Judge Christopher Kulik is so relieved this triple-dip of the horror classic wasn't cursed.
Our review of The Mummy: The Legacy Collection, published November 9th, 2004, is also available.
"He…he…he went for a little walk! You should have seen his face!"
When I visited Universal Studios last year, one of the best rides in the park was "The Revenge of the Mummy." When the tour guide asked us what we thought, I said, "I liked it, except I kind of wish it had one—-at least one—-still of Boris Karloff." The guide and several others in the group actually agreed with me, stipulating that none of this modern Mummy malaise would exist if not for the original 1932 classic.
Admittedly, I got a kick out of the 1999 remake with Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz (not as much for the sequel). Whether fans of the new franchise want to admit it or not, the original still packs a wallop after all these years. Being the third time The Mummy has been released on DVD, is this new package worth upgrading? Or is it simply a shameless triple-dip courtesy of Universal?
Facts of the Case
In 1921, a group of British archaeologists in Cairo discover Imhotep (Boris Karloff, Frankenstein), a 3700-year-old Egyptian priest wrapped in mummied swabs. They also unearth a copper-and-gold box, with an inscription reading: "Death, eternal punishment for anyone who opens this casket, in the name of Aman-Ra, the King of the Gods."
Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher, The Undying Monster), the young member of the group, is anxious to open the casket, but Dr. Muller (Dracula) seriously doesn't think it's a good idea. Once Dr. Muller goes outside to talk to a colleague, Norton takes his chance, opens the box and finds the Scroll of Toth, a long document written entirely in hieroglyphics. Within moments, the unthinkable happens as Imhotep opens his eyes, rises from his coffin, grabs the Scroll, and departs—-leaving the freaked-out Norton alone and laughing incessantly.
Ten years later: a new group of archaeologists come to Egypt. After they talk about a young man who died laughing in a straight jacket (take a wild guess), they have a visitor in the form of Ardeth Bay (who is really Imhotep in disguise). He wishes to give them "the greatest find since Tutankhamen": princess Anck-es-en-Aman. Still, his true plan lies in reincarnating his ancient love, but he requires a living, breathing human so that it may be injected with the spirit of the dead Princess. Enter Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann, Raiders of the Living Dead), a stunning beauty who soon becomes possessed and enchanted by the fiendish pharaoh.
In the early 1930s, Universal was the unequivocal king of horror films. Starting with Dracula and Frankenstein, the studio was hell bent on horrifying filmgoers with tales involving chilling characters with special powers. While the previous two were based on legendary novels, The Mummy was actually original…albeit with several overtones of Dracula. In fact, it's really a love story masquerading as a horror film, focusing on a man wishing only to be reunited with his former lover…even if it involves murdering a few people.
The discovery of King Tut's tomb in 1921 was really The Mummy's inspiration. However, the original written treatment was about an alchemist who is able to live over centuries to be with his true love. Unfortunately—-or fortunately—-Nina Wilcox Putnam's story was given a mummified makeover by John L. Balderston, who was also responsible for writing Dracula and Frankenstein. Consequently, the finest cinematographer of the day was hired to direct: German-born Karl Freund. Boasting a visually dazzling style in his directorial debut, Fruend brings a hypnotic, dream-like, German Expressionistic atmosphere which resonates from the first frame to last. However, he wasn't exactly the most likeable man in the world and Zita Johann (a staunch feminist) viewed him as a fat, incompetent pig.
A celebrated stage actress, Johann only made seven films for Hollywood from 1932 to 1934, with The Mummy standing as her sole venture into blockbuster glory. Filmed during the pre-Code era, it's hardly surprising that Johann shows off as much acting talent as flesh in her sexy, seductive role. What's shocking is the fact Freund really wanted to shoot some sequences of her nude to reduce her to scapegoat status; not one to be humiliated, she actually agreed provided the censors kept their scissors in their desks. In any case, it's a fine, occasionally overlooked turn in horror cinema, particularly since the role doesn't reduce itself to just screams.
Aside from Freund, two other men would give The Mummy its everlasting legacy. One of them was Jack Pierce, whose extraordinary, eye-popping makeup is something to savor and swoon over. Reportedly, Pierce spent hours plastering spirit gum, caladium, and cotton onto the film's star, resulting in the first ten minutes being some of the most memorable in movie history. Throughout the remainder of the movie, Karloff sports a face made up of ghastly wrinkles and pruned expressions; along with his glowing eyes, it remains an effective horror image ingrained in people's memories, even when this film was made decades before CGI and modern-day make-up "tricks."
Still, the real marvel of The Mummy is the lead performance by Karloff the Uncanny. Some champion Frankenstein as Karloff's best work, and even I cannot deny his role as Mary Shelley's creepy creation is appropriately iconic. However I think the actor's finest hour is playing this borderline-sympathetic lover who wants nothing more than to be with his long lost Princess. As Frankenstein's monster, Karloff was somewhat restricted in terms of dialogue and motivation; here, we actually hear his voice, which is brilliantly raspy, yet still possessing an ancient Egyptian aura. It's extremely easy to see why he became a horror legend, literally taking up the reigns of Lon Chaney right after his death.
Now it's time to pose the ultimate question: Is this new DVD package worth buying? Or is it simply a triple-dip marketing tool so that Universal can get more people in the theater to see the new Mummy movie? The plug factor is certainly evident (considering a free cinema ticket is provided), but the two-disc set offers more material than one might think, overall eclipsing the 2004 Legacy Collection set.
Like the previous DVD releases, The Mummy is presented in its original, 1.33:1 full frame. The quality has always run hot-and-cold, with scratches and pixel farts evident in almost every single scene. After comparing this new "digitally mastered" picture with the older copies, there really isn't all that much of an improvement. That being said, there was at least some effort put into the restoration, and I'm sure Universal would have done more with the film if they could. Truth is, many of the age defects look permanent, which some will think is a shame; as for me, I actually love the movie's creaky, ancient look as it only adds to the story and material.
On the audio front, we are treated to the same old Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono track. However, dialogue did seem a bit more clear and copasetic this time around, with few hisses, pops and cracks (which plagued the original 2000 release). The eerie—-and unaccredited—-score by James Dietrich will probably never sound better, and subtitles are once again provided in English, French, and Spanish.
As far as bonus features, Universal has definitely gone the extra mile here. About half of the extras have been transported from the two previous DVDs, including a 30-minute documentary ("Mummy Dearest," hosted by film historian Rudy Behlmer), an audio commentary by Paul M. Jenson, numerous archives (i.e. posters and stills), and theatrical trailers for The Mummy and the later Kharis series. The documentary remains a satisfactory overview of the film's history, with fascinating stories provided by historians like David J. Skal, and cast/crew descendents, including Karloff's daughter Sara. Jenson's commentary is a bit on the dry 'n' dull side, despite the submission of tons of information; even more disappointing is much of what he says is echoed in the documentary.
The sole new addition to Disc One is a newly recorded audio commentary with makeup master Rick Baker, Universal horror expert/filmmaker Scott Essman, screenwriter/film historian Steven Haberman, massive fan Bob Burns, and sculpter/Jack Pierce devotee Brent Armstrong. Surpassing Jensen's solo track in every way, these guys are much more entertaining and insightful, proving once again that multiple-participant commentaries are way more fun. All have a great admiration for the product, resulting in a compelling discussion involving a little bit of everything, even if it still repeats info you've already heard.
On Disc Two, we are treated to three additional documentaries:
"He Who Made Monsters" (25 min.)—-A loving piece devoted to Jack Pierce, known by many as the "father of the Universal monster." While his ether-laden techniques were primitive at the time, they were also groundbreaking, so much that he deserves more recognition than Max Factor (who also worked on early '30s films), who didn't contribute near as much to the table. A must see for film buffs.
"Unraveling the Legacy of the Mummy" (8 min.)—-This disappointing featurette seems to be a splicing together of interviews from all the new Mummy DVDs, with Stephen Sommers and Brendan Fraser talking about bringing the Imhotep story to the 21st century. Short and painless, but ultimately unnecessary.
"Universal Horror" (95 min.)—-The big tamale of the package (next to the actual film of course), is this 1988 documentary directed by Kevin Brownlow which has appeared on other Legacy series DVDs. Still, its inclusion is more than welcome, and its content is exceptional.
So, is this package worth buying? It depends. If you're seeking an improvement in audio/visual quality, it's not really worth it. However, the awesome extras give this DVD a significant boost over the previous Legacy Collection (which had the four films in the "Kharis" series, despite the fact they really had nothing to do with the Karloff classic).
It's rather sad when most people think of The Mummy they only think of the 1999 update and its sequels. As one member of the new commentary says, "We need to continue to celebrate these films and keep them in the forefront of popular culture." Ditto to that. If you haven't experienced the true Mummy masterpiece, you owe it to yourself to check it out now. Trust me…Jet Li can wait.
The film is free live on through the ages. Universal is hereby acquitted for giving us a packed DVD, even if the technical aspects remain flawed.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Film Historian Paul M. Jenson
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