Review of Doris V. Sutherland’s The Mummy, Auteur Publishing (Devil’s Advocates), 2019. 120 pp. Paperback (ISBN: 978-1911325956).
Doris V. Sutherland’s study of Karl Freund’s The Mummy (1932) demonstrates the film as a shift away from the traditional Gothic elements that had come to define the studio’s horror output. While she aligns the film with some of the fundamentals of the classic Universal horror canon, to Sutherland, The Mummy marks a divergence within this era’s Hollywood horror trend by virtue of a “[turn] to Egypt and its ancient history for inspiration [which] hit upon what was [...] a fresh variety of monster: a living mummy” (8).
Sutherland first turns to the origins of The Mummy and the film’s formation under its historical and industry conditions. Paying close attention to literary precursors from almost a century prior and up to the film’s 1932 release, Sutherland locates the genesis of The Mummy’s narrative within supernatural and weird fiction that incorporated elements associated with ancient Egypt mythology. Traversing the initial nine-page synopsis through final script, she then catalogues the distinct stages of the writing process, identifying significant advancements that established its generic characteristics, character types, and settings. Fascinatingly, Sutherland clarifies the interplay in creative control and decision-making between John L. Balderston’s screenplay, the shooting script, and “[Karl] Freund’s most significant--and famous--deletion [of a] reincarnation sequence [which] was left on the cutting room floor[,] presumably to avoid slowing the pace of the climax [and creating] a plot hole” (41). In Sutherland’s discussion of Freund’s directional style and transference of prior expertise in silent German fantasy cinema, she notes his reserved approach to horror.
The second part of Sutherland’s study on The Mummy initiates the main analytical body of the text. Here, the author’s familiarity with ancient Egypt/Egyptology ensures comprehensive scrutiny of the historical accuracy, or lack thereof, in the film. At times, the topic of verisimilitude throughout The Mummy is approached by Sutherland with wit: “when Ardath Bey leads the 1932 expedition to the tomb of Anck-es-en-Amon, [and] announces that it will be ‘the most sensational find since that of Tutankhamun’—clearly, this mummy has familiarised himself with recent developments in Egyptology since his resurrection a decade beforehand” (57-58). Close analysis of religion and the supernatural in The Mummy covers the film’s incorporation of the reincarnation idea and the cursed tomb trope. Further examination of myths and legends reveals The Mummy’s plot devices and themes and contextualizes the cultural zeitgeist that surrounded the creation of The Mummy, with its cinema release at the pinnacle of ‘Tutmania’ in the early-1930s.
Subsequently, Sutherland deepens prior observations of the film’s intertextuality: “The Mummy frequently uses contemporary horror films as reference points, synthesising both old and new to create the latest movie monster [and] most of the conventions that would be re-used in later mummy films” (73). Advancing the case for The Mummy’s originality and innovation, she points to the combination of close-up photography, Freund’s subtle horror mode, and the imaginative accomplishment of Jack Pierce, Universal horror’s resident make-up artist to enhance Boris Karloff’s imposing performance. This renowned resurrection sequence established “the true core of the cinematic mummy” (76). Sutherland traces how the trope of the revived corpse-like mummy later evolved from Freund’s original understated aesthetic towards the stereotypical bandage-swathed mummy as a form of visual and performative parody.
Throughout the book, Sutherland situates aspects of film analysis within the classic Universal Horror era, which allows for interesting intersections. Indeed, the author recognises the recurring love theme connected to Universal horror monsters, noting that Karloff offers a markedly sympathetic villain in contrast to his counterparts, one who remains “ultimately a tragic figure” (85). This character analysis argues that The Mummy’s ingenuity lies in its borrowing of both the “old and new” in order to create a sub-genre formed around the emergence of the “cloth-wrapped Egyptian revenant [...] as a horror icon” (9).
The third and final part of Sutherland’s study on The Mummy begins with the film’s reception. The author draws on archival research to highlight a dissatisfaction shared amongst major film critics that was aimed towards the sensationalist promo gimmicks, melodramatic narrative, and director Freund’s understated approach to horror. As a counter to the critical perception of an uninspired and ineffective horror film, Sutherland brings in historical evidence of younger film-goers terrified by the viewing experience. To chart the nine-decade legacy of The Mummy in film and other media, Sutherland summarises the first major developments of the mummy sub-genre subsequent to the original 1932 film: it began with Universal’s delayed mummy sequels throughout the 1940s and was advanced by the era of Hammer Horror remakes. In addition, Sutherland delves into the expansion of the mummy sub-genre in markedly lesser explored areas of film and world cinema. Finally, the author reflects on The Mummy franchise that was spawned in the late 1990s. The contemporary evolution of conventions and iconography is adeptly summarised in Sutherland’s statement that “gone is Karl Freund’s famously restrained resurrection sequence; in its place is a shot of a CGI mummy roaring at the audience, as one of the most subtle works of 1930s horror cinema becomes one of the most gleefully over-the-top 1990s blockbusters” (108). The Mummy’s cinematic historical lineage offers the potential for an in-depth study in its own right. Sutherland provides an overview of each distinct mummy development since the original 1932 film.
Building on fleeting re-evaluations of the film in early horror studies (Clarens, 1967; Everson, 1974; Daniels, 1975; Frank, 1976), Sutherland situates this new account of The Mummy within recent scholarship (Keith Grant, 1984; Berenstein, 1996; Peirse, 2013) that has, thus far, offered reassessments of the film through varied perspectives of psychoanalysis and gender. An important area for further research, Sutherland proposes, includes the representation of culture and race in The Mummy, perhaps too substantial for the author to fully address within the word limit constraints. Overall, Sutherland provides a necessary intervention within classic Hollywood horror scholarship that has previously neglected The Mummy’s historical and cultural status, and her monograph serves as a valuable addition to Auteur’s Devils Advocates book series.
-12 Dec. 2020