The Mummy (1932)

Starring Boris Karloff, Zita Johann, David Manners, Edward van Sloan. Directed by Karl Freund. Written by John L. Balderston. Distributed by Universal.


I am a fan of old horror movies. Even if they never scare me, never quite thrill me, and don't send shivers down my spine (to quote and ape the old, classic trailers). I just like them. Their dusty writing and stilted acting. Their operatic sets and abrupt ending. Their often painful grasp of what scares (the dead comes to life! TERROR!) and what motivates (beautiful woman in evening gown + dashing young man = insta-romantice subplot!). They are often fun movies, in a way that many American movies nowadays cannot be, because I don't think they are ever able to take themselves quite seriously. The relax a little around the edges, and this makes them appealing. Like modern horror movies, the best ones feel like they were made by fans of the genre. They may be technically poor, but they have a certain living spirit to them. Made by fans for fans.

And I like the 1999 remake of The Mummy, which isn't really horror so much as supernatural action. But it's fun and apocalyptic and all that. A lot of the old tricks are at play in the remake: insta-romance and the dead walk with creepy crawlies for horror shortcuts. But then it has a pedigree to live up to.

The problem is that the original movie is mind-numblingly mispaced and surprisingly vapid. The first 70% of the film requires an immense series of illogical actions from everyone, including Imhotep. Most of the characters are just drifting in the script to their illogical conclusion. It's not that there isn't any horror to it, and there isn't, but there is nothing else to really draw one in. While Dracula and Frankenstein had a sense of epic landscapes, and even The Creature from the Black Lagoon had this sense of being outside of the influence of man; this movie spends most of its Egyptian time inside of a English style mansion, with its blackface servant: the Nubian. What few outside shots are there are so generic and brief as to only give you a taste for more. The handful of Egyptian scenes (half take place in a sparsely filled museum display) aim for a couple of pillars and a couple of statues more than anything else. Imhotep's lair is a mostly empty room out of a Doctor Who episode, with a white a cat and a divining pool that probably cost about $15 dollars to make.

Cheap sets, bad pacing, and a lack of thrills can be forgiven if the acting is higher caliber; an event not meant to be in this movie. Karloff was able to capture the very nature of horrirific creep in his movies, but in this one the director seemed more interesting in point out "Hey, it's Boris Karloff!" rather than let him get into the role. Drs. Muller and Whemple are well enough acted, even if they are never quite give enough time to breathe and move, but the younger hero (Frank and Helen) are so generic as to be almost extraneous. By the time the end comes, and Zita Johann is meant to act out the woman torn between her modern soul as Helen and her ancient soul as Anke-es-en-amon, which could have been a pivotal moment of acting, the audience is left with a performance almost comical. Johann obviously didn't believe it, and neither will the audience.

Despite the legacy it created, and despite the potential, the movie gets a Meh from me. Stopped from being all bad by a handful of scenes, it still will likely bore: being neither moody, nor narratively consistent, nor well acted, nor well shot.

Written by W Doug Bolden

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