We open in Egypt (where else?), at a British excavation site. A mummy of high priest Imhotep (Boris Karloff) has been found and with it the scroll of Thoth, a key to bring back the dead. After one foolhardy assistant reads the scroll, the mummy comes alive, then proceeds to snatch the scroll and shamble away, leaving the assistant a mess of mad laughter.
Cut to ten years later, a mysterious man named Ardeth Bey assists archaeologists in uncovering the tomb of Princess Anck-es-en-Amon. However, he doesn't do this out of kindness, as he has plans of his own...
The film was semi-remade in 1940 (The Mummy's Hand, which itself spawned several sequels), 1959 (The Mummy, a Hammer Horror production featuring Christopher Lee as the title creature and based more on the 1940 film than the 1932 original), 1999 (The Mummy), and 2017 (The Mummy).
It is one of many films included in the "Universal Horror" canon, and the first to be an original story rather than based on a novel after Dracula and Frankenstein showed how successful such films could be the previous year.
This film has the examples of:
- Ancient Egypt: Featured comparatively briefly in Imhotep's vision of the past.
- Ancient Tomb: Princess Anck-es-en-Amon's tomb, but we never get to see inside it.
- Anti-Villain: Imhotep. In the end, all he wants is to be reunited with his love.
- Buried Alive: Imhotep's punishment for the sacrilege of trying to bring the dead back to life.
- Brown Note Being: Whemple's assistant experiences instant temporary insanity, left Laughing Mad after catching a glimpse of the mummy's shambling corpse.
- Comic-Book Fantasy Casting: A truly odd example. Imhotep, prior to having rejuvenated after the time-skip, was designed to look like the mummy of Seti I but ended up looking like the mummy of Ramses III instead.
- Curse of the Pharaoh: Explorers enter an ancient Egyptian tomb and find the remains of a High Priest named Imhotep who was buried alive. His casket contains a warning that death will meet anyone who opens the casket. This is ignored by the explorers and the Priest is brought back to life when one of the explorers reads the "Scroll of Life" which causes the Imhotep. Imhotep then proceeds to try to revive a dead lover (which was why he was buried alive as it was sacrilege), killing anyone who gets in his way.
- Damsel out of Distress: Practically a Ur-Example. Unlike her counterparts in other classic horror films, Helen does not need any of the male leads to save her from Imhotep; she manages to defeat the monster all on her own.
- Darker and Edgier: After the tremendous success of Dracula and Frankenstein, this film was subjected to far more lenient censorship from the studio. Thus, it goes quite shockingly explicit in depicting the horror of Imhotep's being mummified alive, plus an early line that his "viscera" were not removed.
- Evil Sorcerer: Imhotep.
- Eye Awaken: When Whemple's assistant starts reading the translation of the scroll of Thoth, Imhotep opens his eyes slowly.
- Fainting: After failing to get inside the museum, Helen faints.
- Fanservice: Zita Johann as Helen wears some low-cut dresses, and as Princess Anck-es-en-Amon wears a skimpy outfit that would never have been possible just a couple of years later under The Hays Code.
- For Science!: When Frank is telling Helen how he unwrapped Princess Anck-es-en-Amon's most personal possessions, she cringes, exclaiming "How could you?" "Had to! Science, you know," Frank peppily replies.
- Go Mad from the Revelation: Whemple's assistant doesn't take it well when he sees Imhotep's shambling corpse."He went for a little walk! You should have seen his face! HAHAHAHA!"
- Hates Being Touched: Imhotep. Probably because he's all dry and dusty.
- Have a Gay Old Time:
- When the archaeologists are discussing what Imhotep could have done to be punished like he was, one of them suggests "Maybe he got too gay with the vestal virgins in the temple.''
- When Frank is hitting on Helen, she responds with "Don't you think I've had enough excitement for one evening, without the additional thrill of a strange man making love to me?"
- Have We Met?: Imhotep says this to Helen when they meet, as he wants to know if she remembers anything from her past lives.
- Hypnotize the Princess: Imhotep uses his magic powers to lure Helen to him, and later to get Princess Anck-es-en-Amon to submit to being killed.
- Kick the Dog: Helen and her German Shepherd go on a walk that ends up at Imhotep's house. The dog doesn't come back.
- Laughing Mad: The assistant is left a cackling lunatic after seeing the mummy shuffle out of its sarcophagus.
- Living Statue: A statue guarding the scroll of Thoth comes alive to show its displeasure of Imhotep stealing it in the past.
- Love at First Sight: Frank is pledging his love to Helen within a couple of hours of meeting her.
- Love Makes You Evil: Imhotep after all these years until his resurrection is still genuinely in love with Anck-es-en-Amon/Helen and he's prepared to kill the man she loves and everyone who represents an obstacle between him and her.
- Magic Mirror: Imhotep has a pool of water that can reveal scenes from the past and be used to spy on people in the present.
- Mummy: Unlike the Mummies that appeared in the other Mummy films, Imhotep only appears as the archetypal shambling, bandaged corpse for a few minutes, and spends the rest of the film looking perfectly human.
- Murder the Hypotenuse: Imhotep attempts to do this to Frank.
- No Immortal Inertia: Imhotep decays into a pile of bones when Anck-es-en-Amon defeats him.
- Protective Charm: The amulet of Isis, which protects its wearer from Imhotep's powers.
- Psychic Strangle: A variant—Imhotep can use his magic to reach out and cause heart attacks.
- Reincarnation: Helen is the reincarnation of Princess Anck-es-en-Amon.
- Reincarnation Romance: The female lead and title character are star crossed lovers from Ancient Egypt.
- Soft Glass: The glass containers of the museum are made of it.
- Underboobs: Princess Anck-es-en-Amon in a daring outfit; see Fanservice above.
- Villain Protagonist: Imhotep gets the most screen time and development.
- Whole Plot Reference: A creepy undead being fixates on a young woman and attempts to conquer her using his hypnotic powers. The young woman's colorless boyfriend and his older advisor battle to save the woman's soul. Sound familiar, Dracula fans? In case anyone was in doubt about this, Universal used the same actors to play the male romantic lead and the older man who helps him defeat the monster.
- Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: Imhotep the Mummy just wants his girlfriend back, even if he has to kill her current incarnation to do it.