mummiesEdward Van SloanDavid MannersZita Johann
The Mummy
Medium: film
Year: 1932
Director: Karl Freund
Writer: Nina Wilcox Putnam, Richard Schayer, John L. Balderston
Keywords: horror, Universal, mummies
Country: USA
Actor: Boris Karloff, Zita Johann, David Manners, Arthur Byron, Edward Van Sloan, Bramwell Fletcher
Format: 73 minutes
Series: Universal Mummy >>
Website category: Horror pre-1970
Review date: 2 April 2008
I don't have a huge collection of Universal horror movies, but I have a few and I'm sporadically working my way through them. My latest was The Mummy, or as they advertised it at the time: "KARLOFF!!!!!!! ...ohandthemummy." Good old Boris had been an unknown one year earlier when he was cast as Frankenstein, you know. He's damn good here too, in a very different role. Oddly I remember seeing this long ago on TV when I was just a boy and not being impressed. Back then, my principal reaction had been, "Slow & talky monster movie in which the monster disappears after its first scene." I know, I know. I wasn't a Karloff fan in those days.
This time I liked it more, although it helps to be able to put your head into 1932-space. Today, to see caption boards saying "1921 Cairo" and "1932 Cairo" is to see two identical things. You've got to be paying attention to realise that when the film was shown, obviously the difference between them would have been that between "eleven years ago" and "now".
I also laughed my head off at the silent film pastiche in the middle, when Karloff's showing us that flashback to Ancient Egypt. It's got the stiff puppet-like overacting, the faster camera speed and everything. Surreal. I loved it. It's almost like a comedy skit in the middle of this horror film.
A subtler thing to get acclimatised to is the 1930s film grammar. If one compares Hammer and Universal as I've occasionally been known to do, the Universal films feel classier but at least Hammer has what are recognisably film scripts as we'd understand them. You don't watch their output thinking "this would be a great idea for a movie". Suddenly I feel better towards horror remakes. The Mummy isn't as bad as, say, The Wolfman, but it still feels a bit misshapen. "Yes, I love you!" Huh? It's as if the scriptwriters haven't realised they're not telling all of their story. That doesn't make these films bad, but they're... different. However one should note that back in 1932, they'd only had five years since the first talkie! The movie industry is always evolving, but back then 'twas even more so.
Huge chunks of the plot are basically a scene-by-scene lift from 1931's Dracula. That I can live with, but it's more startling to see David Manners and Edward Van Sloan both reprising their Dracula roles as the young hero and the wise old mentor respectively. Hmmm. Is that going a bit far? Val Sloan also starred in Frankenstein, making him the only actor to have done all three of the original Universal trilogy.
One aspect of the film is perhaps an artefact of history. 1932 was during the "Pre-Code Era", a time when the infamous Hays Code wasn't yet being enforced. For those who don't know what I'm talking about, the Production Code Administration (PCA) was established in 1934 and for more than three decades thereafter worked hard to keep Hollywood's output free of suggestive dancing, "excessive and lustful kissing", the ridicule of religion and more. Civilisation might have collapsed. However the early thirties briefly saw some racier fare, thanks to Depression economics and changing social mores. Of course a 1930s Universal monster flick is hardly The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Deep Throat, but even so the heroine Zita Johann gets to wear some eyebrow-raising outfits. If only she'd been a bit more buxom, we'd have had a classic on our hands. See also Fay Wray briefly getting all cleavagey when she falls into the water in King Kong. That was interesting.
Recommended if you're not ten years old. My younger self's criticism of "dull and talky" isn't completely without foundation. This film wins out over Dracula in that I can believe in Imhotep's doomed love story, but the greatest vampire of all time was always going to be scarier than some dried-up geriatric in a fez. Personally though I enjoyed it, mainly for Karloff, the silent film pastiche and Zita's outfits. It helps to be a bit of a film geek, though. Oh, and these Universal horror flicks are all short (this one's 73 minutes), so they're good to watch if you don't even have the 90 minutes that's more or less the minimum requirement for films these days...