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Sunday, March 5, 2017
THE MUMMY (1932) stars Boris Karloff, receiving sole over-the-title billing here only a year after FRANKENSTEIN plucked him from relative obscurity.
He plays Im-ho-tep, an Egyptian high priest who was mummified alive for the sacrilege of trying to use the Scroll of Thoth to bring his dead Princess Ankh-es-en-amon back to life.
Thousands of years later his tomb is discovered by archeologists led by Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron), and when a junior member of the team reads aloud from the Scroll of Thoth, the mummified Im-ho-tep returns to life in one of the creepiest and coolest scenes in the Golden Age of Horror.
The poor assistant is driven stark raving mad when the crumbling corpse emerges from his sarcophagus, grabs the scroll, and shuffles off to Buffalo (or its Egyptian equivalent, anyway), bestowing screen immortality upon the actor, Bramwell Fletcher, playing the unfortunate lad who would later die laughing in an insane asylum.
Jack Pierce's makeup job on Karloff here is magnificent, but after one really great close-up (a dummy is used in the wide shots), we never get to see it again.
For the rest of the film Karloff appears sans wrappings (but with another fine, densely-wrinkled makeup job by Pierce) under the guise of the fez-headed Ardeth Bay, a mysterious Egyptian who shows up years later to lead the archeological team of Whemple's son Frank (David Manners) straight to the tomb of Princess Ankh-es-en-amon.
With the recovery of her mummy and the Scroll of Thoth, Ardeth Bay plans to bring his ancient princess back to life--until he discovers that her soul has been reincarnated in the body of young Helen Grosvenor (the fascinatingly-eccentric actress Zita Johann), whom he now begins to lure into his sinister clutches.
Sir Joseph Whemple and his son Frank discover Bay's intentions and try to foil them, with the help of a wise old expert in the Egyptian occult named Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan).
Unlike FRANKENSTEIN and THE WOLF MAN, there was no basis in literature or folklore for the character of the living mummy. In fact, the original script by Nina Wilcox Putnam was based on the life of French mystic Cagliostro, who claimed to have been several centuries old.
But due to the sensation caused by the discovery of King Tut's tomb, the script was changed to take advantage of the public's mummy-mania at the time and present Karloff as the undying Im-ho-tep.
It was also heavily influenced by the previous year's DRACULA with Bela Lugosi, containing many of the same story elements right down to the almost-identical characters played by Edward Van Sloan and David Manners, and the replacement of the crucifix with an Egyptian ankh as a talisman against evil.
The cinematographer on DRACULA and a major influence on its look (especially in the early scenes in Dracula's castle) was German filmmaker Karl Freund, and THE MUMMY marked his first official stint in the director's chair.
He gave the film its beautifully somber, almost expressionistic look and a deliberately-paced restraint that make it--as it has been called--a "tone poem" of horror as opposed to the more lurid and over-the-top offerings in the genre.
Today, unfortunately, many viewers find it too slow and boring to sit through. But those whose attention spans encompass an old-style form of storytelling that offers a wealth of exquisite subtlety and mood over visceral sensation, not to mention a great performance by Karloff, will most likely find THE MUMMY to be one of the finest horror films ever made.
Read our overview of the entire original Universal Mummy series