1932. Directed by Karl Freund.
Remakes, reboots, and outright rip offs are something that has plagued the entertainment industry since its inception. For the most part, these rehashes fail to rise to the level of their predecessors, however, once in a while, a unique take on the concept not only out paces its source material, it becomes a legend. Karl Freund’s iconic Universal Monster film, The Mummy, takes the premise of Dracula and reskins it with an Egyptian location and a rag laden lover searching for his soul mate to present a tragic love story enshrouded in a noir horror package. A nightmarish central performance, inventive lighting, and evocative cinematography combine to form a classic thriller that has been endlessly replicated over the decades since its debut.
Cinematic legend Boris Karloff stars as the eponymous character. His portrayal of the cursed priest has become a cinematic foundation, with his determined eyes and stoic mannerisms drawing the focus whenever he appears. His chemistry with Zita Johann, who plays both his past lover and her present incarnation, was initially treated as a flippant afterthought, an understandable byproduct of John Balderston’s hammy script. However, there is a guarded sense of commitment to the material that shines through whenever both actors are engaged that ties into the tragic heart of the familiar story, mimicking love’s ability to create worlds of amorous abandon for those it ensnares.
Jack Pierce’s gruesome make up design is an essential part of this film, both in its memorable appearance and the difficulty by which it was applied. Karloff had to endure hours of application before filming his mummy scenes in the middle of the night. For the bulk of the film, his appearance is more restrained, but the attention to detail, the research undertaken by Pierce for authenticity, is undeniable during each scene with the titular creature.
Freund, who was the director of photography on Dracula and Metropolis, uses a variety of lighting techniques to frame his world in dark silhouettes and deep corridors, drenching the screen with shadowy undertones that heighten the mystique while bolstering the sense of dread that harries the proceedings. These distinct visuals are highlighted by Charles Stumar’s cinematography, which uses close framing to give The Mummy a distinct appearance, separating it from both its previous and future monstrous colleagues. While the story takes beats from Dracula, it purposefully strays from the arcane underpinnings and slowly builds towards a final occult overload.
Available now for digital rental, The Mummy is essential viewing. While the cheesy dialogue is initially a turn off, Karloff’s masterful performance and Freund’s outstanding technical command are able to unnerve and delight in equal portions. A minimalist horror film that showcases elaborate make up and costuming effects, this is one of the classics. If you’re looking to revisit your childhood or get acquainted with the original before this summer’s remake, The Mummy is a remarkable early Hollywood experience.