The Mummy (1932) has a lot of similarities to Dracula (1931): same producer (Carl Laemmle), same actor (David Manners) plays a hero caught in a love triangle with a monster and D.P. Karl Freund was upgraded to director. Freund's film seems tighter than Dracula and the script corrects many of the problems that I had with the earlier movie. For one thing, the Mummy is a straight-forward love story and that makes it a simpler and more enjoyable movie. Boris Karloff's Imhotep is a lover from Ancient Egypt who is buried alive for the crime of trying to raise his girlfriend from the dead. He is scary to look at in his make-up and his transformation from inanimate corpse to stiffly moving mummy is one of the best effects sequences of the decade, but he's also sympathetic. He assists a team of British tomb hunters in locating his girlfriend's grave so that he can have her close to him, even if it as a corpse in the museum. People sometimes die of fright when he reveals his undead status, but that's not really his fault. He only becomes a bad guy when he discovers that his love has been reincarnated in the body of Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann) and that she is involved with the very same Egyptologist who uncovered her tomb. He is motivated by jealousy and a sense that after all he's been through, he has some happiness coming to him. We can completely empathize with that and yet we can also see why even though Imhotep has a mystical connection to Helen, she prefers the company of a guy who doesn't look like he's 3700 years old. (Well, to be fair to Karloff, he doesn't look a day over 900.) After Frank (Manners) tells Helen how he fell in love with a mummified corpse she goes ahead and starts making out with him even though they've only known each other about five minutes. What girl could resist a line like that?
One of my problems with Dracula was not caring so much for the damsel in distress. Zita Johann fares far-better. She seems to be purpose-built to be a horror movie heroine. With her slight body, pale face and enormous eyes, she looks like she stepped out of an Edward Gorey illustration. She also really works her skimpy Egyptian inspired costumes and outrageous head dresses. I confess that half of my delight in this film was the art deco take on Egyptian clothes and furnishings.
The flashback to Ancient Egypt is one of the most famous sequences in the movie. Freund has Imhotep able to spy on his lover and his enemies by means of a pool in his apartment, that functions a bit like a crystal ball. Each frame is edged the same as the distinctive shape of the pool. At one point he shows Helen her past life in his magic pool TV, which somewhat comically, doesn't have sound. Freund even uses some of the conventions of silent film to convey an older time in filming this sequence. We are reminded that the discovery of the mummy Tutankhamen was only a decade earlier and perhaps that is why ancient Egypt and silent film seem to go so well together.
The Mummy is spooky, particularly when we are focused in on Karloff's eyes. Freund uses the lighting set up that was so effective in Dracula but wisely uses a much tighter framing, so that Karloff's evil, pain-filled stare fills the entire screen. Imagine seeing that in an old-school movie palace? That would have sent me scrambling under my seat, I'm sure. The Mummy is also a good time. Manners is a lot less insipid parading around in an open shirt with the sleeves rolled up high, Clark Gable style. He is an astonishingly poor Egyptologist, not only needing help locating the tomb, but also in identifying the Goddess Isis and her place in mythology. (With my limited of Egyptian history, comprised of mummy episodes of cartoons in the 1970s, I think I could have managed that without an explanation. ) Though much about the movie is derivative of earlier Universal horror films, I found the Mummy to be just the right combination of horror, romance and fun.
Bonus Eye Candy: Zita Johann
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