Our series of Hammer Horror film reviews for the Halloween season begins with their radical reinterpretation of the most moribund series in the Universal Monster canon.
Although they made a handful of horror films in between, The Mummy has always seemed to be the final part of an unofficial trilogy of Hammer horrors that also includes The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula, and perhaps the point where the studio stopped being a company that had made a few horror films and finally became the Hammer House of Horror. After all, these three films – all starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, written by Jimmy Sangster and directed by Terence Fisher – represent Hammer’s version of the original Universal horror cycle – the three classic monsters (the company’s take on The Wolfman would come later). Neither Dracula nor Frankenstein was a remake in the traditional sense, given that they were officially based on the classic works of literature rather than the Universal films – indeed, The Curse of Frankenstein is only loosely acquainted with Mary Shelley’s novel. But the two films were the first significant versions of either story to emerge after the Universal movies, and – more significantly – were the opening salvos of the first horror cycle since the Universal films. Certainly, Hammer was more inspired by the ongoing popularity of the 1930 and 1940s films and the opportunity to update them for modern audiences than by any idea to adapt literary works. That the first two films in the original horror cycle also featured Dracula and Frankenstein encouraged comparisons even further, and given that Universal had distributed the Hammer Dracula in America, it was inevitable that the films would be viewed as remakes rather than new versions of stories that would, within a few years, be thoroughly mined by filmmakers around the world who not only wanted to cash in on the Hammer success but also saw the fact that both films had been released without legal action as proof that Universal was not going to try to enforce any dubious copyright claims over the stories – while both novels were public domain at this point, there was always the fear that the Hollywood studio would nevertheless claim some sort of ownership over the characters. Hammer’s reworking of both stories almost immediately opened the floodgates for all manner of variations on the two stories, many of which were made by Hammer itself.
The Mummy, of course, is a remake – Universal made a lot of money distributing Hammer’s Dracula and, seeing a good thing, threw their archives open for the company to plunder in search of new material. Oddly, Hammer took little advantage of this, but The Mummy, as one of Universal’s first horror films and one of the classic monsters in the public’s mind, must’ve seemed an obvious choice to tackle, especially as Hammer by this point was now actively setting out to be the new horror specialists – while The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula were essentially one-shots, by 1959 the studio had established a reputation and a style that it was quick to capitalise on. Of course, the Mummy films were always Universal’s poverty row productions – while the character became an integral part of the company’s horror roster, outside the first film the series is an increasingly dismal collection of repetitive films that plodded more slowly than the title character. No one seemed to quite know what to do to breathe new life into the story and he was notably missing from the company’s all-star monster mashes like House of Frankenstein. The Mummy is a character with rather limited scare value and public appeal, frankly, as Hammer themselves would find as they inexplicably returned to the story throughout the 1960s.
Sangster’s screenplay for The Mummy dips liberally into Universal’s entire series, cherry-picking the bits that work and discarding the rest. Most notably, it rejects most of the original film, which only featured the bandaged title character in the opening scenes (I can’t tell you how frustrating this was when I first saw the film as a child). By the time this film was made, audiences had a good idea of what a Mummy movie should feature, and central to that was a marauding Mummy. Which is only fair.
Hammer’s film opens in 1895, with the discovery of the four-thousand-year-old tomb of Princess Ananka by a team of British archaeologists/plunderers (depending on your cultural viewpoint) that includes Stephen Banning (Felix Aylmer), his son John (Peter Cushing) and Uncle Joe (Raymond Huntley). Upon entering the tomb, Banning Sr sees something so shocking that he loses his sanity – no prizes for guessing what that might be. Three years later, back in England he’s institutionalised in an asylum but regains lucidity long enough to warn his son about the living mummy that will be seeking revenge. Naturally, John dismisses the claims, but when Banning Sr is killed by the monster – who breaks into his padded cell in one of the film’s several impressive set pieces – he’s made to think again. Uncle Joe is offed next, making John realise that the unbelievable is really happening. The mummy, it turns out, is Kharis, the former high priest who tried to bring the dead Ananka back to life and was walled up alive as punishment.
Resurrected when Banning read from The Scroll of Life, he is now under the control of crazed Egyptian Mehemet Bay (George Pastell), a worshipper of the God Karnak and determined to get revenge on those who violated the tomb of the Princess. Naturally, local policeman Eddie Byrne has a bit of trouble believing all this but finally starts to realise that it may be true as the bodies pile up. Meanwhile, John is now the only survivor of the expedition and is attacked by the Mummy in the film’s major set-piece action scene, a moment more worthwhile than the entire Universal series combined. Only the intervention of his wife Isobel (Yvonne Furneaux) halts the assault – in the grand tradition of Mummy movies, it turns out she is the spitting image of Ananka (though the film stops short of making her a direct reincarnation). Now, Kharis is torn between killing the tomb raiders and kidnapping the double of his lost love. Quite what he plans to do with her is anyone’s guess, but Kharis has already shown himself to be a bit impulsive by this point.
The Mummy aims for a more epic feel than The Curse of Frankenstein or Dracula, eschewing the gothic trappings for a feel that is perhaps closer to later fantastical costume dramas like She. This attempt to bring a touch of class to the film is only semi-successful – the lengthy flashback sequence at the centre of the story certainly tries to be grand, but the budget really doesn’t allow for it, and the funeral procession feels rather scant, truth be told, with props that look decidedly unsolid. It does, at least, allow Christopher Lee to appear without the Mummy make-up – you have to imagine that, after the success of Dracula and Hound of the Baskervilles, he was none-too-pleased to be buried under bandages and given no dialogue once again, and this extensive flashback probably helped soothe his damaged ego. Missing from British prints in this sequence is some daring footage of topless slave girls, shot for the decadent European market and now, of course, considered lost forever. A pity, as some gratuitous nudity was probably just what was needed to distract from the fact that this part of the film rather slows everything down. Luckily, the rest of the movie more than makes up for this lacklustre moment. Uniquely in the Mummy genre, this is a story that positively throttles along, with three or four impressive action set pieces and a story that defies its own thinness. Terence Fisher’s solid, if unimaginative direction keeps the action moving and overcomes the wordiness of Sangster’s screenplay.
While he might have considered the role to be a bit beneath him Lee’s portrayal of The Mummy is central to the success of the film. For audiences used to seeing Lon Chaney Jr slowly shuffling along in pursuit of people who could escape his curse simply by walking at a steady pace, this must have been a revelation. We first see Kharis as he emerges from a swamp, covered in mud and glistening in the moonlight, and right away it’s an imposing sight. It’s not just Lee’s height and stature, though of course, this is impressive. More significantly, this is a Mummy who moves at speed and has immense physical strength – seeing him tear out the bars of the asylum windows, smash through locked doors and more or less run across the room reveals this to be, uniquely, a mummy that seems a genuine threat. It must have had the same impact as the first time people saw zombies run.
But there’s more to Lee’s performance than sheer brute force – his performance here is remarkable, and he makes more of the silent character than you would expect. Simply through his eyes and his physical stance, Lee is able to display determination, malice and pathos – his Mummy is, in the end, a tragic figure more than the mindless killer we see in other films. It’s easy to imagine that this role could be filled by any stuntman (a belief Hammer clearly shared, given the casting in subsequent films in the series, Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb and The Mummy’s Shroud), but Lee’s performance here shows how wrong that is.
Cushing, conversely, has very little to do for much of the film. While he gives his usual committed performance, John Banning is a fairly bland character who spends much of the film spouting exposition. There is none of the fire and intensity of a Dr Frankenstein, Van Helsing or Sherlock Holmes in this character, sadly, though we get touches of it in the scenes where he battles Kharis one-on-one – these moments are not up to the dramatic climax of Dracula, but they’re not far short and show the chemistry and physicality that Cushing and Lee brought to the roles.
As the real villain, Pastell is a suitably evil foreign stereotype, though his character is at least allowed to be a little more rounded than you’d expect. When he argues with Banning about the ethics of tomb-robbing, you can’t help but think that – murderous Mummy rampage aside – he might actually have the moral high ground here. As Isobel, Yvonne Furneaux is very beautiful but is given little to do other than let her hair down (apparently, neither Banning nor Kharis can recognise the resemblance to Ananka when her hair is tied up, a conceit up there with Superman/Clark Kent in terms of believability) and then be carried off, swooning, by the Mummy. Even by the standards of early Hammer, it’s a weak, ephemeral female lead role that seems to exist simply because the whole ‘reincarnation of a lost love’ narrative was so integral to the Mummy movies by this point (and would continue to be for decades to come), and because Hammer had already worked out that there was additional press to be had by including cast members who could pose for cheesecake publicity photos.
Although generally considered the lesser of Hammer’s original trilogy of ‘classic’ horrors, The Mummy remains a fantastic film – pacey, dramatic and exciting, it is probably the only traditional Mummy movie (we’ll remove the masterful Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb from the equation, given that it is a Mummy film in name only) from either the Hammer or Universal series that can seriously be called a great work.
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