The Mummy (1932)

the-mummy-1932-boris-karloff

One of the things I keep experiencing with these Universal horror classics is that their imagery and ideas have been canonised and cannibalised to such a degree that expectations are quite a stone’s throw from what the films themselves are actually like. Dracula, The Invisible Man and Creature From the Black Lagoon – movies I’ve only seen for the first time very recently – all benefitted or were hindered by being far different from what their far-reaching legacies led me to expect from them. The Mummy also follows this pattern.

Turns out Karloff wrapped in bandages as a decomposing corpse is only present in the film’s prologue and featured in maybe two shots at the most. Instead he spends most of the movie in some effective old-age make-up taking part in a surprising number of sinister dialogue scenes with the film’s heroes. I expected a semi-silent Karloff monster closer to his performance Frankenstein. Not so! Here he is quite verbose and articulate. Still, the filmmakers get a lot of mileage out of his extraordinary physicality with one truly piercing close-up being repurposed four or five times throughout. The core story also has a lot more in common with the Stephen Sommers’ 1999 re-imaginging than I assumed, making this another tragic gothic love story at its heart. Watched over 80 years later though, The Mummy‘s impact has faded somewhat. Now it mainly holds up as a fascinating time capsule of studio-shocker theatrics and early make-up effects rather than a totally satisfying horror classic.

And yet, there’s another aspect of The Mummy which makes it ripe for discussion in regards to cinema history. The director, Karl Freund, is often credited as the pioneer of the moving camera and his work as cinematographer with Fritz Lang and FW Murnau cemented his place in the cinematic hall of fame. I had no idea there was this connection between this minor, if iconic, entry in the Universal horror pantheon and movies like Metropolis and The Last Laugh (he also worked as DOP on Dracula) but it certainly made me watch it with more curious eyes. Freund doesn’t give his German counterparts a run for their money in the direction department but the way his camera moves within the spaces and the use of lighting to enhance the minimal sets is clearly the work of a gifted technician with great understanding of cinema’s aesthetic potential.

Because of its place in the formative years of mainstream horror, The Mummy will likely always be a part of the conversation in regards to the genre and yet its technical and narrative pleasures are rather fleeting and slight. Maybe it’s because the film lacks a literary source, maybe it;s because it just doesn’t hold up. Either way, it’s great to watch as a curiosity but not a film I fully got into. Horror completists have got to see it at least once though, right?

Watched on blu-ray.

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