Retro Review: ‘The Mummy’
I have to admit I am writing this particular review because of my current annoyance with people feeling the need to compare the current Tom Cruise film the Mummy with what they call “the original”. Failing in fact to realize that the true original hit theater screen before Brendan Fraser was even a foul thought in his father’s mind. In the 1930’s Universal Studios was thriving despite the Depression crippling the nation, thanks to their Universal Monsters franchise. Frankenstein and Dracula were both huge hits and another monster was needed to continue the streak of success. Ten years before the world was fascinated with the discovery of the tomb of King Tut creating a fascination with ancient Egypt which was still in the air. Universal decided to capitalize on this with the next installment in the Universal Monsters, The Mummy.
With the need to get this flick into production quickly, the screenwriters behind Dracula were brought in to lend their experience. And in fact as many people have pointed out, the Mummy shares the same plot as Dracula did before it. The utilization of horror vets was a theme throughout the production of this film. This is seen most prominently in the casting of Boris Karloff as Imhotep the undead Egyptian the title refers to. Thanks to a subtle yet show-stealing performance in Frankenstein, Karloff had become such a massive star that he could be promoted as simply “Karloff” or “Karloff the Uncanny” and people knew who it was. Supporting him was David Manners and Edward van Sloan, who for all intents and purposes simply played the same characters they had in Dracula. Zita Johann, who was cast as the leading lady delivered a very dynamic performance and proved that she had the potential to be an incredible actress. Unfortunately she grew tired of the Hollywood scene rather quickly in her career and this was one of the few films she appeared in.
Leading the film, in his first time in the directors chair was the legendary cinematographer Karl Freund. In his native Germany he was the man behind the revolutionary visuals of such Silent Era classics as; the Last Laugh, Metropolis, and the Golem. When he came to the United States he was made the cinematographer of Dracula, where according to movie legend he took over many aspects of the films production and even directed a good chunk of the movie himself. In the Mummy, Freund beautifully covered up the weaknesses of the script with a lavish visual style. Despite the budget being substantially less than originally planned, the production values of the film ranks among the best of the other Universal horror movies of the era. Once again Universal’s resident make-up artist Jack Pierce was called upon to create a monster who would have an iconic look which would be remembered for decades to come. And once again Boris Karloff would have to endure hours in the make-up chair in order to make this happen. Though the iconic image in pop culture is of the actor covered in bandages, but that look was restricted mainly to the first few moments of the picture. For the rest of the film, Pierce gives us a subtle yet haunting look which ages Boris Karloff and gives him a haunting and dried out look.
While the Mummy may not be the greatest film in Universal’s famous collection of monsters but it is a film which will stay with you. The movie is a visual feast and Boris Karloff is his usual fantastic self and Johann proves to be a stronger character than the standard damsel in distress. But sadly the script proves to be weak and unoriginal holding the rest of the movie back, but the Mummy has still earned its place in the pantheon of great horror films.