The Mummy (1959 Britain)

hammer_classics_1This was the third time a visceral contest between Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee had been crafted for an ever increasing box office audience. And yes, there is much dignified violence and spectacle, but there is a melancholy undertow as well. Hammer’s Mummy is less a remake of Karloff’s 1932 version, more a re-imagining. And, like its Dracula and Frankenstein bedfellows, it’s a cracker. Do not let the PG rating put you off. Or the obvious studio backlot that has to convince you its a swamp. This was part of the low budget charm of Hammer. There is enough colour and elegance to The Mummy to off-set the weaknesses.

The story concerns an expedition, which, in 1895, breaks into the tomb of Queen Ananka despite the customary not-very veiled threats from the fanatical fez-wearing dude named Mehmet Bay, who’s always hanging around in the background in such films. Late in the film he and Peter Cushing share an outwardly urbane, but really daggers-drawn, stand-off which is beautifully played. Why the tomb has been hidden and inaccessible for so long is a bit of a mystery in itself – it looks like two kitchen unit doors held together with a piece of string.

Expedition leader Stephen Banning (Felix Aylmer) finds a scroll, and there’s a scream. He’s found, a gibbering wreck, and despite having spent years looking for the place, his son John (Cushing) decides to blow the place up. Mr Fez is perturbed by this (despite it technically being what he wanted them to do – ie bugger off and leave the tomb alone), swearing revenge: “Though it takes me years I shall re-enter the tomb and find the instrument of your revenge,” he froths, to no-one in particular. “This I swear.” This character is a bit of an anti-Arab stereotype that was typical in movies those days.

the-mummyWe fast forward to 1897, and at the nut-house which has been his home since returning from Egypt, Stephen suddenly becomes lucid again. “I wanted to tell you about the mummy…” he explains, not doing his chances of an early release many favours. “It hates us John! It will kill us! All of us!” The asylum staff obviously believe he has gone full retard though. As for the mummy itself, meanwhile, he has been brought to England and ends up being dumped in a swamp (from which it rises quite magnificently), and is soon being sent off to do Fez-man’s dirty work. And no policeman, male nurse or Irish removal men are going to stop him. As for the film overall, The Mummy is high quality for many, many reasons.

It looks stunning, particularly when we are treated to a scene in Egyptian times complete with a scholarly explanation of mummification. And I could go on about how great Cushing is. He is very gentle and world-weary here, awaiting the mummy’s arrival with such sang froid it could be mistaken for a death wish. Especially when he arms himself with a rifle that he knows will be useless. But the real star of the show is Christopher Lee as the mummy itself. Although he hardly speaks, he manages to convey the horror of having your tongue ripped out, the terror of being buried alive and the anger of having your woman’s tomb desecrated just by using his eyes. And whenever the mummy strikes, he’s absolutely terrifying.

Compare Lee’s monster bursting through the patio doors (an effect so good they keep repeating it) with some CGI monstrosity having chunks blown off it by Brendan Fraser, and I think I can guarantee which one you’ll prefer. The film even has a few harsh words to say about archeology being nothing short of grave robbing. One silly error they made was Peter Cushing not spotting that his wife is the spitting image of the Egyptian Queen whose tomb he’s been searching for for 20 years. There are other very awkward moments too. No sooner have we got through one flashback before we are into another one. Earlier, the mummy can withstand bullets, in the swamp he expires because of them. These things aside, its still pleasing entertainment. One of director Terence Fisher’s best.

mummy-59

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