Sunday, 24 November 2013

The Mummy (1932) on Blu-Ray

The Mummy has always been one of my favourites among Universal’s 1930s horror movies. My DVD copy being a very poor one it was not difficult to convince myself that the Blu-Ray release would be a worthwhile purchase.

I’ve always thought that The Mummy can be best appreciated by being seen as both a horror movie and a tragic love story. It was slightly unusual among Universal’s early horror offerings in not being based on a classic of gothic literature, although Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories Lot 249 and The Ring of Thoth were certainly influences. Interest in ancient Egypt was already high when the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen by a British archaeological expedition in 1922 ignited a full-blown craze. Nina Wilcox Putnam’s original screenplay was drastically rewritten by John L. Balderston. The movie was originally going to be about Cagliostro but it eventually evolved into a story much more closely focused on ancient Egypt.

The movie opens with a superbly mounted suspense set-piece as an assistant to Sir Joseph Whemple’s 1921 dig unwittingly restores to life the mummy of the high priest Imhotep. The mummy then disappears. A decade later a mysterious Egyptian named Ardeth Bey (Boris Karloff) leads another expedition to an extraordinary find, the tomb of the Princess Ankh-es-en-amon. The audience already knows that Ardeth Bey is in fact Imhotep.

As the story unfolds we learn of the tragic love of Imhotep and Ankh-es-en-amon. Imhotep believes that a young half-American half-Egyptian woman named Helen Grosvener (Zita  Johann) is Ankh-es-en-amon reincarnated and he is determined that this time their love will endure.

While Imhotep/Ardeth Bey is certainly ruthless and is certainly a danger to anyone who gets in his way he is never a true monster. He has no interest in killing random strangers or in destroying civilisation or in ushering in a reign of evil. All he wants is to have Ankh-es-en-amon restored to him and for the two lovers to be united forever. He is thus, even by comparison with some of the rather sympathetic Universal monsters, a very sympathetic monster indeed. Karloff doesn’t just make him sympathetic; he gives the character a great deal of weight and dignity. If it’s not Karloff’s greatest performance it’s certainly among his very best.

It remains a mystery why anyone ever thought David Manners, who plays Sir Joseph Whemple’s son Frank, was worth pushing as a potential star. He had the matinee idol looks certainly but he was always much too bland. Fortunately there’s a fine supporting cast here with Edward Van Sloan being particularly good as Doctor Muller, who is Helen’s doctor as well as Sir Joseph Whemple’s close friend and also happens to be the expert in the occult that such a movie has to have.

This movie also benefits from having one of the best female leads of any of the Universal horror pictures. Zita Johann was known mostly as a stage actor and although her performance is a little stagey that actually suits both the movie and her role perfectly. Most importantly she looks convincingly exotic without coming across as a femme fatale.

This was Karl Freund’s first movie as a director and he not only brought the film in on time and on budget, he also added the kind of visual flair and sophistication you would expect from a man who was one of the greatest of all cinematographers. Despite the potentially lurid subject matter Freund avoids sensationalism. He clearly wants to entertain but he also wants us to take the love story seriously, and he succeeds on both counts. And the movie delivers the chills that a horror movie requires.

Universal had not been making horror movies for very long when this one was made but they were already very very good at the technical side. Jack Pierce’s makeup for Karloff is perfect, striking the right balance. It is creepy but it still gives Karloff’s character the dignity that the story requires. The sets are wonderful and in general this is one of the handsomest horror films ever made.

The Blu-Ray boasts a superb transfer. It is loaded with extras although personally I found them to be rather disappointing. The commentary track is unfocused, partly because there are just too many people involved, but more seriously they simply have not done their homework (their most egregious error being to credit H. G. Wells as the author of the two short stories that inspired the movie even though a minimal amount of research would have told them that the stories were in fact from the pen of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle). There’s a documentary as well but it’s rather superficial.

What matters though is that The Mummy is one of the greatest of all horror movies and it looks magnificent on Blu-Ray.

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