Universal Studios Monster Movies – The Mummy (1932)
Before activities fully accelerate into the realms of madness – I’ve just had the Sundance schedule through and believe me my work is certainly cut out for me – I wanted to entomb another of my Universal creatures for your putrid benefaction, cleansing unhallowed ground before tomorrow night’s lip smacking devouring of The Evil Dead remake – groovy. Ominously hovering in the second tier of the immortal creature features, perhaps not as notorious as its previous ghoulish colleagues The Mummy nevertheless has its own cult following, and like me you may be surprised to excavate just how many spin-offs and sequels that the initial 1932 film spawned over the subsequent sand-choked decades. After Hammer’s flirting with Imhotep in the Sixties (this was always my favourite of that brief cycle) the premise was retooled as an action adventure series with the Stephen Somers helmed 1999 reimagined The Mummy which in itself has spawned its own cottage industry of instalments and direct to DVD fare, when current commentators bemoan the lack of originality it always gives me pause for thought because a) I’m usually one of those critics whom b) forgets that it was ever thus, that any popular premise, character or genre would always be flogged to undeath, and remakes and recycles have moved in their own particular revolutions since the industry began a century ago. Back in the 1930’s senior studio Satanist Carl Laemmle Jr. realised he had a winning formula on his hands after the success of the previous year’s Dracula and Frankenstein pictures, proving that there was a sustainable audience for material which lurked on the darker recess of the silver scream, and he enlisted the patiently professional Karloff for another tortuous schedule of make-up manipulation, firmly enshrining him as the face of Universal horror and a member of the immortal pantheon of cinema legends. Here’s some of the opening scene which is the high point of the movie, which for me the rest of the picture never quite excels;
Just to echo former comments ad nauseam it’s how that animation plays out in silence which makes it truly eerie, before the decibel deafening smothering of sound which now aligns every anxiety strewn visual with an audible shriek, for example the early word on the aforementioned The Evil Dead remake is to take headphones for the final half hour or so of carnage. Mining the continued fascination with all things hieroglyphic following the world-famous excavation of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922 – the cultural equivalent of the frigid, misogynistic Scandinavian crime procedurals of the noughties which can be detected across literature, TV and cinema – the film is less a straight out horror picture than a romantic mystery with soiled traces of the unearthly and uncanny, with Karloff’s granite Emperor rising from beyond the grave to seek his eternal bride. The film was directed by German expressionist cameraman par excellence Karl Freund, as was his idiom his prowling camera haunts ands peeks round the gloomy sets as they did in both Dracula and Frankenstein, when not claustrophobically idling in stuffy drawing rooms for stolidly directed dialogue scenes which lurch the mouldering plot along – Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann) is a young woman bearing a striking resemblance to Imhotep’s (Karloff’s) ancient bride, and after he is resurrected by tomb tampering colonists he takes human form and attempts to unshackle her from the wearisome chains of mortality, to mummify her corpse and return his beloved’s spirit using an ancient scroll as a matrimonial mantra.
As is occasionally the case the story behind the film is more interesting than the final product, with Karloff enduring possibly the most horrendous make-up endurance test in the history of the silver scream, all for an effect which is barely seen in those half glimpsed edits during the opening reincarnation. After a numbing eight hours of painstaking embalmment in gauze and lacquered with spirit gum they shot for seven hours, before taking a further two hours of extreme discomfort use to remove the constrictive cocoon – this puts my tedious commute into perspective. The disk has an appreciative half documentary on legendary make-up man Jack Pierce with the usual suspects offering their tributes – Greg Nicotero, Rick Baker, Tom Savini and others – alongside the usual sad revelation that Pierce passed away in relative obscurity after being fired by the philistine studio and barely making ends meet with TV work in the twilight of his career, before having his reputation resurrected by a new cult of cinephiles and industry inculcates who grew up on these pictures after seeing them on TV in the Sixties and Seventies. Main actress Zita Johan sounds like she was one of those amusing prima donna Thirties starlets who developed a curious affinity for the occult and uncanny as her career waned, an expatriate from the European theatre she looked down her nose at the movies, but remained in Hollywood to the end of her life – funny that.
The male lead David Manners really isn’t the most charismatic leading man, this is much more Karloff’s picture whom seizes the attention with his imperious pose and flawless command of English with an accent so plummy you can slather a duck in it, quite how an ancient reanimated corpse sounds like he was educated at 19th century Eton is beyond me but here we are. The film reverberates to stable mates Dracula’s structure and drive, sharing a screenwriter in the guise of John L. Balderston, both texts resting with an ancient monster seeking dominion over a enamoured female through the use of his devilish hypnosis, a slithering Svengali of the school of seduction. The desiccating plot points are rather muddled and the film limps around after that grotesquely groovy opening, it’s a little stale (apologies) and certainly not as purely iconic as its ghoulish forebears, although a later flashback to Imothep’s distant past has a dreamy charm which incants a reason to endure the minimal 73 minute run-time. As you may have gathered it’s not a favourite of mine but it is worth an hour of your precious time on this earth, if only as a context piece for the horrors to come. With no less than four sequels to graverob I’ve certainly got quite a schedule to get my teeth into, but I will posting much more capsule aligned material as I doubt even if I could spin out some of this rather formulaic brethren (which frequently re-employs the same footage the bloody cheapskates) out to anything over 500 words, but before that we still have some other big movies in the cycle to discuss. So now that we’ve banished this dusty specimen to the screaming abyss the path is clear for perhaps my favourite entry to the original Universal horror cycle – is that wedding bells I hear?