The Mummy: Review
A monster movie that focuses more on the foreboding atmosphere and the motivations of its titular monster than the monster itself, The Mummy is a near-perfect example of a horror-thriller that doesn't need to rely too much on the fast-paced creature thrills that are prevalent within this genre; instead of just horrific prosthetics work and suspenseful jump scares, the film dares to dwell upon themes of love against reason, science vs. the supernatural, and even divine intervention.
On my first-time watch, I was expecting something akin to the other Universal Monster films of its time. Something with blood-curdling horror, a monster that is bloodthirsty and threatening yet still gives off a sense of fun. Instead, the film turned out to be a slow-burn horror that gives off a sense of dread throughout its hour-long runtime and culminates in a climax that is almost hopeless in nature.
Most of this is due to the excellent performance by Boris Karloff as the titular monster. Unlike the more iconic Frankenstein's monster, his character of Imhotep is cold, cunning, and calculating, his performance is excellently subdued and intimidating. He isn't a monster that our protagonists can easily riddle with bullets or hack away with an ax. This is exemplified in one particular scene where Imhotep lays his intentions bare to the main scientist of the group, to which our heroes are forced to resign and let Imhotep walk out of their residence unharmed, knowing that there is nothing they can do to stop him.
This sense of powerlessness in our main protagonists is conveyed brilliantly throughout the entire film. They can talk to the mummy, but they cannot overpower him. They can try to burn the source of his power, only to die by his invisible hand. This omnipotence by the villain is what makes the film such a thrill to watch.
Seeing the scientists try to deal with the supernatural threat, to see the archaeologists and their compatriots discuss possible weaknesses is definitely different from ordinary horror fare, yes, but lends to the foreboding threat that is Imhotep, who is essentially a god in physical form. On top of all of these thematic elements, the film even manages to lay out a very interesting mythos that is inspired by the dozens of mummy films that came out during the decade-long trend before it whilst standing on its own to become a long-standing mummy film standard.
On the other aspect of the film that focuses on Imhotep and his motivations, I loved how the film tries to paint him in an almost sympathetic light, raising the question of whether or not what he's doing is actually justified. He suffers through much and is willing to wait an eternity for his love, which is portrayed by the beautiful Zita Johann. It's a very welcoming surprise compared to the more black and white (pun intended) portrayals of villains in film, whether it's in this era or the modern one.
In terms of how this film has influenced modern cinema, there's many examples I can point out. One of them is Imhotep's magic reflecting the "Force" later seen in Star Wars. In fact, Boris Karloff's portrayal of the character is very reminiscent of Ian McDiarmid's Palpatine in his intonation and James Earl Jones' Darth Vader in the way he exerts dominance through an unseen force to his enemies. There's also a sequence of chilling shots of Karloff's face (covered in a very good makeup job) that definitely inspired Kubrick's famous Hal 9000 scene in his masterwork of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Despite the slick camerawork and editing (exemplified in the aforementioned intercut sequence with the mummy's face), there isn't much to write home about in terms of the cinematography and direction; there aren't that many iconic shots or blocking that stuck with me. Which was quite a surprise to me considering that Karl Freund was the cinematographer for Lang's 1927 masterwork Metropolis. But maybe that's just high hopes and personal bias talking.
85 years later, and this film still manages to capture the imagination with its chilling atmosphere and engaging mythos. The Mummy may not offer high-octane thrills or blood-curdling scares, but it uses the drama and threatening vibe to evoke an equal sense of timeless dread. It won't evoke the same scare as a mummy chasing you down a dark corridor, but it will make you feel like the unease of finding an empty Egyptian sarcophagus on a research table.