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Universal Monsters in review: The Mummy (1932)

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Of all the Universal Monsters, the Mummy is one of my favorites. For this reason, I felt inclined to say a few words regarding my affection. Why the Mummy? Certainly, as you will discover here with this review by the most excellent Mr. Chant, The Mummy is not the most flamboyant of creatures. Considering how monster-ish Frank and Drac are and continue to be through the duration of their respective films, one wonders why The Mummy was so…well, droll. And yes, its true, The Mummy is droll to many monster fans. But as it were, still, I adore The Mummy. The Mummy, Ardeth Bay, Imhotep, Boris, what have you, reminds me of another would-be villain from my 90s childhood, Mr. Freeze. In the Batman animated series, Mr. Freeze is both a brooding and terrifyingly stoic, yet tragic and very much human. His motivations make sense and its because of this the character, to me, feels more real and thus more horrifying than a majority of the classic monster tropes. As it were, monsters are of personal taste and perspectives, so without further ado, I present to you this second installment in the Universal Monsters in review. Enjoy!

 

THE MUMMY: a monstrous retrospective

By: Daniel Marc Chant

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 The Mummy, directed by Dracula cinematographer Karl Freund, shares a lot of similarities with Universal’s breakout vampire hit. Both films have luscious imagery, a great central concept and a ponderous (if somewhat dull) plot overshadowed by the performance of its titular monster. In other words The Mummy isn’t a great film, even when viewed with a wave of heady nostalgia, but it’s an important one nonetheless and is more often remembered for its legacy than its content.

After the lucrative success of Dracula and Frankenstein, Universal was looking for another monster smash and followed the studio formula we still find in Hollywood today, that of utilising established and proven talent from past blockbusters in the hope of creating a new one.

Inspired by the archaeological find of Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s tomb by the British Museum in 1921, and the subsequent tabloid craze about the curse unleashed by opening it, there was an untapped demand for Egyptian mystery at that time and Universal saw an opportunity to cash in on the craze a decade or so later.

Dracula screenwriter John L. Balderston took the idea and wrote his draft, originally titled Cagliostro, which was largely a beat-for-beat remake of his work on Dracula. His work as a Playwright first and foremost shines through both works as they often play like a theatre production as opposed to a film – set pieces and cast are minimal, it’s as though it were intended for the boards rather than film. Indeed I dare say The Mummy would be better as a stage play than a film but that’s just me.

 

The film opens with a stereotypically British ensemble of archaeologists uncovering the ancient tomb of high priest Imhotep, buried with the mystical scroll of Thoth, and a warning that whoever disturbs his eternal slumber shall suffer the bitter consequences. Dr. Miller (Edward Van Sloan), Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron) and scenery chewing Norton (Bramwell Fletcher) discuss their findings while the good Doctor and Sir Whemple head outside leaving Norton to mess about with the scroll, reading from it with young foolishness. It’s here that we see the Mummy, and really the only time too, as Boris Karloff’s Imhotep is shaken to life after the reading. As Imhotep stumbles to life and takes the scroll Norton erupts into a camp cackling descent into madness that would embarrass a Lovecraft character.

This is where we flash forward ten years and another expedition by Sir Whemple’s son Frank (played by David Manners) is frustrated by the lack of discoveries. A ponderous Egyptian calling himself Ardeth Bay (an anagram of “death by Ra”) enters claiming he knows the exact location of Princess Anckes-en-Amon’s burial chamber. Ardeth is so obviously Karloff that the ‘bait and switch’ reveal is signposted a mile off but that’s not the real point – Ardeth’s undying love for his dead lover is supposed to resonate with us, creating sympathy for the devil as it were.

It’s here that Ardeth first sees Helen Grosvenor (actress Zita Johann) who possesses many similarities to the deceased Princess and that beguiles him to her charms. And as British born Boris Karloff portrays both Adeth Bey and Imhotep, his performance is fantastic and excruciatingly slow.

While it might be looked down upon to speak negatively of old classics I’ll be the first to say that Universal’s Dracula isn’t that good a film. It’s pacing is monotonous and dull. As I mentioned beforehand the hand of a Playwright writing cinema has created a production better suited for one of London’s great theatres rather than the silver screen.

Director Karl Freund, cinematographer on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis let’s not forget, is capable of delivering stunning imagery – more potent given the technical limitations of the time – and his Germanic expressionist roots made Tod Browning’s Dracula more visually exciting than the director ever could alone. Especially considering that Browning abandoned the set after a well-documented disorganized shoot leaving Freund to pick up the pieces and stitch together the Godfather of horror films.

The Mummy and Dracula also share more than just Freund, actors David Manners and Edward Van Sloan return to essentially play the same characters and screenwriter Balderston imbues The Mummy with the same presence of Dracula within the script. Hell even the framing of Karloff employs the same cinematic methods applies to Lugosi in Dracula. Remember when I said Universal was utilising established and proven talent from past blockbusters in the hope of creating a new one? Here we see it in full force.

The most disappointing thing about The Mummy is the fact that the phenomenal make up by Jack Pierce is only seen for five minutes or so at the start of the film when Imhotep is uncovered. The rest of the time Karloff is playing Ardeth Bay, with aged make up rather than bandages. This is a monster movie without a monster.

Regardless The Mummy stormed to massive success in 1933 and Universal had their new hit to join the ranks of Dracula and Frankenstein.  The Invisible Man would soon follow, as would The Bride of Frankenstein and more. There would even be further journeys into Imhotep’s legacy, with 1940’s remake The Mummy’s Hand and its subsequent sequels. Also Hammer Film Productions took their swing at the bandaged bastard in the 1959 film The Mummy, itself based on The Mummy’s Hand rather than the original. And lest we forget Stephen Sommers’ gleefully fun 1999 re-imagination as a rollicking adventure.

The Mummy is a curiosity of a film. A piece of history. A relic. Its legacy is more important than itself. It is wrapped in history like its monster in bandages, unable to escape them but more interesting because of them.

 

Daniel Marc Chant is the published author of several terrifying tales, including: Maldicion, Burning House, and his newest venture, Mr. Robespierre.  Daniel is also one of the founders of The Sinister Horror Company, the publishing team that brought us such frights as, The Black Room Manuscripts and God Bomb!. You can follow Daniel on his blog, here.

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Freaks (1932): A Highly Unusual Attraction

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“Before proceeding with the showing of the following HIGHLY UNUSUAL ATTRACTION, a few words should be said about the amazing subject matter. BELIEVE IT OR NOT – – – – STRANGE AS IT SEEMS. In ancient times anything that deviated from the normal was considered an omen of ill luck or representative of evil. Gods of misfortune and adversity were invariable cast in the form of monstrosities, and deeds of injustice and hardship have been attributed to  the many crippled and deformed tyrants of Europe and Asia. HISTORY, RELIGION, FOLKLORE AND LITERATURE abound in tales of misshapen misfits who have altered the world’s course. GOLIATH, CALABAN, FRANKENSTEIN, GLOUCESTER, TOM THUMB AND KAISER WILHELM are just a few, whose fame is world wide. The accident of abnormal birth was considered a disgrace and malformed children were placed out in the elements to die. If, perchance, one of these freaks of nature survived, he was always regarded with suspicion. Society shunned him because of his deformity, and a family so hampered was always ashamed of the curse put upon it. Occasionally, one of these unfortunates was takes to court to be jeered at or ridiculed for the amusement of the nobles. Others were left to eke out a living by begging, stealing or starving. For the love of beauty is a deep seated urge which dates back to the beginning of civilization. The revulsion with which we view the abnormal, the malformed and the mutilated is the result of long conditioning by our forefathers. The majority of freaks, themselves, are endowed with normal thoughts and emotions. Their lot is truly a heart-breaking one. They are forced into the most unnatural of lives. Therefore, they have built up among themselves a code of ethics to protect them from the barbs of normal people. Their rules are rigidly adhered to and the hurt of one is the hurt of all; the joy of one is the joy of all. The story about to be revealed is a story based on the effect of this code upon their lives. Never again will such a story be filmed, as modern science and teratology is rapidly eliminating such blunders of nature from the world. With humility for the many injustices done to such a people, (they have no power to control their lot) we present the most startling horror story of the ABNORMAL and THE UNWANTED.”

And this is how Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) opens. We are forewarned with a somewhat strange historical account for the philosophical reasons for the most traditional accounts of ethnocentrism. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s presentation of Tod Browning’s production of Freaks follows one of the most classic idealizations and horror film motifs, the carnival. According to film historian David Skal, Tod Browning first became enthralled with the carnival when he was sixteen years old, “infatuated with a dancer, a so-called sideshow queen in the Manhattan Fair & Carnival Company” (The Monster Show, pg. 28). The unusual attraction to the carnival for those in my generation is probably best seen through the eyes of Ray Bradbury in his epic novel, “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” Dark images of Ferris wheels silhouetted against dark skies. The circus, as far back as I can recall, has always been a place of strange attraction. We do not venture to the circus to see the mundane, after all. In the history of cinema, the film began in much the same way, as a sideshow. And, furthermore, is that not what horror movies are? A strange attraction?

Some of the cast of Freaks (1932) along with Tod Browning (center).

Freaks follows the doomed tale of a trapeze artist named Cleopatra (performed by the ever talented Olga Baclanova) who discovers that a circus midget by the name of Hans (Harry Earles) has a sizable inheritance. She knows Hans is in love with her and decides to marry the lovesick performer, all the while concocting a dubious plan to murder him and steal his fortune, running off with her lover, a dim-witted strongman by the name of Hercules (Henry Victor). But everything is not as it seems. Cleopatra is openly disdained towards Hans’ fellow freaks. And when Hans’ friends discover what is going on, they band together and carry out a brutal revenge that leaves both Hercules and Cleopatra knowing what it truly means to be a so-called “freak.” The best scene, I thought, was at the end, during a torrential downpour as both Hercules and Cleopatra are attempting to flee from their would-be assassins. Hercules is caught under one of the wagons and as we watch, the freaks knife drawn, close in on him. Watching these mutilated forms drawing near, crawling through the mud, has always given me this sense of dread one hopes to find in movies such as these. Cleopatra’s fate is probably the most heinous albeit deserving (SPOILERS) when they mutilate her so badly she herself transforms from something of beauty to just another sideshow attraction. When had looked upon her, they swooned with love, and now they doing nothing but scream!

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There is little doubt that it was Tod Browning’s directorial success with Dracula (1931) which allowed him to work on what many have considered his masterpiece. This is my personal opinion, of course, but I think it is more accurate to say that Freaks was more of a passion project, considering his own past experiences working the sideshow as a geek up and down the Mississippi River. What I find most interesting about Freaks is the time period in which the film was released. Horror during the 1930’s, in my opinion, is a retrospective look at the Great War. The maiming and grinding machines of war which ended in 1918 found its way into the picture shows of this era, in movies such as Freaks (1932) and even Frankenstein (1931) we find a representation, if intended or not,  of the mutilated shell-shocked forms of returning soldiers and perhaps even modernity. One need only to look at Lon Chaney’s career to see what his custom-made effects were to symbolize.

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If this was an intentional use is debatable, but nonetheless, especially in the 1920’s-1930’s, it was a familiar image, the afterbirth of war, so to speak. Even here in our own age, we find an intuitive symbolic gesture. Consider the latest season of American Horror Story, subtitled: Freak Show. A period piece set during the 1950’s telling the story of the last remaining freak show struggling to survive. This new season of AHS is juxtaposed with the end of the Iraq War, or at least the era of the war of which so many of my own generation fought and died or worse survived — mutilated both externally and internally. Have Tod Browning’s classic 1932 Freaks found a new audience in a new generation of witnesses to the horrors of war and the macabre afterbirths? To each their own, I’m sure.

My rating: 5/5

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Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of several character driven stories of dark fiction. He resides in Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter. He is published with The Sinister Horror Company’s horror anthology The Black Room Manuscripts. His debut novel, Reinheit, is published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein and Apocalypse Meow. His military/paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, both Dwelling and Emerging and Conceiving, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston Clear Lake with a BA in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he does author interviews and reviews on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can keep up with Thomas and all his strange books by joining his author newsletter, at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.

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