Attempts to remake Universal Pictures’ iconic horror movie The Mummy fail repeatedly because they cannot come close to topping the artistry or the popcorn movie excitement of the 1932 original starring Boris Karloff. If I were a filmmaker and my assignment was to make another version of The Mummy I would probably retire and take up another profession because you’re asking me to do the impossible: there will never be another Mummy movie that can top this.
Director Carl Freund was a master of silent horror having come up in the ranks of the early German Silent Film community and co-directed, The Golem, arguably the most influential silent horror movie of the early 20th century. Freund’s mastery of silent filmmaking made him the perfect choice for The Mummy which makes exceptional use of silence in the creation of the lead character of Imhotep, Boris Karloff’s iconic character.
The Mummy begins with a stellar sequence in which an archaeologist has uncovered the final resting place of the legendary Imhotep (Karloff) and discovered that he unlike any Mummy previously discovered. Imhotep was punished when he died and unlike most other Mummy’s, he was wrapped and buried alive. Inside the grave with Imhotep is the accused Scroll of Thoth. When the archaeologists assistant attempts to interpret the Scroll aloud he brings Imhotep back to life and in doing so, drives himself mad on the spot.
It’s a charged and completely awesome scene told with some of the most spot on bits of editing in history. The cuts between Imhotep slowly coming back to life and the unaware assistant reading the scroll are incredible and Freund’s choice to turn the camera away from what the assistant is seeing so that all that we see are shadows and hearing the mad laughter of the assistant, are as powerful as any horror image in history and better than any gory death in modern horror.
Cut to 10 years later, Imhotep, fully restored to life though still quite eerie looking with his strange wrinkled visage, visits the home of the archaeologist who discovered his tomb years ago. Convincing the man that his name is Ardeth Bey and that he can lead him to a legendary tomb, Imhotep hatches a plan to resurrect his long lost love, Princess Ankh-es-en-amon. Imhotep intends to use the scroll to bring his love back to life but first he needs a human form for her to inhabit, unlike him, the Princess was not buried intact.
Details of The Mummy, mere description almost makes your skin crawl. That’s how remarkably effective the movie is. Add to that Boris Karloff’s remarkable presence and innate charisma and you have the makings of a genre classic. Karloff is effortlessly imposing and the makeup work by the legendary Jack Pierce is impeccable. So many used to write off the Universal monster movies as just monster movies, but The Mummy is as detailed a work of art as any movie released in the first half century of film.
Boris Karloff was always a remarkable actor of impeccable style and talent. That he came to be associated with the grim, almost wordless, character of Frankenstein’s Monster is a testament to his innate appeal and to the public’s limited imagination. Once he became The Mummy and Frankenstein’s Monster audiences trapped him in those roles and while he never complained and gave his all in each and every B-movie he appeared in, I find it hard to imagine all of the greatness we missed out on by pigeonholing Karloff as a monster.
That said, he was pigeonholed by the two greatest monster performances of all time. Imhotep and Frankenstein’s Monster as iconic a pair of roles as Han Solo and Indiana Jones are for Harrison Ford or Don Corleone and Colonel Kurtz are for Marlon Brando. Admittedly, the cinematic crimes of Brenden Fraser and Tom Cruise have perhaps damaged the brand of The Mummy but perhaps if you follow my recommendation and watch The Mummy this week we can restore Karloff and this iconic character to its rightful place in the pantheon.