THE MUMMY is probably the weakest film in the Universal Monsters lineup. It pretty much is the DRACULA script only they crossed out the word "Dracula" and changed it to "Mummy". This is another undead guy trying to reunite with his lost love that has been reincarnated into a modern day woman. Nothing new here. Karloff is iconic as the Mummy but really he is only a mummy at the beginning of the film. For the rest of the film he is just some guy who dresses weird looking for love in all the wrong places. Yet I believe this film has one of the scariest most realistic moments in movie history.
The scene is in the beginning of the film after the mummy has been found and brought into a tent to be further studied. It is nighttime and everyone else is asleep. There is no music. A young archaeologist is studying a manuscript found at the dig sight. At first we see the Mummy propped up in his coffin. The camera moves over to the archaeologist who is too focused on his work to notice the sound of someones dragging footsteps. A rotten bandaged armed grasps the manuscript before him. Looking up the archaeologist beholds a dead man before him shuffling away with the manuscript. A brief scream escapes his mouth before he descends into madness laughing uncontrollably all the way. He has totally lost his mind at the very sight of a dead man walking. His very belief system and everything he knows to be real has been dashed along with his sanity. His bright future is gone. He is experiencing a different kind of death, the loss of his mental state. This scene could easily fit into any Poe or Lovecraft story.
What would you do if you saw a guy that has been dead for thousands of years get up and walk? What would you do if you saw a ghost or a zombie? What about some kind of monster? It would definitely change your perspective on things. We are so desensitized by all the monsters, ghosts and weirdos that we see in our horror movies that we no longer understand what it means to see something so uncanny. THE MUMMY gives us an example of what happens when a person experiences true terror. Audiences back in the early days on cinema were not so inundated with the blood and guts of modern cinema. Getting chocked to death was too grotesque back then. Seeing the Frankenstein monster being brought to life for the first time on the big screen must have been unbelievable for audiences back then. A monstrous corpse being brought back to life so dramatically had never been put to the screen like that before it. We don't have that same thrill today. We have seen it all it seems.
Yea, sure nowadays we have all the annoying screaming and sobbing that never seems to end in our movies. Sometimes the main character will eventually go mad at the end from all horror they have encountered but it always feels forced. The reaction the young archaeologist has is so natural and unexpected. That is what I think most of us would do when we encounter something that is horrifying and impossible to exist in our world. The next time you watch a horror movie pay attention to how the characters react to the lurking horrors that they see for the first time. How do they react? Does that hurt or help the movie? If you are writing horror it is important to understand this scene in THE MUMMY. It is quick and quiet but it leaves a heavy impact. How a character behaves to the horror will add more weight to a scary story than any jump scare ever could. It is not just how the monster looks but how the characters react to it that will help ensure an enthralling horrific tale.