Review of "The Mummy: Complete Legacy Collection (Blu-ray)"

published 17/07/2017 | hogsflesh
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"Mummy ache"

Boris Karloff as the mummy

Boris Karloff as the mummy

This blu-ray boxset is currently £25 on amazon.

The Mummy is one of Universal’s less well known classic horror franchises. The original Mummy movie, from 1932, is quite famous, but the four sequels, made more than a decade later, are a lot more obscure. And the Mummy was never invited to any of the monster mash-up movies Universal made later, like House of Dracula, or Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman.

I’d never seen any of them apart from the original, so was happy enough to invest in this set, even though my expectations were low.

The Mummy (1932)

This is one of the earliest Universal horror movies. Archaeologists in Egypt find and accidentally revive a mummy named Imhotep. He decides that a young woman in Cairo is the reincarnation of his Ancient Egyptian love, and things go from there.

Ancient Egypt was fashionable in the early 30s (although its modish heyday was in the 20s, just after the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb). And mummies had already featured in horror literature – Conan Doyle wrote a couple of short stories, for instance. So it was natural enough for Universal to turn to mummies in their hunt for new horror properties.

The film is primarily a vehicle for Boris Karloff, Universal’s premiere horror star. He’s only seen in the bandages for a few minutes at the start of the film – afterwards, the unwrapped mummy poses as Ardath Bey, an aged Egyptian. This was Karloff’s first Universal movie with dialogue – he’d previously only played mute monsters – and he makes the most of it. His sonorous, lisping voice is wonderful, but his physical performance is what makes the film – as Ardath, he walks exactly like you imagine a stiff, reanimated corpse would, and he looms over the other characters like a vulture. His makeup is amazing – both as the mummy itself, but even more so as Bey, with his horribly wrinkled skin. This is probably the best makeup in any of the Universal horrors, and Karloff gives one of his iconic performances.

It was written by John Balderston, who also did the screenplay for Dracula – the Mummy in fact comes across almost as a remake of the earlier film, with an ancient undead loverboy trying to steal away the heroine from her insipid beau. The two films even use the same piece of Tchaikovsky as an opening theme. David Manners plays the hapless romantic lead in both films, and both also feature Edward van Sloan as the wise old professor who knows the monster’s only weakness.

The heroine, Helen, is pretty great. She’s played by Zita Johann, a stage actress, wearing some very skimpy costumes (for the time) and putting in a coquettish, unsubtle, and very likable performance. She has huuuuge eyes.

The set designs and props for the Egyptian tombs and relics are really good, and lend the film an air of seriousness. One of the archaeology scenes looks as if it influenced a similar sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Not sure what to make of the declaration that the tomb of an Ancient princess contains ‘her toilet things’, though. Seems an odd thing to focus in on, especially in 1932.

But the film is quite dull, ultimately. Like Dracula, it has a fantastic opening, but then settles down into a boring love triangle. The director, Karl Freund, was a legendary cinematographer in Germany, so the film never looks less than wonderful (the use of shadow is especially fine). But the story itself plods a little, in spite of everyone’s best efforts. It introduces most of the mummy film clichés, including a lengthy flashback to Ancient Egypt. A lot more historical flashbacks were filmed for the movie but cut – the ‘Saxon Warrior’ listed in the credits doesn’t actually appear in the film, which is a bit sloppy.

It also introduces the racism inherent in mummy films, of course (one character has no name at all; he is simply called ‘The Nubian’). The idea that modern-day Egyptians are all just waiting to start worshipping Anubis again because it’s ‘in their blood’ is pretty risible (is the same true of British people? Would we all start worshipping Odin or whoever if some Egyptian archaeologists came and accidentally revived Lindow Man?)

The Mummy’s Hand (1940)

Universal waited eight years before they made their next mummy film. During that time their horror output had gone from more-or-less serious, well-made A-pictures into far more juvenile B-movies. Karloff is nowhere to be seen in the later mummy films. This time the mummy is played by Tom Tyler, a low-budget cowboy actor.

The Mummy’s Hand has a pair of two-fisted American archaeologists falling foul of the revived creature when they try to find the tomb of Princess Ananka. This time the mummy is called Kharis, and instead of the first film’s scroll of Thoth, he is revived with ‘tana leaves’, the plot device that will crop up in every subsequent Universal mummy film.

Something else that’s new but will be turning up in every subsequent mummy film is the secret organisation that has kept faith in the ‘old gods’ alive for millennia, somehow. It’s always led by a dapper man in a fez (here played by Brit George Zucco, a frequent Universal villain). This is a cliché that survived intact into the Hammer horrors and even 70s Dr Who.

The main problem with this film is that there’s precious little mummy action. It’s only 68 minutes long, but the guy in the bandages doesn’t even start walking around until the 42-minute mark. Instead we have exasperating comic relief and general tedium from the Americans (the comedian is Wallace Ford, who offered more endearing comic relief in Freaks). It’s a very cheap film, and recycles a great deal of footage from the Karloff movie (indeed, Karloff is clearly visible in several shots of the lengthy ‘Ancient Egypt’ flashback scene). It does have a really impressive set for the final showdown, but doesn’t have much else going for it.

The Mummy’s Tomb (1942)

The title of this one doesn’t make much sense, as the mummy decamps to the US early on and we never see his tomb. This is a direct sequel to the previous film, with the hero and annoying comedy sidekick both showing up. Weirdly, though, they’re both playing the parts as old men; the actual hero is the son of the last film’s hero. I really have no idea why this was thought a good idea, as it totally messes up the chronology of the series.

Anyway, the Kharis the mummy is sent over the Atlantic to get revenge on those who desecrated the tomb of princess Ananka. He has a new dapper high priest with him, played by Turhan Bey, who looks much too young, but at least was half-Turkish, so is a closer fit for an Egyptian than George Zucco.

In the bandages this time is poor old Lon Chaney Jr, the saddest horror star of them all. Universal shoved him into most of their monster roles at one point, in spite of his being a terrible actor outside of a very limited range. To be fair, he doesn’t do anything obviously wrong as the mummy, but it’s difficult to make an impression when you’re playing a mute, lumbering brute (only Christopher Lee ever managed that trick, and he was much the better actor).

The film is only an hour long, and the first 12 minutes consists of a lengthy flashback. At least this one has the good sense to get Kharis up and about as quickly as possible so he can murder his way through various supporting characters until the inevitable fiery showdown.

The Mummy’s Ghost (1944)

Another deceptive title. There are no ghosts here.

So Kharis somehow survived the climax of the last film. Now he’s supposed to rescue the mummy of Princess Ananka from an American museum and take it back to Egypt, where George Zucco waits in a silly wig. This time the be-fezzed younger priest is whiter-than-white John Carradine, with some slightly dark makeup on. He’s marginally better in this than he was as Dracula, but he doesn’t seem to have suited horror movies terribly well – odd, then, that he made so many. Chaney is unrecognisable as the mummy, but I guess he lumbers well enough.

The heroine is a reincarnation of Ananka; the hero, her boyfriend, is a dull college student. This time round, everyone seems perfectly willing to accept that there’s a mummy running around small-town America, so at least we can dispense with the usual ‘cynical police’ routine.

This is actually rather better than the previous two mummy films. It’s not exactly good – it’s too slight a thing at 60 minutes to make much impact – but it has one or two effective moments, and some pretty good dark humour. The end is the best of the lot, too, even including the Karloff movie. If only they’d had the sense to leave the mummy alone after this.

The Mummy’s Curse (1944)

This is apparently set 25 years after the previous film, so really ought to take place in the mid-60s. Somehow the mummy and Ananka are now in Louisiana, which gives scope for some hilarious accents. (Somehow the line ‘the mummy and his princess’ sounds a lot like ‘the mummy and his penises’ when delivered by a supporting character. That would have made for a more interesting film, for sure.)

The film uses a full five minutes of the same flashback footage we’ve been enjoying ever since the Karloff movie. The high priest’s lengthy explanation of the tana leaves is pretty much verbatim from the last three films, and I was able to join in the high priest’s oath, having heard it three times already. (“I swear by the mighty power of Amon-Ra, whose anger can shatter the world…”)

Lon Chaney is the mummy yet again, although this time his face is obviously a rubber mask rather than the makeup of previous efforts. He shambles around strangling people, as per usual. The rest of the cast are obscure, with the new dodgy Egyptian being particularly unimpressive (and why do these high priests always wear a fez? It’s such a giveaway!)

The best thing this has going for it is Ananka, a female mummy who becomes a very fetching young woman when revived. But almost nothing is done with the idea; the film can’t even be bothered to develop a love triangle between Ananka, the hero and his girlfriend. This film is mostly notable for the vaguely racist supporting stereotypes. By this point, mummy fatigue was definitely setting in. Mercifully, no one saw fit to bring Kharis back to life again.

Well, almost.

Abbott and Costello meet the Mummy (1955)

This is a weird film to have been made at all. It was a good decade since the last Mummy film. It was Abbott and Costello’s last film for Universal (and almost their last film full-stop). Their popularity was on the wane, and they reportedly hated each other by this point. And Universal had long-since dropped the monster franchises.

Anyway, this has Abbott and Costello as two Americans stranded in Egypt. They get involved in the usual mummy-related shenanigans: a professor has the mummy (here called Klaris), and some sinister Egyptians are intent on getting it back from him. The plot is needlessly complicated, as there are at least two different factions of villains. There’s not a huge amount of mummy action, either.

That said, this does have some pleasingly cartoony set-pieces. It’s better than Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The ending, in which there are three different mummies wandering around, only one of which is the genuine article, and fizzing sticks of dynamite are being passed between characters, makes this feel almost like an episode of Scooby Doo, except that in place of a talking dog we have Abbott and Costello.

Sadly, the stars are the main reason I can’t quite get behind this film. They’re still really annoying. They also look old. Abbott is no longer the tall thin one; he’s a bit too stout. Costello has taken to looking at the camera much too often – it feels almost like he’s imploring us to keep watching. They do a maddening bit of wordplay humour that goes on much too long (it’s meant to remind us of their famous ‘who’s on first’ routine, which I never found funny). The film clearly doesn’t trust its ageing comics to entertain us all by themselves, as there are a few dance routines and a song.

But I expected to hate it, and didn’t, so while still disliking the central double act, I can still quite enjoy aspects of the film. In fact, given the poor quality of the ‘serious’ mummy sequels, I’d say this is probably the second best film in the set, after the first Mummy film.

Blu-ray

Regardless of how good they are, the films look spectacular in HD. The first film, especially, is a revelation – the fine detail visible is amazing, and the heavy shadows look especially ominous. You can pause the film just to check out the hieroglyphics in the background. But surprisingly, the later, cheaper films look almost as good – someone has put a lot of effort into restoring these films. Only the Abbott and Costello looks less than pristine, and that’s probably down to it being a later, much cheaper effort.

Extras-wise, there is a documentary about the Mummy series on the first disk, which is half an hour long and… OK, I guess. There’s also good a documentary about Jack Pierce, the Universal makeup artist who created most of their monsters. Finding out that Boris Karloff was in makeup for about 12 hours a day when making the Mummy just makes his performance all the more impressive.

There’s also an extras DVD, which repeats some of the extras from the first disk, but also includes a feature-length Universal Horror documentary, made by film historian Kevin Brownlow. I’m very fond of this documentary, which has appeared on most Universal sets over the years, but it does ramble a bit, and gives a bit too much time to irrelevant talking heads.

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Comments on this review

  • euphie published 19/07/2017
    e :o)
  • LiveMusicLoverLyn published 19/07/2017
    I remember this from late night television!
  • Pointress published 19/07/2017
    An E worthy review
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Product Information : The Mummy: Complete Legacy Collection (Blu-ray)

Manufacturer's product description

Product Details

Director(s): Karl Freund

Actor(s) (Last name, First name): Karloff, Boris

DVD Region: Blu-ray

EAN: 5053083117436

Classification: 15 years and over

Video Category: Feature Film

Production Year: 1932

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