Judge Paul Corupe is still a little bummed that his toilet-paper mummy costume wasn't a big hit on Halloween.
Our review of The Mummy: Special Edition, published August 1st, 2008, is also available.
"Death and eternal punishment for anyone who opens this casket, in the name of Amon-Ra, the king of the gods!"
Unlike The Wolf Man, Dracula and Frankenstein—Universal's holy trinity of monster horror—The Mummy was not born of literature or folklore, but scraped and shuffled his way onto the big screen in the wake of a real, tragic event. Although Howard Carter's 1922 discovery of King Tutankhamen's sealed tomb is still considered one of the most important archeological discoveries of the 20th century, misfortune seemed to befall the crew when at least 25 of the diggers, archeologists, and guides who entered the tomb, including Lord Carnarvon, the man who funded the expedition, died shortly after. Today, their demises are commonly attributed to allergens spawned from the mummified food that Tut was buried with, but the media of the day sensationalized the story for all it was worth, blaming an unheeded ancient warning against desecrating the burial site.
Looking for a way to capitalize on Boris Karloff's rising star, Universal brought The Mummy to life just a decade after the discovery of Tut's tomb, at a time when Carter, a survivor of the "curse," was removing the final pieces from Egypt. While firmly within the familiar and creepy conventions of the Universal monster films, The Mummy is notable for exploiting the then-public fascination with Egyptology and the embellished occult curse, and it makes for one of the more memorable and effective horror films of the 1930s.
Universal's second wave of classic monster rereleases in the lauded "Legacy Collection" unearths the 1932 classic version of The Mummy for DVD aficionados yet again, along with its four inferior sequels—The Mummy's Hand, The Mummy's Tomb, The Mummy's Ghost, and The Mummy's Curse.
Facts of the Case
• The Mummy (1932)
• The Mummy's Hand (1940)
• The Mummy's Hand (1942)
• The Mummy's Ghost (1944)
• The Mummy's Curse (1944)
It wasn't until the four cheaply-made sequels to The Mummy—often referred to as the "Kharis" cycle—that tana leaves and shuffling creatures in dirty bandages became synonymous with mummy films. First time viewers of Karloff's portrayal of Imhotep are bound to be surprised with the grace and subdued terror of the original film, which is really less of a typical monster epic than it is a romantic thriller that just happens to feature a 3000-year-old couple.
The romantic overtones in The Mummy give it an undeniable kinship with Tod Browning's Dracula, but the similarities between these two pillars if Universal horror don't stop there. Not only was this film directed by Karl Freund, the accomplished cinematographer of the Lugosi classic, but astute viewers will even notice that the main title song, taken from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, is also used under the titles in Dracula. Add to that a plot in which the titular character is a secretly undead monster that wields great supernatural power, and The Mummy becomes a virtual retelling of the world's most famous vampire story, transplanted from the gothic castles of Transylvania to the ancient crypts of Egypt.
Boris Karloff only appears in mummy make-up for the first ten minutes of the film, in a simple yet amazing reanimation sequence proves to be one of the most chilling in any of the Universal creature films, if not in horror as a genre. Although his rebirth is only really hinted at with subtle movements by Karloff and sparse camerawork by Freund, Imhotep is able to cast his long shadow over the rest of the proceedings from just a few mumbled lines of scroll, a barely perceptible flicker of life, and a moldy handprint. By the time that the stoic Ardeth Bey makes his first appearance in the film, his reputation precedes him as a figure of evil incarnate. Of course, Bey was specifically created to showcase Karloff's talent, and this powerhouse of an opener is backed up by one of the master's best performances—truly the success of the film is almost wholly attributable to Karloff's stoic and restrained Bey, who absolutely seethes with repressed power. Freund does a fine job behind the camera as well, making the most of one particular close-up of Bey's eyes smoldering with hellfire; an image that is destined to stay with viewers long after the film has finished. Even though The Mummy as a film isn't quite as fascinating as James Whale's Frankenstein, Karloff's performance equals his haunting portrayal of the Monster in his earlier classic by bringing a bittersweet humanity to Imhotep and emphasizing the romantic nature of the everlasting love that Bey pursues at any cost.
The Kharis films that make up the rest of the content on this set didn't hit theaters until eight years after the original, and rarely rise above typical B-monster fare. Where the first film was more akin to Dracula, the sequels downplayed the romance and followed the lumbering, barbaric path of Frankenstein. Instead of embodying evil in these stories, Kharis is cast as a slave to the life-giving tana leaves, doled out by an unending and undeniably malevolent stream of Karnak priests. The ultimate effect of this mummy makeover is that the character becomes sympathetic not for the eternal love story that lies at the center of the first film, but as a gentle-hearted monster controlled by fiends—a far less complex and effective reading of the creature, and a disservice to the excellent first film.
Kharis's debut picture, The Mummy's Hand, is easily one of the better sequels. As the archeologists looking for Ananka, Dick Foran and Wallace Ford have an intermittently whimsical Abbot and Costello-like chemistry. It's a major violation of tone from the first film, but it occasionally works, and keeps the picture bouncing along until the ultimate and obvious conclusion. One of the most surprising aspects of this film is that there was no horror icon behind the moldy bandages; this time, the marauding mummy is animated by stuntman and B-western bit player Tom Tyler, who proves to be the creepiest creature of the whole Kharis run. With the help of a little post-production magic in which the Mummy's eyes were scribbled out with black ink, Tyler's Kharis has an eerie intensity missing from the remaining sequels. Unfortunately, the de-bandaged Tyler also gives the series some of its most embarrassing moments. Although each of the Mummy sequels pad out their barely 60 minute running times with footage recycled from the creatures' earlier adventures, none is quite as bad of an offender as The Mummy's Hand, which takes almost the entire flashback of Imhotep's transgressions from the original and clumsily replaces Boris Karloff's shots with inserts of Tom Tyler.
Lon Chaney Jr. may have been the worst Kharis, but it's not entirely his fault. The look of the Mummy progresses from Jack Pierce's meticulous make-up job for Karloff in the first film to the dirty bandage wrap of the second film, but by the time we get to the last three films, Chaney runs around in what looks like a pair of pants and a shirt accessorized with the pasted-on rags. Like Chaney's performance, The Mummy's Hand, The Mummy's Ghost, and The Mummy's Curse are all relatively interchangeable sequels, haphazardly directed by B-movie stalwarts who had never dipped into the horror genre before. Not only does Kharis run around in daylight and attack his victims with all the poise of a grandstanding professional wrestler, but on arriving on America, he also has to trade in his atmospheric crypt settings for run-down barns and canvas tents. Blame the budgets, if you must, but this Mummy is more likely to produce chuckles than chills.
The Mummy's Tomb has a well-staged climax to look forward to, and The Mummy's Curse garners some interest from its Cajun locale, but of the final three sequels, only The Mummy's Ghost offers something different and compelling. This installment benefits greatly from the addition of John Carradine's recognizable face as the mummy manipulator, plus it has one of the most shocking finales in all of Universal monsterdom; a curiously romantic conclusion that seems far more in keeping with the spirit of the original than the formulaic endings that dogged The Mummy's sequels and most of the latter entries in the Dracula and Frankenstein canons.
While the presentation of these films is acceptable considering their age, they don't quite make the grade in comparison to the other "Legacy" sets. Sadly, The Mummy fares the worst of the lot, with no perceptible improvement over Universal's original release. Detail and contrast are generally nice, but the print itself full of nicks and scratches, and even a few obvious splices. The mono soundtrack exhibits some crackling background noise, and the volume is recorded a little too low. I recommend turning on the subtitles so as not to miss any of the occasionally muddled dialogue. Given the improvement in clarity over VHS editions, I'm sure Universal used the best print they had, so it seems to me like the results are more of a disappointment than they are an opportunity to point fingers.
The quality improves somewhat when we get to the sequels, although it's important to keep in mind that these films came out a decade or so after the original. The soundtracks seem moderately cleaner, but still obviously limited in fidelity. Brightness and clarity tend to get better in each sequel up until The Mummy's Ghost, with better rendering of darker, shadowy sequences. The final film in the set, The Mummy's Curse is not quite as nice as the much-improved The Mummy's Ghost, but it is certainly adequate, especially since only the original film that will see multiple replays in most DVD players.
An adequate smattering of extras also gives life to this disc. Each film has been buried with its original theatrical trailer, and the first disc features a few extra treats. The "Mummy Archive" is a ten-minute tour of posters, press materials, and stills. Clocking in at 30 minutes is "Mummy Dearest: A Horror Tradition Unearthed" documentary is—again—a little lightweight in comparison to the other Universal monster docs, but Tod Browning expert and classic horror DVD mainstay David J. Skal provides some fascinating back story. Only sporadically informative, Paul M. Jensen's scholarly commentary is quite dry, mostly focused on how film technique is used to communicate certain concepts. It's like Jensen is reading directly off a script used in Film 101, and the track lacks the freshness of other "Legacy" collections. Still, there aren't any thinly-veiled Van Helsing ads to be seen, which definitely has to count in this release's favor.
While The Mummy is an essential Universal monster title, those who plan on picking up only a few "Legacy Collections" shouldn't slot this one too high on their lists. With silly sequels, and only an adequate presentation in comparison to the others collections, it's far from the best of the lot. However, those who know what to expect and those intent on buying all the titles should not hesitate in unwrapping this package immediately. Now that Universal has unleashed its six monsters in their original "Legacy" films on DVD, I'm curious to see if we'll get a Abbot and Costello Meet the Monsters: Legacy Collection to officially round out the collection.
Death and eternal punishment for all who resist the supernatural will of The Mummy!
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