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Mummy for nothing
by Asa Butcher
Issue 4
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The Mummy
Karl Freund
Universal Pictures, 1932
“Death, eternal punishment, for anyone who opens this casket,” declares the curse. One minute later the Oxford educated brain is acting like a child on Christmas morning and has ripped it open. Cue: death, eternal punishment and another great Universal Pictures’ horror movie…well, sadly no.

The Mummy was disappointing and so slow that you could see the actors decomposing on screen. My criticism does not stem from watching the hi-octane contemporary blockbusters, but experience with other great horror flicks from the same studio, such as The Invisible Man.

The tagline “It comes to life!” doesn’t quite go far enough. Yes, it comes to life but then disappears somewhere, never explained, for ten years. The anecdotes of Boris Karloff, star of Frankenstein, undergoing make-up for eight hours under the expertise of make-up artist Jack Pierce are well known, but the Mummy is only on screen for about three minutes at the start of the film; even then, you see parts of him.

If understatement and subtlety were the director’s intention then Karl Freund achieved this. I guess too much of the monster would have been kitsch, but it would have been great to witness Karloff in full costume – minus a vital trouser zipper according to the documentary. Before sitting down to watch, I thought it would be another great from Universal’s House of Horror, but it resembled more of a love story.

The story is simple: Egypt, 1921, a British Museum field expedition discovers the mummy of ancient Egyptian prince Im-Ho-Tep, condemned and buried alive for fiddling with a vestal virgin princess. The tomb also contains a scroll that can bring the dead back to life, yes Mr Oxford reads the scroll out loud and goes insane after realising the Mummy has come back to life – he doesn’t even say thanks. A decade later, disguised as Ardath Bey, a modern Egyptian, he attempts to reunite with his lost love.

Driving the film is Karloff’s Ardath Bey, who is captivating as the near six-foot, hypnotic, curse chanting, in need of moisturiser, up-to-no-good star of the movie. Behind all the make-up, lighting and special effects, you have Karloff’s eyes. The close-ups are the spookiest part of the film, as you feel yourself being hypnotised by Im-Ho-Tep seventy years later.

The Mummy is more a romance than horror, which leads us to the leading lady, the love interest and, thankfully, she is no scream queen. Zita Johann plays Princess Anckesen-Amon, the ancient princess, who has been reincarnated into Helen Grosvenor, a beautiful young woman. You know it is only a matter of time, minutes in fact, before she is plunging head first into trouble, but Zita Johann, a headstrong Hungarian actress, is surprisingly talented. She has an element of silent movie star about her, with her slightly melodramatic reactions but she carries an air of control and inner-strength.

My assumption that she has this inner-strength is due to the hero being named Frank, a name that doesn’t generate images of action hero. Frank Whemple (David Manners), son of the original archaeologist Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron), hours after his father dies he is chasing the girl again, he says dumb things, such as “Stuck in the desert for two months, and was it hot!” and at the finale he almost stops for a cup of tea before rescuing Helen.

One other redeeming feature of The Mummy is the amazing art direction. The sets are very authentic and the scene with the mysterious pool bubbling with dry ice is very realistic, especially in Black and White. The score can be irritating on occasion, although the refrain of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake is particularly appropriate for the love scenes.

According to the documentary 'Mummy Dearest', many scenes were eventually cut from the final release and it seems the story was not really based on Egyptian mummies anyway. Forget the title and prepare yourself for a ‘love through the ages’ romance – just don’t miss the great moment Ardath Bey explains to Helen that, “She must be ready to face moments of horror for an eternity of love.” – You just want her to reply, “Hmm, maybe I’ll stick with Frank.”

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