Friday, December 22, 2017

The Odyssey of the Mummy

Boris Karloff is best known for his performances as Frankenstein's monster in the original movie and its sequels, but he also portrayed the Mummy in "The Mummy," which premiered on this day 85 years ago.

In the movie The Mummy's remains were found — along with a magic scroll that had the power to bring the dead back to life — by a team of British archaeologists. The discovery of an Egyptian tomb was a rather timely subject, given the fact that the tomb of King Tut had been discovered a decade earlier, and tales of the curse it contained were widely disseminated. "Frankenstein," by comparison, was published more than a century before the movie was made.

Audiences were probably more inclined to see "The Mummy" as a plausible horror story in 1932 — but audiences in 2017 are more prone to see it as almost a parody of itself. After all, the classic performances of Karloff and Bela Lugosi and their ilk that truly terrified audiences in the 1930s led to the rampant cliches of today. Considering that the motion picture industry was still evolving and learning about itself 85 years ago, I suppose that was inevitable — and that it is something of a compliment.

Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery.

After being discovered in 1921, the Mummy was brought back to life through that scroll I mentioned before. Fast forward 10 years. Clothed as a modern Egyptian, the Mummy went looking for his lost love, whom he believed had been reincarnated as a modern (i.e., 1932) girl.

It was established earlier that the Mummy's forbidden love led to his gruesome death in which he apparently had been buried alive. That was his punishment for committing sacrilege when he attempted to resurrect her.

Now reincarnated he went looking for his lost love.

The Mummy encountered a half–Egyptian woman (Zita Johann) he believed was the reincarnation of his lost love. Consequently The Mummy tried to kill her as part of his plan to mummify her, resurrect her and then marry her. She was saved when, after remembering her past life, she prayed to the goddess Isis for rescue — and her prayer was answered.

In a scene that modern movie viewers may find quite similar to one in "Raiders of the Lost Ark," Isis discharged a beam of light that set fire to the scroll, breaking the spell of immortality, and the Mummy crumbled to dust.

Johann's work in the movie was good, but "The Mummy," like most horror movies of the 1930s, did not rely on acting as much as it did on atmosphere.

For folks who have been brought up in an era dominated by flashy computer–generated special effects, the pace of "The Mummy" and other horror movies of its time may seem pedestrian.

But it made for a spine–tingling experience for the audiences of the day.

When Karloff made "Frankenstein," his rival in the horror genre, Lugosi, complained that Karloff didn't act, he merely grunted. Lugosi, a native Hungarian, had to deliver his lines in "Dracula" in English, which he considered more demanding than Karloff's performance.

I haven't heard what Lugosi's opinion was of "The Mummy," but by Lugosi's previously stated standards, he must have been more impressed. The British–born Karloff had to deliver his lines with an Egyptian accent.

My opinion, having seen both the Karloff version and the 1999 remake starring Brendan Fraser (I haven't seen the new one with Tom Cruise), is that Karloff gave a masterful performance. Stripped of modern special effects and multimillion–dollar production budgets, I doubt that anyone could carry a horror story the way Karloff could.

Johann's story is an interesting one. Her film career was brief and interrupted by more than half a century in which she focused on her theatrical work and, later, teaching acting to people with learning disorders. Was the exotic beauty disillusioned in Hollywood? I don't know, but I can't help but wonder if she might have been a major star of the silver screen had she not been lured to the stage.