Past Caring: history, love and death in Karloff’s Mummy

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Past Caring: history, love and death in Karloff’s Mummy

Paul Brasington 2023
Published by Paul Brasington in Good stuff · Saturday 23 Jul 2022
Tags: HorrorfilmsHistoryKarloff
I was in my mid-teens when I first saw the 1932 film of The Mummy, with Boris Karloff in the title role. I watched it on TV on my own, as part of a burgeoning interest in film as an art form as well as entertainment.

I was riding too on a curiosity fired by childhood trips to London, where I was captivated by film posters on the walls of Tube tunnels, in particular those garish bits of artwork for Hammer horror films. Perhaps it was the fascination of the forbidden, much as I would look at the obscured glass of pub windows, wondering what great mysteries lay beyond.

When I was about nine or ten, ITV ran a series of dramatisations of “classic” horror stories, including Uncle Silas, Frankenstein, and Dracula. I nagged and nagged my parents to let me watch them, and coped with the first two without problems.

The version of Dracula featured a suave actor with a beard, which a little research has revealed to be none other than the lovely Denholm Elliott. It has to be said that my later viewings of Hammer Draculas found them more than a little feeble despite Christopher Lee’s brooding and mostly silent presence. But that TV version was sharp-toothed and far gorier, and I couldn’t sleep with the light off for a year afterwards.

Still images
Despite this setback my fascination remained. A little later I found a large format library book of stills charting the development of the horror genre on film. I was captivated by these images, particularly from James Whale’s two Frankenstein films, made at the same time as the early Mummy. I loved the lighting, the composition, the Gothic mood.

It was in pursuit of this interest that I first came to watch the Karloff film. It doesn’t have the same visual panache as the Frankenstein films, which I also saw at around the same time. It has its visual moments though and I went on to consume the objects of my childhood curiosity, seeking out the Hammer horrors of the 50s and 60s, as well as the technicolor fantasies of Roger Corman, based (loosely) on Poe stories.

Like the Hammer films the Corman studio was working on a budget of several pounds, and it shows at times, but the talents behind the cameras (including Nicolas Roeg) ensured that often these essentially silly films (which to be fair didn’t take themselves too seriously) achieved a kind of beauty.

That’s true too of the best of the Hammer films, which like the Corman films were never particularly scary, but often gifted with skilled technicians and decent directors, most notably Freddie Francis.

It’s been a few decades since I delved into any of this, though I’d happily rewatch any of the films. I found I’d recorded The Mummy in 2007, so it’s taken me a while to get back to it, and it’s left me with some unexpected food for thought.

Enduring love
The Mummy is essentially a romantic film. It tells the story of a love so passionate and deep that it can survive death and seek its revival after nearly 4000 years.

Then a few people get killed.

Karloff only appears as a bandaged mummy briefly at the beginning of the story. For the rest of the film he’s a brooding and ominous Egyptian, distinguished largely by the hypnotic powers he has over those around him.

I’m sure in the early 1930s it seemed shocking and frightening. None of that survives for contemporary audiences, used to much slicker emotional manipulation. It has to be said that it’s creaky in many ways, in the scripting, the acting, and the editing.

Silent cinema had developed its own style, working out how to tell a story largely through a version of mime with very occasional supporting texts. The acting was consequently shaped around exaggerated gesture and expressions. The advent of talking pictures in the late 1920s changed everything, promising a new naturalism (albeit one which has demanded its own artifice). Things moved very fast and in the hands of pioneering directors like Hitchcock and Hawkes that naturalism had established itself by the middle of the 1930s, but these early Universal horror movies were still in the transition, and it shows.

You can’t watch the film then with the same expectations you’d bring to (say) the disappointing Tom Cruise remake of 2017. It has in the meantime acquired a different fascination.

An eye on the past
The Mummy is nearly a hundred years old itself. It was made at a time when colonial western empires were still very much alive, very much kicking, and set in one of those outposts of empire. It’s hard not to wince when a pair of British archaeologists look out of the window at some approaching figures and ask aloud “What nationality are they? What colour are they?”

It’s an important moment, as well as an uncomfortable one. For the first time in history, we have a filmed record of how things were in a substantially different age from our own. Silent film gives us a further reach back to the last decades of the nineteenth century, and that can be fascinating too, but it’s with the advent of the talkies that we begin to have an unprecedented record of what it was to live and breathe in earlier times. Of course The Mummy is a fiction and heavily stylised, but it’s not difficult to see beyond the edit, to have a sense of how people thought and behaved, and how things have changed. The future study of history, of our endlessly recorded times, will never be the same.

(Perhaps, given all that’s going on right now, future historians will be able to come to good answers to the question “how could they be so stupid?”)

Love and death
There’s a poignancy too in the scratchy survival of the film, its transport of the past into the present, when the core of its story is the dream of a love that can transcend the ravages of time. We routinely say or think “I will love you forever”, but can hope to do no more than love for a lifetime.

It’s an idea that underpins a surprising number of horror narratives, most obviously those about Dracula or other vampires, a mark of our frustration at the feebleness of our hold on what we may come to treasure most. But this common imagining is bound also to the fear of the price to be paid, a transformation into something more or less than human, and in that change then a feeling that the point of survival would be lost.

Tennyson notably makes the point in his Tithonus, a poem which freights a rich apprehension of sensual pleasure with an understanding of how the “normal” arc of our lives gives that sensuality part of its meaning. Tithonus is addressing his lover Aurora, goddess of the dawn, who has carelessly granted him eternal life without eternal youth.

(I) Saw
The dim curls kindle into sunny rings;
Changed with thy mystic change, and felt my blood
Glow with the glow that slowly crimson’d all
Thy presence and thy portals, while I lay,
Mouth, forehead, eyelids, growing dewy-warm
With kisses balmier than half-opening buds
Of April, and could hear the lips that kiss’d
Whispering I knew not what of wild and sweet
… cold my wrinkled feet
Upon thy glimmering thresholds, when the steam
Floats up from those dim fields about the homes
Of happy men that have the power to die,
And grassy barrows of the happier dead.
Release me, and restore me to the ground;
Thou seëst all things, thou wilt see my grave:
Thou wilt renew thy beauty morn by morn;
I earth in earth forget these empty courts,
And thee returning on thy silver wheels.

The end of meaning
It’s sometimes said that without the comforts of religion we must make our own meaning, and the pursuit of love offers a ready creative means to that end: I’m talking about something more than physical love, while acknowledging the importance of the physical as Tennyson does above.

It’s easier said than done. I’ve talked to many people at the end of long lives who have felt that those lives have become pointless and empty, only waiting for the real end. I hope if I ever get to that stage I’ll still be able to take pleasure in immediate things of nature, and not least in the life of the mind, in music, writing, and visual art. But pleasure is not meaning. Death gives a layer of meaning to our dreams, frames them, but it ends them too.

I know these things: last year I faced the clear imminence of my own possible death, most vividly in the moments before I slipped into unconsciousness for the operation on my bowel cancer. In those moments I became very aware of the possibility these might be the last flickering of consciousness, and all I could feel was a sense of “oh well”.

Perhaps that’s how it must always be. I am much changed from the boy who stood gazing at those film posters, much of a lifetime already behind me, and yet I know myself in the memory of that boy.

We can only dream of the transcendental, but in this world the best we can do is hope that life somehow goes on without us, wondering what future generations will make of the images we leave in our place.

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