The Mummy: Legacy Collection Review
The Mummy 9/10
Although Boris Karloff’s work as the Frankenstein Monster is probably much better known, his performance in The Mummy is one of his very best and helps to makes the film a genuine classic. The first film directed by the cinematographer Karl Freund – whose photography of Tod Browning’s Dracula was one of the highlights of that rather stodgy film – it is made with the kind of beautiful craftsmanship which flourished at Universal in the early 1930s before vanishing in favour of competent hackwork.
Actually, The Mummy is more romantic tragedy than horror film. It begins in 1921 at a dig in Egypt – a date which was deliberately meant to remind audiences of the Howard Carter expedition of 1922 which discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen. A mummified body has been found of an Egyptian named Imhotep (Karloff), alongside a wooden box. In the box is an ancient scroll which possesses, unbeknownst to the archaeologists, the power to bring the dead back to life. The scroll is read and, unsurprisingly, the Mummy returns to life. Eleven years later, another dig is taking place, one which is graced by the presence of a strange Egyptian named Ardath Bey (Karloff) who bears more than a passing resemblance to the mummified Imhotep. It transpires that Bey is indeed the mummy sans bandages and that he has an agenda of his own which makes him keen to follow the work of the archaeologists.
I imagine that most of us, when thinking about ‘Mummy’ films, picture a bandage wrapped thug who shambles about with nothing better to do than throttle people. One of the fascinating things about The Mummy is that Karloff spends only a matter of minutes wrapped in the bandages. This prologue is effective and atmospheric but the rest of the film follows a very different course. Indeed, this was fortunate for Karloff since the make-up for the bandaged Mummy was excruciatingly painful to wear. For the rest of the film, Karloff merely looks very, very old and his depiction of a lovelorn relic from ancient times is mesmerisingly powerful. For one who made his name as a monosyllabic monster, Karloff’s quietly hypnotic voice really was extraordinary. Whenever he appears, he dominates all before him and he manages to make Bey a truly poignant figure whose love for his reincarnated princess –a debutante named Helen Grosvenor (Johann) – is unshakeable and eternal. He is one of the great anti-heroes of horror movies and it’s a shame that the concept of the Mummy was so debased in the films which followed. To some extent, the Hammer version with Christopher Lee as the Mummy tried to get back to romantic tragedy, but Freund’s The Mummy has never been equalled in this particular sub-genre for dramatic and emotional punch.
Karloff’s power is matched by that of Zita Johann. Hers is a rather odd performance and on any rational level it shouldn’t work at all. Johann was a very promising stage performer whose career in movies was short-lived, but she brings to the role of Helen a theatrical intensity which is absolutely perfect for the tone of this film. It’s very typical of the kind of way overstated acting which was common at the beginning of the sound era, largely because film directors and actors were used to a heightened acting style that silent films required. Usually, this tends to be a little embarrassing – Dwight Frye in Dracula is perhaps the nadir as far as Universal Horror is concerned – but in this film, where everything is deliberately overstated, it seems strangely appropriate. It’s also fortunate that the supporting cast features reliable and familiar players such as Edward Van Sloan and Arthur Byron, giving the two leads something solid to play against. David Manners is also present, playing the romantic lead and giving his usual deathly-dull performance but I strongly suggest that you mentally tune him out. It’s not hard to do, since he’s little more than a hole in the screen to begin with.
Karl Freund’s direction is very impressive. In my review of Frankenstein, I commented on how James Whale refused to let the constraints of recording sound limit his visual style and this also goes for Freund, but even more so. Freund’s shots are always beautiful to look at. The lighting is invariably perfect, especially in the darker scenes where Freund uses unexpected light sources to add shading and variation. He is also very imaginative in his use of camera movement and there are subtle uses of tracking and panning to get the greatest effect, be it horrific or dramatic. At a time when many films were still either grouping players around not particularly well hidden microphones or keeping the camera fairly static, this kind of elegant and energetic filmmaking must have still seemed revolutionary. Editing is also used to fine effect with some quick cuts coming when you least expect it. I guess I’m saying that Freund was an astoundingly gifted director who knew exactly what he wanted and got it and he’s in a direct line which led, eventually, to the innovations of Orson Welles in Citizen Kane.
The film isn’t especially horrific. Even for the time, it’s quite restrained and you rarely get the feeling that Freund is serious about scaring the audience. But he stages a couple of good spine-tingling set pieces, notably the awakening of Imhotep. Best of all, there is the central flashback scene which establishes the reasons behind Imhotep’s burial alive. This is shot in unnerving silence, backed by melodramatic music, and is very, very strange indeed. A sequence of iconic images, it’s so good that it was repeated – with minor changes – in the 1940 sequel The Mummy’s Hand. But overall, one gets the feeling that Freund – along with writer John Balderston – was a romantic who saw this story more in terms of tragedy than horror. Karloff seizes this with both hands and the final scenes are unexpectedly rather moving. It’s easy to see that one should be pleased to Imhotep’s scheme is foiled but Karloff’s creation is so beautifully played that it’s hard not to feel sorry that Helen should be stuck with boring old David Manners rather than with her eternal lover.
The Mummy is featured on its own as the first disc of the collection. It’s actually identical to the DVD of the film which was released some years ago by Universal, so if you’ve already got that and don’t want the sequels then you might want to think carefully about getting this Legacy Collection.
The film is beautifully presented in its original full frame monochrome splendour. This is a lovely piece of film restoration, taking difficult original materials and producing something beautiful from them. There is some print damage present and occasional artifacts are visible. But considering the age of the film, it’s hard to see how it could look any better. Contrast is superb and the level of detail is surprisingly good. A recent TV transmission of this film was decidedly murky. This is a great improvement.
Similarly, the mono soundtrack sounds wonderful for a film of the period. Universal haven’t made the mistake of cleaning the track up too much. The film is 72 years old and it sounds it. But the slightly creaky sound is one of the charms of early talkies and since the dialogue is clear and the music sounds effective then I don’t think there’s any ground for complaint.
The extras are reasonably good although not as pleasing as those on the Frankenstein disc. We the “Mummy Dearest”, a documentary with an unbearably twee title but some interesting content. This is narrated by Rudy Behlmer and written by the reliable David J. Skal. Unfortunately, the half hour running time is a little brief to cover the ground in an entirely satisfactory manner, especially since it tries to look a bit at the sequels as well. “The Mummy Archives” is a nice selection of posters and stills which is backed by some of the music from the film. This runs about ten minutes. We also get the very enjoyable 1932 trailer.. The biggest disappointment on the disc is the commentary from Paul M. Jensen. He certainly knows his stuff but his voice is soporific in the extreme and he has a way of explaining things which seems to compel your inattention. He also spends too long telling us what we can already see on the screen.
The film is divided into 18 chapter stops and although the main feature is subtitled, the extras are not.
If we can take if for granted that The Mummy is essential viewing and one of the great horror films, what are we to make of the sequels ? The first, The Mummy's Hand was made in 1940, eight years after the original, and seems to have been the cheapjack result of a certain desperation at Universal. It was rapidly followed by three more 'serious' movies - I use the word serious with a certain trepidation - and the inevitable confrontation with Abbott And Costello. The quality of these fluctuates wildly between quite impressive and hopeless but watchable - although I'm taking it for granted that if you've read this far, you're a Universal horror fan and will therefore watch anything they can throw at you. It also has to be said that the mark of a true 'Golden Age' horror nut is how excited they get when they watch a dire movie simply because features George Zucco.
The Mummy’s Hand 7/10
Leslie Halliwell, bless him, once stated that this was one of the most frightening films ever made. Even allowing for the mist of nostalgia through which such an assertion was made, this seems a little strong. However, even watched now, The Mummy’s Hand has some unnerving moments and is certainly the best of the four sequels.
The film is a kind of follow-up to The Mummy but it also goes its own sweet way, barring a lengthy flashback to the original film in which Boris Karloff’s Imhotep is clumsily replaced in close-ups by the 1940 model, Tom Tyler as Kharis, Prince of the Royal House who defiles Princess Ananka’s tomb and pays the inevitable price of burial alive. We’re told all this for two reasons. Firstly, to introduce Tyler into the mix – Karloff was busy playing in “Arsenic And Old Lace” on Broadway – and secondly, to provide some kind of context for a plot which diverges considerably from what we’re told in the first movie. Here, the secret of immortal life turns out to be “the forbidden Tana leaves” which can be brewed up in varying quantities depending on the amount of autonomous resurrection is required. The marvellous George Zucco, playing the new High Priest of Karnak, is charged with keeping this secret and ensuring that Kharis’s heart is kept beating through the intervention of these Tana leaves. No more than nine leaves must be brewed at one time or Kharis will become “a soulless demon with the desire to kill and kill” and thus, potentially, become the first ever recipient of an anti-social behaviour order. Naturally, Zucco is not best pleased when an archaeologist Steve Banning (Foran) and his annoyingly bumbling friend Babe Jenson (Ford) arrive in Cairo intent on discovering the tomb of Princess Ananka, financed by a slightly more amusingly bumbling magician (Kellaway) and his foxy daughter (Moran). Upon accidentally discovering the tomb of Kharis, all hell - in a rather discreet manner – breaks loose.
What’s very odd is the structuring and tone of the film. Following a splendid first ten minutes, containing the flashback and the set-up for all four sequels, the tone changes abruptly into a sub-Abbott and Costello type comedy with Foran and Ford fulfilling the two roles in a vaguely inadequate manner. Although there are a few hints of sinister goings-on and the beginnings of a conspiracy to prevent investigation into the whereabouts of Kharis, low comedy predominates and is really rather irksome. In terms of character logic, it’s never explained why an allegedly brilliant scholar such as Banning would saddle himself with someone as depressingly thick and obnoxious as Babe Jenson. Has Babe got some scandalous gossip on Banning ? Has Banning been making a major excavation of the magician’s daughter ? Perhaps his interest in dead bodies is a little too up close and personal. Anyway, since it’s impossible to believe in the friendship, the first half of the movie falls flat. It doesn’t help matters that Wallace Ford’s comic timing seems to be woefully off – this is the kind of material which needs an on-form Lou Costello to bring it off successfully. Additional hindrance is provided by the presence of Cecil Kellaway in the secondary role of the magician and far more amusing and likeable than his co-star.
Yet suddenly, about forty-five minutes in, the tone changes once more and we get into an authentically scary movie which is surprisingly intense for the period. Admittedly, modern audiences are likely to be underwhelmed by the moments of horror but some of the imagery is highly effective and occasional shock moments are still quite effecting. Credit should certainly go to whoever had the brilliant idea to black out Tom Tyler’s eyes – it makes the Mummy far more disturbing than in any of the other films of the period and the result, combined with Tyler’s shambling walk (exacerbated by arthritis), is memorably disquieting. Consequently, if you stick with the rather slow and annoyingly unfunny first half, you’ll find yourself well rewarded and the final third of the film is certainly up there with Universal’s best moments. Further diversion is provided by moody cinematography and the presence of the aforementioned George Zucco, rather marvellous as the High Priest and is one of the few actors who can add an ominous undertone to a stock line like, “It is the most... dangerous.... region in Egypt.”
As a side note, it’s one of the few films of any note at all directed by Christy Cabanne. Beginning his career as an assistant to D.W.Griffith, Cabanne soon became one of the most prolific directors in Hollywood but he rarely ascended above second feature level and ended his days churning out C-List product for Monogram. Between 1921 and his death in 1950, he directed an astonishing 164 films and in 1940, his most productive year when he made The Mummy’s Hand (probably his best film), he managed to make seven movies.
The Mummy’s Tomb 2/10
There’s not a great deal to be said about this, the third of Universal’s Mummy series. It’s badly made, acted without any enthusiasm and even at a little over an hour, it is decidedly turgid.
Broadly speaking, it follows straight on from The Mummy’s Hand which proves to be an ideal excuse to blitz the audience with an incredibly long flashback to the events of the previous film, told by an ageing Banning to his niece and her fiancé. One has to admire Universal’s nerve is passing off fifty minutes of original footage as a brand new film but the viewer’s patience is further tried by the bits of the film which are new. Mehemet (Bey), new servant of the high priests of Karnak, travels to America with the tomb of a mysteriously undamaged Kharis, where he seeks to punish the members of the previous expedition for their blasphemy. However, matters are complicated by Mehemet’s unfortunate decision to fall in love with Banning’s niece.
Kharis is now played by Lon Chaney Jr, Universal’s new ‘horror star’. Unfortunately, Chaney was no Karloff and he’s not even a match for Tom Tyler. Having turned the Frankenstein Monster into a savage brute, he now finishes the job of defiling Karloff’s memory by playing the Mummy with all the finesse of a drunken English tourist trying to negotiate a revolving door. Chaney had been a good actor in the right role and the enormous praise he received for Of Mice and Men was well deserved. He managed to do a good job as Larry Talbot in the Wolf Man and its monster rally follow-ups. But he didn’t have any real range and certainly possessed none of the grotesque invention of his father.
The Mummy’s Tomb plods along in desultory fashion. It’s full of badly lit studio sets and endless expository conversations which actually manage to reveal very little while slowing the film down to a crawl. The supporting cast make no impression at all with the honourable exception of Turhan Bey who does his sinister Johnny Foreigner stereotype with a fair amount of hammy enthusiasm. The lack of solid support from Cecil Kellaway and George Zucco (except in flashback) is sorely missed. Director Harold Young was a studio hack who turned out films on time and on budget without the slightest trace of imagination or personality – unbelievably, The Mummy’s Tomb is one of the better items in a filmography which also includes I Escaped From The Gestapo and Machine Gun Mama.
The Mummy’s Ghost 4/10
I don’t know if The Mummy’s Ghost is really not bad or if it just comes as something of a relief that it’s not quite as dire as The Mummy’s Tomb. There really isn’t very much to say about it as a film in itself. Lon Chaney Jr. returns as Kharis, still powered-up on Tana leaves and still searching for his Princess Ananka, assisted by a High Priest of Karnak What is immediately interesting, however, is that Chaney’s star had already fallen by 1944 and he’s reduced from top billing to an “and’ credit at the end of the cast list. This was symptomatic of the way his career was going and he ended up in Z-grade schlock. Certainly, his Mummy performance is nothing to be proud of and could be the work of a stuntman for all the individuality that he brings to it.
What raises this above the level of its predecessor is an appearance from John Carradine as the avenging agent of the High Priests who is charged with the task of bringing Kharis and Ananka back to Egypt.. Carradine, now best known for horror movies, actually had a very prestigious Hollywood career with his appearances for John Ford ranking high in his filmography. However, his career as a Universal horror player was a slight disappointment with only his Dracula in House of Dracula really lingering in the memory. On the other hand, Carradine was usually enjoyable to watch, even when made-up as badly as he is here, and he manages to keep this movie going when it should simply run out of Tana leaves. It’s also very nice to see George Zucco back as the High Priest (now of an order called Arkam rather than Karnak, for reasons which go unexplained) and embalmed under some clumsy ageing make-up. Unfortunately, the young college types who are meant to be our heroes are remarkably uninteresting and the plot takes a hell of a long time to get going. Indeed, after a while you begin to realise that there really isn’t much of a plot at all, just enough to create some familiar monster chase scenarios. The image of Kharis rampaging around a suburban American landscape is actually quite a potent symbol of ancient rebelling against modern, but nothing is done with it.
Joining the honoured ranks of Christy Cabanne and Harold Young as Mummy sequel director is Reginald LeBorg, an Austrian whose output as director rarely rises above the mediocre. However, he does manage to create a little atmosphere in this movie, especially during the night-time scenes of the Mummy roaming wild, and once the film gets going it’s really quite diverting. It’s also worth pointing out the very unexpected and really rather brave ending, which comes as a huge surprise for followers of Universal Horror. This is more than can be said for the script which must have been excavated from a tomb of its own, containing as it does such gems as “Do you usually go walking round the campus in your nightgown?” which elicits the response, “I don’t know, I don’t know, I DON’T KNOW!”
The Mummy’s Curse 3/10
Bizarrely, The Mummy’s Curse kicks off with a song from a well-endowed, French-accented tavern owner. This is presumably meant to indicate that we’re deep in Cajun Country, but it also suggests that a even more padding than usual has been required to get the running time up to an hour. However, the Cajun setting is rather well evoked and certainly adds an unfamiliar element to what is otherwise a very familiar story indeed.
Lon Chaney is once again bandaged up and wandering about America assisted by a member of the Priests of Karnak, Arkam or whatever the hell it is. He’s back to top billing here, probably because there’s no-one else of any note whatsoever in the supporting cast. We’re treated to yet another flashback to Ancient Egypt, borrowed this time straight from The Mummy’s Hand. The scenes of Kharis plodding about are so ludicrously familiar that even Universal Horror die-hards are likely to find their patience being tried. There is a certain amusement to be had from the heroine signalling her past life as Princess Ananka through an inability to use verbal contractions, but that’s about it. The final scenes of Kharis meeting his doom at the behest of a big pile of rubble come as something of a relief. Even more of a relief is that Universal haven’t included the final “Mummy” film in this set, the utterly dire Abbott And Costello Meet The Mummy. What does seem a little odd in retrospect is that the studio didn’t see fit to include Kharis in one of their Monster Rally movies - House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula. Perhaps they realised that not even all the Tana leaves in the world could bring this corpse back to life and decided to call it a day. Not an unwise decision, I think.
This second disc in the collection does exactly what it says it will do, but not in a particularly exciting manner. If you want to have the sequels to The Mummy in your collection then this is a reasonably economical way of getting them but it’s not hard to feel that they could have been presented with a few more extra features.
Each film is presented in its original monochrome, full-frame format. For some reason, The Mummy’s Curse is preceded by the dreaded notice “This film has been formatted to fit your screen” but, fear not. It’s meant to look exactly as it does here. The quality of all the films is very similar – quite simply, very impressive. I’ve seen all of these films on television many times but I’ve never seen them looking as nice as they do here. Although there is the occasional print damage which I would expect to see, the level of detail is excellent and the shades of grey are subtle and impressive. Blacks are also impressively deep. All in all, I can’t imagine you’ll ever see these movies looking as good as they do here.
The soundtracks are similarly good. Some hiss in places but this isn’t too irksome and generally speaking, the dialogue is clear and the music comes across very strongly. Again, you’re unlikely to be disappointed on this score.
Sadly, the opportunity to look at aspects of the sequels or related issues – Chaney Jr’s career for example – has been squandered. All we get in the way of extras are the original theatrical trailers for each of the four films. Each film is subtitled but the trailers are not.
The Mummy Legacy Collection isn’t quite as impressive as its Black Lagoon stable mate and I’d have liked to see more extras included for the sequels. But if you haven’t got The Mummy - a true classic – then this is a good way of getting hold of it. More to the point, if you can’t get enough of Universal horror, even at the end of its tether, then this is an essential purchase.