Friday, August 07, 2009

"Death, eternal punishment for anyone who opens this casket."
from the first scene of the 1932 horror classic, "The Mummy"
(All screen grabs via Netflix)

Karloff in makeup

I watched this short movie last night via Netflix on line. And what a wonderful service this is. The picture quality and sound is superb via cable.
I hadn't seen 'The Mummy' in almost fifty years and I was most surprised by the fact that Karloff is wrapped in mummy rags for only one scene early and one later in flashback as he is being prepared for burial alive. Predominantly Karloff appears as the ancient crackly faced Egyptian Ardath Bey (an eight hour makeup job by Jack Pierce) and, in flashback as Imhotep, cursed high priest of the Temple of the Sun at Karnak. He is literally, mesmerizing. And Zita Johann, as Helen Grosvenor, the reincarnated Princesss Ankh-es-en-Amon is an unusual Hungarian beauty whose lithe body is displayed to stunning effect in ancient and modern costume. Imhotep is cursed to eternal death for using evil magick when he was discovered attempting to resurrect the dead body of his love, Ankh-es-en-Amon using the scroll of Thoth.
I can see how this would upset the priests of Egypt. Only the gods may restore the dead to a new life. Imhotep would bring his lover back as a kind of zombie.
When archaeologists from the British Museum find his mummy 3700 years after these events one, a young Oxford chap Ralph Norton, inadvertantly restores Imhotep to a living state as a rotten corpse by reading the scroll of Thoth, which was buried with him. Why the old priests didn't destroy this powerful magick is beyond my comprehension. Immy, the mummy revives, takes the scroll, scares the young man insane, later to die, and assumes the persona of befezzed, Ardath Bey.
A few years later Bey leads some other archaeologists to the tomb of his beloved, Ankh-es-en-Amon. I couldn't figure out why later in Cairo Imhotep didn't instantly recognize the lovely Helen Grosvenor as his lost love reincarnated, but it took some effort for him to discern what is made obvious to the viewer.
All in all this is a historic film which incorporated current archaeology (at the time Tutankhamun's tomb had been recently discovered and stories of a curse were circulating in the press) in a simple, timeless plot: a man is driven to a forbidden act by despair over lost love. The chills in this film are primarily atmospheric done via makeup, lighting, Egyptian gear, and the power of Karloff's acting. Tana leaves are never mentioned in this film. They first make their appearance in 1940 in a later Universal Mummy series featuring Kharis as the mummy and lover from the land of the dead.
Imhotep's death count: young archaeologist Ralph Norton, a museum guard, archaeologist Sir Joseph Whemple, and Helen's dog Wolfram

"My pool is sometimes troubled. One sees strange fantasies in the water. But they pass like dreams."- Ardath Bey to Helen Grosvenor, 'The Mummy'

"The great gods of Egypt themselves were not exempt from the common lot. They too grew old and died. But when at a later time the discovery of the art of embalming gave a new lease of life to the souls of the dead by preserving their bodies for an indefinite time from corruption, the deities were permitted to share the benefit of an invention which held out to gods as well as to men a reasonable hope of immortality. Every province then had the tomb and mummy of its dead god. The mummy of Osiris was to be seen at Mendes; Thinis boasted of the mummy of Anhouri; and Heliopolis rejoiced in the possession of that of Toumou."-Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough

" and technology were recently mobilized to save the mummy of Ramses II, after it was left to rot for several dozen years in the depths of a museum. The West is seized with panic at the thought of not being able to save what the symbolic order had been able to conserve for forty centuries, but out of sight and far from the light of day. Ramses does not signify anything for us, only the mummy is of an inestimable worth because it is what guarantees that accumulation has meaning. Our entire linear and accumulative culture collapses if we cannot stockpile the past in plain view. To this end the pharaohs must be brought out of their tomb and the mummies out of their silence. To this end they must be exhumed and given military honors. They are prey to both science and worms. Only absolute secrecy assured them this millennial power - the mastery over putrefaction that signified the mastery of the complete cycle of exchanges with death. We only know how to place our science in service of repairing the mummy, that is to say restoring a visible order, whereas embalming was a mythical effort that strove to immortalize a hidden dimension."-Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation

mummy- c.1400, "medicine prepared from mummy tissue," from M.L. mumia, from Ar. mumiyah "embalmed body," from Pers. mumiya "asphalt," from mum "wax." Sense of "embalmed body" first recorded in Eng. 1615. Mummy wheat (1842) was said to be cultivated from grains found in mummy-cases.-Online Etymology Dictionary

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