Silent Movie Review: “The Eyes of the Mummy” (Festival of Dread Special)

Welcome back to the Festival of Dread, The Splintering’s month-long celebration of all things that lurk in the shadows.

Today, we’re going to do another Silent Movie Review, this time looking at The Eyes of the Mummy directed by Ernst Lubitsch. 

Originally released in 1922 (in the United States, anyway), this year marks an anniversary of sorts for The Eyes of the Mummy. While the movie can be described as horror, I have to spoil something up front – there is no actual mummy in The Eyes of the Mummy. So if you were hoping for a Universal-style monster flick, this isn’t your ticket.

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The Eyes of the Mummy begins with an English painter named Albert Wentland (played by Harry Liedtke) vacationing in Egypt. Albert overhears a conversation about the dangers of visiting the burial chamber of the Queen Ma, and that all who make the venture are stricken with dire consequences. 

Not one to shy away from an adventure, Albert heads off for Queen Ma’s burial chamber to investigate for himself. Upon his arrival, he is greeted by a man named Radu (Emil Jannings), a disheveled Egyptian con artist who appears to spend his days waiting at the burial temple’s entrance for travelers to arrive. The “trick” seems to be a pair of eyes peeking from behind the tomb’s wall, and Albert doesn’t fall for the ruse. After a short altercation that ends with an unconscious Radu, Albert discovers that Ma is actually a young woman (played by Pola Negri), who explains that she has been captured and forced to participate in Radu’s con against her will. 

Radu coaxing Albert into Queen Ma’s Burial Chamber

Albert whisks Ma away from the scene on his horse before Radu has the chance to recover. Once he comes to, Radu swears revenge on Ma (not Albert, oddly) and unwisely begins to aimlessly wander the desert looking for her. Suffering from dehydration and exhaustion, Radu is ultimately saved by the caravan of a vacationing Prince Hohenfels. Radu swears fealty to the Prince for saving his life, and he accompanies Hohenfels back to England as his servant. 

As it conveniently turns out, Albert has also chosen to bring Ma back with him to England, too. Ma is struggling to fit into English high society, but ultimately becomes a popular dancer at a variety stage show. It is here that Radu is almost able to catch up to Ma and exact his revenge, but this turns out to be a “near miss” and he is left without satisfying his murderous appetite.

This wouldn’t be Radu’s last chance, however, and he gets his chance to directly confront Ma at the film’s climax. This leads to The Eyes of the Mummy‘s tragic ending, which was both slightly confusing and abrupt.

Another printed advertisement – this time in German (making it even scarier! )

If the plot doesn’t sound overly contrived, then I must have in failed communicating it. There are so many artificial plot devices in play that The Eyes of the Mummy is never convincing as a realistic story. It still works well enough on the level of a revenge parable, though, with a slightly supernatural edge. Throughout the movie, Radu has some kind of magical hold on Ma, which renders her incapable of escaping him. This is never explained, nor is it explained why Radu cons tourists at the burial chamber in the first place. It’s not as though he makes money doing it. 

Emil Jannings portrayal of Radu is the most melodramatic performance of the movie, with fierce, wide-eyed expressions and a head of hair that is in desperate need of a hair cut. How can the Prince allow his servants to walk around the palace looking like that? The lovely Pola Negri is as fetching as ever, and as soon as the story pivots away from Albert Wentland, she steals the show as the distressed heroine, Ma. 

Aesthetically, The Eyes of the Mummy has some strong visuals. The sets look great, with the backdrop of Queen Ma’s burial chamber and the ornately furnished Prince’s palace being the stand-outs. There is also some nice shadow play, though this is largely limited to the beginning during the Egypt scenes. There were a few odd shots that held for a bit too long (that one moment where Radu’s horse wanders around aimlessly in the water). This leaving a disorienting, immersion-breaking effect.

The Europeans are mesmerized by Ma’s fetching moves

On the sound side, it’s a silent movie, of course, so there’s nothing much to speak of… unless you have the DVD copy distributed by Alpha Video like I do. The piano score that Alpha Video selected is a terrible mismatch for the onscreen action. It was so distracting that I muted it and found some random organ music online and played it through my computer while I watched the movie on my television. I can’t recall ever doing that, but the soundtrack provided was that bad. 

Beyond the disappointment of there not being an actual mummy in a movie titled The Eyes of the Mummy, it’s hard to say how much a modern viewer would enjoy watching it. There are certainly some generational differences as how the Egyptian culture is depicted. For starters, Radu invokes the name of “Osiris” when he swears his revenge, but Egypt had been Islamized for centuries prior. Sure, he could be a polytheistic zealot living in exile, which might explain his mystical ability to influence Ma, but this is never really established in the film. I personally enjoyed The Eyes of the Mummy for its visuals and Pola Negri’s performance, but the overarching plot isn’t a particularly satisfying one. I suppose that it is worth noting that it is 100% successful as a horror movie though – if you choose to brave a watch with Alpha Video’s audio score.

Beware the cursed music that lies inside this DVD box!

To see more of The Splintering’s Silent Movie Reviews, go here.

Thanks to Movies Silently for providing a couple of the clean screen captures.

Thanks for reading!

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