Let the repackaging begin…again! Universal Home Video parcels off singles from its very comprehensive Classic Monsters Collection – released two years ago. Personally, I don’t see the point. The studio should have made these discs available day and date with the box set and let the consumer decide for themselves which they prefer. By now, they also ought to have been heavily invested in restoring the rest of their monster mash in hi-def. But I digress. Carl Laemmle Jr., who had inherited the studio from his father, relished tales of the supernatural. His zeal for resurrecting ancient folklore made Universal Studios Hollywood’s modern-day Transylvania. But Laemmle Jr. departed from this tried and true method of adapting literary masterworks by the likes of Braum Stoker and Mary Shelley, creating an original fright with Karl Freund’s The Mummy (1932), once again starring Boris Karloff, who was fast becoming the ghoul de jour around the back lot.
Karloff – billed as ‘the uncanny’ by Universal’s marketing department – had endured an excruciating ordeal in the makeup chair while curmudgeonly makeup artist, Jack Pierce toiled over piece by piece applications of colodium, latex and feathered-in gauze to build up and disfigure Karloff’s bony visage and create the Frankenstein monster. But even these tortuous hours must have paled to the pain inflicted by Pierce’s bandaged applications for The Mummy that stretched Karloff’s skin with hand-stippled pock marks of decay, powdering dust and debris to create this thousand year old cadaver, miraculously brought back to life. It is one of Hollywood’s ironies that Karloff, a relatively meek and mild man of great wealth of culture, was reduced to playing these various scourges of humanity. Perhaps, in the end, it was Karloff’s intuitive gentleness that made these monsters so memorable.
The Mummy is not a horror movie per say, but a valiant and very high-brow bridge between the supernatural and historical truth. At its crux, The Mummy is a tragic love story about a man mummified before his time, whose soul is trapped in the embalmed entrails of an Egyptian high priest in search of an earthly woman he can sacrifice to the gods to resurrect the spirit of a great love he lost in his own lifetime; the Princess Ankhesenamon. Karloff is magnificent as the mysterious undead, reborn among the living after his sarcophagus has been exhumed from the ancient sands. The original story by John Balderston had merit, and was, in fact, inspired by the then recent '1922' discovery of the real Tutankhaman’s tomb. Archaeology then was not only big news – it had rapidly become big business. The Mummy, therefore, tapped into a popular fascination for this ancient world, but with an ominous foreboding that helped to feed the mythology about an ancient Egyptian curse.
Karloff is Imhotep (Karloff). Apart from a brief glimpse in the film’s prologue, awakening from his entombed eternity, Karloff spends the bulk of The Mummy’s run time out of his bandages, skulking about present day Cairo, masquerading as Ardath Bey; a very sage Egyptian guide for archaeologist, Frank Whemple (David Manners), the son of Sir Joseph (Arthur Byron), one of the original excavators who discovered Imhotep’s remains. Imhotep is soon introduced to Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), Whemple’s fiancée, whom he believes is the descendant of Ankhesenamon. Bey tells Whemple where to dig for the buried princess. But his motives are hardly altruistic. In fact, Bey plans to hypnotize Helen and then murder her in a ritualized ceremony that will transplant her soul into Ankhesenamon’s body; thereby restoring to him the ancient love he was deprived in another lifetime.
The Bey hypnotizes Helen, revealing in a limpid pool of refracted light her past life in which she was sacrificed for choosing Imotep’s love over Pharaoh’s (James Crane). Although Helen becomes convinced she is Ankhesenamon incarnate her earthly will to survive in the present will not allow her to be sacrificed. In the meantime, Frank begins to suspect a more sinister plot afoot. Eventually he and Sir Joseph come to Helen’s rescue. But it is the unearthly power of Isis that puts a period to Imotep’s plans; his betrayal of both the past and the present, abusing sacred scrolls for his own selfish means instead, reducing him to a pile of dusty bones before Helen’s very eyes.
In the annals of Universal classic monsters, The Mummy is an intriguing departure. In years to come, the studio would pretty much ditch Egyptology and just go for the pure scare in cranking out a series of lackluster sequels like The Mummy’s Hand (1940) and The Mummy’s Ghost (1944), simplifying the makeup and recasting the part with lesser performers swaddled in rags. Viewing The Mummy today, one is immediately struck by its remarkable restraint exercised by director Karl Freund; his refusal to exploit the ‘horror’ for dramatic intensity; the mummy in full regalia merely glimpsed at the start of the film. We get only one close-up of Karloff in his bandaged state, hands crossed against his chest, a faint glimmer stirring from beneath his heavily dust-encrusted eyelids. It is a chilling moment, to be sure; promising a murderous resurrection of an otherworldly creature.
But then, there is a quick pan to Sir Joseph, studying an ancient scroll, a very gnarled finger coming to rest upon this sacred document. A shriek, followed by a nervous laugh, then another pan downward to the floor, and we catch a glimpse of the mummy’s foot limping into the darkness, a stretch of gnarled bandage dragged behind him. There are memos in the Universal archive to suggest Karloff was scheduled to appear in this mummified state for several more sequences. Either due to budgetary restraints or cumbersome makeup applications that made it impossible to maneuver, these sequences were never committed to film. Yet, this debut sequence of the mummified Karloff is bone-chilling and far more memorable than anything seen in subsequent mummy movies precisely because it whets the audiences’ appetite for more without ever delivering. We wait in baited anticipation for the mummy’s return. Curiously, we are never disappointed when it doesn’t happen; perhaps because Karloff’s Bey is an infinitely more fascinating and sinister incarnation.
John L. Balderston’s clever script and Karloff’s expertly crafted performance as the glowering stranger with piercing eyes, dedicated to a much darker purpose, yield to a more frightening reality. Karloff is at his most ‘uncanny’ when he remains almost immobile before the camera, a slight - seemingly innocuous - tilt of his head or meticulously-timed movement of his hand generating an almost hypnotic and compelling terror. Karloff’s presence – rather than his acting – is what sells the mummy and his alter-ego, Ardath Bey as evil personified. The rest of the cast are competent but relegated to minor support. Zita Johann – then considered something of an exotic sexpot, meant to rival Garbo’s supremacy at MGM – is quite extraordinary. Regrettably, this was Johann’s one hit wonder. She never rose above the ranks of a B-list player and, in retrospect, had the ego though not the acting chops to become another Garbo. But she gives good face herein.
In retrospect, The Mummy is one of Universal’s best ‘horror’ classics. If you don’t already own the Classic Monsters Collection (and frankly, I can’t see why you wouldn’t) then this stand-alone re-release comes very highly recommended. Since this disc is virtually identical to the one included in that box set (and the one reissued last year around this same time) all of my superlatives applied then carry over forthwith. We get a first rate, reference quality 1080p effort to say the least. The Mummy has never looked better. Universal has done more than ‘clean up’ the visuals; they have resurrected this seemingly lost visual masterpiece from home video oblivion. The results are astounding, with film grain very natural and fine details abounding even during the darkest scenes. There are still age-related artifacts to consider, but these have been considerably scrubbed to yield very impressive clarity. The B&W image is a showcase for all the subtleties in Charles Stumar’s brilliantly moody cinematography. Prepare to be astonished.
The audio is DTS mono. While there’s still a modicum of hiss during quiescent scenes, there’s really nothing to complain about. Extras are all direct imports from previous DVD incarnations and include two fascinating retrospectives on the movie, another on Jack Pierce, a very comprehensive audio commentary, the mummy archives (chocked full of vintage junket materials) and the original theatrical trailer. The only thing Universal could have done to improve their prospects would have been to feature all of these extras in hi-def. No soap. They’re still 720i. Oh well, you can’t have everything. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)