Home Movies by Charles Taylor: Wrapped

Home Movies video columnist Charles Taylor on 'The Mummy,' directed by Karl Freund and starring Boris Karloff.


Charles Taylor
March 1, 1999 10:16PM (UTC)

The atmosphere of "The Mummy" is so thick and vivid, the mood so
enveloping, that it seems to proceed less by narrative logic than by poetic
logic. There's a mumbo-jumbo plot with Boris Karloff as an ancient Egyptian
priest brought back to life to discover that the princess for whose love he
was put to death has been reincarnated in the person of a young
Arab-British socialite (Zita Johann). "The Mummy," which was made in 1932,
is far stranger and more exotic than the other horror movies made at
Universal in the same period. It features no jump scenes, those sudden cuts
to a monster popping out or grabbing an actor. Like Karloff's Imhotep, the
movie operates by casting a spell rather than by using force (only once
does Imhotep go in for the kill -- and then it's off-screen). When this
ancient wants to command obedience, he simply raises his ring and fixes his
subject with his hypnotic gaze. The effect is placid, the tremors of
subdued unease nearly subterranean. "The Mummy" may be the most quietly
seductive horror film ever made.

The beautiful unity of tone is surely thanks to the director, Karl Freund.
As the greatest of all German cinematographers, Freund shot some of the
greatest German silent films, F.W. Murnau's "The Last Laugh" and Fritz
Lang's "Metropolis" among them. Freund came to America in 1929, and "The
Mummy" was the first of only a handful of films he got a chance to direct.
Among the early and often awkward years of the talkies, "The Mummy" stands
out for being one of the few films to convey the sense of immersion in a
shadowy otherworld that characterized the greatest silents. The dialogue
scenes are often stodgy, what with David Manners playing another in his
string of ineffectual suitors and speaking lines like "In the interest of
science, even if I believed in the curse, I go on with my work for the
museum."

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But those slight defects blow away like the dust from Imhotep's disturbed
tomb. Freund uses some astonishingly delicate lighting effects, many of
them having to do with eyes. There's a recurring close-up of Karloff in
which his eyes appear at first in shadows, as if there were only empty
sockets, and then are gradually lit until they might be glass marbles
glowing from within. And when he turns those mesmerizing peepers on Johann
-- whose own eyes are dark and enormous -- we see little beams of light
form a nimbus around her head. Our first look at Imhotep is a long
stationary shot of him in his sarcophagus, still wrapped in bandages; we
discover he has come back to life by the small glistening jewels of light
when his eyes open just a chink.

Freund patiently sustains entire sequences just as he does that shot. The
film is only 72 minutes long, yet it seems to unfold gradually, and the
deliberate pacing gives the eeriness time to sink in. We might be seeing
the whole movie in the reflecting pool in which Imhotep conjures visions of
the past and spies on the present. Yet there is an
out-of-the-corner-of-the-eye quickness to some of the effects -- like a
skull becoming visible beneath Imhotep's decaying skin -- that vanish
before our minds have quite registered them. Perhaps Freund simply didn't
want to disturb the mood he had so carefully achieved. Much of the movie's
action is suggested, as when Imhotep's coming to life is suggested by a
mummified hand reaching for an ancient scroll, and then a bandage trailing
slowly out a door.

Like the somnambulistic midnight stroll Johann embarks on under her ancient
lover's spell, there's an unsettling sense of eroticized compulsion deep in
the core of "The Mummy." This is a tale of desire that persists even beyond
the grave, and it's that persistence that makes Karloff's performance so
frightening. The wildly overrated "Gods and Monsters" makes a nasty,
gratuitous swipe at Karloff's talent, but the makeup and prosthetics he
often donned didn't disguise that he was a masterly physical actor. In "The
Mummy," every movement is economical and precise. Dressed in a fez and
floor-length robes that emphasize his long frame, Karloff seems to glide
more than walk. Whenever he turns, he does so with his whole body, and when
he sits, it's as if he simply deliquesces inside his robe to the desired
height. Karloff transmits the cunning and helpless yearning beneath
Imhotep's sedate surface. The meaning of the whole movie might be contained
in his dried-out skin, which looks as if his bandages had fused with it,
and yet seems repellently alive. It's a horror-movie vision of our sexual
desire abiding despite our physical decay. There's a satisfyingly tragic
inevitability when Johann rejects Imhotep's plans for her to join him in
eternity because she's still young and alive. "My love has lasted longer
than the temples of our gods," he tells her. But the horrific sadness of
Karloff's performance is the horror of being trapped in a ruin, the body as
a crumbling chapel of love.


Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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