Carnival of Souls (1962): Dead in the Water

soulsThe first time I watched Carnival of Souls, I was planning to make fun of it.

I soon found out that it was no laughing matter.

I had borrowed a DVD of this Public Domain film with a humorous commentary track by the Rifftrax guys (whom you might know best as Crow, Servo, and Mike from Mystery Science Theater 3000). These fellows routinely lampoon atrocious B-movies and deliver the kind of cathartic belly laughs that sustain me through this drab existence. So, I popped Carnival of Souls in and braced myself for an evening of comedy.

CUT TO: me, lying awake that night in cold sweats. Serves me right for wanting to dismiss a cult classic.

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While watching the movie, I didn’t even crack a smile. I can’t remember a single joke the Rifftrax boys made. I write that not as an insult to those talented comedians, but rather as an homage to the sublime creepiness of Carnival of Souls. Something about this film shoots you through will a chill that you can’t shake. I mean, I watch a lot of horror films, new and old, and while many have disgusted or disturbed me, few have actually scared me. This is one of them.

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Directed by Herk Harvey, an industrial filmmaker on vacation (who also played the chief ghost), this ambitious indie horror film yanked me into its vertiginous parallel universe. Despite my initial inclination to denigrate the low budget masterpiece, Carnival of Souls immediately impressed me with its stark cinematography. Harvey adroitly manipulated lighting and camera angles to conjure an oppressive sense of doom closing in.

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For instance, in the scene where Mary Henry, presumed dead, staggers out of a riverbed to the astonishment of onlookers, the screen floods with an atmosphere of the uncanny. We know, from the way the sequence is shot, that this woman belongs dead. As Mary stands on the edge of a sandbar, jutting out into the rapidly moving waters, almost an abstracted geometrical form, the world around her seems separate. Open space crowds her.

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Bystanders scramble down from a bridge to meet her, but we see them as tiny, pointless figures, even more dwarfed than Mary. Trauma is etched on these deep focus images that visually convey and anticipate the truth of that famous Toni Morrison line from Beloved, “Anything dead coming back to life hurts.”

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Carnival of Souls offers many flourishes of unexpected creativity. On a recent rewatching, I noticed how Mary Henry, gazing down at the site of the accident, resembles a ship masthead figure, her Baroque 1960s ’do blown back and lit from below like a waxworks.

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As she reaches for her car ignition, we get a sort of trick match-on-action to her pulling out the stops on an organ. The fluid transition from the interior of her car to the somber beauty of an organ showroom reveals a great deal about her character. Even if the script didn’t clunkily inform us that Mary can’t “put [her] soul” into her career as a church organist, her detachment speaks to us through that false match cut.

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Mary’s visits to the abandoned amusement park wound us with their irony. For instance, her taut, worried face pointedly contrasts with the sensual pin-up girl on a poster. The grids of fences, lattices of shadow, tangles of streamers, and exotic pavilion-style architectural forms combine to create a shifting funhouse of suspense.

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In this movie of eerie silence, I detect a certain homage to silent films, especially when that silence begins to invade the usually bustling daytime world. However, we also see that link with silent films through the use of locations associated with iconic Roaring Twenties amusements. The tawdry dance halls and rotating tumbling cylinders of pre-talkie rom-coms appear as melancholy, strange relics that fragment the screen with disjointed shapes.

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At the risk of sounding rather grim (in contrast to my usual perky self), Carnival of Souls frightens me because it suggests that perhaps in the midst of life we are all actually dead. And that death, far from the state of peaceful repose or blissful ascension we might hope for, is a restless, ashen whirl of numbness.

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Above: Mary with her oily date. Below: Mary in the arms of a ghoul.

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The ever-circling ghouls of the condemned carnival aren’t so different from the living who plod forward in the compulsive pursuit of pleasureless things that they crave only because they’re told to want them. In fact, Mary only demonstrates any real passion in the scene where visions of ghosts torment her; as she practices the organ, she slips into a montage of dissociation. The first time she plays “with soul,” she gets castigated for blasphemy and fired! Paradoxically, it’s contact with the dead that can make her come to life.

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Why else select an abandoned amusement park, the real-life resort pavilion at Saltair, as the locus of terror? Deserted places of recreation possess an aura which unsettles me more than memorials to some tragedy or other. We brace ourselves for the presence of death in locations scarred by suffering and, thus armed, can sometimes emerge unscathed and unmoved. However, the ruins of a place that once echoed with laughter and joy remind us of the predestined end to all our amusements. The knowledge that sorrow could last forever haunts us less than the realization that pleasure (or a reasonable facsimile) doesn’t last very long at all.

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Director Herk Harvey explained that he wanted to make a movie in the art house vein, citing Bresson and Bergman as influences. Indeed, like a lot of European art films made around the same time, Carnival of Souls works at digesting the gristly concept of alienation. This film scares us on a metaphysical level; its shocks are not of the “Boo!” ilk alone. Instead it jolts us into an heightened awareness of everyday isolation, of the futility and awkwardness of “normal” human interactions.

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When we look into the grotesque chalky faces of the undead, we’re not as horrified by them as we are by the possibility that we might see our own faces among them.

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Carnival of Souls may strike modern viewers as somewhat tame. However, if you sit back and let it wash over you with an open mind, I think it’ll strike a chord with almost anyone. The piercing organ score, the blanched, smeary faces of the phantoms, the contamination of ordinary locations, and the depiction of destiny as a kind of cosmic Chinese finger trap will eat away at you. When you’re in a church at night. When you’re out shopping. When you’re driving down a lonely highway. When you’re somewhere that connects you to the past.

Even if you want, as I did, to chuckle at Carnival of Souls, I suspect that its coven of ghouls will have the last laugh.

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Carnival of Souls is in the Public Domain, so you can watch it on YouTube or download it for free at the Internet Archive. Enjoy!

Free Friday Film: Bluebeard (1944)

Rather like the whole universe (or so I’ve heard), Bluebeard was made in six days. Well, to be fair, it took a bit longer than that, since the film was only shot in six days, but still, even Roger Corman thinks that’s quick!

This serial killer drama with horror overtones emerged from PRC, Producers’ Releasing Corporation, one of classic Hollywood’s “Poverty Row” studios which churned out B-minus movies on shoestring budgets for the second half of double bills.  Ironically, these trashy studios often allowed greater artistic freedom to directors than more prestigious studios—if those directors could handle extreme budgetary constraints.

Edgar G. Ulmer negotiated those limitations better than any other director. A frighteningly creative set designer, Ulmer knew how to make a little money go a long way. Shadows are cheap, so he often staged action against sparsely decorated walls, using an expressive play of light and dark to substitute for fancy sets. If you watch Bluebeard, and I hope that you will, keep an eye out for the shadows of Gaston’s suspended collection of puppets. They dangle like an obscure gallows that both reminds Gaston of the victims that he strangled—and looms over his head like the threat of his own hanging. Powerfully creepy stuff for a shabby shocker.

The lead role provides a tour-de-force vehicle for the saturnine, long-faced John Carradine who considered it his favorite performance. It’s not hard to see why since, in place of the crazy, cardboard serial killer we’ve come to expect from modern movies, the script crafts a multi-faceted, albeit unhinged, gentleman. Unlike the brutish or mercenary conceptions of Bluebeard in folktales or true crime stories, Carradine’s 19th century romantic, Gaston Morel,  is a tortured lover of beauty. He’s a puppeteer, a gifted painter, and a brooding connoisseur of women’s charms… who moonlights as a murderer. In this character, we see love, art, and death bleed into each other. He kills the things he loves and must also kill in order to paint—it’s all interdependent.

Art, in various forms, abounds in Bluebeard. Gaston’s secret profession as a snuff painter treats us to a gallery of spooky canvases. His avocation as a puppet master shines when we watch his guignol production of Gounod’s opera of Faust—taking place in miniature. Most pervasively, Bluebeard’s painterly visuals glow with a canted, misty splendor that does remind me of the real Paris, thanks to the crack camerawork of émigré Eugen Schüfftan (Quai des Brumes, Yeux Sans Visage). I also wonder how much of himself Ulmer put into Gaston—a morbid genius, enslaved by poverty, ideals, and passion alike. Art is an addiction for Gaston, like it was for Ulmer the auteur. Just as Gaston’s obsessions force him into an underground existence, Ulmer preferred to work for PRC rather than “be ground up in the Hollywood hash machine” of the big studios.

As additional boni for watching this film, gorgeous ex-star Nils Asther doesn’t get much to do as a Inspector Lefevre, but still looks awfully pretty, and Jean Parker turns in a fine performance as Lucile—the only woman who can live up to Bluebeard’s ideal, but despises his true self.

Watch Bluebeard, drink in the atmosphere, and marvel that it all happened in six days.

This film is in the Public Domain, which means you can watch and download it at the Internet Archive, as well.

When you’re done, please leave a comment and tell me what you think of the movie! 

The Grand (Guignol) Finale: Mad Love and Film as Amputation

“He seemed to be present, and yet he did not seem to be present. No wonder a scientist the next day called it: ‘the nearest thing to a resurrection.’”

—Fitzhugh Green on the debut of synchronous sound in a short recorded speech by Will Hays

“Wonderful invention, the phonograph. Keeps a man alive long after he’s dead. Sometimes I feel that these records are all that’s left of Stephen Orlac.”

—Stephen Orlac (Colin Clive) in Mad Love

To get us warmed up, it’s trivia time, people. Who is the father of modern intelligence testing?

Alfred Binet, the brain behind the Stanford-Binet IQ test? Yes! Correct.

Okay, now for the tough one: what was his hobby?

No takers? Alright then.

It gives me great pleasure to inform you this eminent psychologist spent his spare time cowriting ultra-violent thriller plays for that notorious Paris establishment, le Théâtre du Grand Guignol—a famous horror theater which served as the inspiration for the macabre theater in Karl Freund’s 1935 Mad Love.

Really, chew on that for a while. I mean, what if you found out that, say, B.F. Skinner wrote torture porn scripts in between experiments? You must admit, that little fact does rather re-contextualize psychology.

I offer this factoid in order to suggest how deep and scientific terror really is, and how closely fear (and the perverse fascination with things that scare us) intertwines with other facets and phenomena of human psychology—like intelligence, genius, love, and hate. There’s something to be said for works of horror that don’t rely upon the supernatural, but rather sets out to examine the infinite cruelties which the mind inflicts upon itself… and on others.

Mad Love breathes life into the essence of sadism and lurid erotic fixations. This grisly tale focuses on Dr. Gogol, a gifted surgeon who falls in love with a horror actress, Yvonne. He initially tries to win her love when he saves Stephen Orlac, Yvonne’s famous pianist husband, by grafting on the hands of a guillotined murderer. That fails to get him the girl, so Gogol changes tactics and decides to try to drive the aforementioned pianist hubby bat-shit insane. It’s a quirky movie, full of weird, silly diversions, but isn’t that just like the brain of a madman?

Oh, the beloved bizarreness of this movie!

As I watch and rewatch this movie, feeling slightly dirty, like the Daughter of Dr. Gogol, I’ve come to notice the abundance of clever, mordant parallels that stitch the film together.

For instance, the opening credits end not with a simply dissolve, but with a hand punching through the glass on which the cast members’ names are written. Before Orlac even loses his hands, we get a terrific backstage scene where we see a prop severed arm in the foreground…

And then there’s this marvelous foreshadowing shot of Orlac using his fingers to wipe away the frost from his train window. It’s the moment he catches the first glimpse of the man whose hands he’ll soon be wearing…

Hands recur again and again, like hallucinatory iterations of a fevered ideé fixe.

Another sick joke: the knife-throwing murderer whose hands Orlac inherits gets guillotined… and Yvonne’s wedding cake bears a quaint toy version of this infernal contraption.

All of these gleeful patterns pop up as though reality were submitting to the delirious reasoning of a lunatic. When a man grows obsessed, he sees the object of his obsession, his mad love, everywhere. These neat visual echoes weave in this sense of inescapable fixation.

Mad Love was really decades ahead of its time. You see, it makes us conscious from the first that we the viewers are watching a horror show. The film begins with the spooky, caricatured façade of the Grand Guignol-esque Théâtre des Horreurs where Yvonne works. The camera pans from a hanged man dummy (rather reminiscent of Frankenstein, which Karl Freund shot) to a ghoulish arch, then goes to one of the costumed goblins that runs the box office.

It’s not only welcoming us into a place where people go to get scared within the film, but also knowingly beckoning us into the realm of terrors that is the cinema.

The camera then follows a young couple on a date. The girl balks at the idea of a horror show, implying that any man who wants to watch such things must be a pervert. (Well, I bet that didn’t go over too well for all of the 1930s guys who brought their dames to the movie palace for some low-impact snuggling!)

Really, although I’ve articulated my dislike for the coy term “meta” elsewhere, I’m forever impressed by how Mad Love serves up a horror show within a horror show, a Grand Guignol play within a Grand Guignol movie.

As for that play within the movie, the horror show that Yvonne stars in, it’s a Grand Guignol period drama about infidelity and torture that would deliver the requisite thrills on any stage.

But Karl Freund makes us see how the camera can actually enhance the horror. Especially a camera in the hands of brilliant cinematographer Gregg Toland, who shot this agonizingly beautiful and shadowy film.

(Digression: Pauline Kael has theorized that director and legendary cameraman Karl Freund’s expressionist influence on Toland came into full bloom with the noirish deep focus look of Citizen Kane, made just a few years later. So, in a way, Mad Love helped to shape one of the most influential films of all time. Think about that as you look at these gorgeously lit screencaps.)

During the theater sequence, close-ups and intercuts between a frightened audience and Yvonne’s torments revise and reframe stage horror as cinematic horror.

Staged horror: a static long shot

Movie horror: dynamic editing and the power of closer shots

The power of the camera and editing can intensify the rhythm of fear, kneading it into suspense or whipping it into a frenzy. It’s a great and awful power, and Freund wants us to recognize it—and examine the pleasure we derive from horror, from sadism and voyeurism, even as we experience those pleasures.

The villain of the piece, Dr. Gogol, comes across as the forefather of the modern-day “crazed fan” type—although Lorre’s performance trumps any imitations with his substance and subtlety.

Gogol consumes horror. He loves it. He’s creepy as hell in that audience, as he solemnly watches his muse Yvonne squeal in agony. His spooky half-moon face forces us as spectators to think, “Oh, dear God, I hope that’s not me…”

The dark side: track-in + stark shadows = movie stalker material.

After all, less than 10 years before Mad Love was made, a young man in London strangled his girlfriend in Hyde Park, and based his defense (in part) on the fact that he’d just seen Lon Chaney in London After Midnight, which had, he claimed, deranged his mind and spurred him to violence. As much as horror seeks to capitalize on hidden fears and fantasies that lurk in all of us, many people working in the genre had become aware by 1935 that the reactions unleashed by watching horror are a liability.

Indeed, this film both creates and breaks down illusions, as if to say, “Enjoy yourself, dear viewer… but not too much.” I love the introduction of Yvonne, with a dissolve from her screaming portrait on a poster, to her real, smiling, normal face. What a joyful demystification of the scream queen!

And yet, we feel the seductive force of images, too. Gogol falls in love with an image, not a real woman, as shown by the affection he devotes to her wax effigy. Freund simulates Gogol’s obsession, since, all close-ups of the wax figure actually are close-ups of actress Frances Drake. For us, the viewers, as well as for Gogol, Galatea comes alive.

Mad Love explores this idea of replacements, parallelism, and swapping: Gogol confuses the real Yvonne with his schema of her. A stage play transforms into a cinematic event. Freund cuts between a “high art” performance of Chopin at Fontainbleau to a “low art” cheap thrill show in Montmartre.

Amputation and then grafting presents the purest expression of this paradigm: something lost and something introduced in its place. It’s acquiring something foreign and taking it into oneself. It’s unremittingly weird to have something on you that’s not quite yours or, even if it is, doesn’t “live” where it’s supposed to, almost like a doppleganger you can wear. It’s always an “it,” an entity, an integrated other.

Sort of like a film of yourself? It’s you, but then again, it’s not.

Now, I’m about to go out on a limb here, but cinema is a violent art, it’s an art of scarring and replacement. You shoot it, you cut it, you take the skin off reality, chop it up, then put it back together. Even the whole negative-positive aspect of cinema recalls the concept of amputation and grafting. I think that the makers of horror movies in the 1920s and 1930s understood the uncanny nature of the cinema better, on average, than any other genre filmmakers. Rather than just trappings of terror, amputations, stitched-up beings, walking digests of other parts serve as the centerpieces of their films—driving the plots and evoking pathos.

And, no, I don’t think that every film coils up on itself to probe the nature of the cinema. I just happen to believe that, at the dawn of talkies, horror films and the people who produced them, like James Whale and Karl Freund, were highly attuned to the aspects of all and any cinema that shocked, scared, and moved people like nothing else ever had before.

These visionaries decided not only to use the disquieting resemblance of film to reality to spook us, but also to jolt us into consciousness of the death and fragmentation that nags at man in the age of mechanical reproduction.

Film is a monster of transplants. This spliced-up juggernaut can augment fear and it can seduce. It can conjure false visions then dash them to pieces. But it also confers eternal life. Remember the moment when Colin Clive as Orlac listens to one of his recordings and remarks on what amazing things they are—“keeps a man alive long after he’s dead.” If you know anything about the brief, tragic life of Clive, this moment resonates far beyond the framework of the diegesis.

Yvonne and we hear music playing… but we see that piano remains ghostly still. The recording makes possible this eerie juxtaposition.

Now, this film was made in 1935. Clive was dead less than two years later and, if I believe what I read (Frances Drake told a story about him practically passing out in her garden), pretty much anyone could’ve seen that coming. In a way, this film could serve as an elegy for him and for that ghostly life that he forever possesses.

He, by the way, was horribly creeped out by his fake hands, “almost a quarter larger than normal size,” and lamented in an interview: “All day and everyday I felt that I would give almost anything to be able to wash away the whole ghoulish mess and forget the rest of the picture.”

He claimed that looking down at the crude, bulky, built-up makeup made him “quite sick,” which certainly contributed to his rattled, haunted performance. He hated horror and he hated acting in film—perhaps because both of them abide in the realm of the uncanny.

When you act in theater, the past is past. On to the next! With film, you get to see another version of yourself. Part of you no longer belongs to you, but to anyone who watches the movie. It’s as though an appendage has been chopped off and preserved in a vault. Every film performance confers a kind of “wax figure” double, an extraordinarily lifelike replica to posterity.

But, then, film also cuts into the time of our lives. For the space of an hour or so, the movie replaces our normal existence with another world. The movie is ours, for we “recut” it again in our heads, and not ours, for it might affect us in ways we do not expect.

And no movie I know does that better than Mad Love.

Under Wraps: The Mummy and His Complex

From the first, Karl ‘Papa’ Freund’s 1932 The Mummy almost slaps you across the face with its audacity.

It’s actually so bold that I daresay a lot of people (me, for about 21 years, included) mistake its stylistic flourishes for primitiveness. In terms of the sheer patience that the film assumes on the part of the audience, it equals Hitchcock, in my humble opinion. After all, Frankenstein opens with a grave robbing and Dracula quickly gets to ghostly coachmen and bats. The Mummy, instead, aligns the viewer with the overly eager British archeologist Norton (Bramwell Fletcher) whose cavalier spirit dispairs over the “bits of broken pottery” he has to catalog before getting to the fun stuff, like the unopened blasphemous casket containing a necromantic scroll and the preserved dead guy. Although, in all fairness, who can blame him on that?

So, the senior archeologists leave the young assistant alone with the loot (I’m an intern—believe me, this is never a good idea). We know what’s going to happen. Casket opened. Ancient curse called down. It’s ALIVE!

But it’s amazing how long Freund toys with us. Norton looks at his work. Gets up. Walks to the casket. Sits back down. Gets up again. Slowly, slowly opens the casket, pulls out the scroll. I can’t stress this enough: it’s a really long time, although it doesn’t feel heavy. It feels leisurely, but taut, I think. When I last watched it with an eye towards this, though, I almost couldn’t fathom how long it is. It reminds me a lot of the famous scene in North by Northwest before the cropduster comes, when Cary Grant is waiting by a bus stop for about six minutes and we’re still riveted.

But the key to the suspense of this opening sequence resides in the way it’s filmed. I lost track of the jump cuts. The camera leaps back and forth from different sides of the young archeologist. These cuts mostly don’t threaten to disorient the viewer since we know the layout of the small hut. Instead, the editing aims to perturb the audience, just slightly. They make you uneasy without you totally understanding why. (Seriously, Jean-Luc Godard, Papa Freund called and he wants his technique back.)

And then the key shift comes after this shot, when the young man finally opens the casket.

And then there’s a cut to this.

WTF is THAT, do I hear you ask? The entire audience has no idea. It’s almost totally abstracted. Cutting to something completely out of scale in order to shock, confuse, and to suggest a seismic shift. The universe is out of balance. It’s a formalistic uh-oh. (Now you, Michelangelo Antonioni, Papa Freund called, he wants his technique back.)

Then, slowly, the head of the archaeologist bobs back into the frame and the camera tilts quickly down to the breeched casket and to Norton’s hands poised over the scroll.

It’s a vertiginous shot, full of bravado and discreet discomfort (on the part of the audience members). It bears the hallmarks of genius for me. And the mummy hasn’t even come to life yet.

Once Norton starts to read, Imhotep does promptly reanimate. Again, you have to appreciate how minimalistic and patient this moment seems in contrast to the theatrics of the other Universal pictures. No histrionic music wailing over the soundtrack (Freund didn’t care for the score that was written for the movie, something I learned via Richard Freeman’s article “The Mummy in Context”). We just hear the faint whisper of a chant as the mummy awakens.

Cliff Alberti’s Immortal Ephemera blog also does a nice job of explaining the admirable restraint of the trailing bandages and the off-screen monster, so I won’t repeat it, but I would like to give a shout-out (pun intended) to Bramwell Fletcher’s terrific shriek, perhaps the best non-female scream in the classic horror pantheon.

I’d also like to express my admiration for the first sight of the risen mummy. The camera pans from the working archeologist to the hand of the undead thing, reaching for the scroll.

Suddenly, the living and the dead, two things that should always be separate, are joined together by a simple turn of the camera. Shudder, shudder. A masterful opener.

A scene later, Karloff’s terrific entrance as the Ardath Bey is also troubled with jumpy cuts. These shots occur in rapid succession.

First, I imagine that Freund was having a little in-joke here. Frankenstein’s monster’s first entrance in Whale’s 1931 film resembles this one very much, with a flurry of jump cuts following the monster’s appearance in a door. However, here again, the cuts serve a pattern. They disturb the default continuity of time and space that we’ve come to expect as viewers. What you think you know about everything—Freund seems to say—forget it all. The dead are walking. And I’m going to show you a thing or two…

Bazin and his Mummy

“For the first time, the image of a thing is bound up with its duration, like a mummy of change.”

These are the words, or rather my translation of the words, which André Bazin, the insanely influential French film theorist, used to describe motion pictures. Like a death mask or a fingerprint, movies are existentially tethered to the things they portray.

In terms of semiotics, the science of signs, fingerprints, death masks, and photographs are indexical signs because they refer back to their original, the thing that they’ve preserved. In other words, we don’t say, “Wow, that picture looks like Boris Karloff.” It is Boris Karloff we’re seeing and we know that the image is proof of his existence. (I’m totally indebted to another great critic, Peter Wollen, for this, BTW. I didn’t cook this up on my own!)

Back to Bazin and the mummy. Bazin believed that movies perfectly realized and attained what humans had always craved to do through art: to defeat death by preserving something forever through its appearance. This need for a “victory over time” is what Bazin called the “mummy complex.”

Holy Isis and Osiris! Doesn’t this sound familiar?

What is the monstrous Imhotep trying to do literally, if not defeat time by creating a copy, a very, very lifelike (or deathlike) representation of Princess Ankh-es-en-amon? Unlike Dracula, who basically wants nourishment (and sex), our Imhotep wants true, enduring, eternal love which he can only attain by mummifying the woman he loves. Reunion isn’t enough. It’s preservation he wants. He doesn’t just want companionship. He wants a companion of his own creation yet somehow representative of the woman he adores, lovingly embalmed.

To this end, let’s look at the introduction of Helen Grosvenor which includes another of Freund’s clever touches. One of the movie’s roving tracking shots trundles around the museum exhibit of the Princess’s belongings until we finally see Karloff, as Ardath Bey, looking down at the mummy of his dead lover.

 

The back-and-forth shot reverse shot stresses his need for a connection with the relics. He bitterly wants for this husk and this garish portrait to be the woman he loves, magically preserved by the customs of his culture in their attempts to cheat time and death. And they do come painfully close. She’s there, but really, she is elsewhere. And this is when the camera swish-pans to the right. This cut, in turn, brings on a strange scrolling panorama of Cairo, which whooshes by before stopping on a close-up of Helen by some ornamental palms (after another disguised cut).

Some special bond, transcending space and time, does connect the mummy case to this girl, we know at once, thanks to this elaborate “scrolling” panorama shot, which I consider a pretty creative visual manner of representing something like reincarnation. But, what a poor likeness! The crude sarcophagus portrait pales in comparison to the real thing, the human face that cinema can deliver to us: Zita Johann palpitating and forever alive.

The movies can embalm time, as Bazin would say. However, I suspect that Bazin would not have totally dug The Mummy as a film. It’s far too invested in expressionism and illusion, in clever tricks of make-up and fantasy, and in the Méliès school of cinema to win his unequivocal good graces. Yet, The Mummy does deal adroitly with the idea of cinema as the mummy, the preserved shell of time and space.

That long, long scene at the beginning makes you really feel time, just as the film’s many roving tracking shots force you to scan and explore the film’s diegetic space as a fully three-dimensional world. Cliff Alberti pointed out that Imhotep walking out of the hut takes place off-screen. So do several of the most crucial horror moments of the film (the murder of the museum guard, Helen’s dog being killed). These spatial ellipses enhance the all-encompassing atmosphere of Freund’s film. It is a total space, a place, a world unto itself, not just a set with a camera plunked down in it.

There are hints of what would come to be known as the Bazanian realism, respecting the integrity of space and time. In fact, Freund later worked with cinematographer Gregg Toland on Mad Love. According to Scott McGee at TCM, Pauline Kael attested that this later film was key in helping Toland develop the techniques he’d employ in Citizen Kane, which Bazin singled out for the intelligent ambiguity of its deep-focus shots. We’re really not all that far away.

Nevertheless, how The Mummy blends this kind of grounding in space and time with the occasional magical, unreal manipulation of these elements intrigues me most. Freund’s camera becomes almost like Imhotep, wiggling around in reality one moment, and, in the next instant, jumping to the past or into some mystical, symbolic abstraction of time or space, like the rolling city panorama or the sudden emptiness of the archeologist’s hut.

The classic example of this shift from real space to a fantasy space occurs during the famous gazing pool scene.

A stunning tracking shot swirls above the characters…

…and then plunges right into the pool, as a seamless dissolve transports us to the past.

And, from here, the flashback takes on the look and feel of both silent cinema and Egyptian scroll paintings (Hmm. Emulating the aesthetics of another era to intensify the philosophical implications of the work? Ingmar Bergman, your turn! Papa Freund called and he wants his technique back!)

People have remarked that this scene symbolizes the unconscious. That’s a slight stretch for me, but the sequence does subtly reveal that the past is never fully past. The tracking shot provides an ostensibly “continuous” movement into the past. Again, the camera is the bridge over time, slipping in and out between registers of reality.

Cinema is a mummy of change, reality embalmed, but it’s a mummy that can also call up quite a few incantations, too. Spells only become cheap tricks when they lose their impact and I think that this camera “trick” is still spellbinding. It makes me wonder what parts of the past are still haunting me—and all of us, on some level.

It’s Not You, It’s Me

The Mummy is a pretty kinky movie when you ponder it. The most warped moment, however, arrives not when the undead creature is present, but rather when Frank Whemple is flirting with the barely conscious Helen.

By talking to her about dead people. Smooth!

He goes on and on about how he dug up the Princess and handled all of her stuff and “her toilette things,” and how, upon unwrapping the lady mummy, he “sort of fell in love with her.”

The Princess’s Toilette Things.

Awfully fetishistic stuff, really.

Apparently, even affable, shaving-cream-ad-good-looking 1930s fellows like David Manners’s Frank harbor a secret necrophiliac bent! And we were condemning Imphotep as strange?

“Do you have to open graves to find girls to fall in love with?” Helen wryly asks. This single line of dialogue makes us truly appreciate Helen as a person for the first time. The sassy comeback renders her modern and amusing—not just some brooding reincarnated chick who’s susceptible to hypnosis. I also consider it a very important line in terms of the movie’s meaning.

Déjà vu?

It’s a deceptively deep question. How and where do we look for love? And why do we fall in love with somebody? Well, a lot of psychoanalysts have suggested that it has very little to do with the person we love and a lot more to do with our own issues. To grossly under-sell the theories of the French analyst Jacques Lacan, we love a certain “something” in that other person that makes us feel complete, since we humans are constantly split-up and divided inside. We’re not so much interested in that other person as we are in the part of ourself that we feel is embedded in that other person.

Frank even admits that one of the reasons he loves Helen is because she reminds him of the dead Princess. His “pure” desire for Helen therefore translates into a need for a victory over death, again. Yes, I’m psychologizing, but he has a crush on a corpse, for crying out loud! By having the woman who reminds him of the Princess, he can feel as though he’s conquered death and time. Wait, isn’t that what Imhotep wants, too?

Of course, Imhotep takes it a little farther. He actually wants to kill her and make her a living mummy whereas Frank seems content with the fantasy. So, in at least two forms, one extreme, the other acceptable, love is inscribed in the mummy complex.

“Love and crime and death” blend together in the all-consuming yearning for immortality. Which is kind of ironic, since all of these actors are dead, yet also undead silver screen mummies, embalmed in celluloid and now in DVD plastic, who dance for us at will.

In closing, I’d just like to make one more observation. I’ve already touched on how cinema is like a fingerprint (courtesy Peter Wollen!). So, I find it significant that the only “proof” that Imhotep came to life when his mummy went missing… is his handprint.

The transcribed hieroglyphs on the paper at left are meaningless if you can’t read them, but the image, connected to the mummy’s physical being, instantly tells a tale.

This handprint motif returns when when Imhotep grabs Helen’s arm towards the end of the film.

Now, that’s creepy because clearly it’s hinting at what she’ll become: a hideously embalmed monster. The dusty, macabre handprint tells us that there is no such thing as eternal life, except if you’re willing to give up some of what we consider to be essential to “life.”

Another aspect of what makes the handprints so eerie consists in their uncanny contradiction: a dead thing isn’t supposed to be able to grab, to touch, or to leave its mark on the living… but this one can. Even the narrator of the original trailer for the film got caught up in this contradiction. “The mummy: is it alive or dead? Human or inhuman?”

At the risk of sounding redundant, I’ll say it again: the film of The Mummy is itself a mummy. It’s the fingerprint of reality, keeping the players in a place between life and death. If Imhotep’s pool is a metaphor for the unconscious, it’s also a meta-phor for cinema. Freund troubles the gazing pool and sets before us strange dreams that are both real and unreal, both forever past and forever present. Both dead and alive.

As Bazin pointed out, every living thing put before the camera has become a mummy of change, a strip of time preserved forever intact. Now, that sounds pretentious when I write it, but it sure looks great when Freund shows it.

Sources and Resources:

Bazin, André. “Ontologie de l’Image Photographique.”  Qu’est-ce que le cinéma? Vol. 1. Ontologie et langage. Paris: Cerf, 1958.

McGee, Scott. “Pop Culture 101: Citizen Kane.” Read the article at TCM.

Mulvey, Laura. “Death 24x a Second.” Reaktion Books, 2006.

Wollen, Peter. “The Semiotics of the Cinema.” Signs and Meaning in the Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1972.

I did my thesis on Jacques Lacan, so what I say in this post is sort of a condensation of what I got from reading a lot of his essays, too many to cite in a blog, I think. However, if you’d like me to share some Lacan resources and point to a few essays, go ahead and contact me.

I’d also like to recommend Richard Freeman’s “The Mummy in Context,” an excellent review of the literary, cultural, and historical background of Universal’s The Mummy. This is chock full of great insights for anyone who loves this movie or movies in general!

I likewise definitely encourage you to read the Immortal Ephemera blog post on The Mummy, too, which is both personal and insightful and makes some very neat observations about the film. Eye-opening.