This week, we’re extending our Universal Monster Movie party, and continuing on with this box set that has been sitting on my shelf for years. I’ve watched several of these films before, but never really dug into it. And a major part of me starting this blog was working through my movie collection, a lot of which I haven’t watched previously. So this week’s films are:
Karl Freund – The Mummy (1932)
James Whale – The Invisible Man (1933)
I’ve seen The Mummy before, but I haven’t seen The Invisible Man before. Will these horror films from the 30’s hold up?
Let’s get into it.
The Mummy (1932)
On an archaeological dig in Egypt, British archaeologists discover the tomb of a mummy, Imhotep, who appears to have been buried alive, along with a chest containing a mysterious scroll. When one of the researchers translates and reads the scroll, the mummy comes to life and walks away, making the man go mad. 10 years later, the discovery of a new tomb brings a mysterious Egyptian man into play, and a young woman seems caught up in his aura. Will she be able to resist his charms?
The film is directed by Karl Freund, who was much better known as a cinematographer, serving in that role on major films like Metropolis, Key Largo, and Dracula, which we covered last week. It stars the legendary Boris Karloff, who we’ve seen twice before, in Frankenstein and Corridors of Blood. At this point, I wouldn’t mind seeing a Boris Karloff film every week. In this film, the makeup is toned down a bit, and he really gets to act in this role. His Imhotep is cold and determined.
Of the films we’ve watched so far in this series, this is by far the most serious film. The others take on some ridiculous moments, or story shortcuts, but The Mummy is very well constructed, and stands on it’s own as a strong film. It doesn’t play as a monster movie, it plays like a tragic love story. Imhotep’s motivation isn’t rule the world, or terrorize the populace, it’s to reclaim his lost love, taken from him too soon. It’s also his fatal flaw. He can’t see anything beyond this quest. Regardless of who he hurts or what he has to do, he will achieve this goal. And he knows exactly how to do it.
The film does a great job of toeing the line between giving us a clear picture of Imhotep’s plan, and keeping the mystery of his past intact. It makes for a suspenseful film, that never leaves us confused about the ultimate goals of the characters or how they’ll attempt to achieve them.
The film starts out in Egypt in 1921, where a British Museum expedition is digging up artifacts. Here we meet Sir Joseph and Dr. Muller, who are experienced archaeologists poring over their finds for the day, along with a younger man who simply wants to jump to the exciting things, the mummy and the chest that they’ve found that day. Sir Joseph is portrayed as the ultimate professional, only concerned with the scientific value of the finds. But this seems a little disingenuous to me, considering the history of the British Museum in foreign countries, which involved a lot of plundering. In fact, later in the film, Sir Joseph states flat out that the British Museum is only interested in science, and not plunder. It’s the correct sentiment, and maybe by this era that was the museum’s position, but it certainly wasn’t always that way.
Regardless, the young man waits until the two more experienced men go out to talk, and then immediately opens the chest, discovering a scroll, which is called the scroll of Thoth, which was used by Osiris to raise Isis from the dead. The young man translates some of the hieroglyphs and reads them under his breath.
The film does a great job here of building the suspense, showing us the mummy, and the man reading, then back to the mummy, showing the mummy slowly opening his eyes. We never actually see the mummy in full wrapped costume, just a hand taking the scroll, and the bandages trailing out behind him as he leaves the room. When Sir Joseph returns, he just finds a cackling madman in place of the young man.
The movie jumps to 1932, and it really gets going as a mysterious old Egyptian man directs a new expedition to a spot where he’s sure there’s another tomb. Here we get a shot of the archaeologists ‘working’, wherein they sit under an umbrella watching a group of workers do the backbreaking labor. But just as the old man said, they find the tomb of a princess, Aksunamen. They dutifully collect the artifacts, and they end up in the Cairo museum.
Of course, we as the audience can recognize immediately that the old man is actually Imhotep, but the characters in the film don’t. As soon as the museum closes, he begins a ritual to raise Aksunamen from the dead. At this point, we still don’t know how he is connected to this princess. Earlier in the film, we heard some speculation from the characters who discovered his mummy. We know that he was buried alive, and that the spells that would be used to guide his spirit through the underworld have been scratched off the inside of his coffin. The men speculate that he must have performed some heinous crime to deserve such a punishment, and one suggests a woman was involved. But this is the first indication we have of Imhotep’s past.
As he performs the ritual, we meet a new character, Helen, a wealthy socialite who we’re told has a family tree that goes back centuries. We see her have a sudden urge to leave the party she’s at to try to get to the museum. She’s stopped at the door by Sir Joseph, and his son Frank, another archaeologist, as they are leaving the museum. They take her into their care, while Imhotep is interrupted by a guard. He’s forced to kill him, and stop the ritual, leaving the scroll behind. Helen is saved for the moment.
In the next scenes, we learn that Helen must be a direct descendant of Aksunamen, and Imhotep learns the same, discovering that she was found trying to get into the museum while he was performing the ritual. Sir Joseph and Dr Muller also learn of the murder and recover the scroll.
Here we get probably the most silly moment of the film. Much like Dracula, Imhotep just decides to reveal himself as an ancient mummy come back to life to the only people aware of how to defeat him. When he meets Joseph and Muller, he learns they have the scroll and demands them to return it, confirming their (up to that point) wild speculation that the mysterious man is actually the mummy they lost years ago.
Also much like Dracula, Imhotep has the ability to entrance people. We get a similar effect to what we saw in Dracula, where the camera zooms in on Imhotep’s face, and his eyes are highlighted. The effect here is much more subtle, and I believe it’s done in post production, rather than practically, as it was in Dracula. Regardless, it’s still effective. Imhotep manages to entrance Sir Joseph’s house servant, giving him an inside man.
We get a look at how powerful Imhotep is when Sir Joseph attempts to burn the scroll, ending the entire plan. Imhotep is able to watch him through a pool in his home, and induce a heart attack in Joseph, using the house servant to steal the scroll, and replace it with some burned paper, hoping to convince Muller and Frank that the scroll was burned.
Muller and Frank know that Helen is in danger, but their protection is fairly lax, at fist simply telling her to just not leave her house. But of course this doesn’t work, as Imhotep entrances her, and she goes straight to him.
Here, we get the most interesting part of the film, where we learn of Imhotep’s past, and his connection to Aksunamen. Imhotep shows it to Helen, and also to us. What’s fascinating about this set of scenes is that it’s portrayed in the silent movie style. There is no dialogue from within the flashback, and even the acting is done in silent film style. Karloff is particularly good at this. Keep in mind that this film was made just a few years after the advent of sound, so this would have felt very familiar to audiences of the time.
In the flashback we see how Imhotep and Aksunamen were in love, but she died young, and Imhotep used the Scroll of Thoth to attempt to raise her from the dead. But he was caught in the act, and sentenced to being buried alive, along with the scroll so no one else will be tempted to try what he did.
The scene where Imhotep is buried alive is genuinely scary, as the camera zooms in on Karloff’s face as the bandages are wrapped around his face. He plays the terror of the moment perfectly, giving us a window into what the character must be feeling.
From here, the film becomes a bit more by the numbers. Imhotep is attempting to complete his plan, by embodying the soul of Aksunamen in Helen, then killing her, and raising her again as an eternal mummy. And Frank and Muller are both attempting to stop him. The climax takes place in the Cairo museum, where all the characters come together.
This is a great film. One that takes the villain, makes him sympathetic, and even gives us the opportunity to root for him. However, the film doesn’t, and doesn’t intend to lionize Imhotep. At the end, we see his selfishness. As he informs Aksunamen that she must die to become an eternal mummy like him, she obejcts, and Helen begins to take over. Rather than accept the wishes of his love, he simply overpowers her, and attempts to turn her regardless.
In doing this, the film gives us an intensely complex villain, which is absolutely the makings of a great monster movie. Even if we don’t agree with him, or ultimately want him to win, we can understand his motivations, and placing ourselves in his position, wonder if we might do the same thing.
This is also the only film of the four we’ve watched that isn’t based on a piece of literature. There’s a ‘story by’ credit, but this isn’t an adaptation.
Let’s look at the next film.
The Invisible Man (1933)
A scientist discovers a way to make himself completely invisible, and works to create an antidote, which he believes will bring him fame and riches. But the chemicals he used to make himself invisible are also driving him mad, and he begins a crime spree across the country. Will anyone be able to stop this invisible man?
The film is directed by James Whale, who also directed last week’s Frankenstein, and stars Claude Rains as the invisible man. Of course, he begins the film as invisible, so it’s not much of a visual role. In fact, we only see his face for about 30 seconds at the very end of the film, and I’m unsure of how many of the invisible man effects that we see are acted by him. The film also stars a young actress named Gloria Stuart, in an early film of her career. It turns out, that the same actress was in another major film more than 60 years later. She played the older version of Rose in Titanic. She worked consistently into the 1940s, then returned to acting in the 70s, and managed to bookend her career with roles in two well-known films.
The film starts with a man walking into a remote inn, his head covered in bandages, wearing gloves and a heavy coat, and goggles that cover his eyes entirely. It’s a striking sight. In the inn, he demands a room, a bath and a separate sitting room. He’s rough with the inn owner, waiting impatiently for her to prep the room, snapping at her when she asks to take his coat. Furthermore, he demands to be left alone, and when the woman comes in to add a pot of mustard to the dinner plate, he screams at her, covering up his mouth before she can see anything.
We move to a science lab where we meet Dr. Cranley and his daughter Flora. Flora asks him about Jack, the scientist from his lab that has been missing for a month. Cranley doesn’t seem too bothered, assuming that Jack is off finishing his experiment. We as the audience understand implicitly that Jack must be the man at the inn, and it gives us a bit of background on the man. He left suddenly from his job at Cranley’s lab, and hasn’t been seen since. His colleague Dr. Kemp, also doesn’t seem particularly bothered, perhaps even a little relieved that Jack is gone.
We move back to the inn, where Jack has a large chemistry set working. He’s complaining that he could find the antidote if only everyone would leave him alone and let him work. When the inn owner attempts to get in the room to give him lunch, he screams at her and slams the door closed, making her drop the tray and fall down.
The film moves quickly here, as the woman demands that her husband throw the man out. He agrees, but is thrown down the stairs by Jack, who is getting increasingly agitated. The police are called, and the policeman goes upstairs with a group of men to take the man back to the police station. Here Jack decides to reveal himself. In a well-known scene he takes his bandages off, revealing that there is nothing underneath. He toys with the police and men as he removes his clothes, eventually becoming completely invisible.
Here’s where the film goes from interesting into self-parody. Jack doesn’t really have a plan, or a goal, other than to become visible again. He completely abandons that in favor of a crime spree almost immediately. In addition, the idea that people couldn’t catch him easily also strikes me as ridiculous. Sure, you can’t see him, but you can still hear him, he essentially never shuts up. But you could also hear his footfalls, and the creaky boards beneath his feet. You could also smell him. It’s easy to sense other people even when you can’t see them. Listen for his voice, and tackle him. Movie over. But the film decides that being invisible means he’s completely undetectable. In fact, it even seems to know this, spending a fair amount of time with characters suggesting ways to catch him, and a few others that they actually try, including spreading dust on a wall that they assume he’ll have to climb, and putting men with paint guns all over it, planning to cover him in paint.
After causing havoc in the village, Jack goes to look up his old friend Kemp, telling him that he must help him work out the antidote, but then also tells him that the path to that might include killing a bunch of people, or derailing a train, just for fun.
Back at his own lab, Dr. Cranley discovers a list of chemicals that Jack has been working with, noting that one of them has a little known side effect of driving it’s users insane.
The film essentially abandons the plotline of Jack looking for a cure quickly, and moves to a cops vs robbers narrative, where the police are searching for Jack, and Jack is toying with them. Kemp manages to call the police, and the police surround the house, linking arms. And Jack still manages to get by them, when it should have been easy to catch him. Jack shows that he suddenly has super strength as well, able to swing a man around by his legs, then stealing his pants and going for a stroll.
Jack continues his crime spree solo, killing men in the search parties looking for him with impunity, and even derailing a train, killing many many people.
In the end, the police do manage to find Jack, and kill him, and he has one final moment with Flora, able to show remorse, and become visible just as he dies, giving us our only look at Claude Rains in the role.
I’m not sure this is even a horror movie. It’s more of a comedy or parody. It is a thoroughly silly movie. Perhaps it played differently in 1933, but in 2018, it just feels silly. It is known and remembered for it’s effects, and a lot of them are still really impressive. But a lot of them show their rough edges, literally. I’m not sure what method they would have used to make this work, perhaps some double exposures, but I think the film spent so much effort making them work, they lost the plot and just added in more scenes showing off how they could make an invisible man work.
All in all, while the effects are definitely still impressive, the film just falls flat as a monster movie or horror movie. Jack as the invisible man is a menacing villain, but more because everyone just completely forgets how to use their basic senses. When Jack threatens Kemp, he just kind of accepts it, never trying to fight back. He finally calls the police, but doesn’t try to attack Jack when he’s vulnerable, like when he’s sleeping in his own house.
Having never seen this film before, I was surprised at the turn it took into self-parody. I expected something much more serious.
The Double Feature
Last week, I had a film that I really liked, and a film that wasn’t quite as good. This week, we’re in basically the same place, except the gap is much wider. I think The Mummy is a really great film, and unfortunately, The Invisible Man just didn’t work for me.
As I was watching these films, I was reminded of all the various remakes and re-imaginings we’ve seen of all these films over the year, and how last week’s films haven’t really had successful remakes, while this week’s films both have. Of course, there are many successful vampire stories, but nothing that directly follows the Dracula storyline. Likewise, Frankenstein has had a few remakes, none of which really worked.
But The Mummy had a very successful reboot of the franchise in the late 90’s, and The Invisible Man had a re-imagining in 2000 with Kevin Bacon taking over the lead role, directed by Paul Verhoeven. I think in general, the themes of these two stories, of someone going mad with power, and another man trying desperately to recapture his lost love at any rate both seem a bit more relateable to modern audiences. Of course, there was also a reimagining of The Mummy with Tom Cruise that came out last year, that was theoretically supposed to start an entire new franchise of films, but that fell flat, and it appears the rest of the planned films just won’t be made. So these stories aren’t just solid gold that always produce results. Of course, it will require solid filmmaking and storytelling, not just a standard formula.
I’m through the final phase of my PhD, but it’s also the most challenging. As of last week, I’m officially ABD, all but dissertation. That’s a big step, but now I have to deliver, getting my dissertation done in about a year. Lots to do.
So what about next week’s films? I’m tempted to keep rolling on the monster train, I’ve got 4 more films in this set, but maybe it’s time to take a step back. There’s two more of these monster films I for sure want to cover at some point, but I think I’ll hold off on them for now.
As I was looking through Filmstruck, I found two films that completely entranced me, like Dracula or Imhotep themselves was forcing my hand. Next week’s films will be:
Yasujiro Ozu – Dragnet Girl (1933)
Richard Thorpe – Black Hand (1950)
One is a silent crime film by Ozu, one of the greatest Japanese directors of all time, the other is a crime film starring Gene Kelly, right in the middle of his most prolific run of musicals. I can’t pass up the opportunity to watch either.
See you next week.