The Mummy (Karl Freund, 1932)
NOTE: this review may be considered to contain spoilers.
I consider the 1999 remake of this movie, starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz, to be one of those guilty-pleasure movies that, if I stumble upon it while channel-surfing, I simply have to watch. It’s silly and it’s over-the-top and it’s a great deal of fun. But—not having seen Karl Freund’s 1932 original (until last night) since I was knee-high to a grasshopper—I had forgotten how surprisingly faithful it is.
Not completely, of course. You substitute Arnold Vosloo, looking more built than he has in any other film, for Boris Karloff and you’ve immediately changed the tone. Vosloo is a total romantic hero. You’re supposed to be able to identify with and/or sympathize with him, no matter that he’s calling down sandstorms and having large, disgusting bugs munch on the Great White Devils. (An added bit of amusement for me there is that Vosloo was born in a South Africa where apartheid was still very much active.) Karloff, on the other hand, is never the good guy here. He’s nasty and shriveled and menacing, even when he pops up looking less mummy-like in his Ardath Bey persona. Yes, he’s erudite—Karloff is often remembered for being menacing, less so for playing the scholars he often played—but he’s also very much the opponent to David Manners’ dashing romantic-hero character. You’re supposed to respect Ardath Bey/Imhotep for his rather fierce intelligence (and, let’s face it, he’s a lot more cultured than Arnold Vosloo’s Imhotep—no disgusting bugs anywhere!), but at no point are you supposed to identify with him. Which brings me back to my initial point about the faithfulness of the adaptation and how one casting decision can take two movies working off basically the same script (save another hundred million in the special effects budget and a more politicially correct atmosphere in ’99—no characters here credited as “The Nubian”…) and make them seem different.
(We’ll not get into Weisz’ enthusiastic archaeologist vs. Zita Johann’s wilting flower.)
This movie is simply a pleasure, not a guilty one at all. It’s a good story, simply told and well-acted. Freund was probably not the best director for this; his camera angles sometimes make very little sense, very odd for someone who spent decades in the business as a cinematographer (but I’m not the only person to see that didn’t translate; he stopped getting directorial work in 1935). But man, it’s Karloff at his best. This may be a better Karloff performance than the one he gives in Bedlam, and I don’t say that about much of anything.*** ½