Universal Classic Monster Movies – An OCF Classic Movie Review – Part 5 – The Mummy

So far in this review, I have gone over the “Big Three” of the Classic Monster class.  Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolfman coexisted in a European setting even showing up in each other’ movies.  Very cozy.  Maybe almost too much of a good thing.  I mean after you have the Daughter of Dracula and the Bride and the Son of Frankenstein what’s left, the Wolfman’s Gardener’s Chiropractor?  It would almost be a relief to escape from foggy, chilly Central Europe and head for a warmer and dryer climate.

Egypt?

The Mummy presents an intersection of interesting subjects.  At the time, it was made (1932) less than 10 years had elapsed since the real-life discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb and the golden artifacts it contained.  This discovery along with the supposed “Tutankhamen’s Curse” upon all those who desecrated his tomb re-invigorated the public’s interest in Egyptology.  Add to that the fascination with a strange and exotic world such as the Middle East would have presented to Westerners of a century ago.  And finally mix this together with a mythical love story to produce a strange fantasy to lure the public with.  And the movie was very popular, even in Britain, where the colonial setting was probably of interest.

The story goes like this.  A British archeological dig in Egypt uncovers an unspoiled burial site that contains a mummy that was not embalmed but rather buried alive.  Markings on the tomb warn any grave robbers that the occupant is a cursed individual and anyone who reads the  Scroll of Thoth will perish and unleash an undead horror on the world.  So of course, they read the scroll.  This activates the long dead mummy of Imhotep, the priest who was punished for trying to use the Scroll of Thoth to revivify his lover  Anck-es-en-Amon, the princess whose untimely death brought about this whole tragedy.  After driving one of the expedition mad and sending him to an early grave, Imhotep (played by our old friend Boris Karloff) escapes with the scroll and disappears.  Ten years later Helen Grosvenor, the daughter of one of the surviving expedition members, is discovered by Imhotep to be the reincarnated spirit of Anck-es-en-Amon.  By this time Imhotep has assumed the identity of a modern-day Egyptian named Ardath Bey.  He plans to ritually slay Helen, mummify her and use the Scroll of Thoth to revivify her and make her his bride.  Pretty creepy.

Helen’s friends and family attempting to foil this plot are laughably ineffective.  At the end it takes Helen’s returned memory as Anck-es-en-Amon to appeal to Isis (whose votary she was) to put a stop to the ritual murder.  Imhotep is blasted by divine intervention and everyone (who is still alive at this point) lives happily ever after.

One interesting addition to the cast is our old friend Edward Van Sloan as Dr. Muller.  In this movie his effectiveness is somewhere between the high competency of Van Helsing in Dracula and the incredible incompetence of Dr. Waldman in Frankenstein.  Let’s give him a B- in the Mummy for at least putting up a fight.

I’ve always enjoyed the Mummy.  But I limit myself to one viewing every ten years.  Let’s face it.  A Mummy, even one with a scroll that bestows the power of life and death isn’t that scary.  For all it’s flaws the 1990s reboot with Brendan Fraser has a lot more chills in it with man eating scarab beetles and a Mummy that revivifies himself by stealing organs from the living.  But the 1930s version is solid entertainment well worth seeing, at least once.

Universal Classic Monster Movies – An OCF Classic Movie Review – Part 3 – Frankenstein

If Dracula is the King of Monsters, monster royalty as it were, then Frankenstein is the People’s Monster, the Monster of the Proletariat.  Everything about him is working class.  He is outsized and strong to make him an able worker.  His clothing is a workman’s suit.  He is dull, brutish, inarticulate and ugly.  He recognizes beauty and strives after it but is rejected by the beautiful people and chased away.  He is the ultimate step-son.

Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein’s creation as the ultimate act of human hubris, to pretend to be God.  And the Monster punishes Dr. Frankenstein for putting him through Hell.

Okay, so that’s the meta-story, now let’s talk about the movie.

Universal released Frankenstein in 1931.  The cast is mostly contract character actors who appeared in most of the B-movies at Universal.  Even Dr. Frankenstein was played by a minor star Colin Clive.  And of course, the real star, the Monster is an anonymous question mark (?) in the opening credits.  Boris Karloff made his name with this movie.  And as opposed to Bela Lugosi’s eternal submergence into the part of Dracula, Karloff prospered as the go to monster player at Universal.

The story follows Dr. Frankenstein, first as he creates the Monster and later as the Monster attempts to destroy him.  During this we meet the doctor’s fiancée and his aged father “The Baron.”  And, of course, there is his lab assistant and part time grave robber Fritz.  The hunch-backed sadist (played by Dwight Frye, the same actor who was Renfield in Dracula by the way) is the archetype for every Igor act-alike henchman in every monster movie that ever followed.  And there are all those other memorable characters, the Burgomaster, little Maria the girl drowned in the pond, Maria’s father and of course Doctor Waldman played by Edward Van Sloan.  If you read the previous post in this series you may remember Van Sloan as the brilliant Dr. Van Helsing the scientist and vampire hunter.  In this movie unfortunately, he’s not quite as successful at monster eradication.  In perhaps the most inept example of obsessive compulsive behavior ever filmed, we witness Dr. Waldman bungle the job of monster euthanasia.  In the preceding scene the Monster, tired of being tormented by Fritz, hangs the hunch-back with a length of chain.  Drs. Waldman and Frankenstein immediately suss out the necessity of subduing the Monster before he carries forward this new policy of interpersonal simplification on them.  Working together they barely manage to tranquilize the Monster with a hypodermic before he could finish throttling Dr. Frankenstein with his bare hands.

Dr. Frankenstein, now convinced that his creature is too dangerous to live wants to put him down himself but his father and his fiancée arrive in time to interrupt the program.  Dr. Waldman convinces him to leave and assures him that the deed will be performed without delay.  So far so good, capable older scientist and biologist will dispatch the Monster with a good swift stroke to the carotid or the aorta or whatever, right?  Wrong.  We are about to witness film history.

The next scene opens on Dr. Waldman in operating room garb standing over the Monster lying on an operating table, seemingly unconscious.  Dr. Waldman fiddles with some scalpels, checks the Monster’s vitals and turns aside to make an entry in his journal!  I can’t recall the exact words but the paraphrase is something like, “sedation is becoming less and less effective, I must quickly euthanize him before he regains consciousness.”  Of course, as soon as he finishes this diary entry and turns back to the job at hand, the Monster awakes and breaks the good doctor’s neck.  What the hell!  I mean, come on!  Forget medical school, how did this guy get through middle school without a body guard?  Instead of putting him in charge of monster execution he should have been assigned to spittoon polishing back at the baronial estate of Papa Frankenstein.  What a loser.

Well, the story proceeds with the monster going on a killing spree that inexplicably leads him to Dr. Frankenstein’s location.  The Monster arrives just in time to disrupt the wedding and harass but for some unknown reason not kill the doctor’s fiancée.  Roused by this threat to his planned for wedded bliss, Dr. Frankenstein joins the village mob and follows the Monster’s trail back to the obligatory windmill.  Here the tables turn and the Monster kicks his creator’s butt and tosses him off the top of the windmill.  One of the windmill’s vanes breaks his fall and he is transported back to the manor.  The incensed mob sets fire to the mill and the last we see of the Monster he is trapped under a falling beam and surrounded by flame.

Miraculously the doctor makes a complete recovery and in the last scene the household staff are drinking a toast with the Baron to “a Son of the House of Frankenstein.”  Looking at sequels as children, this toast seems to have been amply fulfilled.

So, what’s my conclusion?  It’s incredible fun.  With so many semi-comical characters it’s hard not to take the movie for what it’s meant to be a wild fantasy.  And in that guise, it succeeds.  It even somehow cobbles together a happy ending which completely ignores the actual ending of the book.  The fact that the main characters are obviously British but are supposed to be a German noble family is inexplicable.  The fact that there are no legal or personal repercussions from the Doctor’s creation murdering so many friends and neighbors is equally unexplained.  But taken as a fairy tale it works.  Silly, yes.  Enjoyable, sure.  See it if you haven’t already.

Universal Classic Monster Movies – An OCF Classic Movie Review – Part 2 – Dracula

Dracula is the King of Monsters.  He is obviously royalty.  He has all the trappings.  His castle, his formal evening attire, even his diction and good manners.  He is called Count Dracula in the Universal film but his legend descends from a real prince.  Vlad III (the Impaler) was ruler of Wallachia in present day Romania.  He was called Dracul (Dragon) for his defense of Christians against the Turks but his cruelty against just about anyone he came in contact with was legendary.  The legend of the vampire (nosferatu) is central European in origin and goes back very far into the imagination of primitive people huddling in the dimly lit hovels and fearing the long winter nights for all the real and imagined terrors that lurked right at their doorsteps.

Bram Stoker took this legacy and created a gothic novel that followed the conventions of his time and populated it with upper class British characters right down to the damsel in distress and the square jawed leading man ready to save her from a fate literally worse than death.  It cried out for a stage adaption and of course it got it.  And then some.  Several productions were launched and in 1927 a company opened the play in the United States.  And interestingly enough three of the lead male parts reprised their roles in the Universal film, Bela Lugosi as Dracula, Edward van Sloan as Dr. Van Helsing and Herbert Bunston as Dr. Seward.

Let’s now look at the film.  What are its chief characteristics?  It’s an early talkie.  The sound is not perfect.  Whether an artifact of the age of the prints used or of the original production there is considerable background noise.  The sets for the most part are the studio versions of city streets and upper class drawing rooms.  The sets used for the village and castle in Transylvania are unconvincing but highly evocative.  My one pet peeve with Castle Dracula is that while showing all the creatures crawling around in the cellar we are given a good look at some armadillos.  These are New World creatures and what they would be doing in central Europe is very hard to imagine.  The set for Carfax Abbey is equally entertaining and in fact is probably built on the set for Castle Dracula used earlier.

With respect to the actors, they are exaggeratedly and understandably stagey.  After all, most of them were stage actors.  They exaggerate their words and gestures to such an extent that sometimes it appears to a modern audience as parody.  This is probably the result of both the stage and silent film legacy of most of the cast.  Probably the most entertaining performance is given by the Cockney Orderly who watches over the madman Renfield.  He is an exaggerated lower-class everyman who adds comic relief and a really terrible accent to the film.

And finally the special effects.  At one point, Renfield looks out the window of the stage coach he is travelling in to Castle Dracula and sees a bat flying above the horses.  It is hard to minimize how laughably pathetic it looks to anyone used to the magic that CGI can perform today.  I think the strings are actually visible, but maybe it was just my scornful imagination.  There is at least one more bat flyby in the film and it doesn’t improve over the first.  ‘Nuff said.

Okay, now I’ve run down everything about the film.  It sounds like a hot steaming mess.

 

Well, it is and it isn’t.  All that I’ve said is true.  But it still remains an entertaining experience.  It is a time capsule of what our great grandparents looked on as theater.  The British basis of what was considered civilized and urbane is on display.  And you can see the tension between reason and science on the one hand and the instinctual and irrational forces at work in the universe.  And it’s interesting to note how young women are the weak point in the rational structure being undermined by the powers of darkness.  Really the story isn’t that different from our own morality tales about the dissolution of the world of light into the abyss.  It’s only different in that it has a happy ending.  Today the forces of darkness would win and we would cheer them because of how cool they dress.  And the characters get to mouth some very entertaining lines.  In one exchange between the main protagonists Dracula declares in his best Transylvanian English, “You are wise for one who has not lived even one lifetime, Van Helsing.”  For me that’s worth the price of admittance right there.