In late 1932, brightly colored posters warned moviegoers of a frightful creature lumbering soon to the silver screen. Yes, it was a teaser for The Mummy, the iconic horror film starring Boris Karloff as a resurrected Egyptian priest with a deadly mission to track down the spirit of his forbidden lover, princess Ankh-es-en-amon (played by Zita Johann). “It comes to life!” the poster exclaimed.
As Jordan Hoffman reports for the Guardian, a rare copy of The Mummy poster is now being auctioned off by Sotheby’s. The spooky Hollywood relic is expected to fetch somewhere between $1 million and $1.5 million, which would make it the most expensive movie poster ever sold.
The Mummy was one of a series of “creature features” produced by Universal in the 1930s and ’40s. The studio had been struggling financially, and it hoped to entice audiences with frightful monsters that would stoke curiosity and fear. First came Dracula, followed by Frankenstein (which also featured the indelible Karloff as the lead creepy creature), The Invisible Man, Wolf Man and others. The films’ fear factor was enhanced by new developments in sound technology that made way for eerie scores and unnerving dialogue. “As silent movies gave way to talkies, horror films employed all the latest technological innovations to craft movies that shocked and provoked,” Sotheby’s notes.
A stunning archaeological discovery also helped boost enthusiasm for The Mummy. Tutankhamun's tomb had been unearthed about a decade prior to the release of the film, and The Mummy’s creators hoped to tap into the public’s enduring fascination with ancient Egypt—and particularly with a rumor that the archaeologists who opened King Tut’s resting place had been stricken by a powerful curse.
The Mummy was shot in black and white, but its color poster, designed by Universal’s advertising art director Karoly Grosz, dramatically brings the horror tale to life, superimposing the mummy with its puckered skin rendered the color of mildew over the woman in a siren-red dress he believes to be the ancient princess incarnate. Grosz’s artwork marks “an early representation of the aesthetics that continue to influence poster design to this day: vivid, painterly splashes of color, a dynamic composition, and minimal white space,” according to Sotheby’s.
The poster due to be auctioned off later this month is one of just three copies that exist today (one of the others is owned by Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett, notes Aaron Couch of the Hollywood Reporter). That the relic survived to the present day, in good condition, is quite remarkable. Movie posters of the ’30s were not meant to last; they were printed on thin paper that was pasted over or tossed out once the film’s run was over.
In 1997, the rare Mummy poster was sold at auction for $453,500, which at the time made it the world’s most expensive movie poster. It was subsequently dethroned by a 1931 poster for Dracula, which sold for $525,800 last year.
The two monsters will go head to head for the record title at the end of the month. Online bidding for The Mummy poster closes, fittingly, on October 31.