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The Mummy Review

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by Chris McEneany Jul 11, 2008 at 12:00 AM

    The Mummy Review
    After both Dracula and Frankenstein reached their 75th anniversaries and were rewarded with fantastic special editions in worn leather-look packaging (both reviewed on the site), it now becomes the turn of Universal's third-in-line horror release, The Mummy, to receive the treatment. And, ahem, this has nothing to do with the release of the studio's revamped third Mummy interpretation, The Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor, this summer, I don't suppose?

    “He was laughing when your father found him. He died laughing . . . in a straight jacket.”

    One of the most achingly moody of Universal's groundbreaking early chillers, 1932's The Mummy from cinematographer-turned-director Karl Freund is often sidelined by fans as the quiet, slow-moving one - much, in fact, like the slew of mummy-monsters that followed in the wake of this film's success. And, to a great degree, this is correct. Reliant more on atmosphere and a slow-seeping sense of dread and destiny, this exquisitely shot supernatural love story refuses to pack in the more obvious menace of Tod Browning's Dracula or James Whale's Frankenstein, the latter, especially, being hugely episodic and grimly spectacular. With a sensitive and quite intelligent script from John L. Balderstone, actually his first full movie screenplay, although he had come to Universal's attention for his brisk Americanising of famed English stage plays for both Dracula and Frankenstein, The Mummy would cement its star Boris Karloff as Hollywood's pure-blood monster-man, go on to spawn a gaggle of more active but lesser-quality sequels and forge an entire sub-genre. Balderstone's engagement was also, no doubt, aided by the fact that he had been a reporter at the scene of the notoriously accursed excavation of King Tutankhamen by Howard Carter several years before and, it was therefore presumed, knew what he was talking about.

    Yet it seems that Balderstone was actually at something of a loose end as his screenplay bears gross similarity to that of Dracula's cinematic interpretation - a powerful member of the undead sets his mesmerising sights on a gorgeous young woman and can only be defeated by a group of fearless protectors armed with scientific-cum-supernatural knowledge and a sacred amulet that can ward off evil. Substitute Karloff's parchment-skinned ancient revival, disgraced high priest Im-ho-tep, for Lugosi's vowel-mangling Dracula, the sensationally provocative Zita Johann as Helen Grosvenor for Helen Chandler's Mina Harker and the Isis pendant for the crucifix and you are good to go. But this time, the story would deviate from the vampire's simplistic blood-hungry power-trip and become a tragically moving drama about an undying love that spans thousands of years and of a creature, more desperate and pitiable than the mere bandaged bogeyman stomping in his wake, who will stop at nothing to procure his reincarnated bride. Already fashioning a stable of in-house performers, Universal even brought along two of the Count's co-stars in Edward Van Sloan, here essaying a very similar role to his earlier Van Helsing in the forceful and suspicious Dr. Muller, and David Manners, once again fulfilling the thankless task of a smitten but virtually impotent beau in archaeologist Frank Whemple.

    “Do you have to open graves to find girls to fall in love with?”

    Universal had intended to produce a vehicle for Karloff entitled Cagliostro, about a black magician living down through the ages and slaying any woman he comes across who resembles the ancient love that betrayed him, but the resulting story from Nina Wilcox Puttnam was messy and lacked direction. However, with Dracula's template in mind, Balderstone found a way to rework it into a screenplay that would please everyone and bring back Karloff to an audience who would eagerly pay to be thrilled by horror's first superstar once more. The plot is deliciously concise. English tomb raiders Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron), his son Frank and the excitable young Norton (the excellent Bramwell Fletcher) open up Im-ho-tep's forbidden burial chamber and foolishly read aloud from the Scroll Of Thoth, the ancient incantation to reawaken the dead - the very spell that Im-ho-tep had sought to steal some 3,700 years before in order to bring his royal lover, Anckesenamon (played across time by Hungarian-born, New York stage actress Zita Johann) back from beyond the veil of death. Punished for this blasphemous crime by being mummified and buried alive, he now returns to a decrepit state of life, pilfering the scroll from the jibbering Norton, who has been turned instantly insane by the sight of the mummy in the film's most famous and rightly celebrated sequence, and making off into the desert. Ten years pass and Im-ho-tep, now posing as a deadly serious cultural historian called Ardath Bey, bedecked in fez and long angular gown to emphasis Karloff's gaunt frame, discovers that his lost love has been reincarnated within the demure body of Helen Grosvenor (Johann again). Calling forth all his occult powers he seeks to reclaim her so that they can live together as one beyond the clutches of human mortality. And, naturally, anyone who opposes his epoch-strengthened will is sure to end up dead without such an opportunity for revival.

    “Put it back. Bury it where you found it. You have read the curse. You will dare defy it?

    With sets and props hauled over from Dracula and painstakingly reworked into fabulous art deco locales - the museum is a fine, minimalist environment of shadow, crypt and corridor and Ardath Bey's house is like a miniature version of She's palace - but the real grandeur is bestowed courtesy of the two leads. Karloff's highly impressive makeup, from Universal's unsung wunderkind Jack P. Pierce, is two-fold. Firstly, we see him as the impeccably shabby and rotten mummy - his face horrifically stretched and glued in order to make room for the millions of tiny wrinkles and creases to depict the effect of ancient wrappings having worn into his skin, literally becoming his flesh. The dirt of ages and the powdery flakes that roll off him as his eyes slowly open as Norton reads the Scroll are remarkably authentic. The tragic agony of his condition is conveyed by Karloff merely taking his first look around in thousands of years, and one arm inexorably loosening itself from its caked-on binds. Only Karloff could imbue such a wretch with personality and, although this scene lasts a mere minute or two, it rightly went down in history as one of the genre's most pivotal and influential. Bramwell Fletcher's sudden piercing scream of terror is absolutely priceless, selling the tension of the moment with absolute conviction. When his quivering, insane laughter summons Sir Whemple back to the crypt, his line is, perhaps, the film's greatest - “He went for a little walk,” he babbles, becoming, almost for a second, this film's demented Renfied, “You should have seen his face!” It is a set-piece of magnificent restraint, Im-ho-tep's appearance, after the initial lingering observation of his emaciated form in the casket, is nothing more than a reaching hand and a couple of practically comical snake-like strands of wrappings being dragged out of the door.

    “You will not remember what I show you now, and yet I shall awaken memories of love... and crime... and death...”

    His second appearance, as the equally haggard but innately noble Ardath Bey is no less striking. With sunken cheeks - Karloff had a habit of removing his false teeth to enable Pierce to make his face look carved-into - and prune-like skin, he is every inch the crackled old immortal. Freund's clever lighting would periodically alter so as to enhance his supposedly glowing eyes, possibly the only outwardly sinister effect in the whole movie. With such deep sadness so indelibly engraved in those eyes - before his big break with Frankenstein the previous year Karloff had been struggling just to put food on the table - his fathomless age and single-minded devotion is tempered perfectly by a dignity and pathos so strong it is hard not to sympathise with. If Dr. F's Monster was a victim of science and wrongly maligned for his appearance and savage innocence, then Im-ho-tep is the thinking man's nightmare - a trapped soul forever searching for companionship and forever thwarted, his condition made all the more deplorable because he understands exactly what has been done to him. Whether leaning out over his mystic pool of visions - think 30's surveillance camera - or thrusting his powerful will-sapping jewelled ring at foes to subdue them, Karloff's revived mummy is perhaps more imposing when merely standing tall and proud in the realm of his enemies. His first entrance, as Ardath Bey, is magisterial and captivating - filling the doorway with a ramrod-straight back and a single movement of his narrowed eyes (actually something of a homage to his prior incarnation as the Monster) - and from that point onwards, his every scene, no matter measured, is electric with unease.

    “Don't you think I've had enough excitement for one evening, without the additional thrill of a strange man making love to me?”

    But as terrific as Karloff is, his time-spanning counterpart is just as riveting. Zita Johann's slight but alluring figure, small face but hypnotically large eyes and richly theatrical, totally exotic voice is a bewitching personality as well. Wilfully independent and keen to harass her director, whose fear that his first-helmed movie would be a flop had him already plotting t use her as his scapegoat, Johann owns the film whenever she isn't sharing the screen with Karloff. Her calm confidence, even after a mysterious trance deposits her bizarrely, yet all-too conveniently in the arms of Frank Whemple, provides an aura that makes it hard not to become as smitten by her as he is. Those eyes genuinely seem to be penetrating the camera lens with a power that isn't cursed like Karloff's, but rather slyly mischievous, knowing and vulnerable all at once. The halcyon pre-Hays Code also allows for Miss Grosvenor - half English but, more importantly, half Egyptian as well - to parade about in eyebrow-raisingly low cut dresses that hug her body tighter than Im-ho-tep's bindings. A later sequence will also see her sporting what is, in effect, an ancient bra that leaves her midriff tantalisingly bare and her lower half sheathed in see-through material. The very risqué-ness of such flesh-revealing was extremely provocative back in the thirties and it is worth mentioning that another Karloff movie, The Old Dark House (for James Whale) released the same year - and reviewed separately - possibly went even further in its sexual liberties with the extremely attractive Gloria Stuart, courting controversy and, like Johann's exhibitionism, giving audiences a spicy lift they perhaps hadn't expected from a horror film. But Johann delivers much than just titillation and her moments of stupefied confusion - usually after her old-age lover has been cooking up some spells again - are rare occasions of genuine guarded anxiety. Her return from Ardath Bey's house without the white German Shepherd Dog she had taken with her is authentically frustrating when she can't quite recall what has actually happened, the inference being that not only has the revived mummy's influence taken its toll, but her own prior life as his forbidden princess has begun to exert its own mysterious hold over her.

    And, just like poor Mina Harker becoming a junkie for the nefarious Count, she begins to exude a newfound vitality as her former self starts to assert itself.

    Indeed, the similarities to Dracula don't end there. We also have the sitting-room type of drama that condenses yet polarises the action. We may be in Cairo, but the majority of the encounters take place either in the museum of natural history or in the parlour of the Whemples. The archly stilted dialogue from Dracula has been all but removed, however there are still some awkward lines that just make you wince despite the conviction with which they are uttered. And, as usual, these lines are usually delivered by the likes of Van Sloan and David Manners who, for the most part, perform in the style of the times, whilst Karloff and Johann are clearly in a different league altogether. The classic stand-off between a hard-nosed Dr. Muller and a wrinkly-nosed Ardath Bey is pure Van Helsing and Dracula, though and, even if I think I prefer Van Sloan's less operatic performance here than in the earlier film - and even Frankenstein, for that matter - he still comes across a monster hunter first and a scientist, oh, way down the list.

    “If I could get my hands on you, I'd break your dried flesh to pieces!”

    We can't let the awkward tactician Karl Freund go un-serenaded. After supplying superlative imagery for Paul Wegener's Der Golem in 1915, Murnau's The Last Laugh in 1924 and Fritz Lang's hugely influential Metropolis in 1927 - new scenes from which are still cropping even today - he found that Hollywood had embraced his form of cinematic Expressionism and was only too eager that he follow suit and although Charles Stumar operated the cameras on The Mummy, Freund's hand is evident in virtually every shot. The wonderful mummy-awakening aside, there is plenty of innovation on display in his directorial debut. The use of back-projection for a car journey along the streets of Cairo, for example was one of the first cases of its use in Hollywood. Deep focus shots allow for wonderful framing with acute attention to both fore and background detail. Creeping photography through the corridors of the museum and even subjective viewpoints were also new tricks to the trade that Freund brought with him. Some tremendous imagery is captured too. Im-ho-tep's extended hand during the climactic confrontation almost comes out of the screen. The up-and-over camera-shot as we glide above the heads of Karloff and Johann as they gaze into the mystic pool is a dazzling effect of audience levitation. He even stages one death scene with curious intensity considering that the film is actually understated and restrained for much of the time. The scene depicting Im-ho-tep's long-distance magical assault on Sir Whemple - a cunning play on the Nosferatu heart-clutching shadow-hand trick - has the frightened scholar writhing in his death throes about his own parlour, his face a picture of agony and his own hands jittering in convincingly disturbing spasm. There is even a grisly flashback shot of slaves getting slain by hurled spears and, much later on, a sacrificial dagger is pressed shockingly hard against Johann's bare stomach. Yes, the pace may be sedate, but The Mummy actually pulls few punches. Freund would go on to direct the stylishly fantastic Mad Love with Peter Lorre in 1935, a brilliant movie that is equally character-driven and psychologically tense. But The Mummy is testament to visual lyricism and the power of a short, intimate tale that needs no exploding laboratories, lumbering brutes (unless you count the reliable Noble Johnson as a thuggish and possessed Nubian manservant, that is) or gothic villages to evoke the otherworldly magic of Universal Horror at its best.

    Like Im-ho-tep, himself, The Mummy is a film that has lived on far beyond its day and wielded an influence that is felt even now, undiminished or weakened by age. Its cycle of drag-legged, strangulation-rife sequels brought in Tom Tyler and Lon Chaney Jnr. to don the rags and bandages and they all had their moments amid the melodrama, but the original is the classic of the genre, establishing a yet more movie-lore that Universal could take a pride in and other studios could only cheekily emulate. Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy have all reached their 75th birthdays ... but there's still Bride Of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man and The Wolf Man to come, and I can't wait.

    Long live Universal Horror.

    The Rundown

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