Monday, October 27, 2014

You Can't Keep a Good Mummy Down

As monsters go, I've never been a big Mummy fan. After all, the Mummy basically follows orders, kills people, and walks...very...slowly. For some reason, people tend to fall down a lot when he's stalking them. Otherwise, I'm not sure the Mummy would be very effective at accomplishing his deadly tasks.

Still, I am a fan of Hammer Films' The Mummy (1959), which features an imposing Christopher Lee as possibly cinema's most fleet-footed mummified monster. This version is not a remake of the interesting, but plodding, 1932 Boris Karloff original. It does borrow some elements, but Jimmy Sangster's script also gleefully dips into other Universal Mummy movies. In the end, it's sort of a "Best of the Mummy" and that works surprisingly well.

The plot begins in 1895 with three British archaeologists discovering the tomb of Princess Ananka. When left alone in the tomb, elderly Stephen Banning (Felix Aylmer) reads the scroll of life and inadvertently revives a mummy called Kharis. Banning suffers a stroke and winds up back in England in the Engerfield Nursing Home for the Mentally Disordered. He never says a word to anyone for three years. 

An atmospheric shot of the Mummy
emerging from a bog.
Hence, his son John (Peter Cushing) is surprised when he learns his father wants to see him. Dad tells John that there's a mummy roaming the English countryside. John doesn't believe him until the elderly Banning is found strangled in his room at the nursing home--the bars to his window bent like putty.

As mentioned earlier, many familiar plot elements are interwoven into Hammer's The Mummy. There's the sinister Egyptian scholar who wants to punish the men who desecrated Princess Ananka's tomb. There's the expected reincarnation subplot, this time involving Banning's wife (French actress Yvonne Furneau).  And there's a lengthy flashback that explains how Kharis, a high priest to Ananka, became a vengeful mummy.

Apparently, Mummies don't knock.
However, director Terence Fisher freshens up The Mummy with two marvelous set-pieces and some atmospheric visuals of the formidable monster traipsing through the English countryside. The film's best scene has Kharis bursting through the double doors of Banning's stately manor and killing a relative as Banning fires bullets into the impervious creature. A similar later scene is just as effective when Kharis plunges through a floor-length glass window and shrugs off two blasts from a shotgun. 

The reliable Peter Cushing.
As he did in Hammer's Dracula films, Cushing brings intelligence and physicality to his role as a monster adversary. But more than that, he brings conviction to the point that his character can discuss a living mummy committing murders and not sound silly. As the Mummy, 6' 5" Christopher Lee makes a pretty scary monster, assisted by effective make-up and those penetrating eyes. He gets some face time, too, as Kharis in the flashback sequence.

It's a shame that the budget prevented on-location filming for the Egypt footage. It's woefully apparent that these scenes were shot indoors. On the other hand, set designer Bernard Robinson creates some highly effective sets for the scenes taking place in England.

Valerie Leon--she's no mummy!
The Mummy doesn't belong in Hammer's top tier of films (which includes the likes of Brides of Dracula, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, and The Devil Rides Out). That said, it's a very satisfying take on the Mummy pantheon and recommended for horror fans. Hammer made three sequels (of sorts). Skip The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb (1964) and The Mummy's Shroud (1967) and go straight to Blood from the Mummy's Tomb (1971). In lieu of a mummy, you get the stunning Valerie Leon in an intriguing adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel The Jewel of the Seven Stars.

1 comment:

  1. Hammer does a great job with atmospheric sets and costumes. It is always fun to see Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Lee seems extra tall as the Mummy and is able to convey a great deal through his eyes. Hammer movies are always good selections for Halloween week!