Review by Jason W
Posted on 15 October 2005
Source Universal DVD
Features: 31 Days of Horror
Karl Freund’s The Mummy is an entertaining, exemplary piece of 1930s fright, having retained its rich, dusty tones of exotic creepiness to this day. The film also serves as an example of how socially conscious concerns spanning both continents and time can effectively and subtly make their way into an escapist Hollywood plot, without derailing or even weakening the story being told. In fact, Freund’s story of possession, framed within the familiar context of a love triangle, may have attained its esteemable condition by marrying two seemingly disparate types of possession into one narrative: on the one hand, the resurrected mummy of the title wishes to possess the princess he loved four thousand years earlier, by controlling every step needed to reincarnate her soul into a contemporary woman’s body. On the other hand, British archaeologists hope to possess Egypt’s history — and to an extent, its culture — through the repeated digging up of its past (all in the name of science, of course).
Imhotep, the resurrected mummy, moves about modern Cairo as if gliding on air, conjuring mysticism through a variety of channels, seemingly in possession of every person and circumstance around him. Under the ruse of being a modern Egyptian named Ardath Bay, Imhotep convinces a British archaeological expedition to dig for the remains of the princess, having already pointed the expedition to the exact location of the princess’s tomb. Soon after, Imhotep recognizes his lost love’s physical likeness in a woman named Helen Grosvenor. With the archaeologists working on the tomb, Imhotep gently massages the psyche of Grosvenor, quietly but quickly plunging her into a state of identity crisis. Unsure if she belongs in modern Cairo or if the spirit of the princess coming to life inside her will drag Grosvenor’s consciousness permanently into memories of the past, Grosvenor only becomes more confused when a young British archaeologist named Frank Whemple professes his love to her.
The touchy relationship between Britain and Egypt in The Mummy is summarized perfectly by Imhotep’s lines: “We Egyptians are not permitted to dig up our ancient dead. Only foreign museums.” To be punished for respecting your own past must be difficult for a culture to accept, especially when possession of that culture’s goods is recognized in terms of monetary value and intellectual stature by the nation unearthing it, and lineage and identity by the nation trying to protect it. To have outsider’s eyes, hands, and perspectives break seals that were to remain untouched for eternity, followed by the impersonal cataloguing and removal of various worshipped’s possessions is insulting to Imhotep, both as an Egyptian and as a resurrected member of Egypt’s ancient past. To Imhotep, personal obsessions with his past are directly tied to Imperialist injustices of the present, because one has a direct effect on the other.
In this sense, is the love triangle that makes up The Mummy’s central plot not a summation of the troubled oppositions that make up so many Colonial relationships: modern vs. ancient, past vs. present, one world’s sensibility against another’s? Helen Grosvenor is Egypt itself, struggling to blend the ancient with the present as two nations fight over her, each recognizing something valuable but distinctly unique in the prospect of possessing her. Traditionally, oppressed nations have looked to their past in moments of threatened or lost identity. Identity crises often result. Past blends with present as oppressor blends with oppressed, until balance becomes impossible and a future is forged out of total mess. That Boris Karloff struggled in his own life with issues of blended identity – his mother was East Indian, his father British — further contributes to the film’s visual blending of faces, as does Zita Johann in the role of Helen Grosvenor/The Princess. Grovesnor is referred to in the film as “part Egyptian,” though the remainder of her lineage is never verified. In life, Johann was of Romanian descent.
The Mummy’s resolution is not ambiguous. The present gets the best of the past, but the film also remains consistent with Universal Studios’ unofficial motto throughout its extended “Monster era”: the modern and the ancient were never meant to mix. When opposites did attract, the most unsavoury aspects of each inevitably came forth, leading to a bringing out of the worst in both. Frankenstein’s monster is born from pushing modern science to the brink of its capabilities, a result of Victor von Frankenstein’s unquenched and primal issues with both narcissism and patronage. In The Creature from the Black Lagoon, scientists won’t leave millions of years of schizophrenic evolution alone, resulting in a battle to the death over a woman.
In the case of The Mummy, Imhotep ends up possessing the greatest flaw of the archaeologists he opposes: to engage with something he must first possess it. The British archaeologists express annoyance at their work ending up in the Cairo Museum, as opposed to the British Museum where they feel it belongs (“I think it’s a dirty trick this Egyptian museum keeping everything we’ve found.”). Comparably, Imhotep doesn’t simply want to revive his lost love, he wants to control her. He describes his love for Grosvenor/the Princess as a “love that might bring sickness and even death” to her. In other words, he will do anything to have her, even kill her. And, by refusing to leave the Princess be in death in the first place thousands of years earlier, Imhotep was cursed and wrapped in shrouds, leading him on his path of spiritual disenfranchisement both in this world and the next. In a sense, Imhotep was the meddling scientist of his day — he refused to accept and leave well enough alone. The difference between the modern archaeology of the film and the ancient past is that Imhotep conjured mysticism to possess that which he wanted, the modern scientists of the film use logic and a disbelieve of mysticism to justify the ends to their means.
Karloff’s characterization of Imhotep is beautifully rendered. Whereas later versions of The Mummy would often split the role of the modern Egyptian who does battle with British archaeologists from an actual shroud-enwrapped mummy, Karloff plays both, incorporating elements of his weakened mummy directly into his realization of Ardath Bay. Obviously frail from having nearly dried to dust, Bay moves about prepared to conjure his mystical powers if anyone moves too close to him, a reminder that his body is ready to disintegrate. As with Frankenstein’s Monster, Karloff’s interpretation of the mummy is a sad one, fitting in with Universal’s crop of antagonists, a group that’s always been easy to feel sorry for. Karl Freund’s limber direction, and especially his decision to keep the camera mobile, also unexpectedly adds to the poignancy of Karloff’s performance. A groundbreaking cinematographer for the likes of Murnau, Dreyer, Lang, as well as Tod Browning on Universal’s 1931 production of Dracula, Freund’s moving camera in The Mummy results in a shaky, lumbering frame at times, likening Freund to Victor Frankenstein, both men forcing technology to come to life and move about, even when it isn’t inclined to do so and doesn’t quite have the capabilities its creator envisioned. It’s as if Freund’s moving camera is a realization of the point of view denied to Frankenstein’s Monster in Karloff’s earlier performance, the collective, built up empathy we feel for the Monster finally shared in the The Mummy’s moving shots. The Universal stable of monsters would often meet under less than friendly circumstances in a number of later films from the series. But for a moment, I’d like to imagine that two isolated monsters could meet, if only imaginatively, on terms as abstract and subtle as Karloff’s own sympathetic impressions of the monsters he struggled to make human.