24 November 2008

Movie Review: The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb

Time for more of the films contained on the recent Icons of Horror Collection: Hammer Films two-disc DVD set.

The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964)
Directed by Michael Carerras. Starring Terence Morgan, Ronald Howard, Fred Clark, Jeanne Roland, Jack Gwillim, George Pastell, Dickie Owen

This is Hammer’s second Mummy film, after 1959’s fine The Mummy, which starred the classic Lee-Cushing line-up and had director Terence Fisher at the helm. The sequel has a lower profile, with Michael Carreras directing, producing, and (under the pseudonym Henry Younger) writing, and a cast of non-Hammer regulars, with the exception of ubiquitous character actor Michael Ripper. Michael Carreras was the son of Hammer founder James Carreras and was one of the studio’s important executives and producers during its Gothic Golden Age. His directing career has less luster than his producing one, however. He would also direct (without credit, taking over when the original director died) a later Hammer mummy film, Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, based on Bram Stoker’s novel Jewel of the Seven Stars.

The 1959 Mummy mixed two Egyptian-themed horror traditions at Universal Studios from the ‘30s and ‘40s. The 1932 Karl Freund version—one of my personal favorites in the Universal Horror canon—has very little of the bandaged mummy and instead features the wizened undead sorcerer Imhotep, a concept the studio would go back to in the adventure-themed 1999 re-make. The rest of the Universal mummy movies switched to Kharis, the silent wind-up killer in tomb wrappings, usually played by Lon Chaney Jr. The first of these, The Mummy’s Hand (with B-Western actor Tom Tyler under the bandages) is actually pretty darn spiffy, but the rest of the series is low-rent, even for Universal programmers, dreary and repetitive. Lon Chaney Jr. liked to snipe to journalists while on the set that people who paid money to see Mummy movies were idiots.

Hammer’s 1959 version uses both Imhotep and Kharis to inspire its version and ended up with another winner in their Universal-goes-British sweepstakes. It took five years for a sequel to arrive, but The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb has no connection to the earlier film, and features a new mummy altogether, Ra-Antef.

Or I should say, it will eventually feature the mummy of Ra-Antef, because most viewers will spend the running time wondering just when in Horus’s name the stupid thing is going to show up.

The film gets off to an unfortunate start right after the title card announces “Egypt, 1900” as audiences get dropped into an interior desert scene that draws unfavorable comparisons with similar interior/exteriors from the original Star Trek. The rest of the film will look significantly better than this, thank Ra. Some poor soul tied between two stakes gets his hand chopped off, showing that Hammer knew violence was what viewers expected from them. The chopping-off of hands turns into the film’s motif . . . and there isn’t much more violence aside from this. Settle in, you have a long ride until the lukewarm bandaged brutality starts.

The man who lost his hand and his life in the Egyptian wastes was Professor Dubois, a member of an expedition excavating the tomb of Ra-Antef. The locals don’t want the dead pharaoh disturbed because of the usual curse business. Dubois’s adorable daughter Annette (Jeanne Roland), her beau John Bray (Ronald Howard), and elder professor Sir Giles Dalrymple (Jack Gwillim) want to ship the sarcophagus of Ra-Antef to a Cairo museum, but blustery American backer Alexander King instead plans to put Ra-Antef on a road trip to bring in the bucks. Hashmi Bey (George Pastell), the liason from the Egyptian government, thinks this is a bad idea, and Sir Giles agrees with him and resigns from the expedition to turn into a drunk. John and Annette decide to go along with King’s idea.

On the ship back to England, dashing wealthy debutante Adam Beecham makes his introduction to John and Annette—which he does by pummeling some knife-wielding sod off the side of the lido deck when he tries to stab the perpetually soused Sir Giles. In England, Adam starts to make his move on Annette and shows a bizarre interest in the mummy of Ra-Antef.

Annette fills in the historical backstory using a flashback to ancient Egypt. There’s a movie law that all mummy films have to have an historical flashback. Ra-Antef, son of Ramesses VIII, was exiled due to the machinations of his brother Re, but in the south he discovered the secret of resurrecting the dead with a medallion containing the Words of Life. More backstory pops up when Alexander King does his King Kong-inspired showman spiel for the unveiling of the mummy to a dramatically undersold crowd. This endless scene includes a replay of the footage shown under the credits. It’s well-shot tomb footage, but thanks, we’ve seen it already. Do you have a flippin’ killer mummy in this film or not?

Oh, there it is . . . with only twenty-five minutes left in the film, a mystery man steals Ra-Antef’s mummy and resurrects it using the Words of Life. Ra-Antef (Dickie Owen) starts killing the people responsible for desecrating his tomb in very uninteresting fashion. He’s not a mummy with much get-up-and-go, and the wrappings suit is baggy and lumpy, making Ra-Antef appear to have a beer belly. Next to Christopher Lee’s crazed and wildly crooked-moving Kharis, Ra-Antef is about as frightening as getting chased by Irene Ryan.

There is a twist beneath Ra-Antef’s resurrection, and if the movie had shifted some of the “curse of eternal life” business to a bit earlier in the story, we might have had something worth watching. But it takes so long to get going that the potential surprises don’t carry weight.

The shining light in this dreary tomb of a mummy flick is perpetual TV character actor Fred Clark, who plays American huckster Alexander King. He’s a welcome presence among the cast, bringing the brash stereotypical Yank among the more reserved Brits. You didn’t see this sort of performance often in Hammer films, and it’s a great contrast and a lot of fun to watch. Clark gets all the best lines, and does outrageous things like slipping a dollar into the dress of an Egyptian exotic dancer and telling her she should try the act to ragtime. The film desperately needs the energy he provides.

The rest of the cast remains anonymous. Jeanette Roland is a Gallic cutie, but her character seems based entirely on her three-foot thick accent. Ronald Howard is a dull “hero,” and it’s no wonder Annette starts to fall for the more charismatic Terence Howard, even if he’s pretty clearly the villain behind the whole lackluster goings-on.

The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb is never scary or even tense, so on that level it fails as a horror movie. Until Ra-Antef starts offing people in the last third, the film’s suspense consists of a few stabbings and mundane drama about putting on a gaudy Egyptology exhibition. The only sequence that delivers any sort of power is when Hashmi Bey abases himself before Ra-Antef because he violated his nation’s legacy through tampering with the tomb. George Pastell puts passion into his performance here that the movie misses elsewhere—unless Fred Clark is hamming it up with cigar in mouth. Pastell played a similar, and more interesting, version of this character in the 1959 Mummy.

I’m glad that The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb is only one of four movies you get in the DVD package. It’s not something I would imagine I would ever want to buy on its own. I got to own The Gorgon on this set, so I’m not going to kick up much fuss about this pedestrian entry in the Hammer canon. Mummy and Hammer completists only need apply.