By Doris V. Sutherland (Leighton Buzzard: Auteur Publishing, 2019. 120 pages). ISBN 9781911325956
Clad in reeking linen and stumbling on dead legs across nighted sands, the mummy is often considered a lesser member of the horror pantheon. Despite lacking the primal panache of the vampire or the werewolf, the mummy is part of a tradition of horror fiction nearly as old as the western obsession with Egypt.
Writers such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Theophile Gautier, Bram Stoker and others wrote tales of living mummies, immortal sorcerers and the magic and mystery of the pyramids. Is it any wonder then that Hollywood would seek to awaken a mummy of its own, and send it forth to lurch across the sands of the studio lot again and again?
In the wake of the success of both Dracula and Frankenstein, Universal Studios unleashed The Mummy on eager audiences in 1932. But while Boris Karloff’s Imhotep is rightly enshrined in pop culture, it is to a far lesser extent than his monstrous colleagues, such as Chaney’s anguished Wolf Man. Indeed, when the Mummy is mentioned at all, it is often in the context of the film’s sequels and the mute, stumbling Kharis, rather than the sinister Imhotep.
In Devil’s Advocates: The Mummy, Doris V. Sutherland offers a fresh and interesting perspective on this most neglected of Universal horrors. Approaching the topic from a holistic angle, she examines the contextual roots of the script, as well as the film itself. She digs deep into the western obsession with Egypt so prevalent in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and provides a deft summary of the film’s obvious (and some less obvious) literary and historical antecedents, including an intriguing, if brief, segue into the pseudo-historical myth of Count Cagliostro.
Her examination of the script writing process, and the film’s slow evolution from Cagliostro, King of the Dead to The Mummy, is one of the more interesting sections of the book. So much so, in fact, that I found myself somewhat disappointed by the relative short shrift given to the actual moment of transition from one film to the other.
Much is made of the varying Cagliostro scripts and the progress from one draft to the next, but John L. Balderston’s rewrites, and the subsequent change of the villain from Cagliostro to Imhotep, receive little attention in contrast. I would have liked a bit more attention on the changeover, especially the reasoning for it.
That said, this is less a criticism than a testament to Sutherland’s writing – her obvious enthusiasm for the subject matter is infectious and I often found myself wanting a deeper dive into this or that part of the film’s history.
Sutherland also takes a welcome look at the people behind the film, both off camera and on. While Karloff is an open book at this point, Sutherland pays special attention to his co-star, Zita Johann, and her often difficult working relationship with director Karl Freund. This is another fascinating section that I would have been happy to see a bit more of. I confess, I do like a bit of Hollywood gossip – even if it is almost a century old at this point.
Her analysis of the film itself is informative with a welcome lack of academic dryness, especially her examination of the tropes that have since gone on to form the template for subsequent mummy films. Her look at the critical reactions to the film, as well as its later re-evaluation and celebration is equally engaging.
However, I found her scrutiny of its legacy a bit pointed at times. While Sutherland digs extensively into the later Universal films, as well as the Hammer franchise and others, she focuses primarily on their myriad flaws. She has some good things to say about them, but it’s often outweighed by her focus on how the films fail to live up to their predecessors.
Nevertheless, this section provided a detailed and welcome exploration of the 1932 film’s wide-ranging influence on both cinema and pop culture alike. Given how few critical texts even mention films such as Don Coscarelli’s 2002 gem Bubba Ho-Tep, let alone 1965’s farcical Face of the Screaming Werewolf, I’m prepared to accept a bit of pointed criticism as a fair trade-off. Whatever else, one cannot say Sutherland has not done her research.
All in all, I found Sutherland’s The Mummy to be both enlightening and engaging. Her passion for film, and the history of film especially, shines through on every page. I highly recommend it, especially if you have an interest in Universal’s horror boom, or mummy movies in general.
Review by Josh Reynolds