Thursday, December 17, 2015

THE MUMMY (1959)

Terence Fisher, 1959
Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Yvonne Furneaux, Eddie Byrne

In 1890s Egypt, archaeologist Stephen Banning teams up with his son John to attempt to uncover the lost tomb of the legendary Princess Ananka. Thanks to an injury, John isn’t present when his father opens the tomb, which he does despite stern warnings from a local named Mehemet Bey. Apparently there is a curse on anyone who desecrates the tomb. John’s father accidentally awakens a mummy, Kharis, a high priest who loved Ananka thousands of years ago. And Kharis has one mission: to kill all those who desecrated the tomb. With some help from Mehemet Bey, Kharis follows the Bannings to England and begins to prey on them one at a time.

After Hammer tackled Dracula and Frankenstein, they turned their attention to The Mummy. And fortunately, like those first two films, The Mummy isn’t a mere remake of Universal’s film, but a new take on familiar, beloved material. It also borrows far more from some of Universal’s Mummy sequels — like The Mummy’s Hand and The Mummy’s Tomb — but doesn’t descend quite as fully into camp as those oft derided ‘40s films. Honestly, Universal’s original version of The Mummy will always be my favorite and it’s confusing to me that — perhaps more than any other monster to get a film series — studios seem to be unable to nail any satisfying formula when it comes to horror movies about mummies.

All of these Mummy films — including Hammer sequels The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb (1964), The Mummy's Shroud (1967), and Blood From the Mummy's Tomb (1971) — essentially follow the formula of a local Egyptian saying “guys, don’t to the thing,” and the upper class British characters exclaiming, “OK, let’s do the thing!” Here it makes a certain amount of sense, as rational men probably wouldn’t believe in an ancient curse, but there is definitely subtext about whether or not the archaeologists have any right to desecrate Egyptian property and remove items of historical value. A lot of Hammer films have subtle class commentary and this one is no exception, leaving behind the faint understanding that maybe these callous plunderers got what they deserved.

But nonsensical plot aside, The Mummy does have plenty working for it. It’s fast paced with lots of different elements to keep things interesting. Director Terence Fisher puts an emphasis on suspense and atmosphere over blood and gore, while production designer Bernard Robinson keeps things stylish and lovely, as always, with some wonderful visuals — though I’m a sucker for anything related to ancient Egypt. There’s a nice contrast between Kharis’s Egypt, the present day desert, and swampy, Victorian England, with a few choice flashback sequences, including a funeral rites presided over by a forbidding-looking Christopher Lee. An keep an eye out for some nice cinematography from Jack Asher, which includes a Bava-like sense of color in some scenes.

As with Hammer’s Dracula and Frankenstein, the real draw of The Mummy are performances from Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Cushing’s John Banning is a cold bastard more interested in science than human emotions, like so many of Cushing’s early characters for Hammer. His struggle to overcome his father’s legacy provides some effective drama, while his relationship with his wife Isobel (Yvonne Furneaux) is just unbearable. She’s an example of Hammer’s occasionally pitiful attitudes towards its female characters, as she has basically no role here other than to be a damsel in distress. Of course Isobel happens to look exactly like Princess Ananka, Kharis’ lady love, which provides some frustrating tension. Technically, Isobel is the only protagonist in the film to wield any power, as she is the only one who can keep Kharis from snapping spines; because he thinks she is Ananka, he obeys her every command. But she’s so pathetic and hysterical that it makes Cushing seem like the hero instead and she has to be rescued by a host of policeman who shoot Kharis until he dissolves into a swamp. Sigh.

Though Lee’s mummy is the most recognizable monster in the film, Mehemet is the real villain. As with Frankenstein’s monster, Kharis is just a powerful tool that falls into the wrong hands and despite being swaddled in makeup and bandages, Lee makes him wholly sympathetic. He’s also incredibly fast moving compared to Karloff’s mummy and Lee’s performance was so athletic that he was apparently injured multiple times on the set. Fortunately this is one of the last times that Hammer’s tallest star would be stuck with lots of makeup and little dialogue, but he is definitely compelling.

The Mummy is far from being a bad film, but it’s also really not one of Hammer’s best. The conclusion in the swamp is just baffling — thank Universal’s absolute bonkers The Mummy’s Ghost for that one — but if you like mummy films or you’re a Hammer fanatic, there’s plenty here to make this worthwhile. And it was recently given a fantastic Blu-ray, complete with lots of special features and an informative commentary track from British horror scholars Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby.

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