Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Mummy (1932)

Director: Karl Freund                                        Writers: John L. Balderston
Film Score: James Dietrich                              Cinematography: Charles J. Stumar
Starring: Boris Karloff, Zita Johann, David Manners and Edward Van Sloan

After being the de facto director on Dracula the year before, Universal officially handed the reins over to German cinematographer Karl Freund to film their next Karloff thriller, The Mummy. The story was the brainchild of Nina Wilcox Putnam and Richard Schayer who were asked by studio owner Carl Laemle to find a suitable Egyptian story similar to Dracula and Frankenstein. Unable to come up with an existing tale, the two created their own, inspired by the discovery of the tomb of Tutankamen in 1922 and the apparent curse of the pharaohs that was credited for claiming the lives of people associated with the find over the next ten years. After approval from Laemmle, their story was given to John L. Balderston who had converted stage plays of Dracula and Frankenstein into suitable scripts for the two box-office hits that were credited with keeping the company afloat at the beginning of the depression.

The story begins with a British dig in Egypt in 1921. Arthur Byron is the leader of the expedition, with Edward Van Sloan and Bramwell Fletcher as his assistants. In addition to the mummified body of Boris Karloff, they find a box that contains a scroll. While Byron and Van Sloan are out of the room, Fletcher reads the scroll and inadvertently brings Karloff to life and simultaneously goes mad himself. The film then jumps ten years later to an unsuccessful expedition led by Byron’s son, David Manners. As he and Leonard Mundie are about to give up, a withered Egyptian, Karloff, shows them the entrance to another tomb, of the princess he loved and wants to bring back to life. His efforts prove ineffective however but they do lead him to Zita Johann, who is from the same family line as the princess. This gives Karloff the idea to convince her to allow him to kill her and then raise her from the dead as the princess, thus completing his life’s work that began thousands of years before.

In direct comparison to the two great horror films of 1931, this film seems wanting. This is reinforced by the fact that the sequels degenerated quickly into uninteresting horror/comedy and modern rehashes of the same plot. Still, Karloff’s performance is a good one, and the makeup provided by Jack Pierce is exceptional, both for the opening shot of the mummy and Karloff’s withered face. One of the most tantalizing things about the film is the missing scenes that were created to show Zita Johann’s journey through time as she was reincarnated. The intention was to have Karloff show her these in order for her to see how she had been descended from her Egyptian beginnings. Only still shots and publicity photos remain, and while the scenes were arguably unnecessary to the plot, they would have added another dimension that might have propelled the film beyond the marginal status in occupies in Universal’s horror pantheon today.

Though Karl Freund never had a career as a leading director, and went back to cinematography and camera work for television, he nevertheless has a beautiful style full of tracking shots, panning camera shots and multiple set-ups for scenes that is incredibly effective. He also had a good cast working with him. Both David Manners and Edward Van Sloan returned from Dracula, and this time Manners’ more attenuated performance is much more credible, but at the same time Van Sloan’s role is far less confrontational. Zita Johann’s exotic looks provide a nice contrast to the usual blonde heroines of the horror films, and the artistic production design by Willy Pogany is incredibly impressive and adds an important element to the overall production. While The Mummy may not rank as a first-class horror film, it nevertheless has a lot going for it and was a solid entry in Universal’s unassailable domination of depression era supernatural thrillers.

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