The Mummy
U.S.A. / 1932
Directed by Karl Freund
Starring
Boris Karloff
Zita Johann
David Manners
B&W / 74 Minutes / Not Rated
Format: DVD (R1 - NTSC)
Universal Studios
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2008 Special Edition
   
 
8
    8   10 = Highest Rating  
Guest Review by Lucas Micromatis
Hollywood has never really known what to do with mummies. In the vast majority of mummy movies, the bandaged baddie is never called upon to do more than shamble about strangling victims too slow to escape its grip, usually under the control of a nefarious, fez-wearing high priest. That's why Universal's 1932 The Mummy is such an odd duck. Although it's one of the first films to treat the subject of mummies seriously and successfully, the traditional pattern of mummy stories is absent here. The Mummy proper (Boris Karloff, billed here as "Karloff the Uncanny") is only glimpsed briefly, but nonetheless memorably, in the opening sequence, in which he is brought back to life by an unsuspecting archaeologist (Bramwell Fletcher, uttering the most chilling laugh this side of Renfield) reading from the Scroll of Thoth. Through the remainder of the film, Karloff appears as Ardeth Bey, a sorcerer-type figure determined to reincarnate his lost love, Anck-es-en-amon, in the body of Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann, effective as a woman caught between two worlds, though her performance wavers between detached and hysterical). Standing in his way are pallid love interest Frank Whemple (David Manners, in his usual, ineffective drip of a role) and the knowledgeable Doctor Muller (Universal's stalwart elder battler of the supernatural, Edward Van Sloan). There are so many good elements in The Mummy the opening discovery of Imhotep; Ardeth Bey's glimpse into the past through a mysterious, smoke-filled pool (footage of which often cropped up as lengthy flashbacks to pad the later cycle of Universal Mummy films); Karloff's impressive Jack Pierce make-up and glowing eyes (more effectively done than the pinprick dots used to light Lugosi's eyes as Dracula); Karl Freund's fluid direction; etc. that one does not initially notice obvious parallels to Universal's Dracula from the year before.
    Indeed, because screenwriter John L. Balderston lifts several motifs from his Dracula script, one could almost regard The Mummy as a semi-remake. In both films, we see an undead monster bent on making a bride of the heroine, a shift in locales from the mysterious (Transylvania/the pyramids) to the modern (London/Cairo), a disbelieving young hero deferring to an elder, more experienced voice of reason (Manners and Van Sloan practically replay their Harker and Van Helsing roles from Dracula), even a confrontation/battle-of-wills between Ardeth Bey and Muller, echoing similar moments between Dracula and Van Helsing. The only element not believably incorporated into The Mummy is the rather tertiary and rushed romance between Whemple and Grosvenor. This criticism is minor, however. The Mummy, of course, belongs to Karloff, whose studied and stoic performance is all the more enthralling due to the power and antiquity he suggests by a mere gesture or look. The original Mummy is a bona fide classic; pretenders to the throne, such as Universal's own retro 1999 version, will fade under Anubis' gaze before this one even starts to get moldy.

Universal has been criticized frequently about the quality of their Classic Horror discs; here, however, they have served The Mummy well. While blemishes and scratches are present at times, the overall print is consistently fine. The DVD overflows with the usual exemplary extras. Historian Paul Jensen provides an interesting audio commentary, though at times he does indulge in merely describing the action. (Highest commentary kudos still go to Tom Weaver's hang-on-tight-or-we'll-leave-you-behind breakneck job on Creature from the Black Lagoon.)
    There's a terrific documentary by David J. Skal on Universal's Mummy series, a trailer, and other assorted goodies. One gripe, however: rather than an image of Imhotep/Ardeth Bey on the back cover, we get a photo of Kharis from one of the sequels. Shamefully sloppy! 7/24/01
UPDATE In October 2004 Universal released a Legacy Collection containing all the studio's Mummy movies: The '32 original, The Mummy's Hand (1940), The Mummy's Tomb (1942), The Mummy's Ghost (1944) and The Mummy's Curse (1944). The first film gets a 2-disc special edition release in July 2008; it contains the transfer and extras contained on the Mummy disc reviewed here, plus a slate of new extras including an additional comentary and featurette.
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