Halloween Hammer: The Mummy’s Shroud

Continuing our Hammer Horror month with a look at one of the company’s lesser efforts, another entry in the Mummy series.

I discussed this a little while reviewing The Mummy, but let’s delve down a little deeper into one of life’s perpetual mysteries – just how the Mummy became a classic monster. The Mummy is a curiosity in horror cinema because it/he is a character that doesn’t come from literature – yes, there were stories about Egyptian curses and ancient mummies before the character reached the screen, but hardly on the same level of public consciousness as Dracula or Frankenstein – or from mythology. In a way, the Mummy was the most modern of the horror monsters; Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered in 1922 and it was this – and the claims of a curse over those who unearthed it – that really kicked off the whole fascination with the subject. In that sense, it was the right story at the right time – when the Universal monster cycle was starting, Mummies and tomb raiding were still pretty fresh news. Just as significantly, The Mummy appeared right at the start of the Universal cycle, in 1932, and benefitted from the horror craze of the time. We should also take into account the fact that the Mummy as we would all recognise the character – the shuffling, bandaged figure taking slow revenge on those who opened up a tomb – is barely present in that 1932 film, Boris Karloff instead playing a very human reincarnation of the character posing as modern Egyptian Ardeth Bay while he searches for his reincarnated lost love. It’s a pretty slow film compared to most Universal horror films, but it at least has a sense of style about it. Interestingly though, while it is structured very differently than more or less all subsequent Mummy films into the 1990s it nevertheless sets up a template that would run throughout almost all the subsequent movies – the Mummy is invariably looking for the reincarnation of some Egyptian Princess that he was in love with, and said reincarnation will always be the girlfriend of the main explorer who has unearthed his tomb. What are the chances, eh?

Outside of the 1932 film, however, the one unifying factor of all the Universal Mummy films is their utter dreadfulness. The numbingly awful films that they churned out with Lon Chaney Jr in the 1940s should’ve put the character to bed forever – despite being ground out as B-movies that are barely an hour long, the films feel interminable as they essentially tell the same story but forget to include any sense of horror, mystery or action. There’s a problem with the Mummy as a character and that is his inherent feebleness – he shuffles along with such slowness that you could escape him just by walking away (you could even safely stop to tie your shoelaces on the way) and he looks so decrepit that you suspect a quick punch would knock his head off. While the character lasted for four sequels and an Abbott and Costello film, the Mummy always felt like a second-division horror character.

The Mummy’s Curse, 1944

Hammer managed to breathe new life into the character in 1959, during a period when they could do no wrong. In 1971, the company also showed that you could do something interesting with the whole Egyptian curse story by simply removing the shuffling, bandaged vengeance crazed Mummy entirely, as they did in Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb, an adaptation of a Bram Stoker novel that might have been better served by using the book’s original title, The Jewel of the Seven Stars. But in the middle, Hammer knocked out a couple of other Mummy movies that were distinctly average.

The Mummy’s Shroud, made in 1966, is at least better than 1964’s Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb and is certainly one of the better Mummy films – though that isn’t really saying much, given the competition. I’m not sure that we can call these films a series as such – there is no sense of continuity from film to film. While Hammer’s Frankenstein films also essentially stood as stand-alone stories for the most part, they at least had a continuing character played by the same actor, Peter Cushing; the Mummy films are not only stand-alone stories with no connection to the other movies, they all essentially have the same generic plot of tomb raiders being punished for their transgressions. It perhaps tells us a lot about the limited possibilities that the character had that there was nothing to do with him other than repeating the same story again and again.

In this case, the tomb raiders are led by Andre Morrell as Sir Basil Walden, hired by rich businessman Stanley Preston (John Phillips) to find the tomb of Kah-To-Bey (who we see being ousted from power in a palace coup during a prequel). This he does, but before long, the mummy of Prem, Kah-To-Bey’s servant, is on the rampage, taking revenge against all who entered the tomb.

The mummy in this film is a bit livelier than most, and his killings are suitably brutal and well handled by director John Gilling, who does his very best to bring a degree of freshness to the story. These moments of horror are well handled and dramatic, with the character having a real hulking menace about him. But perhaps sensing the limitations of the story, Gilling and co-writer Anthony Hinds keep him in the background and instead concentrate on expanding the wider story. The film is more interesting as a character study than a horror film, with Phillips providing the film’s real monster – an arrogant, obnoxious coward who tries to take the credit for the discovery and then desperately tries to escape the curse. Elizabeth Sellars, as his wife Barbara, makes an excellent foil for him, showing her contempt without saying anything – her fixed smile and withering looks are enough. Michael Ripper is also excellent as the sycophantic Longbarrow, treated more like a slave than an employee by Preston. It’s notable that Gilling consistently gave Ripper his most substantial roles in Hammer films (see also The Reptile). The Mummy himself is played by stuntman Eddie Powell rather than an actor – and his face is essentially a mask of bandages, removing any opportunity for the sort of expression shown by Christopher Lee in the 1959 film and reducing the character to a brutish automaton. Under these circumstances, Powell does the best he can with the role and is certainly a menacing figure that you well believe could swing an axe or crush a man’s windpipe without even trying.

On the downside, Maggie Kimberly may be one of the most wooden actresses ever to appear in a Hammer film (and to add insult to injury, doesn’t appear in any scene even vaguely resembling the cheesecake publicity shots that accompanied the release – and this review). She’s really, really bad. Hammer had a hit and miss record when it came to female leads at the time – all too often they are overly bland characters who have nothing to do except scream, faint and give the hero a reason for saving the day – and certainly, she is given no opportunity to flesh out her character. But compared to her contemporaries in the other Gilling films of the time, she’s not simply dull – she has all the emotional involvement of a log. her acting career was not, it should be said, a long one.

Quite why Hammer kept making Mummy films is one of life’s great mysteries. There is no evidence that the films were especially successful at the box office and the limitations of the character are self-evident. When we consider that the company only made one werewolf movie – 1960’s Curse of the Werewolf – despite the much more varied possibilities that such a monster had, it seems odd that they would not only continue to labour over the character but would also saddle one of their best 1970s films with the Mummy name. There is the likelihood that the legendary status of the Mummy as one of the big four Universal Monsters – a character to be found as action figures, model kits and so on – brought the films a higher profile and more American financing than might have come for a more original monster; Hammer was, in any case, very much about the franchises by this point and perhaps it was felt that familiarity outweighed entertainment value for both audiences and distributors (certainly, the 1999 reboot of The Mummy and its subsequent sequels suggest that there is a residual awareness of the character and the opportunity to reinvent him for modern audiences). But just as with Universal’s movies during its original horror cycle, the Hammer Mummy series feels like the company’s most disposable and forgettable series.

DAVID FLINT

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