The Mummy – UK, 1959

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‘Its evil look brings madness! Its evil spell enslaves! Its evil touch kills kills kills!’

The Mummy is a 1959 British horror film, directed by Terence Fisher and starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. It was released on 25 September 1959. It was written by Jimmy Sangster and produced by Michael Carreras and Anthony Nelson Keys for Hammer Film Productions.

Though the title suggests Universal Pictures’ 1932 film of the same name, the film actually derives its plot and characters entirely from two later Universal films, The Mummy’s Hand and The Mummy’s Tomb, with the climax borrowed directly from The Mummy’s Ghost. The character name “Joseph Whemple” is the only connection with the 1932 version.

Plot:

In Egypt in 1895, archaeologists John Banning (Cushing), his father Stephen (Felix Aylmer) and his uncle Joseph Whemple (Raymond Huntley) are searching for the tomb of Princess Ananka, the high priestess of the god Karnak. John has a broken leg and cannot accompany his father and uncle when they open the tomb.

Before they enter, an Egyptian man named Mehemet Bey (George Pastell) warns them not to go in, lest they face the fatal curse against desecraters. Stephen and Joseph ignore him, and discover within the sarcophagus of Ananka. After Joseph leaves to tell John the good news, Stephen finds the Scroll of Life and reads from it. He then screams off-screen and is found in a catatonic state.

Three years later, back in England, Stephen Banning comes out of his catatonia at the Engerfield Nursing Home for the Mentally Disordered, and sends for his son. He tells him that when he read from the Scroll of Life, he unintentionally brought back to life Kharis (Lee), the mummified high priest of Karnak. He was sentenced to be entombed alive to serve as the guardian of Princess Ananka’s tomb as punishment for attempting to bring her back to life out of forbidden love. Now, Stephen tells his disbelieving son that Kharis will hunt down and kill all those who desecrated Ananka’s tomb…

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Review:

The Mummy is a remake -– the result of Universal making a fortune with Hammer’s Dracula and throwing their archives open for the company to plunder in search of new material. However, Sangster’s screenplay dips liberally into Universal’s entire, mostly lamentable Mummy 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. 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.

The Mummy aims for a more epic feel than Hammer’s Frankenstein or Dracula, eschewing the gothic trappings for an atmosphere that is perhaps closer to later fantastical costume dramas such as 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. Luckily, the rest of the film more than makes up for it. Uniquely in the Mummy genre, this is a film that 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.

Central to the success of the film is Lee’s portrayal of The Mummy. For audiences used to seeing Lon Chaney Jr shuffling along in pursuit of people who could escape him 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 – no hunched over figure here. 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. While being buried under monster make-up again must have felt like a step back after Dracula and The Hound of the Baskervilles (and perhaps the flashback scene was also a sop to Lee allowing him dialogue and a regular appearance), his performance here is remarkable. 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 believe 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 suitably evil, though his character is at least allowed to be 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. 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 it’s tied up!) and then be carried off, swooning, by the Mummy.

Although generally considered the lesser of Hammer’s original trilogy, The Mummy remains a fantastic film – pacey, dramatic and exciting, it is uniquely the only Mummy movie from either the Hammer or Universal series that can be called great (I’m not counting Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb here, of course!).

Blu-ray Disc review:

This new UK edition is a long-overdue high quality release for the film. As well as a fantastic new transfer that looks astonishing – even if it does sometimes expose the cheapness of the sets – the disc comes with extensive extra content. There’s a half hour ‘making of’ that is very much in line with similar, entertaining entries on other hammer discs, plus documentaries about Bray Studios and Hammer’s ‘rep company’ – the supporting players who turn up in several Hammer films. There’s also a World of Hammer episode about Cushing, a lively commentary from Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby, and more. But the most impressive extra is the 1952 Hammer film Stolen Face.

This pre-horror melodrama tells the story of plastic surgeon Phillip Ritter (Paul Henreid), who falls in love with concert pianist Alice Brent (Lizabeth Scott) during a holiday. But she is secretly involved with another man (Hammer regular Andre Morrell) and runs away to Europe. Heartbroken, Ritter does what anyone would do – he remodels the scarred face of habitual criminal Lily Conover (Mary McKenzie) to be the double of Alice, as part of a dubious attempt to rehabilitate convicts who he believes are driven to a life of crime by their damaged appearance! But Ritter soon sees the folly of such dodgy ideas after marrying Lily, only to find that once a thief, always a thief. Meanwhile, Alice has ditched her fiancé and is now back on the scene.

A slight but entertaining thriller, Stolen Face mixes elements of Film Noir with straightforward melodrama and also looks forward to Fisher’s later work with another obsessed surgeon, Dr Frankenstein. Curiously, it also mirrors the plot – often in rather precise details – of the later ‘greatest film ever made’ Vertigo. I wouldn’t possibly suggest that the Hitchcock film is a copy of this obscure hammer quickie, but it’s certainly interesting.

Stolen Face is a film worth picking up by itself, so it’s inclusion on this disc is most welcome. If, for some bizarre reason, you were still unsure about this new edition of The Mummy, then this substantial extra should be the tipping point.

David Flint, MOVIES & MANIA

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