a series from Hammer Films. In 1999, Universal returned to the 1932 version, remaking it as The Mummy with Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, and Arnold Vosloo as Imhotep.
The remake begins in Ancient Egypt, showing the illicit affair between Imhotep (Vosloo) and Anck-su-numan (Patricia Velasquez), the mistress of Pharaoh Seti I. Caught in the act, Imhotep raises a sword to the Pharaoh, but it is Ankh-su-numan who kills the ruler. She implores Imhotep to escape as only he can resurrect her, then kills herself. Imhotep doesn’t get far and is caught. His punishment is to be mummified and eaten alive by scarab beetles.
In 1923, a unit of the French Foreign Legion is caught in Hamunaptra hidden in the caldera of a volcano. The leader of the unit gets his men ready to repulse an attack by mounted riders, then runs away, leaving Rick O’Connell (Fraser) to take over. He keeps them from breaking, with the exception of Beni (Kevin J. O’Connor), who is the first to run. The riders attack, overwhelming the defenders. Beni takes refuge within the ruin, closing the doors to everyone, friend and foe alike. Soon, it’s just Rick alone, but one of the Magi who watch over the hidden city, Ardeth Bay (Oded Fehr), invokes magic to scare off the invaders.
Elsewhere, in Cairo, Evelyn “Evy” Carnahan, librarian and Egyptologist, is busy reshelving books in the museum’s library when she has some problems while standing on a ladder. The resulting disaster sees the shelves fall like dominoes. She’s told to get the mess cleaned up. As she does so, her brother, Jonathan (John Hannah), arrives with a map to the lost city of Hamunaptra. Evy discovers that the man her brother stole it from is being held prisoner, scheduled for execution, and rushes to the prison. She makes a deal with the warden (Omid Djalili) for Rick’s release. The warden, though, not only wants a piece of the action, he wants to join the expedition.
The race is on. A group of American treasure hunters are also on the trail to the lost city, and they have their own guide, Beni. On the paddleboat leaving Cairo, though, the Magi attack, trying to get both the map and the key to Hamunaptra. They aren’t successful; the map gets destroyed but Jonathan manages to grab the key before escaping the boat, now aflame thanks to the fighting.
Both groups arrive at Hamunaptra. Evy directs Rick and Jonathan, while the Americans dig elsewhere. Evy’s location is correct, though she’s quick to allow the Americans to take over the dig site. She finds a way down below the statue of Anubis where Rick can start his own digging. The warden finds another route, leading him to a tomb adorned with what look like gemstones. As he pries the stones off, he discovers too late that they are scarab beetles as they burrow within him. He runs off. Evy, Rick, and Jonathan discover a tomb marked “He Who Shall Not be Named” and as they investigate, the warden runs by screaming. They witness him hit a wall and stop, dead.
The Magi attack again overnight. The fight is to a standstill as Rick threatens Bay with a stick of dynamite, but the Magi warn both sets of seekers to leave, giving just one day to leave Hamunaptra. Of course, no one listens. The Americans find the Book of the Dead, though they can’t get it open; it needs a key. At night, Evy manages to liberate the Book and opens it. She reads from it, reawakening Imhotep. However, the mummy does not have eyes nor a tongue.
What Imhotep has is locusts. Everyone scatters, seeking shelter. Inside the lost city, Rick, Evy, and Jonathan are safe until the scarabs pour out. They run, seeking higher ground. Once out of the beetles’ way, they watch the swarm continue their path of destruction. Evy stumbles on a trap door and falls inside, finding one of the Americans. Unfortunately, Imhotep had found him first, taking the American’s eyes and tongue. As he approaches Evy, Imhotep recognizes her as Anck-su-numan. Rick and Jonathan find her and get her out. Imhotep gives chase, but runs into Beni. Beni tries to hold the mummy off with a crucifix and, when that doesn’t work, tries a couple more holy symbols before bringing out the Star of David. Imhotep recognizes the symbol, that of the slaves of Egypt from his time, and offers Beni a choice to follow, with riches his reward.
The survivors return to Cairo. Rick wants to leave the country knowing what’s coming. Evy, though, wants to put the mummy back where he belongs, having read the book that brought him back to life. It’s too late, though. Imhotep is finishing his work, finding and killing the Americans who opened the box holding the Book of the Dead, with Beni’s help. The ten plagues of Egyst also begin, with locasts descending and water turning into blood.
Evy works out what is needed to stop Imhotep, the golden Book of Amun-Ra to counter the black Book of the Dead. The Book of Amun-Ra is hidden at Hamunaptra in the stature of Horus. Ardeth Bay arrives, not to hinder the heroes but to help now that Imhotep is back, and throws in with Rick, Evy, and Jonathan. Before they can leave, Imhotep catches up and takes Evy away with him.
To get back to the lost city, Rick engages the last member of the Royal Air Force in the country, Winston (Bernard Fox). Imhotep tries to stop them, and is partially successful in getting Winston’s biplane to crash, but Rick, Jonathan, and Bay continue on foot. They push is to get the Book of Amun-Ra before Imhotep can resurrect Anck-su-numan at Evy’s expense.
There are major changes between the original and the remake. The 1932 version was close to a gothic romance, with Helen being the focus of Imhotep’s affections and desires. That romance carried through to the 1999 remake, but as the motive for the mummy. There was no seduction of Evy, no attempt to reconnect over time past. Instead, the remake’s Imhotep worked to resurrect his lover using Evy. The remake was more action-horror, with comedy added here and there. The heroes are far more involved in stopping Imhotep than in the original.
The story in general didn’t change that much, though placement of the fate of Imhotep in Ancient Egypt and how he was defeated did. Director Stephen Sommers had seen the original and based his movie on it. With the added budget and runtime his film had, he could work in more ideas. The focus shifted from Imhotep to Rick, Evy, and Jonathan, thus requiring that they be the ones who defeated the mummy, not a plea to an Egyptian goddess. However, it was Evy’s knowledge that saved the day, much like it was Helen using her no longer regressed memories of the past in the original.
The remake also showed Imhotep changing as he grew in power. Because of how long it took to get Karloff into the full mummy makeup and costume, eight hours just to put on and two hours to remove, that look for the mummy was for just one scene, shot over seven hours. The remainder of the film, Karloff is in robes showing only his head and hands, with him showing both the strength and weakness of the mummy through body language. The remake had Industrial Light and Magic doing the special effects – physical, matte paintings, and CGI. Computer graphics allowed the filmmakers to show Imhotep regaining his body as the movie progressed, adding details that just weren’t possibly in 1932, like a scarab running out a hole in Imhotep’s chest and up into another hole in his cheek. ILM, already used to CG effects, pushed their knowledge with the movie, building Imhotep from the skeletal structure up while using motion capture of Vosloo as a base.
The CGI allowed the film to show the threat that Imhotep posed. While turning water into blood was more a reaction shot of actors drinking and spitting out the foul tasting liquid, the locusts and the scarabs turned into credible threats. One insect might be creepy. Thousands to the point of blotting out the sun is a danger. What would be difficult or impossible to do in 1932 is some work at a computer in 1999 and today. The danger is the overuse, something ILM was aware of.
Comparing Imhoteps, Karloff brough a quiet menace to the role. Every movement was measured. His mummy was a deliberate, thinking monster with one goal, reunite with Ankh-es-en-amon and rule with her at his side for eternity. Vosloo’s Imhotep had barely controlled rage in every step. His mummy still carried anger over what was done to him, yet, he, too, worked towards reuniting with his love. Both saw their lover in another woman.
The 1999 remake of The Mummy changed the tone of the story, going from the original’s gothic romance to a action-horror. Both films resonated with audiences, but the remake changed the focus away from Imhotep to the heroes, Rick, Evy, and Jonathan. The change, though, comes after decades of the mummy being portrayed as a monster, not a tragic lover. Audience expectations mean adapting the story to both fit and challenge was is expected on screen. The 1999 version did use ideas in the original and expanded and explored them in the new genre.