Saturday, October 6, 1973: The Mummy (1932) / House of Dracula (1945)

Synopsis: On a 1921 expedition to Egypt, archeologist Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron) and his team have unearthed a sarcophagus containing a mummified body, and near it a small ornate casket. Expert on the occult Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan) notes that the mummy did not have its internal organs removed before burial, as was customary in ancient Egypt; furthermore, hieroglyphs on the inside of the sarcophagus that were meant to ensure life after death had been chiseled off. From this Muller deduces that their subject had been buried alive as punishment for some act of sacrilege.

From an inscription upon the casket, the archeologists learn that it contains the legendary Scroll of Thoth. This is the scroll that Isis was said to have used to raise Osiris from the dead, and it bears a warning: any who dare to read it will fall prey to a horrible curse. Whemple and his assistant Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher) are eager to proceed, but Muller warns them not to. As Muller and Whemple discuss the matter outside, Norton opens the scroll and begins to read aloud. The mummy comes to life, takes the scroll from a now-hysterical Norton, and disappears into the night.

Ten years later, Whemple’s son Frank (David Manners) is taking part in another Egyptian expedition. This one meets with little success until a mysterious Egyptian named Ardeth Bey (Boris Karloff) appears at the site, offering to show the men the way to the lost tomb of Princess Ankes-en-Amon.

The archeologists are skeptical, but astonished when it turns out that Ardeth Bey was right — the tomb, undisturbed for 3,700 years, is precisely where the Egyptian said it would be.

Later, the contents of Ankes-en-Amon’s tomb are on display in the Cairo museum, and Ardeth Bey returns — this time staring, hour after hour, at the mummified body of the princess herself. After the museum closes, he kneels beside the mummy. Reading from the Scroll of Thoth, he attempts to raise Ankes-en-Amon from the dead. He does not succeed, but without intending it, his incantations have an effect on a family friend of Dr. Muller, the young half-Egyptian Helen Grovener (Zita Johann). Helen is strangely drawn to the Cairo Museum. Soon it becomes clear that Helen carries the reincarnated spirit of Ankes-en-Amon, the woman for whom Ardeth Bey suffered unspeakable torment 37 centuries earlier. When Ardeth Bey realizes this, he becomes determined to revive the memories Helen carries of her past lives, and thus reclaim a love that death itself could not extinguish….

Comments: The Mummy isn’t what most people think of as a classic mummy movie. There are no scenes of a man wrapped in bandages chasing people around. Rather, this first foray into mummy lore essentially retells the story of Dracula: a powerful undead creature tries to ensnare an innocent woman’s soul, but is foiled by a modern expert in the occult. In both films David Manners plays the young woman’s love interest; and in both films Edward Van Sloan plays the paranormal expert.

These coincidences weren’t intentional, or at least not at first; there was no hint of them in the early drafts of the script (which was then titled Cagliostro) by Nina Wilcox Putnam and Richard Schayer. It wasn’t until John Balderston was brought in to rework the story that the elements from Dracula were introduced, and little wonder — Balderston had previously adapted Dracula for the screen, from a stage play by Garett Fort.

In spite of the similarities in story, the movie never comes across as a Dracula knock-off. Willy Pogany designed some stunning Egyptian sets for the film, and the Jack Pierce makeup for Boris Karloff is remarkable. Freund’s careful choices in camera and lighting lend a brooding atmosphere that prevents the stagebound feel to which Browning’s film eventually succumbed.

Zita Johann and Edward Van Sloan bring enormous credibility to their respective roles. The astonishingly beautiful Johann is particularly effective in her final scene, when she has finally recalled her past life as Ankes-en-Amon, and implores the goddess Isis to free her from Ardeth Bey’s grotesque obession.

But it is Boris Karloff’s performance as the sinister Ardeth Bey that really makes this movie go. Karloff manages to imbue his character with both an air of physical frailty and psychological menace.

In the early 1930s Carl Lamaelle, Sr. worried that the horror pictures were tasteless fare, and not the sort of thing that Universal Studios should dabble in. But he couldn’t argue with the money these movies brought. Nevertheless it is to Lamaelle’s credit, and Universal’s, that the studios’ early horror output wasn’t dreck thrown out for shock value. In the main, these were solidly-crafted pictures, and sometimes — as on this occasion — they were great ones as well.

House of Dracula

Synopsis: Patients from all over the world seek out the brilliant Dr. Edelmann (Onslow Stevens), a physician with a keen mind and a big heart. He has a practice that he runs out of his castle in Vasaria, and those who have lost hope in conventional medicine can turn to him in their hour of need.

Late one night Edelmann is dozing in an easy chair when a man in top hat and tails shows up in his living room and wakes him. The stranger introduces himself as Baron Latos, but it’s obvious right away that he’s really Count Dracula (John Carradine). He wants Dr. Edelmann to help find a cure for his vampirism.

By “cure”, Dracula presumably isn’t looking for the sunlight-and-wooden-stake cure. We’re talking a medical cure, something that will make him mortal again.

Since Dracula’s already dead, I would rate his chances for a full recovery as vanishingly slim, but Edelmann is made of sterner stuff and agrees to give it a try.

Meanwhile, an agitated man is trying to get in to see Dr. Edelmann. It’s our old friend Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr). and after badgering the receptionist for a while, he rushes out of the clinic, jabbering about the full Moon that will soon rise.

In his laboratory, Edelmann is examining the Count’s blood cells under a microscope, when he gets a phone call from Vasaria’s chief of police (Lionel Atwill). A distraught man has demanded to be incarcerated.  He’s clearly a nutter, so would Edelmann come down and have a look at him?
Edelmann does so, and comes face to face with Lawrence Talbot, who claims he turns into a werewolf when the Moon is full.

At just about that moment, the full Moon comes into view and Talbot changes into a wolf man — before his very eyes. He tells the Chief to keep the beast imprisoned until morning — then he will examine Talbot.

When Dracula comes back Edelmann tells him that vampirism is caused by a blood parasite, and that a series of blood transfusions might do the trick. It turns out that Talbot’s problem also has a scientific basis. Talbot turns into a werewolf, we are told, because he believes he will. This belief, combined with certain irregularities in Talbot’s skull that put pressure on key points in the brain, trigger his lycanthropic proclivities.

The condition can be cured, Edelmann says, but it will take time. This is too much for the excitable Talbot, who races out of the castle and throws himself off a nearby cliff into the ocean.

Edelmann, believing Talbot may have been swept into a cave in the cliffside, lowers himself with a rope down the cliff face. He finds that Talbot — now a wolf man — has indeed found his way into a cave. Moreover, there’s someone else there — Frankenstein’s monster, in suspended animation….

Comments: I impatiently brushed off House of Dracula when it aired previously, grumbling that these silly monster rallies weren’t worth my time.  However, I have since realized my time isn’t worth that much.  This movie does have some interesting ideas anyway, so let’s take a moment to unpack them.

Dr. Edelmann’s ability to add vampirism and lycanthropy to the standard medical textbooks might seem improbable.  But remember that the good doctor is an educated man of the mid-20th century.  Back then science promised to illuminate all the dark recesses of human fears and superstitions.  By midcentury, in fact, there was a growing suspicion that there were no problems that science couldn’t solve.

So it was only a matter of time before vampires and werewolves would be reassessed as medical conditions on a par with smallpox and polio, every bit as easy to understand and almost as easy to conquer.  This idea was bubbling up across the horror and science-fiction genres. While House of Dracula is an early attempt to provide a science-fiction explanation for vampire lore, it wasn’t the first (for example, it was predated by A. E. Van Vogt’s short story “Asylum”, published in 1942)  nor was it particularly influential; Richard Matheson was clearly coming from another direction when he wrote his seminal 1954 novel I Am Legend.  That novel was enormously influential; in fact,  people have been cribbing from Matheson ever since.

In I Am Legend, Robert Neville is the last normal human on Earth after a plague turns everyone else into vampires.  He is a smart and rational man, and during the course of the novel he trains himself to be a biologist in order to isolate the plague that causes vampirism.  This is an important facet of the novel, one missing from its  (three) screen adaptations. Neville has an admirably realistic view of science: it isn’t technological sorcery that can only be practiced by the members of its designated priesthood.  Rather, it is a method of problem-solving that is based on clearly defined rules.

This is pretty important, I think, and it’s where the wheels come off  House of Dracula.  For all the hand-waving toward reason and truthDr. Edelmann is a member of the designated priesthood, and for all the appeals to science and rationality, Edelmann is just a sorcerer with an alternate pedigree.  For all the patter about blood parasites, at the end of the day Dracula’s blood is dirty and corrupt, and when Edelmann gets a dose of it he becomes dirty and corrupt as well.

And the werewolf “cure” by surgery could just as easily have been supernatural in origin; in fact the rare plant that is a necessary ingredient to the medical procedure might as well have magical properties, since there is no alternate way to derive the chemical which it provides.

Ironically Frankenstein’s monster, which is the only one that can claim a science-fiction origin, is in a coma for nearly the entire picture.  It wakes up in time to stumble around for a few minutes and then get burned to death.  Again.

The death of noble Dr. Edelmann comes across as genuinely tragic, especially when you consider that Henry Frankenstein did much worse and got off much easier.  Jane Adams turns in a very sympathetic performance as Nina, Dr. Edelmann’s hunchbacked assistant, though there is something palpably nasty about the undignified way she’s disposed of at the end.

Clearly Martha O’Driscoll’s Milliza is seen as the “good” girl in this picture, and she is allowed to walk off into the sunset (or moonrise, if you prefer) holding hands with the man of her dreams — even if he turns out to be Lon Chaney, Jr.

One comment

  1. THE MUMMY makes just its second appearance on Horror Incorporated. ‘Karloff the Uncanny’ is heard for the very first time in a Universal horror, after growling roles in FRANKENSTEIN and THE OLD DARK HOUSE, a pleasure to find his voice a perfect match for his quietly menacing demeanor. In HOUSE OF DRACULA Lon Chaney’s Wolf Man gets a standout transformation in a prison cell, while John Carradine’s Baron Latos is granted twice the amount of footage he had in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Only Glenn Strange gets shortchanged, up and about for barely a minute before going up in smoke for the perfunctory finale.


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