Universal Legacy Collection – Chapter 4: The Mummy
By Jason Marsiglia
During an archeological dig in Egypt, a team of British archeologists excavate the ancient mummy of a high Egyptian priest named Imhotep and the cursed scroll of Thoth, incased with a warning of consequence to whomever disturbs the tomb. Despite a good doctor’s warning to pay heed to Egyptian curses (Edward Van Sloan, again playing the stoic “voice of reason”), the archeologists disregard the curse as old Egyptian hooey and crack that sucker open in the name of science. This of course awakens the moldy, bandaged corpse of Imhotep, who shuffles out of his sarcophagus, snatches his scroll and leaves the witnessing archeologist laughing and babbling in madness!
We shoot ahead 11 years (to “present day” 1932), where a mysterious Egyptian named Ardath Bey (Karloff, in another subtle and menacing performance) hires one of the original archeologists from the 1921 dig and his son to excavate the tomb of Ankh-es-en-amon – an Egyptian princess Imhotep once tried to resurrect using the scroll of Thoth, but was quickly mummified and buried alive for his acts of sacrilege. They find her tomb (with Ardath’s help – he is, after all, Imhotep rejuvenated, unbeknownst to the doctors) and whisk the princess and her buried treasures to a large Cairo museum.
While in Cairo, Imhotep happens upon the object of the young doctor’s affections, a lovely, and feisty number named Helen, who – wouldn’t ya know it – bears more than a passing resemblance to Princess Ankh-es-en-amon. Using the power of the scroll, Imhotep wields a ferocious attack on the archeologists through mystic telepathy in order to lure Helen into his arms to be mummified with him for eternity.
If any of this is sounding at all familiar, that’s because The Mummy was scripted by John Balderston, the very playwright who penned the stage version Tod Browning’s Dracula was based on. So it’s of no coincidence at all that The Mummy in many, many, ways is practically identical in plot and structure to Dracula. We have an “undead” antagonist in Imhotep, same as Dracula. We have a young doctor’s girlfriend the object of the villain’s obsessions and is lured by his powerful hypnosis, just like in Dracula. And we have, of course, Edward Van Sloan, once again playing the doctor who knows all of the expositional details to first warn our heroes, and then help them defeat the foe when they inevitably ignore him. I swear, I have no clue why they didn’t just tie Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy together by casting Van Sloan as Van Helsing in all three, as he plays virtually the same character in all of them. Hell, the film even scores its opening with “Swan Lake” again, too.
See, this is really my primary reason for not quite buying into The Mummy like I did the earlier Universal monster films. It’s far too derivative of them in almost every way. Don’t get me wrong, The Mummy has some wonderful things going for it. We have lush and impressive set designs. We have Karloff in a role every bit as menacing as Frankenstein’s monster, however this time lacking any sympathetic attributes, and far more dialogue. Though uncredited, we have make-up extraordinaire Jack Pierce returning to make Karloff look as decayed and withered as possible during the film’s opening reveal of Imhotep, as well as giving him a significantly rejuvenated look later when he’s under the alias of Ardath Bey, while still retaining a rather prunish quality. The make up is subtle and brilliant, as usual for Pierce. The glowing eye effect used in Dracula is put to good use here as well, and a frightening and violent flashback sequence gives the proceedings a much-needed shot in the arm near the film’s finale.
But again, The Mummy is so much like Dracula in terms of its tone and story structure that the pacing of the film suffers because of it. It all feels too familiar, and without some of the more eerie and intrusive horrors that Dracula harbored, much of The Mummy plods along far slower than Universal’s previous efforts. Since The Mummy wasn’t based on a book or play like Dracula or Frankenstein, it seemed the screenwriters and producers simply culled a story together from an already twice tried-and-true formula, and milked it to parade a new monster across the screen. As subsequent Universal sequels will prove, milking a tried-and-true formula is not something Universal was above doing, and doing often. It’s rather unfortunate, considering all the great visual treats and the moody performance by Karloff essentially flounder in the pedestrian script and direction.
C: Boris Karloff, Zita Johann, David Manners, Edward Van Sloan, Arthur Byron. D: Karl Freund. Sub genre: Mummies. Time: 73 minutes. Ratio: (1.33:1) Fullscreen. Not Rated: Mild violence.
The Best Digital Bang For Your Hard-Earned Buck:
Mummy Dearest: A Horror Tradition Unearthed – An original documentary by Film Historian David J. Skarl that chronicals the entire shoot and also takes a brief look at the other (un-related) Mummy pictures produced by Universal Studios.
An Audio Commentary by Film historian Paul M. Jensen – Lots of information here, but MAN is this guy monotone. It’s a very dry commentary and becomes kind of a chore to listen to in one sitting (for me, anyway).
The Mummy Archives Photo Gallery which features a series of the film’s posters and colorful adds set to the film’s score.
Original theatrical trailers for all films rounds everything out.
The Legacy Collection also provides the entire 4-picture Mummy’s Hand series which includes The Mummy’s Hand (1940), The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), The Mummy’s Ghost (1944) and The Mummy’s Curse (1944).
Now, just like the Dracula and Frankenstein films before it (and the Wolfman set later), Universal re-released The Mummy in a “Special Edition” 2-Disc set. With the exception of the Mummy’s Hand series, everything from the Legacy Collection was carted over, but they included a couple of extra items of note.
The bonus material is relatively similar, but again, I want you to take a look at both, and make the decision as to which set you’re going to purchase.
A new Feature Commentary by Rick Baker, Scott Essman, Steven Haberman, Bob Burns and Brent Armstrong which is FARRRR more entertaining to listen to than the one provided by Paul M. Jensen and offers a wealth of new material, so both commentaries compliment each other nicely.
He Who Made Monsters: The Life and Art of Jack Pierce: A tribute to legendary make-up artist Jack Pierce. This is worth the price of the set alone, finally giving the legendary make-up effects artist his due.
Unraveling the Legacy of The Mummy: Look back at the evolution of the series and its character.
And lastly, they placed that studio documentary Universal Horror on here again. You can read my thoughts on this nifty feature on my review for the original Dracula.
Availability: The Mummy is released in a few different DVD Special Editions, a couple of which are still readily available (like the ones I just reviewed). No Blu-Ray in sight thought.
Remakes: Some consider Universal’s 1940 horror adventure The Mummy’s Hand to be a loose remake of The Mummy. Personally, I think there’s far too little in common between the two to buy into that. However, in 1999, Universal remade The Mummy directly by recreating the same plot, re-incorporating Imhotep and Ankh-es-en-amon, and throwing a fun, Indiana Jones-style adventure flair to the story. Personally, it’s one of the very few remakes that I think is superior to the original.
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