Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Mummy

Karl Freund’s “The Mummy” from 1932 is part of the Universal Studios’ cycle of horror films produced by Carl Laemmle. The movie is short, eerie, and contains a few memorable images, mostly revolving around Boris Karloff’s desiccated menace. Parasitic on the excavations that retrieved King Tut from the dust of the Valley of the Kings, the film begins with British archaeologists conferring in a gloomy storehouse by lamplight. A contorted mummy who has died ‘the nameless death” is framed behind the scholars in an upright sarcophagus. Someone recites the wrong words and the mummy’s withered eyelids twitch just the tiniest bit -- the lighting is designed to catch a faint flicker in the corpse’s slightly opened eye. A man goes mad, laughing uncontrollably and the mummy leaves, never visualized moving, but depicted metonymically by a foul-looking bandage dragged through the dust. Egypt is pillars and columns and pits full of peasants scrambling in the gravel and dust. The desert is an abstract void haunted by the shadowy geometry of mastabas and pyramids -- cold darkness crisscrossed with some patterns ofdeeper blackness. A decade passes and the dead priest reappears as the emaciated, cadaver-stiff Adeth Bey, Karloff at his most dire. Bey helps a new generation of archaeologists unearth a vestal priestess of Isis, her featureless mummy transported to the grim, fortress-like Cairo Museum, a huge building guarded by bare-breasted sphinx figures. The camera shows us the glaring mask on the priestess’ sarcophagus and, then, the film cuts to a party where we see a woman with a strange physiognomy -- this is Zita Johann, the reincarnation of the dead priestess, and an peculiar, uncanny-looking figure herself: she has enormous eyes dominating a head that looks too large for her white throat and shoulders and, later we are shown her squat, compact body exposed in the last half of the film in revealing garments, a couple strands of ribbons pulled over her breasts so that her belly and torso are mostly bare. Karloff’s nightmare priest recognizes the woman as his lost love, now buried for 3700 years, and hypnotizes her. (The film resembles in form Rex Ingram’s “The Magician” made in 1926 -- it has a similarly functioning dream sequence at its center, in “The Mummy’s” case a flashback to ancient Egypt showing Karloff squirming as he is wrapped in suffocating bandages to be buried alive.) To bring the dead priestess to life, Adeth Bey has to burn her lifeless mummy, stab her modern reincarnation to death, and, then, plunge the corpse into a romantically brewed bath of bubbling natron stirred by Noble Johnson, an African-American actor playing a statuesque Nubian. All of this transpires in the dim galleries of the Cairo Museum of Antiquities beneath a glimmering idol of Isis, a voluptuous life-size female form, all curved tits and ass, hovering over the deadly proceedings. Needless to say, the boyfriend arrives just in the nick of time with Karloff’s withered hand gripping a flint knife indenting the soft belly flesh of the heroine squirming on the embalming table. Freund was a great cameraman but the film is not particularly beautiful or impressive photographically and the dialogue, intoned mostly by Karloff in an oracular drone, is a bit wooden. But the film is justly famous for the truly frightening opening episode in which the mummy’s resurrection drives the young archaeologist mad and for several alarming close-ups of Adeth Bey, Karloff embodying (anagrammatically) Death itself, our ancient adversary, with parchment cheeks and withered lips, and glittering eyes lurking in cavernous black eye-sockets. Despite its romantic plot, the film is curiously chaste. Zita Johann is too strange-looking to stir up much sexual feeling in the audience and the handsome physician’s love for her seems contrived. This actress looks like Barbara Steele, the indelibly weird-looking heroine of Italian horror films in sixties -- she has a looming glacially white forehead and gigantic eyes, a face glaring and featureless as a mask, and it’s hard to pay much attention to her body when she turns her lantern-like gaze on the camera.

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