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Having recently seen the 1999 remake, I realized just how powerful Karloff's portrayal of Imhotep/Ardath Bey truly is. Without fancy effects or CGI, without an $80,000,000 budget, with little more than dry-looking make-up, a doleful stare, and that wonderful, lisping voice, Karloff created a monster that will endure long after the rental copies of the remake have shed their metal oxide coatings. Karl Freund, the director, was one of Germany's finest cameramen and this was his first film as a director. Employing the "less is more" theory of film-making, he keeps the mummy a very mysterious and deadly creature. Never does the mummy stroll up to someone, working them into a corner to strangle them. No, he just reaches out with his mind, killing people from miles away. Finally, the flashback scene is one of the best, done in "silent film" style with music and Karloff supplying a morbid voiceover. Sadly, Universal cut the flashback short before the mummy had a chance to tell about chasing the re-incarnated princess throughout time. Some stills survive and Henry Victor still gets credit as "The Saxon Warrior".
Boris Karloff plays Imhotep, a cursed Egyptian buried alive 3700-years-ago, returns to life to claim the reincarnation of his lost-love in this Universal classic. Moody, understated and succinct, The Mummy is one of the best films from Universal's classic horror period. Although much of the success can be credited to first time director Karl Freund, who normally worked as a top cinematographer, and the brilliant make-up artist Jack P. Pierce, it is Boris Karloff who gives the film its resonance. As he previously did with the Frankenstein monster, Karloff imbues this character with an aching sense of humanity which was completely absent later incarnations of the Mummy character. Credit must also be given to the able supporting cast including Zita Johann and the always reliable Edward Van Sloan. Now here's a question. Is the film scary by today's standards? I guess I'd have to say not really. However, I just watched this film again after seeing the American version of 'The Grudge.' 'The Grudge' certainly had me jumping more, but which film did I enjoy more? It'd have to be 'The Mummy.'
With one of Boris Karloff's numerous acting successes and a production
done the way that a horror feature should be made, this is a
well-crafted classic of the genre. From the first scene, the right
atmosphere is established, and the story is told at an implacable pace
that slowly builds up the tension and possibilities.
As he does with his characters in so many of his horror features, Karloff makes "The Mummy" a menacing monster, yet one with enough human motivations to keep him from becoming cartoonish. Karloff's approach, as does the movie as a whole, stimulates the imagination rather than the senses, giving this classic version a depth and permanence that cannot be matched by those more recent adaptations that rely on boring "special" effects and contrived "action" sequences instead of a well-told story with solid characters.
Edward Van Sloan, David Manners, and the rest of the supporting cast also help out. The atmosphere and settings are kept relatively simple, but effective. Naturally, the story is far-fetched, but it has a consistency that makes it relatively easy to suspend disbelief. The picture fits together well, and it remains a solid entry in the list of classic horror films.
Although frequently reinterpreted, the original 1932 THE MUMMY remains
the most intriguing film version of a story inspired by both 1920s
archaeological finds and the 1931 Bela Lugosi Dracula: when an
over-eager archaeologist reads an incantation from an ancient scroll,
he unexpectedly reanimates a mysterious mummy--who then seeks reunion
with the princess for whom he died thousands of years earlier and
ultimately finds his ancient love reincarnated in modern-day Egypt.
Less a typical horror film than a Gothic romance with an Egyptian setting, THE MUMMY has few special effects of any kind and relies primarily upon atmosphere for impact--and this it has in abundance: although leisurely told, the film possesses a darkly romantic, dreamlike quality that lingers in mind long after the film is over. With one or two exceptions, the cast plays with remarkable restraint, with Boris Karloff as the resurrected mummy and Zita Johann (a uniquely beautifully actress) standouts in the film. The sets are quite remarkable, and the scenes in which Karloff permits his reincarnated lover to relive the ancient past are particularly effective.
Kids raised on wham-bam action and special effects films will probably find the original THE MUMMY slow and uninteresting, but the film's high quality and disquieting atmosphere will command the respect of both fans of 1930s horror film and the more discerning viewer. Of all the 1930s Universal Studio horror films, THE MUMMY is the most subtle--and the one to which I personally return most often.
Gary F. Taylor, aka GFT, Amazon Reviewer
I love these Universal horror movies. This one is all atmosphere. The
lighting, the focus on Karloff's eyes and his threatening persona carry
the film. When I was in elementary school (my kids would say not long
after this film was made), I had another kid scare the daylights out of
me by describing the internment of the Egyptian rulers. The taking of
the body, perfuming it, placing it in a room full of gold, then killing
the slaves so that only the priests would know the actual resting place
of the body. There was also the bit about being wrapped alive for
burial. I'll tell you.
The effect of that story, which is portrayed in the movie, put a bigger scare into me than any movie I've ever seen. Since this one was really the only one we would ever see on television, I watched it every time I could. Isn't it interesting that both the Lugosi "Dracula" use a quotation from "Swan Lake" as a theme song. I've always wondered why that is. It is certainly eerie and as the credits roll, it builds in intensity. I was told once that Tchaikovsky would probably do movie soundtracks if he were alive today. Pardon my digressions. It is interesting that the mummy (as a fully wrapped personage) really doesn't appear after the beginning sequence--we just know that old Boris is in the process of decay and will eventually be sent to his eternal reward. As usual, the scientists and those who should know, carelessly leave the young woman unattended and he makes his move. The threatening suavity of Karloff is the high point of the movie. I feel the world received such a gift when these films were made. It is a delight, full of frightening images and classic moments.
I love the classic horror movies of the 1930s. They were made when the talkies were still novel and film makers were experimenting with storytelling approaches, often taking inspirations from German Expressionism (indeed 'The Mummy's director Karl Freund, who later directed another 1930s classic 'Mad Love', originally worked as a cinematographer on Fritz Lang's science fiction classic 'Metropolis' and several movies by F.W. Murnau). And it was before the Hayes Code kicked in and took a lot of the fun and thrills out of horror movies (just look at how safe and uninteresting horror became in the 1940s with a few notable exceptions e.g. the movies produced by Val Lewton). The film obviously owes a lot to 'Dracula' and Edward Van Sloan and David Manners from that film reappear here in similar roles. Karloff is brilliant as Imhotep a.k.a The Mummy, and stage actress Zita Johann is wonderful too, very striking with exotic good looks. Too bad she became very quickly disillusioned with Hollywood as she should have been a major screen star. Karloff and Johann are fantastic on screen together, and make 'The Mummy' impossible to forget. I was quite surprised to discover that this movie wasn't enormously successful when originally released, but it has obviously captured the imagination of thousands of film fans since. It is easily the best Mummy movie ever made (though I also have a fondness for Hammer's "Blood From The Mummy's Tomb' made almost forty years later), and much more entertaining and intelligent than the awful remake starring Brendan Fraser et al. 'The Mummy' stands alongside 'Dracula', 'Frankenstein', 'Island Of Lost Souls', 'Freaks', 'The Invisible Man' and 'The Black Cat' as one of the best horror movies of the 1930s, an era that has had an enormous impact on horror ever since. Highly recommended!
Karl Freund, who photographed some of the most memorable silent films made both in this country and Germany, turned director only twice in his career. He directed Peter Lorre in MAD LOVE (1935) and Boris Karloff in this film I am about to discuss. Following FRANKENSTEIN and THE OLD DARK HOUSE the public knew it liked Boris Karloff but he had been silent in his two biggest roles. When this movie was released they flocked to the cinema to hear him speak (evidently they had missed THE MIRACLE MAN, NIGHT WORLD, BUSINESS AND PLEASURE and the other minor roles he appeared in while FRANKENSTEIN was becoming a hit). His voice was no disappointment and neither was his performance in this picture. Director Freund handles many important scenes as if he were directing a silent film . . .and it WORKS! The scene of Im-Ho-Tep returning to life is masterful, as is the flashback sequence where he shows his reincarnated princess just what became of him. David Manners is a far more practical hero in this film than he was in DRACULA (and he is not hampered by having to wear those ridiculous knickerbockers) and Edward van Sloan is fabulous yet again. Watch for Noble Johnson showing off his muscular frame as the Nubian servant. Jack Pierce's makeup is nothing short of fantastic; what he did with gum cotton and collodion was truly masterful. The photography is very well done also. One scene where the camera flashpans away from Im-Ho-Tep and over the rooftops of Cairo coming to rest on Helen Grosvenor is truly Germanic. A similar scene appears in FAUST (1926), and also in SVENGALI (1931). Red Rock Canyon substitutes for ancient Egypt but we always believe we are seeing just what we are supposed to be seeing. This is a very subtle film, and all the more scary because if its subtlety. Now shall we discuss MAD LOVE?
THE MUMMY awakened in Egypt by English archeologists goes
a rampage searching for its reincarnated lover.
Boris Karloff dominates this little fright fest, bringing new nightmares to the screen and proving that his Frankenstein's Monster was no mere quirk, but actually the beginning of a distinguished career in shocker films. Helped immensely by makeup master Jack Pierce, who gave the Mummy face & hands like weathered parchment, Karloff uses his own saturnine features and tall thin body to full effect, creating a horror portrait that has stood the test of time.
A sturdy supporting cast gives Karloff good support: exotic Zita Johann is lovely & slightly mysterious as the woman of Imhotep's deathless desires; valiant David Manners as the young hero gives another typically fine performance; Arthur Byron & Edward Van Sloan are enjoyable as the requisite old gentlemen (every horror film must have at least one) who study & stalk the Mummy. African-American silent film star Noble Johnson appears as a sinister Nubian.
The film's best scene, the resuscitation of the Mummy, demonstrates the potential of the medium. The only indication the viewer has that something horrible is about to happen is a flicker of Karloff's eye and a slight movement of his hand as he stands in his casket, bound in bandages. The rest of the scene unfolds in the hysterical reaction of young Bramwell Fletcher (excellent performance) as he watches the undead leave the scientists' tent. All the audience sees is Karloff's hand and the trailing bandages from his feet as they drag across the floor. It is enough.
Given enough time and interest, I'm sure that I would have gotten around to
the original Universal version of "The Mummy", but the hideous (in every
respect) 1999 remake is the straw that broke the camel's back. The second I
happened to see the original (complete with poster art) on the shelves of my
local Wal-Mart, there were no second thoughts. It HAD to be better than that
low-grade (though high budget)"Raiders of the Lost Ark" ripoff I spent two
hours suffering through. Thankfully, my impulse proved to be on the
I really look at this film as Karloff's first piece of proof that there was more to his talent than Frankenstein's monster. Imhotep (aka Ardeth Bay) couldn't be more different than that sweet-natured brute. Though both are pathetic in their own way and lonely, Imhotep is more intelligent and a great deal more malicious by far. He's willing to do anything, kill anyone, and break any taboo to be reunited with his lost love. Karloff never has to raise his voice to convey menace; just a hardening of the eyes or a steely tone in that oh-so-distinct voice of his is enough to make you a little uneasy.
An overlooked aspect of this film is that, in a way, it's something of a tragedy. Imhotep has literally sacrificed everything he ever had just to be by the side of his beloved princess. So focused on this goal is he that he doesn't realize the great harm he is doing to all those around him, including to his beloved (who, in a thankful break with movie tradition at the time, proves to be the undoing of the immortal monster). I feel more of a sense of relief at film's end than triumph. Maybe now Imhotep can rest in peace.
Another film that puts the basic storyline of Dracula to better use. This time, it's the undead Egyptian priest, I'm-ho-tep (Boris Karloff), who puts the beautiful Helen under his spell. David Manners and Edward Van Sloan both reprise their Dracula roles as the young hero, and the wise old mentor respectively. Van Sloan, who is the only actor to appear in Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy, gives his best performance here. Karloff is also quite good as the evil villain, I'm-ho-tep. This remains the only mummy movie that can really be called a suspense film or thriller rather than a monster movie. It's not quite as good as Frankenstein, but it's still one of the better classic horror flicks.
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