This movie frustrated me as a kid but the movie is a bit of a frustration at any age. There are some really great things in this film but the bad of the film threaten to overwhelm the good bits and almost succeeds.
First off there are long stretches where nothing actually happens. People talk about things that could happen, but then those things don’t happen. The dialogue itself is stilted and forced. Instead of the characters themselves actually telling us who they are and what their motivations are, we are instead given an abundance of asides to unnamed characters having convenient conversations filled with exposition. And the romance…oh, where to begin? Let’s just say when a man tells a woman that he has fallen in love with her because she reminds him of a shriveled corpse he found in the desert it’s not exactly Casablanca.
And we get things like when Boris Karloff, in his guise as Ardath Bay, tells the English archeologists that Egyptians can’t dig up the tombs, “We are not allowed to dig our dead, only foreigners,” he tells them. However in the very next scene we see a large group of Egyptians digging out the site of a tomb while the Englishmen watch seated in the shade. Apparently they can dig out the dead, they just can’t supervise it.
With that said there are wonderful moments in this movie as well.
Karloff – billed as “the Uncanny” – is of course brilliant. He seems easy and comfortable in the role. The bad bits are durable knowing that he will be on the screen again. He is creepy and quiet and punctuates a rather subdued performance with dashes of passion that give the character depth and allow us to sympathize with him. And also adds a level of terror when he actually does do terrible things.
And the film looks great. The director Karl Freund comes from that wonderful German Expressionist background that gives the classic moody look that so many of these early horror films have. Long shadows and smoky rooms with harsh dramatic lighting, it is quite beautiful.
While the film is not exactly scary, not in the way Frankenstein or Dracula is for instance, there are moments of real suspense and one disturbing bit as well. The beginning, that part with the bandages and the ashen face, is truly suspenseful in a ‘oh my God did that mummy just move’ sort of way.
But the real terror comes in the flashback scene where we get to see Imhotep’s arrest and mummification. Karloff plays this perfectly, his shocked and fearful expression and struggling against the bandages is truly unsettling. This is a man being buried alive after all and that in and of itself is a terrifying prospect to imagine, but take into account the fact that he is immortal and will have to endure this suffering for centuries. This is horrific and something that plays on a primal fear that many have.
So in the end we have The Mummy, warts and all. The flawed classic. It is one that frustrated me as a kid and frustrates me as an adult. But I know that one day, maybe soon, I’ll watch it again. The good and the bad wrapped up together like some kind of…toilet paper costume a kid would make for Halloween.