The Mummy (1932) Review

Like Satchel Paige, Universal Studios seemed keenly aware of the dangers of looking back. Something, of course, might have been gaining on them. Full speed ahead it was, then, for their popular horror films of the early 1930s, as Dracula, Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, and The Mummy all saw release in either 1931 or 1932. All those but the first starred Boris Karloff, the former William Henry Pratt of London, England, and an iconic horror star who truly suffered for his art in the form of tedious make-up sessions at the hands of Jack Pierce. The two men, artist and model, probably remain most responsible for the continued, decades-long success of the horror film-cum-romance The Mummy. Trying to associate the film with anything besides the intricately layered, sandswept crust of Pierce's foundation worn by Karloff seems unimaginable.

If the image of Karloff in character isn't already ingrained in first-time viewers' memories from clips and promotional materials, it will be after watching the film's first twelve minutes. Still unsettling, if not terrifying, after all these years, these initial moments are the closest the film gets to traditional horror conventions. The opening is 1921, at an Egyptian tomb obviously inspired by the heavily publicised Tutankhamen dig from that year. British Museum archaeologists are in the midst of a mummified Imhotep, standing upright in a wooden coffin. Despite uncovering a scroll that specifically warns against doing exactly what they do, the men inadvertently revitalise the dead. The unfortunate witness is Norton (Bramwell Fletcher), who's all alone when Karloff's Imhotep comes to life with eerie realism. Viewers see a completely made-up Karloff, in full mummy wrap, slowly open his eyes. Then it's a creeping hand. This mummy isn't seen walking or even barely moving. The final shot of the unearthed creature is merely a few strips of cloth bandages as Norton laughs maniacally. It's a memorable, amazingly effective sequence, directed and lit by the legendary German cinematographer Karl Freund.

What follows veers far closer to a tortured romance than a horror film. The year changes to 1932 and a fez-wearing gentleman who looks suspiciously like Boris Karloff comes calling on the current expedition. He identifies himself as Ardath Bey. As we learn, his death was tortuous and involved his love for Princess Anck-es-en-Amon, who's apparently been reincarnated as Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann) in present-day 1932. Bey/Imhotep aims to relieve his once and future paramour of her earthly existence so that they can again be together.

Classic or not, the plot of The Mummy is convoluted and imperfectly executed. Bits and pieces seem thrown in here, there, everywhere, but not always with total sense. It creaks along and the supporting cast is typical of early sound films in that they give dull, uninspiring performances. The shortcomings are almost entirely compensated for by Karloff's characterisation, a story that is actually pretty fascinating after it's understood, and some terrific lighting, presumably with heavy input from Freund, though Charles Stumar is the credited cinematographer.

As a refresher, Karl Freund was the director of photography for F.W. Murnau on a number of films, and also worked with Fritz Lang on Metropolis. When he got to Hollywood, he photographed everything from uncredited work on All Quiet on the Western Front to Dracula. The Mummy was his opportunity to make a picture on his own, but his career as director was short-lived. The superior Peter Lorre film Mad Love, from 1935, ended up being his last time in charge and he soon went back to being a cinematographer, this time for MGM in the '40s and working on pictures like The Seventh Cross and Key Largo. He ultimately found a new niche as cameraman for, of all things, I Love Lucy, where he pioneered the technique of filming shows with three cameras for television.

It may have been Freund's experience with silent film that informed much of The Mummy because several of the most effective scenes simply use images without needing any sound. (Norton's crack-up being the exception, though it comes without the aid of musical score.) I'm thinking of that tattered cloth trail, or the many close-ups of Karloff's cracked face with glowing eyes, or much of the pool scene with Zita Johann. Karloff's performance could even be said to excel within the wordless existence of stares and presence. When he does speak, it's usually deliberate, solemn, and with centuries' worth of stiffness. This is nonetheless the film's charm.

The Mummy would most likely be nothing without Karloff, and not just because he was probably the only major actor willing to endure the necessary make-up. His invisible laser eyes are unnerving, and those close-ups have surely influenced countless other works. There's also a secondary layer of understated elegance present in Karloff's performance. He creates a character who's tragic and sympathetic. I'm not sure the viewer is inclined to root for anyone in particular, but I can't imagine actively hoping for bad things to happen to Imhotep. Karloff imbues his stoic mummy with vulnerability, with confused determination, and, ultimately, with tragedy. His fate feels undeserved. Freund's film keeps us interested, through one viewing or a hundred, because Karloff doesn't realise he's playing the ostensible villain of the piece.

The Discs

The R1 Universal Legacy Series special edition two-disc set (both dual-layered) of The Mummy finds the film looking rather good, all things considered. The full frame progressive transfer has plenty of print damage, including frequent scratches and a few instances of missing frames, but nothing that significantly detracts from the viewing experience. The grain is obvious, but not excessive for a film of this age. Detail is modestly good, as are the black levels. The transfer is also consistent in quality, rarely deviating much from scene to scene. Though it's not ideal by any stretch of the imagination, it's difficult to say how much better the film could really look at this point.

The back of the case boasts a "digitally remastered" picture, but I don't have access to a comparison against the other releases of The Mummy. Research elsewhere seems to indicate the print used is the same as on the previous DVD edition.

An English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track hardly makes any impression, barely eking out the flat audio typical of early sound films. There's a persistent hiss throughout, and dialogue can seem buried. It's certainly audible, but unlikely to impress anyone. The score comes on strong at times, driving the volume level out of a comfortably even level. The limitations here are, nonetheless, to be expected and not out of the ordinary. Subtitles are provided in English for the hearing impaired, French, and Spanish. They are white in colour.

Tracking the various Universal Horror DVD releases can be an arduous task. Like Dracula and Frankenstein, The Mummy has now had three separate editions in R1. The first, released in 1999 as part of the "Classic Monster Collection" series, contained a commentary from film historian Paul M. Jensen and a featurette entitled "Mummy Dearest: A Horror Tradition Unearthed," along with a stills gallery and trailer. A 2004 re-issue combined Freund's original film with four (inferior) sequels for release in the "Legacy Collection." It also contains the exact same commentary, featurette, stills gallery, and trailer as the earlier disc. All of those are trotted out once again on this most recent incarnation, somewhat confusingly included in Universal's "Legacy Series" line.

Potential buyers looking to pick up the Special Edition reviewed here can at least be content knowing nothing has been lost from the other releases except those sequels. Both Jensen's informative, but robotic analysis and the "Mummy Dearest" featurette (30:11) are worthwhile extras and necessary inclusions regardless of how many times Universal sees fit to bring out a new release of the film. The latter touches on Zita Johann, comparisons to Dracula, and the sequels more than any of the other supplements. The original theatrical trailer (1:36), here joined by trailers for the other four Mummy films, and that stills gallery (9:45) have also made the jump from prior editions.

New on disc one is a commentary advertised as featuring Rick Baker, Scott Essman, Steven Haberman, Bob Burns, and Brent Armstrong. In reality, noted make-up artist Baker only enters the track at about the seven-minute mark and talks, by himself, for about six minutes total. Before and after Baker's participation, the four other commentators share the floor in a discussion of the film that plays much closer to fans' hearts than Jensen's more academic commentary. The group track is conversational while still being interesting and knowledgeable. It seems a little off the cuff, but provides a definite alternative to Jensen's approach. You can also listen to both tracks without it feeling completely repetitive.

The second disc of the set is anchored by Kevin Brownlow's Universal Horror documentary, which was also included on the 75th Anniversary editions of both Frankenstein and Dracula a couple of years ago. The feature-length extra runs 95 minutes and is narrated by Kenneth Branagh. It's an excellent, informative overview of early American horror films and, despite the title, isn't limited just to those made by Universal Studios. I'm not sure it's something one needs to own two or three times across multiple releases, but classic horror fans should probably have the documentary in their library somewhere.

Equally good is "He Who Made Monsters: The Life and Art of Jack Pierce" (25:00), a featurette about Universal's star make-up man who first made a name for himself on The Man Who Laughs and then famously created the characters found in Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, and many others. The piece makes clear that Pierce, even more than Karloff, was the man whose fingerprints can be found on all of the essential Universal horror films of the '30s. A lame piece of promotional filler entitled "Unraveling the Legacy of The Mummy" (8:08) finishes things off. It's from a few years back and was obviously made to promote 2001's The Mummy Returns. A movie ticket to see The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, the latest film in the series, can be found inside the hard, book-like case, and is valid for up to $7.50, through August 24.

Final Thoughts

Many potential purchasers of this release will probably already know what they're getting in terms of film quality - an interesting, if inconsistent and unhurried horror classic heavily infused with gothic romance. The question of why choose this release versus the previous one or two should be answered based on whether extra films, meaning the four sequels, are preferred over extra features. If The Mummy had never been on DVD before, Universal's Legacy Series special edition would be an essential. As it is, however, there may not be enough here to inspire current owners of the earlier version to upgrade, despite a very handsome packaging job (including a back case with specs printed directly on instead of a glued sheet of paper) from the studio. Only a new group commentary and a 25-minute feature on Jack Pierce are exclusive to this newest release, and, though both are worthwhile, gun-shy buyers may, justifiably, be reluctant to own another copy of the movie without more substantial improvements.

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