Egypt, 1921 and an expedition of British archaeologists is investigating the latest tomb of the Ancients to be uncovered, having found a mummified corpse in there that has a mysterious background. Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron) is leading these scientists, but his younger assistant Norton (Bramwell Fletcher) is more eager to delve into the mummy's past, noting that the inscriptions on its coffin have been tampered with to remove important writing. When they find a chest with a curse inscribed upon it, Norton wants to open it - but he should have been more respectful...
The Mummy was part of Universal's original horror cycle, and was the follow on to works such as Dracula and Frankenstein - especially Dracula, which served as the template for this. With Dracula's distinguished cinematographer Karl Freund directing though not Bela Lugosi but Karloff in the lead, it was well thought of in its day, as the star was such a sensation as his previous monster role that audiences lapped this up as more of the same, but in truth it was not quite as otherworldly as it initially appeared - indeed, its status has declined in the years since it was judged to be one the studio's great chiller classics. This was probably down to the pacing which positively crawled along.
Of course, that doesn't matter so much in a film this short, but it does offer the feeling of wading through the molasses of the plot to get to the good stuff - anything involving Karloff's enigmatic Ardath Bey, that is. He appears ten years after the ten minute introduction which is a marvellous sequence, detailing as it does the mummy's awakening, subtly and creepily done, which tips poor old Norton over the edge into hysterically laughing madness. Now the mummy has the scroll that was in the chest, and a decade later when Whemple is back in Egypt he makes his move thanks to a lovely young lady, Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), as the reincarnation of the love Bey lost.
If there's one thing even more enduring than the idea of the walking dead mummy that this brought to the screen, it was that notion of reincarnation as a plot device to give its villain a motivation. Here there is a battle of wits between the pragmatic science methods and the superstitious supernatural stuff, but it is implied that something even more powerful than either, and yet more strange to boot, is the power of love. Bey is a romantic at heart, and his drive to reunite himself and the Egyptian queen who he tried to revive millennia ago and was buried alive for this "unholy thing" is more deeply felt than any of those ineffectually trying to stop him. If anything, by the end of this you might be offering him the advice that it was all more trouble than it was worth - what a man has to do for company.
This of course was capitalising on the Lord Carnavon expedition to excavate Tutankhamun's tomb ten years before this film was released, something that created huge interest in pop culture relating to the Ancient Egyptians. particularly as there seemed to be an actual curse associated with it that bumped off many of the original party. That made this more persuasive in the minds of the public, but so far after the fact you may become restless, even if much of what you see is strikingly atmospheric: the closeups of Karloff's face with his preserved skin and eyes lit up is a superb image, as are the contrasting closeups of Johann's delicate features. The flashback on what passes for television in Bey's quarters - basically a pool that enables him to view others remotely (good for inducing heart attacks) - is a rightfully respected example of creepy nightmare as he is wrapped up in bandages while still alive, and it's parts like that which make The Mummy something to treasure, even if it fails to get the pulse racing.