4 stars out of 4. Immortal Film.
The most atmospheric of all the early 2nd generation Universal Horrors (roughly 1931-1936), The Mummy showcases Boris Karloff in one of his most sympathetic performances. For 3,700 years he waited in the sands of time. Then, unearthed in 1921, the mummy Im-ho-tep returns to life…
Much has been made of the fact that Karloff only appears in bandages for the first few minutes of the film, that the story is merely Dracula updated to Egypt, that the cast features many of the same Universal contract players and that the film is slow moving but all of this misses the point of Im-ho-tep’s resurrection. The story is quite well known. Imhotep was a high priest of ancient Egypt who fell deeply in love with the virgin priestess daughter of the Pharaoh. When she falls ill and dies, Imhotep cannot stand the sorrow and breaks his vows in an attempt to bring her back to life with the secrets of the gods. He is found out and sentenced to be buried alive.
The mummy is found by an expedition, along with the Scroll of Thoth Imhotep used to try and bring his love back from the dead. While two elder professors go and argue whether or not to open the Scroll, the younger impatient aide begins to translate and read from the ancient text. And behind him the long dead eyes of the Egyptian begin to open once more…
“He just went for a little walk…You should have seen his face!”
We then jump ahead ten years to the later expedition which has proved highly unsuccessful until a mysterious Egyptian points the way towards the tomb of Princess Ankhesenamon. This Ardeth Bey is obviously the same resurrected mummy from ten years previously, but the restraint to which he holds himself is so definite that you almost have a certain respect for the way he carries himself.
The Princess is excavated and moved to the Cairo Museum. Bey later appears and attempts to resurrect his loved one only to find that the soul has left its body and now resides inside someone else. That someone else coincidentally is in Egypt in the form of Helen Grovesnor, patient of Doctor Waldman who is a good friend of the archeologists who found both Imhotep’s mummy and the tomb of Ankhesenamon.
If you have seen Dracula, then you already will know where this is going. But the depth of atmosphere is so incredible that one forgets the obvious storyline and drifts off into the soundtrack hiss and actually falls under the hypnotic spell of Karloff’s magnificent stare. (One of the absolute definitive close-ups in cinema.)
This painstaking makeup by Jack Pierce was even more detailed and more painful than the Frankenstein getup. This could only have added to Karloff’s performance, for the depth of his physical pain comes out in Imhotep’s deep voice that has just a hint of a quiver. this faint quivering belies the depths of his great pain. Of being reawakened in some fantastic strange land after an agonizing death, still without his Ankhesenamon. The possibility of being reunited is too great, so Imhotep stops at nothing to be finally reunited. Not that anything can really stop him.
Unlike Count Dracula, there is no tiptoeing around the subject matter. Imhotep directly takes what he desires and allows nothing to stand in his way. His will is absolute. We begin to even sympathize with the monster for once as it has both a motivation and actual dialogue that is both emotional and electrifying.
There is a definite rhythm to the film’s pacing. Like the early horrors, it only runs a brisk 74 minutes. Still, many today complain of it dragging on and seeming overdrawn. Perhaps this is due to it being one of the only Universals to have a cerebral touch, that there is something more to the story than mere Monsters about wreaking havoc. It almost feels as if one has fallen into a trance and returned to a different time while staring into Imhotep’s pool. (And we wondered where the Pensive idea came from…)
The Mummy was directed by legendary cinematographer Karl Freund who in addition to working for legends Lang and Murnau in Germany, had already shot Dracula for Universal. This gives The Mummy an extreme amount of expressionist design and instead of remaining stationary, the camera almost feels like an invisible intruder to these secret events. This is why the atmosphere becomes so overpowering unlike the more direct approach made by Tod Browning on Dracula.
What draws the viewer in is that this is not the stereotypical Mummy we all grew up knowing. There is no staggering figure swathed in bandages strangling people who merely wait in corners for the extremely slow creature to come for them. There are no mad priests controlling the creature in retaliation for their ancient grounds being disturbed. And lastly there are no stupid tana leaves to keep the creature alive and motivated. All these hallmarks are from the four B-movie sequels made during the next generation of Universal horrors in the 1940’s. Some have their high points, but there are too many lows for them to be really appreciated. (Don’t worry, I’ll tell you about them later…why I do it is beyond me sometimes.)
The interesting thing to note is that no direct sequels were made to the original film. The Mummy became a lumbering brute operated by others to do their dirty work instead of the supreme creation personified by Karloff. Perhaps this was because audiences were not ready for such a sympathetic and understandable monster. The Mummy was indeed not as successful as Dracula or Frankenstein and has become (along with The Invisible Man) unjustifiably one of the lowest regarded of the the early sound Universal horrors.
It is a delicate film, one to be treasured and unearthed every couple of years like the relics of ancient Egypt.
On DVD, as with most of the Universal monster horrors there are three editions of the film:
1999 single disc release, 2004 Legacy edition with 4 sequels and a 2 disc Legacy Series edition.
The film is in poor state-like Dracula, Frankenstein and others of the early period it was subjected to extreme overprinting and processing due to popularity. This has left the film in bad need of restoration. The print source used for these transfers is acceptable and mostly free of damage but there are numerous scratches, hairs, damage marks, splices and the like. The soundtrack is very full of hiss but this becomes atmospheric. In fact, the DVD editions closely resemble the theatrical showing of a 35mm repertory print I was fortunate enough to see two years ago.
The 99 and 04 discs use the same transfer, and this is only slightly improved on the third release. (On Dracula, Universal merely tweaked and overprocessed the same transfer, so I’ve always thought they merely did the same to all of the others in this series of re-releases.) It really isn’t worth the upgrade if you have either previous edition. I would recommend the Legacy set, but only for those who would be interests in the vastly inferior but sometimes cheesily entertaining sequels featuring the stumbling Kharis and the obligatory stupid tana leaves.