Friday, March 7, 2014

THE MUMMY (1932)

Two stories and then we'll get down to business.  When I first became an adult, one of the first "real" jobs that I pursued was clerking in a video store.  I was embarrassingly excited when a vacant position was posted because, duh, I'd get to work with movies all day.  They chose to interview applicants as a group for whatever reason and one of the questions asked was "Who is your favorite actor?"  So I said Paul Newman or Johnny Depp or whatever I thought might get me the job, but the last guy to answer said, "The Mummy, I like all of his movies".  I'm sure he misspoke, but I REALLY want to believe that a guy believes the Mummy is an actor who has the world's longest film career.

The second story isn't a story, really, more of a memory.  In some random old issue of Fangoria that I read because I'm old, they reviewed a Mummy movie and the reviewer mocked the Mummy as a threatening monster.  I can't remember many details, but he/she argued that, since the Mummy is such a slow-moving monster, there's no reason to get killed by him unless you're paraplegic.  Or something.

Keep that in mind as we talk about THE MUMMY, which also moves pretty languidly.  Karloff, fresh off his FRANKENSTEIN triumph, is in the lead role.  He shows up wrapped in bandages, but we really only get the mainstream mummy look for one scene.  Which is great for us, because we get to see Karloff act with fewer layers of makeup.  We also get to enjoy the unwrapped mummy's dessicated look, which is unexpectedly even creepier than the standard depiction.  That has a lot to do with Karloff's performance, which is indeed very slow and deliberate, even down to the unnaturally calm and sonorous voice.  Man, Karloff is great here.

The mummy, Imhotep, suffered his horrible wrapping-alive as a result of his love for Princess Ankh-es-en-amon.  As fate would quite literally have it, the Princess's reincarnation, a half-Egyptian woman named Helen (Zita Johann), crosses paths with Imhotep.  It's all a big mess and really annoys her archaeologist and Egyptian occultism scholar friends.  The scenes with Karloff and Johann are the peaks of this film, as she's a match for him in terms of physical acting.  The cast in general is really fine and it's especially nice to see more Edward Van Sloan after his impressive work in FRANKENSTEIN.

THE MUMMY is really well-shot and well-edited, too.  Director Karl Freund doesn't get cited as much as names like Todd Browning or James Whale, but I love a lot of his choices of camera placement and movement here.  At times, you can really tell that THE MUMMY had a far lower budget than FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA (parts of this are kind of claustrophobic), but then Freund pulls off some still-impressive early-Egyptian settings and you forget all about finance.  The film is always really interesting visually, but (BUT) it is admittedly pretty slow in tempo.  Even the music sounds like it just rose from a sarcophagus.  

That's all to the good if you're on board for the movie's atmospheric, dreamy feel, though.  This isn't a bloodbath or a thriller.  Moreso than most monster flicks (certainly moreso than DRACULA), THE MUMMY devotes a lot of time to a love story and it's a good love story.  It involves terrible sacrifice, reincarnation, pre-Christian theology, and magical pools of water, so it's not like we're getting some shallow TWILIGHT thing.  The story is driven by the two characters, Imhotep and Helen, and by the solid acting that bring them to life.

This isn't as innovative as FRANKENSTEIN, nor does it share the same ambitious aspirations, but it's a perfectly good entry in the canon of Univeral's early classics.  


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