The Mummy (1932)

The Mummy (1932) (1932)
Universal Home Video
Cast: Boris Karloff, Zita Johann
Extras: Commentary Track, Documentaries, Poster and Still Galleries, Theatrical Trailer

With the exceptional box-office success and popularity of Universal’s summer hit "The Mummy", another film has been brought back to people’s attention. A film, that had almost been wiped out of people’s collective memory, and was mostly appreciated by fans for the classic horror genre exclusively. I am talking, of course, of the original 1932 version of Universal’s "The Mummy" that now finds its way to DVD as the second entry in their "Classic Monster Collection". It had been a very long time since I had last seen this enchanting, yet frightening film, and I was eagerly awaiting this disc. After 3,700 years, a team of British archeologists uncover the mummy of Im-Ho-Tep (Boris Karloff), an Egytpian high priest who had been embalmed alive for trying to revive the woman he loved. While searching through the treasures that were housed by Im-Ho-Tep’s tomb, they also uncover an old scroll and accidentally resurrect the mummy by opening a cursed case and reading from the scroll inside.

Finally alive again, Im-Ho-Tep has only one plan, to find his long lost love, but it still takes years for him to find a trace. As Ardath Bey he tried to revive his former love once again, until one day, almost by accident, he meets Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann) and immediately senses that she is the reincarnation of Anck-es-an-Amon, the woman he had always loved. From then on, Im-Ho-Tep has only one goal. To immortalize his love and to kill everyone who should dare to step in his way.

"The Mummy" was consciously designed to be a vehicle for Boris Karloff who was celebrating a major success with "Frankenstein" at the time. The filmmakers were instinctively aware of the fact however that with "The Mummy" they could not use the same recipe, but instead had to create a different kind of suspense than the one created in "Frankenstein". William Balderston, who had already adapted the screenplay’s for "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" was brought in to work on "The Mummy". The result is a script that contains a very ominous, brooding atmosphere without real shocks and strong parallels to his work on "Dracula", although the films are really quite different. It is the subtlety of "The Mummy", its understatement and the breathtaking cinematography that make "The Mummy" a very remarkable experience. Ultimately it is the same reason why from the pool of all Mummy movies of the past, only this 1932 version can truly be considered a classic.

"The Mummy" is the directorial debut of Karl Freund, a veteran cameraman from Germany who had worked on numerous of F.W. Murnau’s films, as well as Fritz Lang’s "Metropolis" and the genre classic "Der Golem", and who had also served as the cameraman on Tod Brownings "Dracula" with Bela Lugosi. It is his remarkably restrained direction that puts the film in a league of its own and it only makes you wonder how good a film "Dracula" could have been with him as the director instead of only lensing it. Not only is the photography of "The Mummy" breathtaking and the element that creates the most scares throughout the film, the way Freund unfolds the story and decides not to show certain things is what makes "The Mummy" a genre highlight. The best example of the restrained approach is the scene when the Mummy is resurrected in the film’s beginning. We do not even get to see Boris Karloff’s full-body make-up for which he endured endless hours in the make-up chair. The scene simply shows us a close-up of his head as he slowly opens his eyes. Next thing we see is the Mummy’s hand demanding the scroll, and then the lose ends of the bandages being dragged out the door. It is the slowness of this scene, and the fact that the Mummy isn’t really doing anything that makes it so effective.

It is not exactly know whether the decision to develop the film’s opening like this was ultimately made by Balderston or Freund, as it appears like this in Balderston’s script, on which the director has supposedly had some influence. Other truly memorable scenes can be found when the camera is practically prowling through the empty museum at night. It is obvious that Karl Freund’s background as a cameraman has led to many of the film’s creative decisions and as a result, "The Mummy" is clearly the most visual and poetic of all the classic monster movies, and also the least horrific one. At its heart, "The Mummy" is a romantic love story. A story about eternal suffering and the liberation from it, and only certain elements classify the film as a real horror movie.

Ultimately it is Boris Karloff’s dignified portrayal of Im-Ho-Tep/Ardath Bey that will catch your attention. Very different for the part of the shambling creature he has become so famous for, his performance in "The Mummy" is as subtle as it is deep. His mannerisms and his sonorous voice truly make you believe that he is man who has crossed time and worlds. There is not the slightest hint of agitation in his play, making Im-Ho-Tep a calculating antagonist who is a menace to anyone, without displaying any open hostility. The make-up he is wearing in this film is just as stunning as the one in "Frankenstein", and although mostly overlooked, it is the make-up of the un-mummified Karloff that is the most remarkable. Look out for the highly effective scenes when we get to study Boris

Karloff’s face in an extreme close-up while he is using his telepathic powers to kill people. It is a truly haunting image that has been sticking in my mind ever since I first saw this film many, many years ago. The dramatic shadows in the shot make him look extremely haggard and yet, the fire in is eyes is immense, showing us his uncanny power while he is practically doing nothing.

Universal Home Video has released in a special edition on this DVD. Unfortunately the film has aged and has not been restored as painstakingly as "Frankenstein" which we saw in an earlier DVD release from Universal. It is hardly surprising, as "The Mummy" is not as widely regarded as "Frankenstein" or "Dracula", despite the fact that it is actually the better film. As a result, the transfer on this disc reveals a rather damaged film print with speckles and dust, as well as worn out sprocket holes and problematic splicing. Despite all these deficiencies, I felt I was re-experiencing the film because the film has a notable clarity on this DVD that I had never noticed on other versions. It seems to be a result of the film’s balanced picture that has dark blacks and good highlights without appearing overexposed. Once again, Universal decided not to apply too much noise reduction on the transfer and the result is a sharp looking image with plenty of detail. It is definitely the way I prefer to see these films as opposed to digitally over-enhanced transfers that wash out every bit of detail. The compression is flawless without signs of compression artifacts.

The disc contains a 2-channel <$DD,Dolby Digital> representation of the film’s original mono soundtrack, and sadly it is just as problematic as the video part. A lot of noise reduction has been applied to this film to get rid of the noise floor, the hissing and the pops. Unfortunately it seems as if the film’s audio has been processed in an auto-pilot mode. All the high end of the audio track has been rigorously clipped leaving only mid-range and low end intact. The result is dialogue that is sometimes hard to understand and total silence in shots where the scene was originally dominated by ambient sound effect. None of the original ambient effects are intact, leaving the film’s audio strangely bleak at times.

The disc once again features one of David J. Skal’s original documentaries, called "Mummy Dearest". Like the one found on "Frankenstein" it reveals many interesting facts about the film, as well as revelations about the methodology applied to create this film. Especially the anecdotes surrounding Karl Freund were very interesting and once again seem to prove that highly creative people tend to have knack for eccentricities. But also Sara Karloff’s recollections about her father’s work on the film are priceless, as are all the other bits and pieces that come to light in this featurette.

A very good <$commentary,commentary track> by Paul M. Jensen can also be found on the disc. It is laden with information and historic details about the film, and the actors. After a few minutes it quickly becomes a valuable source of constant information about many aspects surrounding the film. Jensen also points out a number of scenes that were ultimately removed from the shooting script, analyzing their (un)importance in the overall picture and why they had supposedly been removed.

The disc further contains an extensive gallery of still images, ranging from theatrical posters and behind-the-scenes pictures to some of the original and very atmospheric promotional still images for the film, including the famous full-body shot of Boris Karloff in his bandaged Mummy make-up – a picture that never appeared in the final film. The movie’s original theatrical trailer, cast & crew biographies and production notes round this release off. All in all the supplements are very well produced and make for a very complete coverage of the film.

"The Mummy" needs a serious restoration, so much is clear, but nonetheless, I have to admit that I have greatly enjoyed this DVD release. "The Mummy" is a phenomenally atmospheric film, and this DVD gave me the chance to see the movie in a quality that is better than any presentation I had seen before, despite its technical problems. It may not be a top-notch release, but for fans of the film and for lovers of the classic horror genre, this release is a gem that has to go into every collection.