THE MUMMY (1932) July 16th 1977 22.50-00.00
‘He went for a little walk!’
Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher)
Mummies have never really done it for me. This isn’t a psychological revelation – no Norman Batesing intended. I’ve just done my Freudian bit in the section on Brides of Dracula anyway. No, it’s the lumbering bandage-shrouded variety that have always left me a little cold, dating right back to the faint disappointment this screening gave me for the couple of minutes between it ending and the start of The Wolf Man, which I immediately loved.
I’m not sure quite why this should be so. I’d shared some of the strange fascination with all things ancient Egyptian that had overtaken the nation in the early 70s following the brouhaha which accompanied the Tutankhamen exhibition in London, and become fixated with a Schools History type folder which my sister owned, all fold-outs and little envelopes full of reproductions of letters and documents about Carter, Caernarvon and King Tut. I’m still a sucker for those ‘book as artefact’ kind of publications and have more of them than I can afford littering my shelves. And the Tom Baker Doctor Who story The Pyramids of Mars which had been shown a year or so before had thrilled me to my core, with its barrel-chested robotic mummies and its Egyptian gods as von-Daniken style ancient aliens. A little later my Aurora plastic glow-in-the-dark mummy kit was loved just as much as the others, and when I came to read Bram Stoker’s mummy-themed ‘slightly less well-known than that other novel of his’ The Jewel of Seven Stars I adored its musty, oppressive, claustrophobic atmosphere.
But the films themselves? Universal made a total of five mummy films, and Hammer managed four of their own, not to mention Stephen Somers’ more recent franchise combining the Universal character with some light-hearted Indiana Jones high jinx, and the best I could truthfully say about any of them is that I find them OK. Perhaps it’s because, after all the fuss about the resurrection itself, everything tends to be a bit downhill from there, the films’ stomp and strangle narrative strategies making them the original progenitors of the stalk and slash glut of Jasons and Freddies that ultimately so denuded the horror film in the 1980s.
And so my memories of this screening of the great grand Mummy of all that came after are rather less vivid than for many of the other films in this original run of summer double bills. I know I was bowled over by the opening five minutes, and if called upon – which I never was, oddly – could perfectly reproduce Bramwell Fletcher’s mad, giggling delivery of his ‘He went for a little walk’ response to Imhotep’s revival, but beyond that I can remember only a vague dissatisfaction. The fully made-up version of Karloff’s mummy was glimpsed for a matter of seconds and only in this one scene, and the dusty and de-bandaged Ardath Bey guise in which he spends the rest of the film seemed to me a much less impressive presence. The film moved at a drearily funereal pace, plodding stodgily through its narrative more slowly than a limping mummy, a charge often, and much less fairly, levelled at Browning’s Dracula, of which The Mummy is in fact virtually a disguised remake. All of which means that I have rather less to say about this one, given that it’s impression on me at the time was relatively low-key, and so I’m going to try a different approach at this point.
I’m screening the film now, as I write, and I’m going to record my impressions as I watch, re-assessing the disappointment of a twelve year old from my middle aged perspective. The completist in me insists I have the DVD in my collection, but it’s not a film I’ve returned to often since 1977 so I’m coming to it relatively fresh. Picture these words being scribbled into my bumper pad for boys as the film unfolds before me, and this section unfolding in real time, with all the tension of an episode of 24 – minus the explosions, chases, imprisonments, tortures, miracle recoveries, and with considerably less shouting .
So, here we go. Before I even get the DVD out of its case there’s a strange, fluttering sparkle of excitement, even love. And make no mistake about it, I love these films. Not in the trivialising way we overuse that most sacred of words to describe our feelings for the banal and the mundane (‘I love chips’ or ‘I love TOWIE’). Equally not in the more fully integrated way I love my wife and kids of course. No, this is more like an adolescent crush, in all its joy and fervour and occasional shamefaced guilt. I get all warm and fuzzy as I slide the disc into the eager and welcoming openness of the DVD player, tingling with anticipation for the moment I will hear those bright and breezy brasses as the brave little plane circles the spinning black and white globe of the Universal logo, so full of hope and promise. And it’s on a Saturday night of course, just as it always was so many years ago when BBC2 screened its blissful summer seasons, expanding my mind and enhancing my life in the process.
Of course, to accept the essentially adolescent nature of the obsession like this is to invite an accusation of regressive infantilism. It’s a charge that’s hurled around a lot in newspaper think pieces by – usually right wing – commentators to account for everything from the apparently unforgivable crime of adults being prepared to be seen publicly reading the Harry Potter novels, to the shocking waste of license payers money on an overgrown children’s show like Doctor Who, to the great dumb guns and big bang rattle and hum of the summer blockbusters that are said to have been destroying ‘proper cinema’ ever since Star Wars reared its obscenely populist and profitable head.
So be it. Anyone who’s ever been an adolescent will know how intense and overwhelming first loves are. They’re not grown up, but they’re not trivial either. They matter. They shape us. And we never forget them. Of course, most people reading this paragraph will be thinking of a first girlfriend or boyfriend, while I’m thinking of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Still, I’m not so sure there’s a difference, in the end. And believe me, I’m all too aware of what that says about me.
The picture appears. There’s the globe and that little plane. I know I’ve mentioned it before, but I’m so in love with that little plane. I say ‘little’, though if the globe is to scale then the plane is roughly the size of South America. I adore those production company logos. RKO Radio with its giant mast bleeping out a call that King Kong is about to begin, 20th Century Fox with its searchlights and buttonholingly assertive brass jingle which, for me, is always announcing Star Wars. But of all of them, it’s the Universal one that thrills me most to this day, and most of all in this, it’s original and most primitive form (by the mid 30s the style was slicker and more assured, but though the globe remained, some of the poetry had gone). Something about that old plane, circling the whole slow spin of the whole wide world, is so suggestive of adventure and daring and danger that it is the perfect precursor to any horror film.
There was always a divide amongst lovers of these double bill seasons, which, in their archetypal form paired first a 30s Universal followed by a 60s Hammer or AIP, as to whether you preferred the black and white ones or the colour gory ones. I heard Mark Gatiss – a man I could listen to for hours on almost any subject, but most of all on his love for horror – describe in an interview somewhere how he always felt he was just sitting through the old film waiting for the real thing to come later, but in my heart I was a Universal man. I loved the Hammers, but I always felt they were essentially straightforward and prosaic, ‘rattling good yarns’ certainly, but not much more, while the ‘old ones’ had some of the timeless magic of myth or fairytale. I think a lot of that preference might be to do with the fact that I came to Dennis Gifford’s wonderfully warm, witty and nostalgic Pictorial History of Horror Movies, with its sniffy and shockingly unfair dismissal of Hammer as essentially a modern day Monogram (the poverty row studio that churned out cheapy creepers in the 40s with Rondo Hatton or a down on his luck, visibly ageing Lugosi), before turning to Alan Frank’s equally lovely Movie Treasury Horror Movies with its clear preference for the shock of the new. Impressionable and young, the theorist that gets at us first will often have a lasting influence. Thus my Pavlovian drool over the Universal logo with its brave little plane.
And then the film itself. A few snatches of Swan Lake, again – the same haunting theme that introduced both Dracula and Frankenstein. I know it’s a confession only of my own ignorance and limitations, but classical music has never really engaged me. Opera and indeed all forms of classical ‘singing’ always sound weird and forced and histrionic to me, and although I can enjoy the odd ‘Popular Orchestral Classics’ kind of thing – anything where it’s got a recognisable tune – I don’t think I’m ever going to happen upon a piece of classical music that can stir my soul like Positively 4th Street, Waterloo Sunset, Baloo My Boy, This Ole Heart of Mine, Train in Vain, William it was Really Nothing, Up the Wolves or (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes. Rather than the music of evening suits and opera glasses, I respond to the directness of music from the fields and the streets, the work of intelligent peasants rather than the work of the educated and the trained. Those intelligent peasants might be anonymous fifteenth century balladeers or Lennon and McCartney, but what they all have in common is being common, like me. Of course I know that this says much more about me than it does about the relative merits of classical and popular music, but these few moments of Swan Lake were among only a handful of encounters with ‘proper’ music which did anything other than alienate me.
On the back of its use in the early Universal films (for which it is absolutely perfect) I got hold of a recording of the ballet, and listened at first obsessively, then a bit more dutifully, and then finally found myself wearing out the one tiny section of the cassette which contained the Prelude used in the film titles themselves without bothering with the rest. Philistine to my very core, I’d argue that for me, orchestral music only belongs alongside the visual. I can adore soundtracks, but lack the discipline or the concentration or the subtlety of soul needed to love real music for and of itself. Perhaps that’s a part of why I find myself reflecting and meandering at such length on the subject of old horror double bills rather than Mozart or Michelangelo. Popular culture speaks to me in a profound and immediate way which high culture only rarely manages. Pleb to my very core, I take lowbrow to new heights.
The opening of The Mummy remains very impressive. There’s a sonorous beauty to the opening title – Oh!Amon-Ra – Oh! God of Gods—Death is but the doorway to new life —We live today-we shall live again—In many forms shall we return- Oh, mighty one. The opening sequence in the tomb boasts some very atmospheric lighting, and a palpable sense of tension as Bramwell Fletcher yields to temptation and ignores the ubiquitous Edward Van Sloan’s stern warning not to touch that casket. The whole sequence seems paradigmatic of the horror film’s unfortunate tendency to wish to punish the crime of intellectual curiosity – witness Dr Frankenstein, who sought to create life ‘without reckoning on God’, or Jack Griffin in The Invisible Man who ‘meddled in things that man should leave alone’.
The cutaway close up of Karloff’s heavy-lidded eyes fluttering open is among the greatest moments in all horror cinema – although it owes a lot to a similar moment with Conrad Veidt in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari – and the long-nailed hand edging slowly into the corner of the frame, hovering above the life-restoring scroll for a moment before the unfortunate archaeologist becomes aware of it is no less impressive. And Bramwell Fletcher knocks it out of the park with his reaction. A short, but properly terrified male scream of shock, followed quickly by the genre’s greatest mad giggle, rivalled only by Dwight Frye’s similarly unsettling cackle as the crazed Renfield in Dracula. I’m afraid that a bit of experimenting has revealed I can’t do it anymore – though the attempt has, I believe, led to me getting a few odd looks from the neighbours.
Time passes, and we’re introduced to David Manners as our square-jawed hero. Manners is worthy of note as Universal’s preferred hero of the period, and it says something about the way a fan consumes a horror film that rather than the empathy or identification that the hero role typically requires of the audience, the actor has always generated a profound antipathy in me. He is an insipid and unpleasant Harker in Dracula; the apparently preferred audience response seeming to suggest that we should be in sympathy with Harker’s snootily xenophobic – and subjectively causeless – suspicion and assumption of superiority over Lugosi’s much more interesting and attractive ‘foreigner’. Manners is equally colourless and bland in essentially the same role in The Mummy and later in The Black Cat where his arrogant misreading of Lugosi’s entirely sympathetic Vitus Werdegast as ‘creepy’ and his willingness to shoot first and establish the situation later in the film’s denouement render his ‘hero’ utterly inadequate and ham-fisted. Snobbish, dull, unimaginative and uninteresting was Manners’ stock in trade and the fan of these films is always engaged by the monster rather than the tedious hero, though to be fair to the actor, Universal’s take on the role of the hero is at fault here rather than his inoffensively competent performances. That said, I’ve never been quite certain whether the production teams skilfully and deliberately rendered their ‘goodies’ completely colourless so as to make the true stars of the show more vivid by contrast, or whether it was an accidental strategy forged from poorly underwritten characterisation at the script stage. Collusion or incompetence: either way, it remains galling to me that Manners was paid twice Lugosi’s salary for his role in Dracula.
Karloff reappears, and I’m reminded once more, if I needed reminding, of what an incomparably skilled physical actor he was. Bandages gone, his desiccated Ardath Bey moves as though only an effort of will keeps him from disintegrating into dust. Equally remarkable is Karloff’s first vocal performance of note – both Frankenstein and The Old Dark House which had preceded his work here rendering him mute bar the odd grunt and whimper – those sonorous, cadaverous, lisping tones almost as distinctive and imitable as Lugosi’s and forever immortalised for every Halloween loving child by Bobby ‘Boris’ Pickett’s charming impersonation on the novelty single ‘The Monster Mash.’ It’s an exceptional performance, once again.
I’m particularly struck, on re-viewing however, by a different, no less exceptional, performance: that of Zita Johann as the heroine, Helen Grosvenor, who is both the 1930s girl next door and the enigmatic reincarnation of Imhotep’s long dead love. Predominantly a stage actress who appeared in only a handful of films, Johann offers an extraordinary subtlety, inhabiting the traditional heroine role but endowing it with a rare degree of maturity and independence, while simultaneously able with the slightest shift of the body or drift in the eyes to suggest a yearning, timeless, mysterious soul out of time. She embodies both the ordinary and the exotic with equal conviction and grace. A multi-layered performance of great shade and complexity, it passed me by completely as a twelve year old but now would rank for me as among the very best of the period.
Less dynamic than the drawing room confrontation of Lugosi and Van Sloan in Dracula there is a virtual re-staging of that iconic clash, with Van Sloan this time facing off against Karloff’s Ardath Bey in Lugosi’s stead. Despite Van Sloan being offered dialogue as juicy as his ‘If I could get my hands on you, I’d break your dried flesh to pieces’ the scene never escapes from the shadow of its more intense predecessor, although it is enriched by one extraordinary close up in which Karloff’s face seems almost to glow from within, an effect much more brilliantly achieved than Dracula’s pinpoints of light which were designed to sparkle in Lugosi’s eyes but tended to miss rather too often.
Another point which strikes me now, to stir up the Boris versus Bela debate a little further, is the method Karloff chooses to convey his character’s sinister intensity as he looms over the water in his mystical chalice. Isn’t the gesture he adopts – a tautened hand, fingers rigid, clawing the air – a straight lift from Lugosi? Hindsight has long recorded the different fates of the two stars, Karloff’s versatility and range and shrewd professional choices contrasting with Lugosi’s car-crash of a career which led rapidly into bankruptcy, alcoholism and drug addiction, but of course at this very early point in each actor’s path that future was not yet written. At this point Karloff, like Chaney before him, was a specialist in ‘extraordinary characterisation’, but when it came to screen malice Lugosi was the supreme model, established not only by Dracula but by his stellar performances in Robert Florey’s visually remarkable Murders in the Rue Morgue, also in 1931, and perhaps most of all in the cheap but incomparably stylish and massively profitable White Zombie. Doesn’t Karloff’s conscious or unconscious borrowing from his rival suggest a degree of uncertainty, an uncharacteristic lack of confidence, when, as here, stepping for the first time into more overtly ‘Lugosi territory’? Perhaps this was what Karloff had in mind when, interviewed in later years, he made his otherwise puzzling comment that Lugosi, or ‘poor Bela’ as he tended to refer to him, was ‘a great technician.’
There’s an accidental comedy for me in the way in which Manners’ hero springs to life in the immediate aftermath of his screen father’s horrible death. ‘Do you really think I have a chance with her?’ he cheerfully intones, the prospect of a quick bit of spooning with Zita Johann’s Helen sufficient to shift the clouds of grief for his noble father in an instant. Had David Manners been the Globe’s leading actor in 1605, Hamlet might have been a rather shorter play. It occurs to me in fact just how limited grief is in the world of popular film and television. An experience so desperately, overwhelmingly spirit-sapping in the real world that it can hollow all meaning out of existence is almost invariably shrugged off in a few minutes of screen time. The only notable exception of which I’m aware, and which in its absolute bleakness comes close to approaching the numbing awfulness of the actual experience is ‘The Body’, the brilliantly written and directed episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer which follows the death of Buffy’s mother, the impact of which is allowed to continue to resonate throughout the rest of the show’s run.
As The Mummy draws to its impressively staged conclusion, Eros and Thanatos battling it out behind Zita Johann’s enigmatic eyes, I’m forced to admit that the film is wonderful; a much more complete, fully realised and memorable work than my twelve year old self was able to appreciate. It’s beautifully acted, sombre rather than sensational, and marvellously atmospheric, showing the benefit of all of director Karl ‘Papa’ Freund’s previous experience and talent as a cinematographer – a role he had fulfilled, let’s not forget, on Browning’s Dracula as well as on much better respected 1920s classics of German expressionism. Above all, perhaps, it’s an object lesson in subtlety and restraint, rather than in the rather clumsy stalk and strangle narratives I more typically associate with the mummy sub-genre.
All of which leads me to wonder why it is that tastes blur and shift so substantially as time passes. Back in 1977 I read The Mummy described as the most ‘poetic’ of the classics in Carlos Clarens’ seminal study of the genre, and although I think I was probably more literate than the average twelve year old, at the time I simply didn’t understand what he meant. Somewhere else I think I remember hearing the children’s writer Michael Rosen talking about showing Oliver Postgate’s beautiful Bagpuss to a group of children and realising from their negative reactions that children don’t really respond to or understand the quality of melancholy. Perhaps that is the essential difference between the twelve year old me who found The Mummy a slow and turgid experience, and the fifty year old who finds it oddly moving.
There’s something in Karloff’s three thousand year devotion to a lost ideal that touches me now and passed me by then, some ache, or loss, or nostalgia that can only be felt by looking back rather than forward.
It’s an echo perhaps of the relationships among cast and crew which find their way somehow, subtly, onto the screen. Director Karl Freund was corpulent, middle-aged and unattractive; an autocratic, domineering presence on set and, according to Zita Johann’s account, rather brutal, and perhaps more than a little prurient, in his approach to his female star, demanding (in vain, as it happened) that she film the flashback scenes topless despite the obvious impossibility of getting such material past the censors. Like Hitchcock’s treatment of Tippi Hedren some thirty years later, one can’t help but feel the ageing director’s response to the youth and beauty of the actress to be the malice and anger of a frustrated toddler denied the toy it feels is its right – deplorable, but at least as likely to provoke pity as outrage.
I can’t help but see those emotions mirrored and heightened in the narrative of The Mummy. In the face of his own unspoken desire, and of the simultaneous longing and resentment the old and unattractive feel for the young and the beautiful, perhaps Freund was investing something of himself into the on-screen story of Karloff as Imhotep, a man yearning to recapture a long-lost, long-dead love and his inability to see the living, breathing Helen Grosvenor beneath the image of Princess Anck-es-en-Amon which he carries with him. It’s this desperate, helpless quest which drives the narrative, this baffled, even tragic sense of entitlement – this love was mine once, why should it not be so now? – which makes the story truly ‘poetic’, and melancholic. In the end it’s a wistful and bleak meditation on the cruelties of time and age.
We’ve all seen it in life in some variation or other, if not in ourselves then in others: a desperate, increasingly absurd and pathos-inspiring attempt to cling to past glories, to a sense of ourselves as we once were, of the things we missed out on or once saw as our right but which are so no longer.
I’ve known a man – I couldn’t call him a friend, but I’ve known him for more than twenty years – who for much of that time and before it found his pleasure and focus and sense of self in displaying his degree of talent and charisma in amateur theatrical productions. They afforded him the opportunity to socialise, and flirt, and perform and direct others and to have his pick of young women overawed by what they saw as his sophistication. To assume centre-stage, in other words, and let those younger and more naïve be won by his cleverness and charisma, and to bask with narcissistic abandon in the image of himself he saw reflected in their too easy to impress eyes.
During the course of those twenty something years, however, time has done its inevitable work. A good-looking older man has become simply an old man. The room in which he works is covered in old photographs of those productions, frozen images of past glories and, for those in the know, past conquests. The young girls in those pictures are now middle-aged mothers, and the young girls who have replaced them in his day to day life no longer give him a second glance. The room, and the man, have a strange, haunted quality, and in his eyes you see a bafflement that none of it works any longer. ‘How did I get here?’ they seem to ask. ‘Where did the real me go?’
The answer being, of course, that he went for a little walk, but unlike Imhotep, he isn’t coming back. There’s a hint of Hitchcock, and Freund, and Ardath Bey in those eyes. Uncomfortably, I would also have to concede there’s a hint of me too, with my greying hair and my guitars I never play anymore but cling onto anyway and my ‘look I used to be cool’ Rae-Bans.
Maybe, in the end, that’s the answer. At twelve, my dream selves could be the vampire count, aloof and brooding and dangerous, and the Monster, isolated and outcast and misunderstood, or the Wolf Man, battling his own inner turmoil. In my fifties, however, the inexpressible longing of a man out of time for a never to be recaptured past makes Imhotep a figure I finally understand.