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15 September, 2007

No Celebration for Im-Ho-Tep

As many of you are aware, 2007 marks the 75th anniversary of the release of one of the great classics of Horror, Karl Freund’s THE MUMMY. Starring Boris Karloff in his second iconic role for Universal Studios, THE MUMMY continued Universal’s climb to the top of the Horror list in the early ‘30’s, further cementing the studio’s claim to be the first “house that horror built.”

Essentially a redressed version of DRACULA, Karloff stars as Im-Ho-Tep, an Egyptian Prince condemned to a living death for his forbidden love for a priestess of Isis, and his sacrilege in attempting to restore her to life after death. Four thousand years afterward, an archaeologist translating the Scroll of Thoth reanimates the mummy of Im-Ho-Tep.

In one of the most effective scenes in horror, Freund’s camera remains focused on a close-up of the Mummy’s face as the voice of Bramwell Fletcher, as Ralph Norton, drones on in the background, reciting the words that will breathe life back into the Mummy’s corpse. Slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, the eyes of the corpse open. The scene cuts to Fletcher reading his notes. A withered, dried hand reaches out to take the scroll off the table. Fletcher, seeing this, looks up into the off-screen face of the reanimated monster, and screams. The scream degrades into a low, maniacal laugh, as the shot shifts to the floor of the tomb, and a long strip of wrapping being dragged out of frame.

That sequence is one of the best-constructed scares in Horror cinema, and it is all the more memorable for the fact that you never see a full shot of the Mummy moving. The viewer gets glimpses… a hand reaching out, a moldy strip of cloth… and this conveys the sheer horror that reduces Ralph Norton to a gibbering imbecile. It was scenes such as this, as well as an impeccable performance from Karloff, that made Universal’s first trip to Ancient Egypt so enjoyable, and such an enduring classic.

So now we approach the 75th anniversary of the film’s release on December 22nd, 1932, and many Mummy-fans are waiting for the kind of fanfare that accompanied last year’s celebrations for DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN. And thus far, the silence that has emanated from Universal has spoken volumes, telling the faithful that their waiting is most likely in vain.

There are those who would say that, with the Mummy Legacy collection less than three years old, there’s little need for another DVD release of this movie, and they would have a valid point. Much like the 75th Anniversary Editions of DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN, a 75th Anniversary Edition of THE MUMMY would be appreciated but unnecessary; a nice nod to the dedicated fans, but not something likely to attract the uninitiated. The devotees of the Universal Horrors, while not surprised at this lack of respect, doubtless feel slighted by it. I myself share that feeling. But might Universal’s decision be, in part, the fault of those self-same fans?

As with the Legacy collections, when the Anniversary Editions were announced last year, instead of shouts of approval and appreciation, Universal was greeted with demands for remastered prints and higher-quality audio. No one denies that the existing prints of DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN are far from pristine; especially DRACULA. Those movies are, after all, three-quarters of a century old. They date from an era when studios regularly held bonfires to clear their vaults of old films, and film stock, regarded as a temporary commodity rather than an archival medium, was allowed to decay into dust within a few years. I understand the desire to see better prints; I too would love to see these films as they looked 75 years ago. However, I’m more thankful that we have any print to see at all… or should I mention LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT?

Released in 1927, a mere four years prior to DRACULA, and also directed by Tod Browning, LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT is one of hundreds of films that are now “Lost”… movies that no longer exist. LAM is simply the most well-known of that list. It doesn’t take too much imagination to realize the same fate could’ve been shared by DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, or THE MUMMY. I can’t envision what the genre would be without those founding documents to inspire us, but it would certainly be much poorer.

Even if the proper source materials exist for a thorough Archival restoration, preservation and conservation effort for these movies, such efforts are not cheap. To thoroughly restore DRACULA to its original glory would cost hundreds of thousands, an investment that would generate little in the way of return. Should it be done? Yes, of course it should be. But I don’t think Universal sees it as a major priority.

Don’t misunderstand me… I’m not absolving Universal for their failures to respect either the Monsters or their fans. Far too often they’ve turned a deaf ear to our pleas for better treatment for our beloved monsters, whether it be better availability of the films, better looking prints, or more widespread merchandising. They’re all too eager to trot the Monsters out when they need a quick buck, but otherwise there’s little love lost on them on the part of Universal executives. They are virtually forgotten at the Universal Studios theme parks, and the only Universal employees who are devoted to them is the cadre of lawyers who hunt down Licensing violations with all the enthusiasm of a shark pursuing a hemorrhagic seal.

Still, it’s not as though we fans are blameless in this love-hate relationship with the studio. When VAN HELSING was released in 2004, fans of classic horror derided it in no uncertain terms, unhappy with Stephen Sommers’ direction, the look of the characters, the unconvincing CGI… you name it, the true fans found fault with it. And though we snapped up the Universal Legacy collection sets that were released in support of VAN HELSING, there was no shortage of grumbling. “The bitrate’s too low…, my laserdiscs look better…, the audio’s no good.” Instead of happiness at what fantastic collections these sets were, too many hardcore fans did nothing but bitch about what they weren’t. Universal heard this, and replied by releasing even more treasures from their vault, all to the same lukewarm response.

Well, my response was not lukewarm. I loved VAN HELSING, for all it’s problems. Anyone who expected a real Horror Film from Sommers was deluding themselves… I knew we would get pretty much what was delivered, and I was happy with that. I loved the Legacies… all of them. Frankly, I could not care less about bitrates and compression; nor do I have thirty-year old Laserdiscs lying around with which to compare them. And the recent flood of goodies from the studio’s vault has me nearly dancing in the streets… well, as close as this Unimonster’s going to get, at any rate.

So Universal, what do you say? For all the grateful fans out there who don’t complain about how many hammer blows are audible at the end of DRACULA, or how grainy MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE looks, how about just a little more love? How about one more gift for the faithful?

Let’s have a party for Im-Ho-Tep.

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