Thursday, October 21, 2010
31 Days of Halloween: The Mummy (for real this time)
In the 1920s and '30s, Egypt was all the rage, due in large part to the recent uncovering of the tomb of Tutankhamun. The film that would become The Mummy began its life as a film treatment called Cagliostro, loosely based on the 18th century Italian occultist Alessandro Cagliostro. Carl Laemmle Jr. then hired Frankenstein and Dracula scribe John L Balderston, who had been one of the reporters covering the unearthing of Tutankhamun's tomb, to write the script. Making numerous changes, and injecting the Egyptian influence, the script was titled Imhotep, after the ancient Egyptian architect and polymath.
In 1921, Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Bryon) and Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher) have discovered an ancient mummy and a mysterious scroll inside an elaborate chest. As Whemple's colleague Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan) tries to discourage Whemple from tampering with the chest, convinced that the ancient curses still hold power, Norton opens the chest and begins to translate the scroll. As it turns out, the scroll is the legendary Scroll of Thoth, from which Isis raised her husband Osiris from the dead. As Norton quietly reads it, the mummy of Imhotep (Boris Karloff) comes to life, walks over, takes the scroll, and leaves. Norton is driven insane by the sight of the ancient mummy returning to life, and winds up dying in a sanitarium.
Ten years later, Whemple's son Frank (David Manners) is preparing to return home after an unsuccessful season when a mysterious stranger enters. Identifying himself as Ardeth Bey--in reality a disguised Imhotep-- directs him to the location of the tomb of Princess Ankh-es-en-amon. Imhotep plans to use the Scroll of Thoth to resurrect his lost love, but he soon realizes that Ankh-es-en-amon's soul has been reincarnated through the centuries, and is currently alive and well as Helen Grosvenor(Zita Johann). Imhotep then directs all his power toward Helen, planning to sacrifice her so that she can be reborn as he was, and they can be together again. Frank and Dr. Muller resolve to stop him.
Karloff is amazing in this film, delivering one of the finest performances of his career. His subtle, restrained performance has an underlying feel of menace, of immense power that is barely restrained, that makes for a most threatening antagonist. Karloff really gives us the sense that Imhotep was once a noble man, even a great man, who underwent unfathomable pain and torture for the sake of his love. He only finds himself the villain because his obsession has led him to do immoral things in the name of that love. Imhotep is far and away one of the most fascinating of movie monsters, and it's a shame that not one Mummy movie that has been made in all the years since has come close to equaling this character, or Karloff's performance.
Zita Johann is quite good as Helen. She imbues the character with a depth that makes it believable that she really could be a reincarnated Egyptian princess. David Manners comes off a bit better than he does in Dracula, but the character is still quite two-dimensional and uninteresting. That's not really Manners' fault, however, the screenplay does little to develop the character. Still, his Jonathan Harker makes his Frank Whemple look like Rambo. Edward Van Sloan is in full Van Helsing mode here, which is exactly what the script calls for. This is a role that Van Sloan was uncommonly good at, and it's always enjoyable to see him in such a role.
Director Karl Freund does a marvelous job, keeping the film moving at a good pace so that it feels even shorter than its 73 minute running time. The music also bears mentioning; it suits the film well and helps a good deal with building the atmosphere. The familiar piece of music that plays over the opening titles is "Scene from Act II" from "Swan Lake," and was used for several Universal films around this time(notably Dracula and Murders in the Rue Morgue).
Jack Pierce deserves special mention for his makeup work. The man was an artist, and he created several all-time icons that anyone in this field would kill to have on their resume. His work on this film is among his very best, and with all the advances in makeup and special effects in the 78 years since, no one has ever given us a better mummy than Pierce did in this film.
Although often overshadowed by the likes of Frankenstein and Dracula, The Mummy is a horror classic of the highest caliber. In all the decades since its release, there has been no mummy movie made that can match it. More recent films have benefited from larger budgets and better visual effects, but they lack that intangible quality that makes a film a true classic. What's more, they have nothing approaching the majesty of Karloff's performance in this film. There are other good mummy movies out there, but the 1932 film is the undisputed ruler of them all.