Friday, July 8, 2011

The Mummy: Most Romantic Movie Character Ever?

You thought I was going to say merely the most romantic movie monster, weren't you? Nope. Character. Ever.

See, here's the thing about romantic movies and me. The spookier, the better. When I go to a movie that's marketed as a romance, I go in with that expectation, and, well, big surprise: I get a romance. The filmmakers know their target audiences, and supply directly to them. I'm not saying romantic movies are inherently insincere; it's just that I feel less breathtaken by a product that provides the bare bones of what it promises: a love movie that gives me love scenes.

But romance in monster movies is the best. Granted, I've been on a bit of a monster movie kick lately (partly why I've stumbled across such excellent blogs as Matthew Conian's Carfax Abbey and Vulnavia Morbius's Krell Laboratories), but this has always been an opinion I've stuck by.

The expectations for a monster movie are pretty basic: thrills, chills, blood and/or guts, wowing makeup and/or special effects (depending on what era the film was made in), and maybe a few sadistic giggles here and there from audience members who enjoy on some primitive level watching innocent citizens get chowed by Mothra. You expect screaming, not murmuring sweet nothings in one's undead ear.

So when love does come along in a horror film, the emotion comes from a more genuine place, since the filmmakers thought the element so perfect for the story they defied genre to get it in. True, that may be a subjective opinion of mine, but you should subscribe to it, too. It's my blog, my kingdom, adhere!

But I'm not talking about the standard love story between the frightened ingenue and lame-brained hero. They always throw that sappy crap into the mix for the ladies, since we'd all rather hook up with Norman Kerry or David Manners than Lon Chaney or Boris Karloff, apparently--scoff scoff, as if. No, I'm talking about when the monsters get the love joneses. That's when shit gets real.

It'd be too easy, not to mention overdone, to analyze a character like the Phantom. I think it's safe to say that these days, taking into account the musical and its overindulgent sequel, Phantom of the Opera has unfortunately surpassed its early Grand Guignol horror days of the early twentieth century and is known mostly as a love story now. With, y'know, the Heathcliff character deformed in the facial region. And hell, if you look at the 2004 movie, not even that, really.

No, I'd rather focus on the Mummy.

The two versions I'm going to look at are the 1932 version starring Boris Karloff and the 1959 Hammer version starring Christopher Lee. I could look at the 1999 version, but frankly...I don't wanna. It's too recent for me to really wanna do, I think. Not under the radar enough. One thing I'll say is that Rachel Weisz was very charming. I liked her character better than either Zita Johann from the 1932 version or Yvonne Furneaux from 1959.

The 1932 film is stronger on a structural, cinematographic, and narrative level than the 1959 offering. True, it has the minor flaws of most early sound films, such as uneasy jump cuts and random music placement. But there's no denying the power of the story it tells. Boris Karloff, of course, is the main attraction. What's really striking is that Karl Freund (in his directorial debut) took the most enticing qualities of the reigning Universal Horror Monsters--the Frankenstein Creature's isolated loneliness and Dracula's seductive aura--and stirred them up to create Imhotep, the high priest played by Karloff, who becomes mummified after trying to resurrect his love.

I watched the 1959 one before this, so I was surprised by the presentation of Imhotep as, for the most part, a wrinkly guy dressed in Egyptian garb. The more popular image of the mummy in the collective consciousness--dude staggering around wrapped in bandages--is only in one scene, when he's first awoken by a soon loony Bramwell Fletcher (who I am so relieved wasn't actually the hero like I feared, not that David Manners was much more appealing). It's arguably one of the film's best scenes.

Fletcher's irritating petulance quickly shifts into chilling hysterical laughter, and becomes for that brief scene a fantastic performance. Karloff is similar to Creature from the Black Lagoon here, his grimy paw fondling the ancient scrolls, and his bandages trailing behind him like seaweed as "he goes out for a little walk," Fletcher titters madly (far and away the movie's best line and delivered with just the right amount of camp and sincere, hopeless terror.)

I could go on and on about the coolness of that scene and many others, but again, I want to focus primarily on the romantic nature of Karloff's Imhotep. I wonder: is this the first time on film we see the now standard romantic/horror movie trope of the heroine serving as the reincarnation/lookalike of the monster's long-lost love? As a Dark Shadows fan, I detected echoes in Ihmotep's interactions with Zita Johann's Helen Grosvenor (reincarnation of his long lost Princess Anck-es-en-Amon) similar to the early, menacing Barnabas Collins and Maggie Evans' dynamics.

Like Frid with Barnabas, Karloff masters dual emotions, such as the mesmerized infatuation and icy self-control he maintains when interacting with Johann. He wants to do minor horrible things to her, but like he says, he's been mummified, buried alive for more than 3,700 years in order to be with her. Surely, can't she sacrifice a few moments of torment to spend an eternity of bliss with him? Isn't that essentially the same question Barnabas asks Maggie?

It's just that tantalizing edge of dark, morbid obsession and mysticism that makes horror movie romances more compelling to me than ordinary love stories. Particularly touching is Imhotep's motivation for wanting to resurrect Anck-es-en-Amon in the "proper way"-- "It was not only this body I loved, it was thy soul. I destroy this lifeless thing!" A pure love, twisted and fouled by the torture Imhotep has endured, is demonstrated in the only way Imhotep finds plausible, through destruction.

On paper, this is a bit overblown, what. But through Karloff's subtle performance, he sells it. He doesn't wring the words for their romantic floweriness. He states them as fact--hard, dark fact, and that keeps him from turning into a full-on Byronic hero. Karloff's quiet dignity keeps him aloft amongst stuffy old archelogists and doctors, and whiny, pompous love interests.

Another favorite scene is the flashback segment. I was struck at the time by how like a silent melodrama this part was, and this impression is confirmed in the trivia section at IMDb:
The flashback scenes in ancient Egypt were designed to resemble a silent film, with no dialog, exaggerated make-up and gestures, and a faster camera speed, to suggest the great antiquity of the events portrayed.
It's a testament to the power of silent movies and Freund's ingenuous talent that even in this brief homage, Freund is able to express so much emotion. We see Imhotep as he was then, handsome and distraught, kneeling by his dying princess, and the genuine way Karloff kisses her hand and presses it to his face shines as the most human moment in the film.

The terror is a necessary backdrop to his devotion, to illustrate just how far Imhotep has decayed, both physically and morally, due to his great love. That his love "has lasted longer than the temples of our gods" is what makes the character transcend the trashiness associated with the monster genre, and the monstrousness of his actions ground the film from becoming too bogged down by the love story.

That said, the characters in the 1959 Hammer film are generally more likable. Well, let me qualify that: director Terence Fisher doesn't even try to make the side characters more sympathetic than Lee's Kharis, and that paradoxically makes them easier to live with. There's no pretense to uphold. And let's face it, even at his most uncaring and superfluous, Peter Cushing, with his dry, distant delivery, is a far more palatable straight-laced hero than poor pompous Manners.

Overall, his character and the other Brits are uniformally unemotional (well, aside from the bumbling Cockney comic relief). Cushing's John Banning takes his father's mental breakdown and grim fate in abnormally stiff upper-lipped fashion, and treats the proceeding mummy business with the air of one tackling a puzzling alogorithm.

He even treats his wife, the stunning Ava Gardner-esque Furneaux, in an amusingly detached, scientific manner, whether noting her strong resemblance to a drawing of the dead princess (named Ananka in this version), to dismissing her flattered feelings at his comparing her to the most beautiful woman in the world as, "Remember, the world was smaller back then." It's a minor funny scene that nonetheless showcases the chummy, if not passionate, nature of their relationship.

All this English stoicism works to highlight Kharis as the most sympathetic character in the movie by far. This sympathy is emphasized more here than in the 1932 movie, because the conniving cunning of Imhotep is transferred instead to George Pastell's villainous Mehemet Bey. Bey is...what is he? In the early scenes he's a lurking observer, condemning Banning's search party as committing sacrilege, then later on he's a rich tourist who can afford a mansion with a mummy slave to boot. He's in charge of doling out the orders; Kharis has no choice but to obey him.

Therefore, Kharis is far more a Frankenstein Creature than a Barnabas Collins here. Which isn't particularly a bad thing, but I wish we could have seen more of him, more development. Wish they hadn't cut out his tongue and all, wish we could have heard him speak.

 In an interesting shift from the original, the flashback in this movie makes Kharis appear less sensitive than when he's a monster in bandages. Lee is excellent in both flashback and in the storyline proper. However, he's such a tall, majestic figure when he's the high priest, with his basso profondo voice valiantly affecting the Cushing mask of stoicicism to deflect his torment at losing his forbidden love, that we only really see his vulnerability when he's a disoriented mummy.

He's most touching when as the attacking mummy he sees Furneaux's Isobel for the first time, and recognizes her features as Ananka's. He stops attacking Banning and approaches her stiffly, hands held out in supplication. As my dad says, Lee is great at "eyeball acting" here, which are his only discernible features as he appeals to the frightened Furneaux. Once he registers her repulsion, his dyes dim with sadness and he lumbers away, sparing the Bannings for the time being.

 All right, so it looks like he's about to throttle her here, but I assure you, he's actually supplicating!

Unlike Karloff's Imhotep, you get the impression there's nothing on earth that could convince Kharis to hurt Isobel/Ananka even for a second. He saves her from Bey, then later respects her wishes to release her from his grip, solidifying that at his heart, this tower of strength, this imperious high-priest, is doomed to the role of the humble servant--he's tied to Bey out of necessity, Ananka out of love.

Despite the fact his character is not as well-developed or even as well done on a narrative level as Karloff's, this weakness makes Lee's Kharis the more tragic figure. In either version, though, I feel the Mummy captures what's best in a good horror movie: terror and strength combined with an unshakable foundation of doomed romance.


  1. Interesting post, Laura. It's not a subject I've thought about before, but you make me want to take a look at these films (the Mummy franchise isn't one I'm familiar with) in that romantic light. It does seem like romance carries a lot more weight when it's taken out of its genre, doesn't it?

    Incidentally, have you stopped by the Vivien Leigh/Laurence Oliver Appreciation Blogathon?


  2. Oh dang, I hadn't seen that yet! Thanks for pointing it out, Rachel! I might have to start rummaging through my Leigh DVDs and start brainstorming....

    It does seem like romance carries a lot more weight when it's taken out of its genre, doesn't it?

    That's always been my philosophy.

  3. Awesome post. When I was rooting around for blog titles, I thought hard about titling my blog "The Mummy's Pool" because I think it's pretty much the best metaphor for the attraction of horror movies ever filmed. The Mummy is such a weird film.

  4. Thank you, Vulnavia! I'm not gonna lie, I sort of really want one of 'dem pools. I love how shit like that is never explained. The movie just takes it for granted. "Well, yeah. The mummy has a mystical pool in his floor that can show you periods of time like a fast-paced silent movie. What, your monster doesn't have one? Lame."

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