01 December 2008

Movie Review: The Mummy (1959)

The Mummy (1959)
Directed by Terence Fisher. Starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Yvonne Furneaux, Eddie Byrne, Felix Aylmer, Raymond Huntley, George Pastell.

“He who robs the graves of Egypt… dies!”

The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb wasn’t much, so I still needed a genuine Mummy-fix. And what better way to get one than to jump backwards and go to Hammer’s first “Mummy” movie?

After the huge success of The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula, The Mummy was the obvious next classic monster in the Universal stable for Hammer Film Productions to adapt. Director Fisher, writer Jimmy Sangster, and stars Cushing and Lee got right back into the groove to produce another Technicolor hit. (Fisher also directed the Cushing-Lee team in a non-horror movie, The Hound of the Baskervilles, the same year. Hammer tried to “horror-up” the marketing campaign for the film, but it’s still a Sherlock Holmes mystery when you come down to it. A good one, too.)

Hammer’s Mummy doesn’t have a direct connection to the 1932 film starring Boris Karloff and directed by Karl Freund; it instead takes inspiration from the 1940s sequels featuring the lumbering bandaged killer Kharis. Hammer now had an official agreement with Universal to re-make their films, which is how the studio was able to use the name “Kharis” for their mummy. Warner Bros., however, distributed the film in the U.S., as it had for the previous two Hammer horrors. Sangster’s script does borrow some concepts from the Karl Freund Mummy, however, to mix with the Kharis elements, such as the character of Sir Joseph Whemple.

Egypt, 1895. As in the Universal films, the limited budget means Egypt looks a lot like an interior set. The Banning expedition, consisting of Stephen Banning (Felix Aylmer), his son John (Peter Cushing), and Sir Joseph Whemple (Raymond Huntley), is about to open the tomb of the princess Ananka. An Egyptian named Mehemet Bey (George Pastell, in a part similar to the one he plays in The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb) warns them they will face death if they desecrate the tomb. Same old, same old—from the European view, Ancient Egypt is just lousy with curses. Stephen Banning goes insane when something emerges from the tomb, an idea that comes directly from the Karloff Mummy’s famous opening scene. Mehemet Bey swears to the god Karnak that he will work the deity’s revenge on the tomb defilers.

We now move to England, three years later. Stephen Banning emerges from his insanity and tells his son that another mummy came to life when he read out loud from the Scroll of Life, and now it’s out to kill them all. Mehemet Bey, who apparently took a break for three years from his vow, has brought the mummified body of Kharis, a High Priest of Karnak, to England. After the delivery cart accidentally dumps the crate with Kharis’s body into a bog, Mehemet Bey reads the scroll of life over the bog waters leading to a cool emergence scene for our title monster. Mehemet Bey now sends Kharis out on his campaign of revenge.

John Banning narrates a flashback to the legend of Ananka, which explains Kharis’s role in all this. Kharis secretly loved Ananka, and tried to resurrect her using the Scroll of Life, but was caught before he could finish the ceremony. The priests of Egypt condemned him to a living death forever guarding Ananka’s tomb. They also cut off his tongue, the film’s most grisly moment, even if we don’t see the actual slicing.

Deep into the story arrives the revelation that John Banning’s wife Isobel is the re-incarnation of Ananka (or perhaps she merely looks like her, it’s not made clear). Anybody familiar with the Universal films will see this twist coming. It propels us into the final third of the film, despite its lateness, and Lee is fantastic at portraying the tragedy through only his eyes and body stance.

If The Mummy doesn’t have the same impact as The Curse of Frankenstein or Dracula, that’s partially because it doesn’t have a rich, long horror tradition to draw on. Egyptian mythology goes back farther than literary vampires or Mary Shelley’s novel of misguided medical science, but making ancient Egyptian legends a source of European horror stories only goes back to the original Universal Mummy and the rumors of the “curse” surrounding the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb. The “horrorification” of ancient Egyptian culture, with musty tombs and ghastly curses and a religion draped in darkness, is nothing like the way the actual ancient Egyptians viewed their religion.

The Mummy also loses something from a less urgent script and characters who don’t have the same delirious investment in the plot as in The Curse of Frankenstein or Dracula. Cushing’s character is disappointing compared to iconic figures like Dr. Frankenstein and Abraham Van Helsing. The actor delivers his usual authoritative performance, and is most impressive in the scene where he purposely aggravates Mehemet Bey by calling his religion a bunch of bunk, but the character doesn’t have the same great material as Cushing’s classic figures. The film tends to drag in places because of a few poorly-placed exposition scenes.

Lee’s performance as Kharis is A-List material, however. His bizarre physicality, which turns the traditional slow-moving bandaged mummy into a crazed, herky-jerky killing machine, is a thrill to behold. His first attack on John Banning, where his intended victim unloads a few shotgun barrels into him and then a spear-point, is a great example of the energy that Hammer brought to the old monsters. Pastell is also excellent and sincere as the human half of the villainy.

The long Ancient Egyptian flashback sequence is both a high point and a problem. It gives Christopher Lee an opportunity to act outside of heavy make-up and deliver lines, and his towering high priest carries godlike authority as he reads out the rituals for the preparation of the dead. There’s a touch of the documentary to the sequence, showing England’s nuttiness at the time for anything Egyptian. It looks magnificent and epic for the crimped budget. The music helps elevate it; Franz Reisenstein’s romantic Egyptian theme provides a grand sweep to the visuals. But the sequence goes on too long, hurting the movie’s momentum right after the first mummy-murder occurs. A second flashback, showing how Stephen Banning went insane when Kharis first emerged from his tomb, miscalculates by replaying too much footage.

Fisher directs with his usual robust bravado, and provides another corker of a finale. There isn’t as much shock and surprise here as in his two earlier horror movies. The biggest jump comes when Kharis bashes his way into Banning’s house, knocking open double doors like balsa wood. Lee injured his shoulder doing this, and no surprise. (I can hear the MST3K comments for this: “Uhm, it’s open!” “Well just come on in, Chris.” “Kramer!” “Is this 1215 Maple Street? Cripes, got the wrong place. Sorry.” “Boy, these Mormon missionaries are getting aggressive.” “Excuse me, but we knock in this house.” “Watchtower!”) The working-class English comic relief that Fisher handles so well in his other movies feels forced here, but it’s always nice to see Hammer regular comic figure Michael Ripper.

James Bond spotting bonus: Willoughby Grey, who plays the sanitarium head Dr. Reilly, was evil geneticist Dr. Carl Mortner in A View to a Kill.

Cool horror movie fact: Raymond Huntley was the first actor to play Dracula in the famous stage production when it premiered in London, and still has the record for the most performances as the famous bloodsucker.