Skip to main content

Do you have to open graves to find girls to fall in love with?

The Mummy
(1932)

(SPOILERS) Even though retellings of Dracula and Frankenstein have been more ubiquitous over the years, it feels as if The Mummy has been granted the most prolific attention of late, probably because the Brendan Fraser Indiana Jones version, while mostly not very good, was very successful, and the recent Tom Cruise edition, while also not very good, wasn’t nearly successful enough, bringing Universal’s "Dark Universe" crashing down around its ears. This original iteration is very modest in both ambition and intent, but boasts craftsmanship in key areas that ensures it stands the test of time rather better than some of its Universal Horror stablemates.

Director Karl Freund, cinematographer on Dracula (and uncredited director by some accounts) opts for restraint when it comes to the chill factor – we don’t even see the mummified Imhotep (Boris Karloff) again after the first ten minutes, a decision that couldn’t possibly be countenanced today – but he offers a pervasive, compelling atmosphere. This is very much a warped love story, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake informing the doomed romanticism of the proceedings. A further difference to later iterations is that while Ardath Bey (Imohtep minus the swaddling bands) is single-minded in his quest for his lost love as embodied by Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann, all wild eyes and passionate looks), the reincarnation – he believes, and it’s fairly convincing on both sides – of Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon, as antagonist he’s also given the voice and person of a bona fide protagonist; Arnold Vosloo in the 1999 version is quite ineffectual by comparison. Indeed, the biggest mark against him is that his proposed means of blissful reunion is on the batty side (rather Bride of Frankenstein-like, his mate must be rendered like him, so killed, mummified and resurrected, which Helen, understandably, blanches at when it comes down to brass tacks).

While bandaged Imhotep can’t hope to carry the kind of iconic legacy of his Frankenstein – even though the mummy makeup job by Jack Pierce is nothing short of astounding – for my money, Karloff is a much more engaging presence here, and thus ensures the film is more effective than Frankenstein overall. Freund avoids the cop out of having to turn the villain (the baron) into the hero, and it isn’t really a problem that Helen’s suitor Frank Whemple (David Manners) is utterly ineffectual (“You know, I’d have liked Egypt better if I’d met you there”); it merely underlines that, for all his foibles, Imhotep is the guy (“I have never felt so alive” she tells him). Karloff’s performance is fascinating; he towers over his co-stars (courtesy of lifts) and is all overcast reserve (“Your pardon, I don’t like to be touched. An eastern prejudice" he advises, refusing a handshake from Arthur Byron’s Sir Joseph).

Lead actress Johann’s short-lived screen career was apparently down to being difficult to work with (she ended up concentrating on theatre instead). For this, her third role, she apparently went a bit method, steeping herself in the occult to get into the part (she was a dabbler anyway). If Helen’s required to yo-yo a bit too obviously between overcome and normal repose at times, Johann’s every bit as necessary to the film’s success as Karloff. Everyone else, though, even more than Dracula or Frankenstein, is disposable.

Pauline Kael was positively delirious in her praise of The Mummy, referring to its “long, quiet, ominous scenes” and how “the lighting is so masterly and the moods are so effectively sustained that the picture gives one prickly sensations”; “it’s silly but it’s also disturbingly beautiful”. I wouldn’t be quite so effusive, since it’s clear that Freund isn’t much interested in anything that isn’t Imhotep and Helen, and the ancient Egypt flashbacks, while engrossing aren’t remotely transportive (one such does feature a gruesome bit of gore with a soldier skewered by a spear, though). But the film has something; indeed, one might wonder if the premise wasn’t lifted for Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (“Love Never Dies”), in which Vlad’s beloved Elisabeta is posited as reincarnated in the form of Mina Harker, were it not itself taking its cues from Dan Curtis’ Richard Matheson-scripted 1973 TV movie with Jack Palance (so I guess the finger points at Matheson).

The Mummy was, of course, Universal’s first self-originated monster, albeit it bears certain similarities to Conan Doyle’s The Ring of Thoth (crucially, though, there’s no mummy on the rampage there, or even one definitively revivified). Other than a ten-years-earlier lead-in section – thus couching itself in escalating untowardness; Robert Holmes’ Doctor Who story Pyramids of Mars did something not altogether dissimilar, albeit over a span of months rather than years – the picture was set in the present, and it’s easy to see how it has been hugely influential genre-wise. The discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb was a direct inspiration to producer Carl Laemmle, Jr, but the lure of “noble” archaeology (rather than of the plundering and desecration kind) has since fed into Indiana Jones and its ilk and fermented the ideal period for supernatural sensations on the big screen.

There have been criticisms of The Mummy’s cultural cynicism and caricaturing, but the weak-minded, easily influenced Nubian servant (Noble Johnson) dates the movie more obviously than the kinds of Egyptian tropes that have been common even to more recent iterations. As for its legacy, the moderation on display may explain the lack of immediate sequels until more traditionally scary rampager Kharis arrived in 1940. Tellingly, though, no one’s really waxing lyrical about those pictures now.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Once that first bullet goes past your head, politics and all that shit just goes right out the window.

Black Hawk Down (2001)
(SPOILERS) Black Hawk Down completed a trilogy of hits for Ridley Scott, a run of consistency he’d not seen even a glimmer of hitherto. He was now a brazenly commercial filmmaker, one who could boast big box office under his belt where previously such overt forays had seen mixed results (Black Rain, G.I. Jane). It also saw him strip away the last vestiges of artistic leanings from his persona, leaving behind, it seemed, only technical virtuosity. Scott was now given to the increasingly thick-headed soundbite (“every war movie is an anti-war movie”) in justification for whatever his latest carry-on carried in terms of controversial elements, and more than happy to bed down with the Pentagon (long-standing collaborators with producer Jerry Bruckheimer) to make a movie that, while depictinga less than auspicious intervention by the US military (“Based on an Actual Event” is a marvellous catch-all for wanton fabrication), managed to turn it into a parade of heroes pe…

To defeat the darkness out there, you must defeat the darkness inside yourself.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)
Easily the best of the Narnia films, which is maybe damning it with faint praise. 

Michael Apted does a competent job directing (certainly compared to his Bond film - maybe he talked to his second unit this time), Dante Spinotti's cinematography is stunning and the CGI mostly well-integrated with the action. 

Performance-wise, Will Poulter is a stand-out as a tremendously obnoxious little toff, so charismatic you're almost rooting for him. Simon Pegg replaces Eddie Izzard as the voice of Reepicheep and delivers a touching performance.
***

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…