It is once again that time of year where we don false faces and garish visages, casting aside the form of civilized man and embracing our inner monster. Yes, Halloween is upon us and we here at The Globe have own methods of getting into the spirit of the holiday.
Like last year’s series of battles, we shall pit two notable versions of classic horror cinema against one another to determine which is the superior film. However, there has been a change in judging criteria. Since the next string of films were not based on pre-existing source materials, the third category will instead be a variable one based on a common element of the two films.
Without further ado, let us begin our first battle in the heart of Cairo as we bear witness to the condemnation and revival of the High Priest Imhotep as brought to us in 1932 and 1999 by Universal, under the very straightforward title of “The Mummy.”
Round 1: Atmosphere
Both films boast a well-executed sense of atmosphere as both feature many scenic location shots in the desert. However, each film also has its fair share of flaws in how those locations are presented.
In the case of the 1932 version, there are times when you can observe that they are shooting on a closed set, or even the Universal back lot. As a result, many of the “scenic” scenes tend to be from high angles or entirely indoors, with the sets used for the EgyptianMuseum being the most detailed.
As a result, the film tends to use stock footage to establish locations, relying more on dialogue and exposition to emphasize the importance of certain details. It saves the more visual elements for scenes where Imhotep is on-screen, particularly when he awakens; shows his past to the damsel, Helen via the reflecting pool, and in the final scene of the film when Imhotep attempts to turn said damsel into a living mummy like himself.
In the case of the 1999 version, the cinematography is a lot more expansive, literally as the film was shot in anamorphic widescreen. Since the film doesn’t suffer from as many limitations as the original, there are more locations seen throughout the story as it takes on a quality more akin to the blockbusters of the era.
However, this was also in the early days of computer-generated imagery, or CGI, being used extensively in cinema to both create locales as well as the kind of effects that would normally require traditional rotoscoping and matte-paintings directly onto the film.
Both films have a visual richness to them as it’s clearly visible that there was a great deal of planning involved. The older version manages to accomplish quite a bit, given the limitations, placing the emphasis on the characters and key items, with the lavish sets beings saved for the more pivotal scenes. However, the newer version does its world-building really well, as seeing the characters in actual locations adds a layer of realism and pulls the audience into the story.
Given that there are no factors that tip the scales in the favor of one film or another, I’ll have to call this round a draw.
Round 2: Story
On the other hand, the story is where we can begin to see some clear differences, as both films take radically different approaches. It can be argued that the approaches were the product of the eras in which they were made, as both films are what you call “popcorn entertainment.”
In the case of the 1932 version, the story is essentially a retread of “Dracula” with better actors. You have an undead ghoul from centuries past unearthed in modern day who proceeds to terrorize the civilized world and romances the soon-to-be damsel-in-distress.
However, in addition to its emphasis on eeriness, there’s also a stronger emphasis on the romantic qualities of the story, as Imhotep “follows” the princess Anck-su-namun through the ages to find her reincarnated as Helen in modern day.
To further add to its connections to “Dracula,” we have Edward Van Sloan in the role of Dr. Muller, which is very similar to his role as Professor Van Helsing, bestowing a protective item upon the main characters. This time the item is in the form of a charm in the shape of the Egyptian goddess, Isis.
In the case of the 1999 version, we’re instead given a film in the vein of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” as the film chooses to emphasize the more adventurous elements of the core story as opposed to the terrifying. Imhotep takes a backseat to the central cast of Rick O’Connell, Evelyn Carnahan, and her brother Jonathan.
As such, the film is more of a sweeping action-adventure film with horror elements, meaning that the terrifying moments aren’t really that terrifying, as they may come across as clichéd by today’s standards.
Another key difference between the two films is that while the 1999 version had Imhotep’s origin story at the beginning, the 1932 version had it revealed in the middle of the film, giving the story a much needed sense of intrigue.
While I personally enjoy the 1999 version, I didn’t really feel drawn into the story as much as I did the older version. However, the newer version at least has the benefit of having a strong cast of central characters that the 1932 version was lacking. A tough choice, but the older film takes the round.
Winner: 1932 version
Round 3: The best mummy
Here’s the round that really decides this battle, as this is really what it comes down to. Representing the old, we have Boris Karloff, a man who really needs no introduction here. Representing the new, we have Arnold Vosloo who’s mostly done theater and television work, with the role of Imhotep probably being his best known film role.
If we were to apply a “Deadliest Warrior” comparison to the two versions, then it would appear that Vosloo’s Imhotep is the more powerful version, as he reconstructs himself by harvesting the skin, organs, and fluids of the various archaeologists who raided his tomb. At the same time, he is also able to summon large sandstorms and biblical plagues as well as manipulate large groups of people via mind control.
In terms of weaknesses, Vosloo’s Imhotep shows both a fear of cats in his undead monster form, as well as being destroyed by the golden Book of Ra, the counterpart to the Book of the Dead used to revive him.
Karloff’s Imhotep is not without his own share of abilities, as he is able to induce cardiac arrest from a distance as long as he sees his intended victim, an ability that can also be powerful in its own right as any fan of “Death Note” might tell you. He is also able to induce mind control in others, namely through the Nubian servant working in the home of the main characters, as well as summoning Helen to the museum using the Scroll of Thoth, the item responsible for his revival.
When it comes to weaknesses, they’re not as clear cut with this version of Imhotep as it is with the Vosloo version. The magic used to kill the various characters can be repelled by the aforementioned charm of Isis, who is referred to as the goddess of life to counteract Imhotep’s patron god, Anubis. It is ultimately through the power of Isis that Imhotep is defeated.
However, the ultimate question for this round is which version of the character inspires the most fear. While it is unfair to compare a CGI enhanced character to a character enhanced by Jack Pierce’s make-up wizardry, a lot of this comes down to the writing of the film.
The problem I have with Vosloo’s take on the character is that Imhotep doesn’t really command a lot of presence in the film. He’s a viable threat to the main characters, but I only really saw the usual mystical villain that’s going to be beaten at the end of the film. He didn’t comes across as intimidating but rather aloof and arrogant, aware of his powers and ready to use them but not really looking all that threatening.
Karloff, on the other hand, was the kind of actor that commanded presence. Even when appearing as ArlethBay in the early scenes of the film, he came across as the mysterious stranger who knew more than he let on. Couple that with his piercing stare and low, yet sharp voice, and you have yourself a memorable antagonist.
Winner: Boris Karloff
While the older version took two out of the three rounds, the newer version is by no means a vastly inferior film, as its grand visuals and well-developed protagonists make for a fun and exciting adventure that does feel a tad dated.
In a perfect version of the film, we’d have the sweeping visuals and strong cast of characters of the 1999 film combined with the engaging story and memorable antagonist of the 1932 film. Given that Universal is once again rebooting this franchise, I hope they keep those things in mind.
For now, this battle comes to a close in favor of the 1932 version of “The Mummy.” Join me next week for the next Monster Clash, where we shall leave behind the deserts of Egypt and venture to the forests of England.