Friday, June 16, 2017

It Was A Graveyard Smash, or Thoughts on Boris Karloff and The Mummy

Still the gold standard for mummy movies, The Mummy (1932) is remembered more for the iconic makeup, publicity stills and movie posters.  Boris Karloff appears in that makeup for less than a minute of screen time; granted it’s a pretty intense minute where he returns to life as the Scroll of Life is being translated and inadvertently read aloud.  He spends most of the film as Ardeth Bey, a mysterious Egyptian with mournful eyes and an unhealthy obsession for Zita Johann, who vamps it up as Helen Grosvener, the reincarnation of Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon.
Fresh out of Frankenstein (1931), this was a speaking role and a dark romance along the lines of Dracula (1931) as Boris Karloff, the 3000-year-old High Priest Imhotep, aka The Mummy, searched across time for his lost princess.  With a few tweaks the script could easily pass for a contemporary YA supernatural romance.  His on-screen gravitas and gaunt features sold the doomed romance, he was 5’11” but seemed taller, his imposing physical presence was enhanced by lighting and shadows.
Directed by German expressionist Karl Freund, the cinematographer for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) and the director of Mad Love (1935), the movie was inspired by the craze for all things Egyptian thanks to the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922 and the tabloid speculations of the curse surrounding it.   Jack Pierce designed and applied the make up for the Big Three; Frankenstein, The Mummy and The Wolf Man (1941), and had an impressive 167 credits in a career that spanned 4 decades.
It’s interesting that this movie is set entirely in Cairo, whereas the 1959 and the 2017 remakes insisted on taking the mummy back to England.  Brendan Fraser’s 1999 supernatural adventure movie kept the action in Egypt, while also moving the time period to 1920.  In theory, that would make Boris Karloff’s version the remake, so take that, film snobs.

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