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An enduring screen monster, the revived Egyptian mummy has been around since the beginning of the movies. Before the opening of Tut's tomb in the early 1920s there was a novel by Bram Stoker, and even Ernst Lubitch made a 1918 mummy-oriented movie with Pola Negri and Emil Jannings.
Although Hammer's initial Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing The Mummy is a classic in its own right, the best mummy monster movie is Karl Freund's original Universal effort. Everything about the film is superb; although it lacks some of the appeal of the Frankenstein and Dracula concepts, artistically it may be their superior.
Universal's DVD marketers continue their generosity to monster fans with a Legacy Collection of their mummy series, the Karloff classic and the mostly-pedestrian string of 1940s sequels. They're so short, they all fit on three sides of two discs, along with a repeated docu from the first release of The Mummy, when just the one title came for the same price.
The disc set came out last October but Savant's review copy didn't materialize until now, so for some viewers this review will be a lot of old news. I'll try to stick with my thoughts on the films themselves.
The Mummy is one of Laemmle's first followups to Boris Karloff's triumph in Frankenstein and was approached as high-quality filmmaking. After ten years of frivolous haunted house movies, the horror craze practically became Universal's proprietary domain, and the popularity of their genre efforts coincided with the darkest days of the depression. There are a lot of thoughtful theories on this (I find David J. Skal's the most compelling) but in the end it must be concluded that audiences wanted fantasy diversions from the economic despair of the time. Even morbid ones would suffice.
Unlike Frankenstein and Dracula, The Mummy was more or less a cinematic concoction in the mold of great silent romances. The threat this time wasn't a fiend with super-powers or a blasphemous man-made human, but instead the long-dormant curse of a forgotten religion. Ancient Egyptian gods reasserted their terrifying powers in the modern world. Cruel and implacable (though no moreso than the Old Testament's Jehovah), Isis and Osiris are outraged at the defiance of a lovesick priest who breaks the laws of life and death. The love of Imhotep (Karloff the Uncanny) for the dead princess Ankesen-Amon survives centuries of sleep. With his tomb opened, the Mummy assumes a new identity as Ardath Bey and works to seduce young Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), the spiritual reincarnation of his lost love. He has Ankesen-Amon's mummified corpse; by killing Helen in a magical ceremony, he can reunite body and soul and complete the crime of love he started four thousand years ago.
It's especially good that The Mummy was produced before the Catholic Legion of Decency's production code curbed Hollywood's more adventurous themes. 1932 saw the release of some of the genre's most potentially offensive movies. The bluenoses saw Freaks as the pinnacle of Bad Taste. The Island of Lost Souls was about atrocious experiments in vivisection in which Charles Laughton chortled over the idea of mating a humanoid panther woman with the handsome hero. Rouben Mamoulian's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde stressed the story's erotic component. Robert Florey's Murders in the Rue Morgue brought in weird tortures of women, while Bela Lugosi contemplated mating them with apes.
The Mummy captures a sepulchral tone by using stasis as a metaphor for death. In his mummy state Imhotep barely moves, and Karl Freund's direction stresses tiny nightmarish details over anything that might make the mummy seem alive. We see one baleful eye open, a dusty hand hovering over a parchment on a desk, and only two trailing bits of rag as Imhotep walks away; it's good that Jack Pierce's makeup was immortalized in stills because we never really see it in motion. Karloff gets to use his acting skill when Imhotep becomes Ardath Bey, the quiet schemer who easily fools his English adversaries. Several closups of Bey using his hypnotic powers are accomplished with a static image, an animated still that emphasizes Karloff's glowing eyes. That sight, combined with the frightening music must have sent 1932 audiences into a panic.
Ardath Bey's seduction of Helen stays on an ethereal plane and is visually inoffensive, but it's still primarily about necrophilia. Bey is a corpse (another superb makeup job) trying to convince a spiritually sensitive young woman to surrender to a supernatural impulse within her. Under his influence she makes contact with Ankesen-Amon's soul within her own, and is tempted by Ardath Bey's promise of a paradisical afterlife. A horrible death is a part of the bargain, but what's a moment of agony when one can gain the cosmos?
Ardath Bey's cool supernatural liquid television lets us all see the flashback of his supreme sacrifice for love, shot with an interestingly antique silent movie technique. Bey finds that Helen's willingness to cooperate fades the closer she gets to actually going through with the love pact. Dullard boyfriend David Manners no longer looks so unattractive after Helen gets a look at Bey's knives and the embalming vat being prepared by servant Noble Johnson. In the end it comes down to straps and restraints, with Bey promising Helen that everything will be okay and she'll soon be thanking him. But in a wonderfully effective twist, Helen appeals directly for the mercy of the Egyptian gods ... the ones Ardath Bey offended in the first place.
The Mummy still has plenty of dated acting and dull dialogue scenes, as the main plotline sticks with the clueless Europeans' slow progress in understanding what's going on. Zita Johann is certainly exotic enough and her mannered acting eventually wins our sympathy, even with some of the terrible lines she has to say. Karloff's faltering voice and imploring eyes bring dusty, moldy life to the bizarre romantic concepts that hover menacingly over the film's ordinary content.
Universal blessed their first Dracula and Frankenstein discs with lengthy docus organized by David J. Skal. The Mummy has a fine commentary by Paul M. Jensen but the docu this time is less well appointed, probably for budgetary reasons. There's also less to say about Imhotep than there is about Dracula or Frankenstein's monster because of the lack of a literary background. The experts assembled on screen actually interviewed stars like Johann, but their reportage is limited to what sound like too much publicity reportage - Johann the actress was an enthusiast of spiritualism. Rick Baker is on hand to praise Jack Pierce's makeup work, some of the best in movie history, but hard details on the long-ago production are scarce. The second part of the story zips through the rest of the Mummy series, with host Rudy Behlmer (a truly worthy film historian in his own right) made to read from a script peppered with Mummy jokes.
All four of the Universal Mummy sequels are here on two sides of a single disc; superior encoding and their brief average length keep them looking sharp, better than the pricey old laserdisc set from the 1990s.
Starting with The Wolf Man, Universal revisited their monster shows, eventually turning them into a constant flow of mid-range melodramas with a quality level substantially above the flat-footed horror competition from studios like Monogram and PRC. With film reissues the only known commercial outlet for library titles at the time, front-office planning placed efficient and cheap production over any other concern. The Mummy series ended up on the lower end of the quality spectrum, presided over by an executive used to grinding out series Westerns. Actually, for many of the staff the Mummy was a step up; even further down the status pole were the Inner Sanctum mysteries and the Jungle Woman movies.
It's a pity that the series didn't work harder to create some kind of internal story continuity. The first sequel organized the story as an adventure with a new expedition (hero, sidekick, girlfriend, girlfriend's quaint father) stumbling across a Mummy and unleashing a terrible curse.1 Just as Curt Siodmak invented a new mythology for the Wolf Man, the Mummy was given a new twist: to function, he had to drink a serum derived from Tana leaves.
Some of the sequels tried to reassert the mad-love-across-the-ages theme. The new mummy movies split the monster character in to an Ardath Bey type (Eduardo Cianelli, George Zucco, Turhan Bey and even John Carradine) and an Imhotep mummified boogeyman, now known as Kharis. Kharis' love for the princess (usually simplified to the name Ananka) figures in there somewhere, but because he can't express it in words, it never really connects. The 40s mummy is just a hulking strangler carrying out the bidding of his priest masters. They either keep ordering Kharis to kill with the promise of Ananka as a reward, or cruelly use him while coveting the attractive new carriers of Ananka's soul, Universal starlets Peggy Moran, Elyse Knox, Virginia Christine (yay!) and Ramsay Ames. Evelyn Ankers must have found a way to opt out of these movies.
The plots are repetitive and the monster threat is mostly reduced to a banal series of murders. In The Mummy's Hand, Kharis is played by Tom Tyler, the unlucky bad guy gunned down by John Wayne at the end of Stagecoach. As that story takes place in Egypt, it at least has some atmosphere, including an elaborate set left over from a James Whale film. Tyler's mummy retains the static nature of Karloff's original mummy, that was never actually a physical threat to anyone. Kharis walks oh-so-slowly dragging one lame foot, with one hand upraised ready to strangle his next victim. These victims are so frightened, they stand still and wait to be strangled; with only a couple of exceptions, Kharis attacks at a snail's pace.
Lon Chaney (without the Jr.) gets top billing in the last three features. He makes for a bloated, dumpy-looking well-fed mummy. It's always been reported that Chaney was doubled in many angles, which is easy to believe considering how Kharis seems to change shape from shot to shot. Chaney wasn't very happy the roles he was assigned around this time and the non-speaking Mummy had to be rock bottom for him. And he wasn't interested in the kind of dedication required to let Jack Pierce work on him for hours. Univeral should have worked out a deal where some stuntman wearing a Chaney life mask under his facial bandages could do all the work, while Chaney collected a paycheck for the use of his name. Either that, or give Chaney a second role to play so he'd be more interested in slapping on the bandages for days at a time.
True, some of the closups look good. John Fulton optically darkened Kharis' eyes in some scenes, which wasn't particularly effective, but perhaps 1940s horror fans were scared anyway. What scuttled the hope for any sustained thrills was the lack of atmosphere. The rest of the sequels took place in small American towns, and Kharis just didn't look very frightening walking down backlot streets where we'd expect him to be foiled by barking dogs or hit by a late-night drunken driver. The Mummy's Curse found a way to transplant Kharis to the deep south, as had been done to similar non-effect in Robert Siodmak's Son of Dracula. Some of the sequels use day-for-night photography to show Kharis shambling through the shrubberies, further reducing the atmospherics.
There is somewhat of a continunity to the priest characters. Zucco takes over for Ciannelli and works with Turhan Bey (then a short-lived romantic star), and Carradine comes up last to take official responsibility for doling out the tana leaves. Of course, in college in the early 70s, we joked that the life-giving Tana leaves were marijuana. Any kind of dope humor was popular back then.
With all those eager, underused stuntmen on the payroll, the falls and fights in the Mummy movies are rather good, although stock footage from the original Mummy was repeated more than once, including the entire Imhotep flashback. But in general I have to say that unless one is a John Carradine or Lon Chaney Jr. completist, the mummy movies tend to mush together in the memory.
... with one nostalgic exception.
Savant got hip to Uni's monsters in the third grade, about 1962, a time when both youth culture and suburban living were much more sheltered from the facts of life. I learned all my monster trivia and vital facts from other kids at school (public school, of course) and was entranced by Aurora's monster models. So when LA's tv stations started showing the 'classics' I watched in rapt attention. The Mummy's Ghost came on one day and I was excited to be enough "in the know" to predict what the Tana leaves were about, etc. The heroine Amina is put through the ceremony to make her one of the living dead. Kharis carries her into the woods, the hills behind Universal City, I suppose. The hero is way behind in catching up with them due to getting knocked unconscious in a fight. Amina, still unconscious in Kharis' arms, starts to transform, her hair turning white like the Bride of Frankenstein. I became curious as to how the hero would save her; this detail wasn't part of my playground briefing. The hero and a search party are slow to catch up as Kharis enters the water; this was getting serious. Now Amina's face is all old and gnarly-looking ... not a good sign. Finally, she sinks into the swamp with Kharis and "The End" comes up. I sat there stupefied, expecting to see more scenes. I think I jumped up and went to my mother to explain what I'd seen, probably proving that her earlier decision to keep me from seeing new horror films was a wise one. I think it was the first time I realized a genre movie could have a dark ending, and it was a minor but existence-altering experience.
Universal's DVD of The Mummy The Legacy Collection comes in their handsome book-like case. Menus are attractive and the movies are given ample chapters. An insert card comes with the vital credits. There's some question as to the order of the last two films; Ghost is placed last but Curse is said to be the final installment.
I'm also told that Uni's 40s films were by and large accepted as almost being kiddie pictures. The big horror interest at this time was over at RKO and Val Lewton's film unit. They appealed to a much wider audience by virture of their literate scripts and psychological depth. They were also often genuinely scary.
By making the Mummy a more mobile menace and upping the theme of colonial hauteur vs third-world magic, Hammer's The Mummy is still more interesting to me than the Universal sequels with their smug attitudes and pedestrian plotting. But Mummy fans will find this budget-priced set an unbeatable value.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Mummy: The Legacy Collection rates:
1. We had a huge bellylaugh
around 1994 while watching TCM's night of Mummy movies. A standard TCM graphic comes up between movies
showing the next three our four features waiting to be screened, and a snappy announcer gives a
one-sentence spiel for each. That way we know what stars are involved, and can be reminded of the
difference between The Seventh Cross and The Seventh Dawn. For the Mummy
movies, the same chirpy line was repeated for each of the four films, with exactly the same inflection:
"Daring explorers break into a sacred Egyptian tomb, and unleash a terrible curse!"