Monday, October 03, 2011

“Your pardon, I dislike to be touched! An…Eastern prejudice.”

Once more its that time of year again. Dead leaves flying through the air, pumpkin ale flowing through taps, and nothing but horror-related stuff here at Castle RMWC. That’s right, its back for a third go, and hopefully it’ll be more like the first year and not like last year. So, where do we begin? Universal’s always a good place to start.

Capitalizing on the popularity of the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922 (and the mystique about the curse which supposedly claimed the lives of several members of the discovering expedition), Universal cast Boris Karloff for a 1932 movie featuring, what else? The Mummy.

So we’re in Egypt in 1921 and an expedition discovers the mummy of Imhotep, a pretty big deal back in the day who apparently did something bad to get himself mummified alive and buried with a curse over his head. A foolish young archeologist deciphers the Scroll of Thoth and reads it out loud, awakening Imhotep, who grabs the scroll and shuffles off. The archeologist goes mad from the experience and we flash forward to “now.” That took all of six minutes.

Ten years later, Imhotep (as “Ardeth Bey”), cleaned up and now fluent in English, arranges for the discovery of the tomb of Princess Ancksenamen, his long lost love. He finds that she has been reincarnated as a modern woman, Helen Grosvenor, and he sets his eyes on her. Trying to oppose him are archeologist Frank Whemple (who’s taken with Helen himself) and Dr. Muller, an expert on Egyptian occultism.

Imhotep/"Ardeth Bey": The real draw here is Boris Karloff. He just dominates the screen whenever he’s on. His performance as “Ardeth Bey” is incredibly restrained and subdued, as befit’s a man who’s body is shriveled, dried, and fragile. It also helps that Imhotep is an incredibly tragic figure. Sure he’s the villain of the piece, but everything he does he does for love. In life, it was a sad, desperate love to revive his beloved which led to his condemnation to his fate. After his revival, all he wants to do is be reunited with her, first with her mummy and then with her reincarnation. Naturally, he goes about it in a horribly creepy way that involves hypnosis and murder (and the wearing of a dapper fez). He’s fantastically sympathetic.

See? Dapper

Helen Grosvenor: Zita Johann is suitably exotic looking and kind of pulls off the half-Egyptian thing to her character. She’s likable and rather active in trying to figure out just what’s going on with her. Definitely one of the better Universal Horror heroines.
Frank Whemple: David Manners is the male hero and about as generic as other contemporary male heroes in horror films. Frank is the son of the leader of the previous expedition, Dr. Joseph Whemple, and his dad knows that the Scroll of Thoth is a mysterious and potentially dangerous artifact. Frank doesn’t do much except fall in love with Helen.

Dr. Muller: Edward Van Sloan, once again playing a professor type. He does it well, so I’m not complaining. This time he’s also Helen’s doctor, which enables him to keep an eye on the plot after the intro sequence.

Interestingly enough, the famous “mummy” look by Jack Pierce is only used in the beginning, where Imhotep is found in the 1920s and inadvertently reanimated by the Scroll of Thoth. The scene itself is quite effective where little is actually shown of the mummy. The rest of the time he wears makeup that gives his skin a dried, drawn look without being too obviously undead.

The other real thing to note is the direction and cinematography of Karl Freund, who was a successful director of photography before becoming a rather unsuccessful director. Freund worked on a hell of a lot of projects, including Metropolis and the 1931 Dracula, but he was only a film director for a few years during the 30s. Shame, really. Set design, lighting, and so on are all very well done AND the film makes extensive use of a steadi-cam, which wasn’t all that common in 1932.

Screenplay by John L. Balderston from a story by Nina Wilcox Putnam & Richard Schayer. The storyline borrows more than a few elements from Universal’s Dracula (professor-type character, ancient, foreign villain, hypnotism, etc), but there is significantly more tragedy involved. Imhotep was cursed because his great crime (necromancy) was committed in the name of love, which instantly adds sympathy to the character.

Also of interest is that the other male characters are actually rather ineffective. Dr. Miller provides a lot of exposition and Frank is really rather useless aside from falling in love with Helen. The real protagonist and hero is Helen, and aside from frequently falling under Imhotep’s mental influence, the resolution ultimately comes down to her actions. That’s actually pretty interesting, considering the times.

Original music by an unaccredited James Dietrich, and the soundtrack is really quite good. Full of intrigue and romantic cues, it fits the proceedings excellently. They also use Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake music for the intro (as did Dracula).

The Mummy truly is a fantastic work of cinema. Moody and atmospheric, it has an interesting etherealness to the proceedings and follows a methodical, measured pace that actually works quite well. Karloff in particular shines as the main character, and while the mummy wrappings disappear after a few seconds of screen time, Karloff himself remains magnetic on the screen. Which is a shame, since he’s got nothing to do with any of the sequels. Totally recommended.

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