Sunday, October 20, 2013

Gloom from the Deserts

I wonder if it was Boris Karloff or Christopher Lee who was so attractive Anne Rice felt compelled to write her own version of The Mummy which reads like a romance novel where the mummy gets the girl. It wasn't her best work by any means though I suspect it would triumph easily in competition with to-day's paranormal romances. In any case, I would certainly argue the mummy is a rather magnetic fellow in both the 1932 Universal film and in the 1959 Hammer film. Though neither movie is flawless and the 1932 film is by far the superior of the two.

The 1932 film is the sexier, too. It introduces the female lead, a reincarnation of Imhotep's love, a priestess of Isis, as a young woman staying in Cairo with her psychiatrist. Imhotep is the mummy played by Karloff--he's resurrected, of course, when some archaeologists tamper with artefacts they don't understand.

Though one of the men warns against opening the magic scroll with the power to raise the dead--this is Doctor Muller played by Edward Van Sloan, the same guy who plays Van Helsing in Todd Browning's Dracula and he plays basically the same role. He's an important part of the film's weakest plot point, when he goes abruptly from trying to appease the agent of the ancient curse to fighting him. At the same moment, Imhotep for no reason decides not to take back the scroll he's been murdering people to get when he knows it's just in the next room.

But the scenes between him and Helen (Zita Johann) are wonderfully bittersweet. As usual, the good normal human fellow she's supposed to end up with is tremendously dull. Sometimes I wonder if Francis Ford Coppola didn't know what he was doing when he cast Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker.

Helen is confused when being put in costume returns all her memory of being the Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon as well as well as the memory of loving Imhotep. For some reason she rebuffs the big reanimated corpse.

Karloff only wears the famous bandages at the beginning of the film, spending most of the rest of it in fez and robe. And he's perfectly capable of speaking. He plays Imhotep with restraint allowing feelings to subtly play over his enormous features. One watching him has the impression of unimaginable fatigue, sadness, and a sort of hopeless but unshakable resolve.

I'd say Christopher Lee does just as well in the 1959 film though since his mummy's tongue was cut out before death he's deprived of his famous bass. There's an interesting flashback sequence to his life with the priestess but her reincarnated, present day self isn't introduced until an hour into the hour and a half film. This is when Peter Cushing as the certainly more interesting male lead suddenly looks up from his desk and realises his wife who the audience has never seen before looks exactly like the Egyptian princess he's spent a good part of his career researching.

She barely has enough time to be recognised and carried off by the mummy, though we do get this classic image.

This is when she faints after realising she has complete control over the homicidal dead man. The fainting spells do seem to strike some gothic ladies at the most inopportune times.

Where the 1932 film looks like it was at least partially shot in Egypt, the 1959 film was clearly shot entirely in England, making copious use of an indoor set for desert exteriors.

There's a lot of coloured lighting in the film, a lot of inexplicable lighting. Sometimes it looks cheap, sometimes it has that big, artificial charm of a Hammer film.

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