It comes to life!
Riding on the coattails of the successful Frankenstein, Universal follows up with first the film in 1932 and then the DVD in 1999 of The Mummy. Cinematically superior to the prior films it is also the least horrific. Instead it is more of a supernatural romance and suspense film. An interesting and intriguing picture for Boris Karloff, it still doesn't engender the strong feelings I had for the big lug with the bolts in his neck. While Universal goes through all the right motions of making this a true special edition, it still doesn't stack up to Frankenstein as a disc either.
I'm happy to report this will not be a story of a film that almost didn't get made. This film was definitely going to be made, or something very like it. Universal had a big hit and basically the top spot in the new genre of horror films, and they needed to follow up on it. Boris Karloff was such a big star now that they dared bill him as "Karloff the Uncanny" for his next picture The Mummy. For the director they gave Karl Freund, the cinematographer of Der Golum and Dracula the nod for his debut. His expert knowledge of the use of a camera really shows in this film, and is in fact the best thing about it. Every shot is exquisite in its composition and the choice of remaining understated rather than flamboyant makes the film a work of art.
That isn't to say there aren't other bright spots, far from it. Both Karloff and his romantic interest (in both the far past and the present) Zita Yohann were very good. The restrained but deeply impressive performance of Karloff and the exotic beauty of Yohann both worked superbly. The supporting cast often shone as well, though sometimes I found the dialogue too over the top and dated even for me, an aficionado of classic film.
The film was also made to take advantage of the Egyptian craze that was still sweeping the world in the wake of the discovery of King Tutenkhamen's (King Tut's) tomb 10 years earlier. The press had kept alive the idea of the tomb's curse during this time in true tabloid tradition. So making a film about a mummy rising from the grave was a natural.
The story, somewhat familiar to those who have seen the 1999 version of The Mummy with Brendan Fraser, is that a priest in ancient Egypt named Imhotep has to watch in horror as his lover is executed, then he is mummified alive, with a curse upon him. There are few other consistencies in the two stories, but we can go from there. Moving up to the 1920s archaeologists have found Imhotep's remains, along with a small gold casket containing a scroll. When an impetuous young man reads from the scroll, Imhotep rises again. Some fantastic and tortuous makeup from Jack Pierce (Frankenstein) gives Karloff an incredible look, but remarkably, is largely wasted because of Freund's restraint. You merely see the face of the mummy, then an arm slowly coming down, then his hand reaching for the scroll, then two long bandages trailing out the door. I admire the restraint but have to wonder why Karloff was subjected to many hours of painful makeup when hardly any of it is seen. At any rate, Imhotep takes the scroll with which he will be able to raise his love from the dead as well.
Flash forward ten years, and two archaeologists are about to give up on finding anything, when a dark stranger in Egyptian garb comes in offering them the location of a tomb. He calls himself Ardeth Bey but we all know he's the Mummy. He shows them the location where his love Ankh-es-en-Amon (Yohann) lies, so they can do the work of bringing her to the surface. Bey's interest shifts, however, when he discovers the soul of his love has been reincarnated into the part- Egyptian British lady Helen Grosvenor who is also the twin in looks to Ankh-es-en-Amon. He is able to put her in trances where she speaks ancient Egyptian as proof. Now his goal is to use the scroll, after killing Helen, to reanimate her as an immortal mummy like himself. Trying to stop him are Edward Van Sloan (Frankenstein, Dracula) and the man who loves Helen, Frank Whemple (David Manners). But Bey has telepathic powers that can kill a man just by closing his fist and letting his eyes glow…watch out!
The Mummy has been called a masterpiece of restraint, and I think that's true. Karloff's severe look and his sonorous voice could easily have taken things over the top, so Karl Freund often has him standing stock still and speaking slowly. This restraint is largely what takes this film out of strictly horror and makes it more of a stalker suspense film. Some will argue that this makes it the great classic it is, while to me it was just a bit too slow.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Since I spent the last section singing the praises of Freund's work, let me put his negatives here. For reasons unknown, he took an intense disliking to Zita Yohann, and expressed it in some pretty severe ways. From the petty stuff of not allowing her a director's chair he moved to trying to get her to quit the picture by telling her she would have to appear topless in it. She got the better of him by saying she would do it if he could get it past the censors, which of course he could not. From there he got much worse. After working her mercilessly up to 20 hours a day for days on end, he made her get into an area with unrestrained lions for a scene that never even made it into the film. She said that she was so tired that the lions sensed no fear and left her alone. Was he trying to get her killed? Some say yes.
Many aspects of the film did not work for me, which is almost blasphemy when talking about such a classic. I'm disregarding the over the top style of the time. But the relationship between Whemple and Helen Grosvenor was completely unbelievable and unsupported. A woman he had just met, who gave him nothing to truly encourage his attraction, he moves right into the role as her love and will risk all to save her, for that same love we never saw develop. For a slow, intense buildup with the Ardeth Bey storyline, it moved into a messy, quick climax at the end. Facts seemed a bit too conveniently remembered or discovered throughout. Well, if you never get another review from me you'll know I've been struck dead by the gods of film criticism and hopefully someone will find a scroll with which they can raise me from the dead too.
It's a bit tough and some would say ludicrous putting the description of the disc here. For I've reviewed a lot of discs much worse than this one. It really is a special edition. It's just that, while on paper everything you want is here, much of it is not that great. The video quality was not nearly up to the good work done on Frankenstein. The contrast flickered, with lines appearing and nicks and blips throughout. Universal should have done a much better job with the restoration. It's as good as this film has been in recent history, but that isn't saying much.
The sound is much worse than the video. The dialogue is muffled and indistinct, and in a mono track of an old film the only thing you ask of the soundtrack is clear dialogue. Instead of truly cleaning up the sound, Universal just lowered the gain of the high end to attempt to cover up the hiss and pops, which resulted in muddying the whole track.
The extras are a high point on the disc, but should have been better. The best of the lot is the documentary "Mummy Dearest" (groan) with film historian David J. Skal. It was light-hearted but informative. Unfortunately it only lasted 30 minutes. I wish the space given to the commentary track could have been used for a longer documentary. For the commentary by expert Paul Jensen was nearly too dry to endure. There was no pleasure in sitting through a monotone rendition of every detail of how every shot was placed waiting for the occasional nugget of interest not covered in the documentary. It took me about 6 hours to get through the commentary track on a film that lasts 74 minutes, not counting the times I fell asleep. The rest of the extras were fine; what you would expect. Film Highlights, production notes, the 1932 trailer, cast and crew bios and filmographies were also included, and help make this disc a real special edition. Weblinks for your DVD-ROM are also included.
Fans of the old Universal horror films have possibly already bought the disc. Those who haven't should probably give it a rental. People not already fans of the genre should rent or buy Frankenstein first and then decide if The Mummy is worth a rental tryout. On paper it's a great special edition, just in the execution by Universal it doesn't live up to my expectations from their prior monster classics discs.
All the actors and crew are dead, so they're off the hook. Karloff remains in my high esteem as an actor with this film. Universal should know better than to release the film with this state of video and audio, and is given a five-year sentence in which they must do a complete restoration of several of their monster films before release.
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