Thursday, October 2, 2014

Film Review: The Mummy

"The Mummy"  *** (out of ****)

The living dead just want to be loved in the Universal Studio's classic horror film "The Mummy" (1932).

"The Mummy" was produced by Carl Laemmle Jr., the same man who gave us "Dracula" (1931) and "Frankenstein" (1931). Universal Studios, at this time, was creating the horror films and characters they would forever be associated with. Also in 1932 Laemmle would produce "The Old Dark House" also with Boris Karloff. It too is a classic horror film. The following year Laemmle would present "The Invisible Man" (1933) with Claude Rains.

It is difficult not to believe these movies had an influence on one another. For example both "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" have a similar visual style. They were inspired by German Expressionism. But "The Mummy" feels like a bridge between "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" borrowing heavily from both movies' plots. And when we look at all three of them closely, they seem to be making a commentary for society.

As the movie's opening credits play we hear Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, which will immediately make some viewers think of "Dracula", which also used Swan Lake over its credits, in fact, that was all the music you heard in that movie. It had no musical score.

But the similarities don't stop there. "The Mummy" starts off in 1921 when the British Museum finances an archaeological expedition, led by Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron) in Cairo. Assisting Whemple is his friend, Dr. Muller (Edward Von Sloan) an occultist and Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher). The men believe they have discovered an ancient scroll known as the Scroll of Thoth, which Egyptians believed could bring back the dead. They have also discovered the tomb of Imhotep (Karloff). Whemple and Norton are eager to examine the tomb and read the scroll but Dr. Muller warns them of a curse written on a box which the scroll has been buried in. Anyone who opens it will die. Muller advises the men not to take these words lightly but Whemple declares, in the name of science, they are obligated to examine the tomb and the scroll. And so they do, causing Imhotep to come to life and take the scroll with him.

The event proves to be so dramatic, Norton, who has alone when the mummy came to life, is driven insane and shortly afterwards dies. Whemple vows to never go on a expedition again.

Ten years later, Whemple's son Frank (David Manners) has become an archaeologist and finds himself in Cairo on an expedition, searching for artifacts of ancient Egypt. What seems to be an unsuccessful expedition turns into one of the greatest discoveries Frank could have ever dreamed of, when a local Egyptian, Ardath Bey (Karloff), shows Frank where the tomb of a Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon is buried.

Bey isn't exactly innocent and has his own motivate of showing Frank where the princess was buried. He wants to reunite with her and bring her back to life. His plans change however when he meets Helen (Zita Johann), whom he believes is the reincarnated spirit of the princess, whom Bey loved and was buried alive for.

Both "The Mummy" and "Dracula" are the story of the undead. Creatures roaming around in modern times preying on the living. Both Bey and Dracula are able to put women in a trance. In both movies Edward Von Sloan plays the same type of character. In "Dracula" he was Professor Van Helsing. In both movies he has an understanding of the occult and is the only person that can help all the other characters defeat the creature they face.

The difference between the movies is, Dracula is a scarier character. Bela Lugosi played him as a suave, deceitful murderer. Karloff plays Bey rather stiff, as if he is still playing The Monster in "Frankenstein". He is not charming and suave.

"The Mummy" also lacks a visual flair. There really isn't much interesting in the aesthetic of the picture. It is shot rather conventionally, which is a surprise because the movie was directed by Karl Freund. Freund was a cinematographer and shot "Dracula" and "Metropolis" (1927). You would think he had a good eye and could create an effective shot. But, perhaps the directors of those two films had a lot to do with the look and visual style.

Visually the most interesting scenes are flashbacks showing Imhotep and Princess Akh-es-en-Amon and the mummification process of Imhotep being buried alive for angering the Gods by trying to bring the princess back to life. These scenes are shot like a silent movie. It sets itself apart from the rest of the picture.

But I would say it is the commentary of "The Mummy" that caught my attention most. As we look at "Dracula", "Frankenstein" and "The Mummy" we see a consistent anti-science message being propagated in all three movies. Each film warns of the dangers of science and its far reaching effects. Science is meddling with nature, playing God. Science has no respect for tradition. It simply won't leave well enough alone. Society is far too curious for its own good. People believe through science they can create a human, they disregard tradition and read ancient scrolls and do business deals with vampires.

This theme has been fairly common in horror films and science fiction movies, particularly in the 1950s with movies such as "The Fly" (1958) with Vincent Price or "Creature from the Black Lagoon" (1954). It was mostly a result of World War II and the atomic bomb. People now noticed just how far science had taken us and the destruction it was capable of. It is difficult for me however to determine what caused this suspicion of science in the 1930s. It is also interesting since these movies were released so closely together, really enforcing this concept. "The Invisible Man" would be another example a year later.

However "The Mummy" does do a good job of creating an eerie atmosphere. Each character knows who Bey really is and feels threatened by him, this results in a constant level of suspense. We never know when Bey will attack.

I also like the production designs of the movie. A lot of the sets are big and lavish almost like a Cecil B. Demille movie.

Between "Dracula", "Frankenstein" and "The Mummy" I'm not sure which is really the scariest. I believe Dracula is the scariest character because he is pure evil. The Monster was almost an innocent child that is misunderstood. Bey is driven by love and goes to great lengths to reunite with his lover, still he has a sinister side to him. In the end, all three are worth watching this Halloween.