Friday, November 12, 2010

THE MUMMY (1932)

“Nightmare,” Bakersfield Californian, Friday November 15, 1957

Bryan Senn in Golden Horrors quotes a Universal publicity department's pressbook suggestion for drumming up interest in THE MUMMY in 1932:

"Get up a fake mummy and case. Now arrange for a delivery truck to carry the mummy to the busiest section of town and DROP IT FROM THE TRUCK...The mummy, of course, should carry no advertising or identification. The police, mystified, will report the occurrence to newspapers, and headlines will announce the finding of a mysterious mummy. That is your cue to step in and announce that the mummy was being delivered to your theatre as a display and claim it."

In the 1957 SHOCK! promotional booklet's article "Audience Promotion to Excite Your Public," Screen Gems press agents recommend:

"A mummy 'escapes' from a museum, preferably one which has an Egyptian exhibit. By some odd chance, press photographers will be notified of the 'escape.' When the mummy is interviewed at the museum, he states that he left his tomb in order to get the SHOCK treatment."

I haven't been able to find any reports of such attempts at publicity in the late 1950s. I looked around for one because I wondered which Universal mummy-- Boris Karloff's Im-Ho-Tep or Tom Tyler/Lon Chaney Jr.'s Kharis -- would be the mummy that organizers would try to evoke with such SHOCK! stunts in 1957. The Kharis films from the forties were popular with audiences, but the original from the thirties had been re-released to theaters with some regularity as well, so the familiarity with each may have been equally high. I might be reading too much into it, but perhaps the fact that WBAK used a publicity still from 1942's THE MUMMY'S TOMB in the ad (posted above) for Karloff's mummy film may have meant that Im-Ho-Tep and Kharis were interchangeable in people's minds to a certain extent.

But there's a world of difference between the first mummy picture and the four that come later. (The SHOCK! package had the first four of the Universal mummy movies, while Son of SHOCK! carried the fifth, THE MUMMY'S CURSE.) It sounds funny, I know, but I don't think that THE MUMMY should even be thought of as a mummy movie as compared to the other four. Im-Ho-Tep is a spooky undead sorcerer, much more like Karloff's Dr. Fu Manchu, Morlant (THE GHOUL), or Poelzig (THE BLACK CAT) than Tyler and Chaney, Jr.'s mute, shuffling animated corpse.

I must have been seven or eight years old when I first saw THE MUMMY on television and I was disappointed by its lack of mummy beyond the reanimation sequence at the top of film. I think other people would share my displeasure if they had been led to believe that this was going to be in the same vein as THE MUMMY'S GHOST (or even ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE MUMMY). But this is not to say that I wasn't frightened by THE MUMMY: Karloff scared the holy hell out of me in this movie. Many people point out the parallels to DRACULA in THE MUMMY; the narrative similarities are certainly there, but this movie frightened me far more than DRACULA ever did.

Mummy movie or not, THE MUMMY is a masterfully eerie, haunting motion picture bristling with the stuff that you want out of a monster melodrama, like mad love, undead terror, occult warfare, reincarnation, lost civilizations, and wall-to-wall capital-R Romantic dread-- I'd easily rank it as one of the four or five best horror movies of the 1930s. It is meticulously directed for maximum visual interest, it's crammed full of well-detailed sets and props that really set the mood, and it includes some decent performances by the actors. Those performances are worth making some mention of, but I just can't stop talking about Karloff... I can't shake Karloff's creepy presence in this one; his restraint and stillness as Im-Ho-Tep communicates both a 3700 year-old fragility but also a menacing supernatural power that's coursing through him like high-voltage electricity. There's a kind of sad, impatient asceticism to Im-Ho-Tep, as if he's frustrated and embarrassed by the limitations of his flesh and spurred by the need to transcend those boundaries ("I dislike to be touched-- an Eastern prejudice"). Karloff manages to telegraph that dead-quiet but pulsating restlessness in almost ever scene.

Until very recently, I've only ever seen THE MUMMY on TV as a commercial broadcast, and I have to say that hypnotic spell that the film casts is easily broken and tough to get back into after being interrupted by a station's ad breaks. This is especially true of the flashback scene in the magic reflecting pool with Im-Ho-Tep and Zita Johann's Anck-es-en-Amon/Helen. That sequence has an almost hand-cranked silent movie feel to the proceedings, and coming back to it following a commercial for Sears department store (as was probably the case on Channel 29's "Nightmare" in Bakersfield in mid-November 1957, according to the print ad above) or whatever had to be very jarring. It probably made for some bored, distracted viewers who were looking for more Kharis-izing from this movie. Sadly, I'm guessing that today's ADHD-addled horror movie viewers-- enthusiastic consumers of jump-cut, shaky-cam, digital video, computer-generated hyper-predatory post-Romero undead films à la 28 DAYS LATER --would be equally impatient with movies totally committed to creating a moody, brooding ambiance like THE MUMMY, even on commercially-uninterrupted DVD.

Next: "For exciting adventure with G-Men on the trail of traitors, don't miss the next feature film presentation on Shock. It's ENEMY AGENT starring Robert Armstrong and it's on this channel!"


Mirek said...

This is an exquisite film and Karloff is, indeed, superb in it. I read somewhere that Sax Rohmer was upset by the film, as he thought it took elements from his own work. (What novel or short story?) However, Conan Doyle wrote two mummy stories that anticipated the film in several instances.

rogue evolent said...

Bride, for as few words as you used, this is simply the BEST review of Karloff's THE MUMMY that I think I've ever read. Your initial viewing of the movie mirrors my own experience. I was expecting a MUMMY walking around (one foot dragging behind) killing people (ala Kharis)... so it wasn't what I had anticipated. But it was still, as you correctly affirm ONE OF THE BEST couple of monster movies from the 30's...maybe one of the best "mood/monster" auras ever.
Thanks Bride!!
your CHFB pal,

kochillt said...

After FRANKENSTEIN and THE OLD DARK HOUSE, this was the first time that Karloff spoke in a Universal horror film, and again he proves himself a superb mime, styled to its original conception about Cagliostro rather than the rebooted bandaged monster from the 40's. "KARLOFF THE UNCANNY" would not return to his home studio until four features later, in 1934'S THE BLACK CAT. This Jack Pierce makeup design, making Karloff appear as aged as a 3000 year old parchment, would also be used on Lon Chaney for 1941's MAN MADE MONSTER, and on David Bruce for 1943's THE MAD GHOUL.

kochillt said...

Postscript: This was one of 6 films that aired a whopping 9 times on Pittsburgh's CHILLER THEATER. The others were INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, DRACULA'S DAUGHTER, BLACK FRIDAY, THE WOLF MAN, and FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN.