Saturday, October 20, 2012

Making Monsters #19: The Mummy

While mummies are a ubiquitous Halloween costume and decoration, they're actually very underused as cinematic monsters. Besides the classic 1932 Universal production starring Boris Karloff, there's the Hammer version with Christopher Lee, the 1999 movie and its sequels (which play more like Raiders of the Lost Ark than horror movies), the mummy stalking Elvis' nursing home in Bubba Ho-Tep, a memorable mummy hiding out in a young boy's closet in The Monster Squad, and about two dozen other mostly forgettable movies. Perhaps the popularity of zombies has rendered the mummy obsolete; whereas a mob of the flesh-eating living dead is a visceral threat, mummies usually work solo and move very slowly. The idea of a mummy stealing your soul probably can't compete with a zombie that wants to eat your brains. It's a shame, because the 80-year-old original remains a spooky little gem. Starring Boris Karloff as Imhotep, an ancient Egyptian priest who is revived when his tomb is unearthed by an archeological expedition, The Mummy was released the year after Frankenstein and is actually better than the earlier film in a few ways. Imhotep's pursuit of the woman he believes is his reincarnated lover adds an often-imitated element of Gothic romance to the story, and director Karl Freund (the cinematographer of Frankenstein) finds the right eerie tone for the film. And Karloff is terrific as Imhotep, giving the character a distant, otherworldly quality even when the character is passing himself off as a modern, non-mummified Egyptian.

As with Frankenstein, Karloff's makeup was created by Jack Pierce, who used Seti I's mummy as a reference for Imhotep. Pierce used collodion and cotton to create the weathered, preserved look of Imhotep's skin, and the mummy's bandages were created by soaking strips of linen with acid and burning them in an oven. Karloff's makeup took eight hours to apply and another two hours to remove, meaning the actor actually shot those scenes from the evening well into the night. It was, needless to say, a very unpleasant experience for Karloff, but the final result is equally impressive. While Karloff only actually wears the full mummy makeup in a few scenes, the look of Imphotep, coupled with Karloff's performance, made for a character that defined the look of the mummy in films in a way that hasn't been surpassed in 80 years.

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