The Mummy spends 10-minutes in 1921, a flashback to an exhumed tomb of a great Pharaoh. If you remember this film after some time, that is the sequence that stays with you. The camera focuses in on an unrecognizable Boris Karloff, draped in bandages and moving. A young archaeologist assistant is driven mad by the site of a living corpse, and the camera fades to black.
So effective is that sequence, it would become the framework for each sequel. Karloff spends much of his time in a more human – although no less imposing – form for this 1932 horror classic, acting as dead-eyed Egyptian with a disdainful demeanor. He is driven mad with love, his wife taken from him, himself sentenced to be buried alive for his crime of attempted resurrection. After 3,700 years, he has a chance to reunite with his lost love through time, re-incarnation settling on the soul of Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann).
This is (in some ways) not a standard golden era Universal horror picture, although its style and pacing are a direct copy of Dracula. Edward Van Sloan reprises the role of an inquisitive onlooker, but not one named Van Helsing. Here he is Dr. Mueller, a character with perfectly cloned mannerisms. Maybe Mueller is Van Helsing in a different life.
Time has lost some of The Mummy’s hook. The year 1921 saw archaeologists discovering King Tuts tomb. As the film flashes forward to what was then modern day 1932, audiences were to suspect the Mummy was among them. The concept was ingenious.
Unlike the fanged night walker, Karloff’s human-esque Ardeth Bay is somewhat sympathetic. His ancient ways and miserable existence are the divisive factors that keep him in shell of a Universal monster. Bay is short of words, dried out from years of his entombed existence. His purpose is clear though: romance. Despite Grosvenor’s relationship with Frank Whemple (David Manners), she is pulled to a three thousand year old mummy, forces far beyond us working to reunite lovers through history and life.
Mummy is not terribly graphic, although it shares themes. If the film is fitted within the plotting of Dracula, surely the sympathy comes from Frankenstein. Both seem unaware they are monsters, brought back to life through means outside of their control. Each is a direct killer, but rarely without provocation or need. Bay can kill without direct contact, merely through sheer will, making anyone a potential target. Mummy’s somewhat flat style is heightened by intense cinematography and the realization that its heroes are doomed.
The film closes on a finale high on shrieking, rushing saviors, and a villain death that comes out of nowhere with an abrupt flash of light. Mummy does not stick around to offer explanation, which for the sake of the franchise is probably for the better. This monster would return, and in a more direct, less likeable form that we would all come to know. The shambling walk and tattered rags were secondary here, which elevates this somewhat stock story to its admired status.
Universal’s devotion to restoring these original horror classics is impeccable in terms of damage removal. Even within visual effect shots or unique edits, Mummy does not host a piece of dirt, a scratch, or other imperfection. It is consistent too with the exception of an in-car conversation that sees the background artificially placed. It becomes the sole moment where the source material is faded, and likely forever.
With that singular instance of wavering sharpness, The Mummy is allowed to live in intense definition. Mountains of Egypt are stunning during the opening expedition. Home interiors carry lavish fabrics or costumes that play host to difficult patterns, all resolved. Karloff’s dried face is maintained with precision, the close-ups that sell his monstrous aspects better here than they every have been.
With some work within the contrast, each line in Jack Pierce’s make-up is defined with light. Even with distance, Karloff looks to be a near death, the typical, static medium shots of the day losing nothing. Contrast can occasionally feel blown out, and some light black crush (certainly during the opening scenes) is a minor point of contention. Gray scale on this disc lacks the perfection sought by black & white classics on Blu-ray.
More concerning is the grain and what lays behind it. Often, The Mummy appears filtered, and the grain structure artificial. In motion, something appears off, grain moving with head movement. This is not compression, although the rarely occurring banding is. Also worrying is the loss of image fidelity, sometimes in close and other times at a distance. Despite the pervasiveness of detail, there are signs of artificiality abound that call into question whether some of the restoration went too far. Still, those shots are anomalies. This is still a fantastic looking catalog effort.
Mummy opens with the same Swan Lake theme shared by Dracula, so ignoring the fidelity lapses on high and low ends, the DTS-HD mono effort is still impressive. The score is intact and relatively clean given the separation of time. Some lackluster peaks are hardly discouraging.
Static has been removed from moments of silence as to not keep it steady for the entire running time. Dialogue is typically spoke with a mild undercurrent of hissing, kept to a minimum and so light, most will not notice.
Skipped frames within the video is probably the biggest concern. A word is lost at 13:38 due to a missing frame, and another instance later sounds rushed. In the scheme of things, it is a minor intrusion, the concern lying solely with this mix in particular compared to quality evident elsewhere.
Dueling commentaries are up for your attention, the first crowded with Rick Baker, Scott Essman, Steve Haberman, Bob Burns, and Brent Armstrong. If you like your commentaries a little more sedate, film historian Paul M. Jensen goes solo for the second track.
Mummy Dearest is the first non-commentary bonus, a half hour look at the legacy of the series hosted by Rudy Behlmer. He Who Made the Monsters follows, a deserving look at make-up legend Jack Pierce. Unraveling the Legacy of the Mummy is a short look at the franchise. Archives delves into the realm of posters and marketing, and trailers are offered for each film in the series. 100 Years of Universal: The Carl Laemmele Era is a tribute to the great producer.
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