Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Mummy (1932)

Of the classic Universal lineup of monsters - Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, and the Invisible Man - the mummy might be the hardest to get right or at least find new things for him to do. Whereas the others can be moved and dropped into a number of different roles, it's really hard to conceive of the mummy outside of Egypt coming to life and attacking those who have defiled his tomb.

But still, there's something inherent about the mummy that gives him iconic status. The full-body bandages covering a now hideous and decayed form, the lumbering gait with the arms outstretched, his often tragic background (usually a high priest who fell in love with the Pharoah's wife or daughter and was punished for it), his gruesome mummification (buried alive and cursed in afterlife), his desire for his reincarnated love, and his vengeance on defilers give him enough to be counted among the aforementioned greats.

We get a good deal of this in the original Mummy (1932) starring Boris Karloff. The film opens in Egypt in 1921 where an archeological expedition disturbs his tomb causing him to awaken, drive an assistant mad, and disappear with an ancient scroll. He returns in 1932 as Ardeth Bay, a distinguished-looking but sinister man who shows another expedition where to find the tomb of Princess Anck-es-en-amon. When she's unearthed and taken to a Cairo museum, Bay takes steps to reincarnate his lost love into the body of Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), a half-Egyptian, half-British woman.

Watching The Mummy is frustrating because it feels like a condensed version of a longer, much more elaborate story. The opening expedition, the only time the mummy is presented as the classic bandaged figure, is only about five minutes long while the search and discovery of the other tomb feels rushed and over before you know it. Even the mummy's tomb is already found and his body unearthed by the time the movie begins. We don't witness how the mummy becomes reincarnated as Ardeth Bay. One of  the concepts I liked from The Mummy remake of the nineties was how the mummy restored himself to life (sucking dry the lifeforce of those who opened his casket), but here it goes unexplained.

The movie's main problem is how much its narrative draws on the previous year's Dracula starring Bela Lugosi. Hell, even a good part of the cast returns playing the same roles, including David Manners as a Jonathan Harker type and Edward Van Sloan as this movie's Van Helsing. There's a piece of religious iconography that repels the monster's power. Bay, like Dracula, uses hypnotic powers to control people, particularly Helen to make her his. Both the mummy and Dracula are creatures who have lived past death for a long time, albeit Dracula continuously for hundreds of years, and the mummy is awakened after thousands. The Mummy also shares many of the same flaws with Dracula: the stagy and dated performances, the tendency to tell rather than show, the incredibly slow pace (only 73 minutes long but feels much longer), and how the tone feels more like melodrama than horror.

The movie's ace in the hole is Boris Karloff, or maybe more accurately, his face. With his dark sunken eyes, piercing stare, and heavily wrinkled cheeks, he has a haunting and memorable presence. His performance, along with his imposing manner, lends the movie a great eeriness and dignity. Unlike Legosi, Karloff is more restrained and less of a predator; the character's passion for his lost love cannot be dismissed, and that suitably makes him more tragic. Plus, he towers over everyone else on screen, establishing his threat and power.

Director Karl Freund, the famed cinematographer of Metropolis and Dracula, generates a number of atmospheric set pieces. The mummy's reanimation is well done, and Bay's religious chambers are fittingly ornate. The makeup on the mummy is creepy and nicely decayed, and it holds up better than other aspects of the film; too bad we get so little of it.

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