29 November 2009

Uncanny: My Favorite Boris Karloff Performance

This article is part of the Boris Karloff Blogathon event.

The gods of Egypt still live in these hills, in their ruined temples. The ancient spells are weaker, but some of them are still potent. . . .
I grew up with something of the wrong Mummy, and I’m afraid that I’m not alone. As a child, I perceived the reincarnated Egyptian menace as a bandaged, stumbling, slowpoke my great-aunt could outrun. And Universal’s continuing marketing of the character in the late ‘70s and 1980s, when I was first watching their movies on TV, is mostly responsible for this. This version of the Mummy from the four films in the 1940s was apparently the most marketable for the studio. So when I finally saw the entirety of 1932’s original The Mummy, I was stunned by what I saw—and surprised I had not known about it earlier. The evil undead sorcerer whose love has lasted through eternity, but whose humanity has left him as he kills his way toward the reincarnation of Princess Anck-es-en-Amon . . . why didn’t somebody tell me that Boris Karloff started it all, and that it was so awesome?

The Frankenstein Monsters wins over most people to the legendary actor—and I already knew and loved his version of Henry Frankenstein’s creation—but the event of seeing The Mummy for the first time after years of misinformation is what made me adore Boris Karloff.

I’ve discussed The Mummy ‘32 previously, swinging past it with a brief review which essentially said that I have a hard time expressing my love for a movie so entwined in childhood nostalgia, adult film fandom, and academic fascination. Objectively, I think The Bride of Frankenstein is a superior film in the Universal canon, and Karloff’s performance as the Monster in that film the best of his career. But emotionally, it’s The Mummy, and has been ever since I first watched it.

Karloff’s performance as Imhotep/Ardath Bey is the deal-sealer for the actor . . . the role that showed that his monster performances in Frankenstein and The Old Dark House were not flukes of pantomime. Karloff, given a speaking monster, was a powerhouse. Not only that, but Imhotep is different from the Frankenstein Monster in every meaningful way. The Monster is mute, stumbling, expressive through strange movements and quirky expressions. Imhotep speaks sonorously and hardly moves, everything he does is under the strictest control. Perhaps the only point of intersection between the characters is that they have some level of sympathy despite their killings. But even this a really a difference disguised as a similarity. The Frankenstein Monster remains a pitiable figure, the lost child unloved by its father, living in a world where it doesn’t fit. Imhotep’s quest for love only carries the sympathy so far, and when both sides of Princess Anck-es-en-Amon turn against him (“I loved you once, but now you belong to the dead!”), the audience turns against him as well. Imhotep is now a murderer, a violator of his priestly vows, incapable of the real love he claims to pursue—and he deserves the gods’ punishment that lay him waste at the end. Imhotep is ultimately loathsome, and Dr. Muller’s growling threat that he would “break your dried flesh to pieces” is one most viewers will respond to. Karloff provides Imhotep with enough sympathy to trick the viewer, but the actor knows that we must eventually agree with Dr. Muller’s assessment that he be forever destroyed.

Each time I see The Mummy, I’m astonished with how easily Karloff commands the screen . . . by doing almost nothing. He works through stillness and a sense of rigidity. When Sir Jospeh Whemple reaches toward his arm and Imhotep reacts sharply, saying he does not wish to be touched, I believe that if Sir Joseph had touched him, Imhotep’s arm would have snapped right off. The film seems pulled toward him in every scene the way light draws toward a black hole. When viewers comment that an actor is “magnetic” is a film, what they’re really fumbling to say is: “That actor is like Boris Karloff in The Mummy.”

To be fair, The Mummy ‘32 is a collaborative effort of many talented people, and some of the effectiveness of Imhotep comes from the use of lighting and staging (the shot of Karloff’s eyes glowing in a frozen stare is the second most famous image of the actor after him as the Frankenstein Monster) and the legendary Jack Pierce make-up that fits Karloff’s unusual face with such miraculous precision to create a dried corpse that somehow continues to walk. The story around Imhotep from writer John L. Balderston, a convincing and entrancing look into the Egypt-mania of the time period, also makes it easier for such a magnificent figure to seize the screen and our attention.

But at the end, it loops back to the performance… no other actor in history had ever played “The Mummy” with such long-term effect. (Apologies to Christopher Lee, who was a fantastic Kharis in the Hammer 1959 Mummy, but his cultural fame in the part isn’t a fraction of Karloff’s.) Karloff’s sells the dark lover and the darker sorcerer, he brings ancient Egypt to life, he personifies a living corpse, and his tones float through the centuries in a way that no other actor could have achieved. The marketing machine that still sells the lumbering Kharis monster can’t even overcome it, since most viewers make fun of that incarnation (by saying things like how their great-aunt could outrun it). Nobody makes fun of Karloff’s.

And so, with acknowledgment to his superb portrayal of Frankenstein’s Monster, I must call Imhotep in The Mummy my favorite Boris Karloff role of all.