Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Movie Review "The Mummy" (1932) by David Pretty

As I've detailed in previous blog entries, being a horror movie fan back in the days before the proliferation of home video was a pretty tough gig. As a kid I had no readily-available way to see the old Universal monster movies so for years I had to be content with just reading about them.

One of the movies I desperately wanted to see was The Mummy. Frankly, never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that one day I'd watch this fully-restored classic up on the big screen, the way it was always intended!  

After the runaway success of Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931), Universal gave producer Carl Laemmle Jr. carte blance to come up with another iconic movie monster. Clearly inspired by the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb nine years earlier, Laemmle tried to keep his winning formula intact by mining for literary sources of Egyptian horror. When this fizzled, writers Nina Wilcox Putnam and Richard Shayer crafted a story called Cagliostro about an ancient alchemist who's managed to prolong his life unnaturally with the use of nitrates, like a spell-casting ham one assumes.

The story swung back towards its original intent when journalist John L. Balderston had a bash at the screenplay. Balderson, who'd extensively covered the opening of King Tut's tomb in 1922, returned the action back to modern-day Egypt and infused it with a story about timeless love and obsession.

With all of the film's creative and financial ducks now in a row, Laemmle then hired Dracula cinematographer Karl Freund to direct just days before principal photography was schedules to begin. Undaunted, Freund tackled the material with gusto, delivering a horror masterpiece in the process.

Lifting a musical cue directly from Dracula, Freund opens the film with a memorable credits sequence featuring an art-deco prologue set to the evocative tune of Swan Lake:

We're then introduced to the members of an archeological expedition led by Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron). In a stroke of "good" fortune, Whemple and his team have stumbled upon the tomb of an Egyptian priest named Imhotep (Boris Karloff), who, by all accounts, was mummified alive as punishment for some severe transgression. Contrary to the dire warnings of the astute Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan), Sir Joseph's moronic assistant Ralph (Bramwell Fletcher) cracks into a forbidden box and reads aloud the life-giving Scroll of Thoth contained within. The next thing you know, Imhotep wakes up, nips the Scroll and then shambles off, leaving a completely hysterical Ralph in his wake.

Fast forward ten years. Imhotep has unraveled himself and is posing as an antiquities dealer in Cairo named Ardath Bey. In order to unearth his long-dead love Princess Ankh-es-en-amon, Bey tells Sir Joseph's son Frank (David Manners) about the location of her tomb. Desperate to salvage their fruitless venture, Frank and his associate Professor Pearson (Leonard Mudie) jump at the chance. Just as predicted, the dig yields tremendous dividends including the mummified remains of the Princess herself. After she's interred at the Cairo museum Bey promptly vanishes before Frank can properly thank him.

Bey then crosses paths with socialite Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), who bears an uncanny resemblance to the long-dead Princess. Believing that Helen is a incarnation of his beloved, Bey plots to kill and mummify her and then use the pilfered Scroll of Thoth to bring her back to "life" and make her his immortal bride. Only the very-smitten Frank, wily Dr. Muller and Helen's own buried memories hold any chance for her salvation.

If you freeze any given frame of The Mummy, you'll be left with a genuine piece of art. The fleeting exteriors of the dig site, the hotel entrance and the scenes in downtown Cairo provide just enough exotic credibility to avoid the claustrophobic staginess of Dracula. The interiors, including the expedition office at the start of the film, the museum, the hotel room, Whemple's study and Ardath Bey's chambers are all perfect; examples of an aesthetically-beautiful era preserved in the timeless amber of celluloid. Seeing a movie like this on the big screen is a real treat for anyone like me who loves to study the minutia of set decoration and production design. 

As if deliberately railing against Tod Browning's camera-bolted-down approach to Dracula, Freund exhibits considerable visual flair here. The scene in which Imhotep slowly opens his eyes, reaches for the Scroll and then slowly shambles unseen out of the room still elicits squirms, nervous chuckles and gasps. This is followed later on by a great flashback sequence which boasts an intense live burial and one of the first (and last) pre-Code Hollywood on-screen impalings.   

Freund keep his camera slinking around darkened museums, sweeping across dusty tombs and tilting over Imhotep's shoulder into his scrying pool. And that's good because the film feels a bit static at times with large swaths of expository dialogue to sit through. Personally this doesn't bother me at all since I find character development and lively dialogue to be a helluva lot more interesting then Micheal Bay-style pyrotechnics. But even I have to admit that The Mummy can feel a bit talky and pedestrian from time to time.  

Thank Ra then for Boris Karloff. By all accounts the horror icon absolutely despised the eight hour process that legendary makeup man Jack Pierce subjected him to in order to transform him into the mouldering mummy. Many speculate that's why Karloff only spends the first scene in full makeup and the rest of the film in his "unwrapped" state. Now some people might gripe that Karloff doesn't spend enough screen time in full mummy mode, but I'd much rather have Karloff talkative in lighter makeup then mute under a ton of cotton and spirit gum.

And make no mistake, he's downright fantastic here. With his hunched neck, deadpan expression and preternaturally-long limbs, Karloff haunts every scene he's in. Every time Freund goes in for a close-up of Karloff's dessicated visage and penetrating eyes the effect is still jarring. Drifting through the film like a tall, be-fezzed, ghoulish beanpole, you really get the impression that he'll crumble into dust if subjected to a strong gust of wind. This is belied by a commanding presence and a distinctive voice that has rarely been rivaled in cinema history.

Also noteworthy is the stunningly-gorgeous Zita Johann as Helen Grosvenor / Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon. Curiously in step with the movie's theme, her unique beauty is preserved here in celluloid amber for all eternity. Even though she spends large swaths of screen time under Imhotep's thrall, her hypnotic eyes and palpable confidence will draw you in whenever she's on screen. Bonus points: the men don't rescue her ultimately, she saves herself through the strength of her own convictions. Not to undercut this last point but the incredibly-daring pre-Code costume she wears at the climax of the film certainly adds to the film's "va-va, voom!" factor. 

Also notable is the omnipresent Edward Van Sloan as Dr. Muller. Some folks deride Sloan's earlier performances as sloth-like and self-conscious but I find his deliberate movements and enunciation to be oddly comforting. Despite the fact that his warnings sound completely whack-a-do, he drops these lines with such erudite precision that we have no trouble believing him. If only the other characters in the film were so insightful! Throughout the film he's a propulsive presence, constantly laboring to get the dimmer characters to catch up to him.     

Having seen the film recently as part of Cineplex's recent Halloween-themed The Wolf Man / The Mummy Double Feature I really feel blessed. If you can't get out to it then I highly recommend the recent fully-restored Blu-Ray release. The image quality is impeccable, giving this viewer the distinct impression that I was watching a recent experimental film that just so happens to employ all of the equipment, trappings and techniques from the late Twenties / early Thirties.

This film is a real gem and makes for a great family watch during this Halloween season! 
   Tilt: up.

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