In ancient Egypt, High Priest Imhotep (the Great Karloff) is in a forbidden love affair with Princess Anck-su-namun. She is a devotee of the goddess of Isis and a priestess in the Temple of Karnak. When the princess dies, Imhotep is, naturally, beside himself with grief. The High Priest can’t live without his beloved, so he decides to do something drastic.
Imhotep steals the Scroll of Thoth on which is written a spell to resurrect the dead. As Imhotep is performing the ritual to bring Anck-su-namun back to life, the king and his guards interrupt him before he can accomplish his goal. For his sacrilege is sentenced to death, but not just mortal death– death in the afterlife as well. He is buried alive and denied traditional burial rites. The Scroll of Thoth is buried with him.
Jump ahead to 1921. Sir Joseph Whemple is leading an archeological dig in Egypt where they have discovered the tomb of Imhotep. They have also unearthed the chest containing the Scroll of Thoth that was buried with him. Whemple and his assistant, Ralph, are eager to open the chest; Whemple out of a dedication to science and Ralph out of mere, exuberant curiosity. Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan) cautions against it as the chest warns of a curse.
*Note: I’ve learned enough from watching horror movies that if Edward Van Sloan (best remembered as Van Helsing from 1931’s Dracula) says to leave something alone, you better leave that crap alone and back away slowly.
As Whemple and Muller debate the ethics of science and the merits of supposed superstition, Ralph decides to open the chest. Inside he finds the Scroll of Thoth and deciphers enough of it to cause a chain reaction that sends him to a straightjacket. Whemple and Muller discover poor Ralph off his nut and the mummy gone with the contents of the mysterious chest.
Ten years later, Whemple’s son, Frank, is leading the search for Anck-su-namun. He and his team receive help in finding the lost tomb from the creepily eccentric Egyptian historian Ardeth Bay. As you’ve probably guessed, Bay is Imhotep. All he wants to do is resurrect his honey-pie.
When Bay meets Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), he believes he’s found the princess reincarnated. All he has to do now is kill Helen and resurrect her as the complete incarnation of the princess.
My top three favorite Universal Monster Classics have always been Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, and The Mummy. Dracula and The Invisible Man are in the top five, I ain’t giving them any short shrift. The argument can be made that The Mummy is a retread of Dracula as they share a scribe in John L. Balderston and director Karl Freund was the Count’s cinematographer and the stories they tell have some striking similarities. Yes, they are alike, but different. Dracula creaked, The Mummy creeps. It’s the better production overall.
There is an abundance of mummy horror films. It’s good to have them, it makes up for the lack of mummy horror literature. In both mediums it is a slog to find some good mummy entertainment. For all the dross out there, Karloff’s The Mummy is the crowning jewel at the top of the pyramid.