First Look: The Mummy Film Poster that Helped Define the Horror Genre

Online | 11-31 October

Universal’s seminal horror films of the early 1930s brought terror to the masses. The studio’s release of Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy in the first few years of the decade created an entirely new type of ‘thriller’ – the monster movie – and turned its stars, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, into icons. For each of these early films, Karoly Grosz, the studio’s art director, crafted a promotional campaign that captured the public’s attention and sent moviegoers to the theater in droves. Notable for their bold colors, complex compositions and minimal use of white space and text, Universal’s horror posters from the period are among the most compelling and desirable examples of advertising art in the history of film. The Mummy is not only one of the rarest of these early posters, but also one of the most successful designs. The present example, stored folded for decades, is the only known impression that has never been backed and is extraordinarily well preserved.

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A lithographic film poster for The Mummy, executed in 1932. Estimate $1–1.5 Million. To be offered in an online-only auction at Sotheby's open from 11–31 October.

The Mummy occupies a critical position among the first three films Universal released in the age of sound. Unlike its two predecessors, the film’s lack of a direct literary source allowed the studio to create an original screenplay tailored to its audience and its new ghoulish star, Karloff. Inspired by the discovery of King Tutankhamun's tomb nearly a decade earlier and the public’s lingering fascination with the myth of the Mummy’s curse, the studio commissioned an Egyptian-themed storyline and script. The result exemplifies the potential of the horror film in the golden age of Hollywood. It is both a romance and a thriller; Karloff’s Imhotep/Ardeth Bay is a monster, but he is also a relatable and tragic figure trying to reunite with his lost love.

The importance of the poster in promoting Universal’s films in the thirties may be difficult to fully comprehend from the perspective of the digital age, when promotional graphics are both easily created and ever-present, but it cannot be emphasized enough. The vibrant colors of Karoly Grosz’s Mummy poster stand both in contrast to and in support of the haunting black and white scenes of the film it advertised. In a way, it offers a promise that the film cannot deliver – although the audience will be thrilled by Karloff’s suddenly awakened Imhotep and may be seduced by Johann’s Ankhesenamun, they will not see the eerie green of the mummy’s wraps or the scarlet of Johann’s gown. In isolating the iconic images of the film and enhancing them with color, the poster becomes the strongest visual link to it and a historic artifact of its time.

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