Written by: Jimmy Sangster
Directed by: Terence Fisher
Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and George Pastell
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"He who robs the graves of Egypt dies!"
After successfully resurrecting both Frankenstein and Dracula at the tail end of the 50s, Hammer Films naturally sought to put their Universal Monsters revival in full swing. Doing so would entail tackling the first monster that was truly Universal’s own creation: where previous efforts were obviously based on preexisting lore. The Mummy, however, was the brainchild of producer Carl Laemmle Jr.’s desire to exploit the hysteria surrounding King Tutankhamen’s tomb, and the result was a horror/fantasy/romance mash-up that eventually spawned a largely unconnected set of sequels. As such, Hammer had a ton of disparate sources from which to pull when hatching its own take on The Mummy before settling on a grab-bag approach. With much of the talent involved from their previous monster hits in tow, Hammer wound up producing something of a definitive omnibus mashing up the original and the sequels, that set of films that often had terrific ideas but very little money put into them.
Hammer immediately rectified that by mounting one of its typically lavish productions, one that finds the film stretching across time and place, unfolding in the shadow of elaborate, ornately decorated sets. It opens at the site of a British excavation in 1895, where Stephen Banning (Felix Aylmer) has discovered his life’s pursuit: the long lost tomb of Ananka, an Egyptian princess who died under mysterious circumstances. Despite the ominous warnings of local Mehemet Bey (George Pastell), Banning pushes on, uncovering not only the princess herself but also a Scroll of Life. Upon reading it aloud, he experiences some unseen horror that leaves him mad. When the action jumps ahead three years later, he’s confined to a British sanitarium while his son John (Peter Cushing) continues the family work. Bey, too, is still reeling from the desecration of his country’s culture and has arrived to England with the mummified corpse of Kharis (Christopher Lee), Ananka’s sworn protector, whom he plans to resurrect as a blunt instrument of revenge against the Bannings.
A rather efficient mixtape of the original film’s narrative structure and plot points from various sequels (most notably The Mummy’s Hand and The Mummy’s Tomb), this pass is arguably the strongest film to bear this title. I know that sounds almost blasphemous considering the original’s stature, but this one takes everything I love about the entire franchise (especially the horror elements) and blends them into the platonic ideal of a Mummy film. As silly as it sounds, I am an unapologetic fan of any movie where a bandaged mummy lumbers around and strangles victims on behalf of a righteously pissed off Egyptian high priest. This is why, if given the choice, I’ll more often opt for one of the early Mummy sequels in favor of the original, even if I’ll freely admit that the latter is more iconic, if not a better movie.
And, of course, the great thing about this Mummy is that I get most of those sequels condensed into an 88-minute Technicolor blast. Like most Hammer productions, this film doesn’t lack for incident, as it’s off to the races from its opening sequence. An air of mystery hangs over it, resulting in a breathless, propulsive verve, as we only glimpse the Banning’s initial encounter inside of Ananka’s tomb until the truth is revealed later on, via flashback. Audiences familiar with the Mummy cycle will be familiar with the various revelations, but the pacing has an appreciable amount of build-up without being bogged down. Even a routine sequence involving a couple drunks’ botched attempt to deliver Kharis to his owner crackles with a manic energy thanks to a couple of delightfully screwball performances from Harold Goodwin and Denis Shaw. Director Terence Fisher and screenwriter Jimmy Sangster know what you’re here for, but there’s a bit of showmanship to it: rather than give up the ghost early and often, they playfully build up to Kharis’s big reveal and subsequent rampage.
In the meantime, audiences are swept away by an intoxicatingly extravagant production. For this third outing with iconic monsters, Terence Fisher and his crew indulge every fancy and whim to create the ultimate Mummy production. While it borrows very few obvious details from the original film, it certainly evokes its sense of majesty and spectacle. The Mummy feels like a big deal, whether it’s recreating ancient Egyptian burial rites or prowling through Britain’s rural moors and swamps. Hammer’s signature pulpy impulses rumble beneath it all, giving The Mummy a sometimes delightfully macabre purpose. Something about those Universal sequels always felt a step removed from a comic book springing from the page to screen, and Fisher manages to recapture that, too, particularly whenever Kharis is carving a path of destruction right to the Bannings’s doorstep.
The Mummy is so deliriously entertaining that even its weakest points boast something worthwhile. In addition to sharing the original’s sense of spectacle, it also borrows its unconventional plotting and structure, as it employs both time-jumps and flashbacks to craft an epic, somewhat sprawling narrative. Just as they were in the 1932 effort, the flashbacks are a point of contention since they tend to bring the propulsive story to a halt as Banning recounts the myth of Ananka and Kharis. But in this case, they’re at least properly indulged—sure, the pacing becomes a little wonky, but I can’t in good faith be too critical of a sequence that has Christopher Lee presiding over burial rites that require the sacrificial decapitation of several girls. Obviously, Fisher can only deploy so much grisliness: we hear the severed heads hit the ground without seeing them, and a more gruesome shot of Kharis’s tongue being cut out never made it past censors. Still, Hammer’s mantra to mine these old tales for all their pulpy sensibilities shines through to give this old backstory—which was retold several times in five Universal movies—a newfound vitality.
Of course, it also helps that this version has Peter Cushing narrating the tale. Assuming another heroic role following Dracula, Cushing is a terrific anchor here, one that gives The Mummy a necessary human dimension. Even though the breathless plot has the audience’s eyes trained towards the horrific stuff, it takes time to establish a loving relationship between a father and son that provides some stakes. Most notably, Cushing’s Banning isn’t simply a reprisal of his Van Helsing role: there’s a vulnerability (and even a naivety) to him here that’s crucial. He might be armed with the knowledge to confront Kharis, but he’s not exactly a superhero this time out (a scene where stabs right through the mummy's gut is pretty gnarly, though). Lee is again positioned as his antagonist, though this easily the least meaty of the stalwart actor’s early Hammer roles. Outside of the flashbacks that take him out of the makeup, he skulks around well enough until the climax, where one sees a glint of sympathy in the monster’s eyes once he glimpses Banning’s wife, who reminds him of his lost Ananka. (Yes, Yvonne Furneaux mostly appears in this film for the explicit purpose of being the girl that’s inevitably carried off by Kharis—to a point, this thing is almost too slavish to the formula.)
Then again, this should be no surprise: Kharis has always been more akin to Frankenstein's monster, in that he never really asks for his existence, much less to be revived in the service of religious fanatics. Like those high priests before him, Mehemet Bey is the true villain here, and Pastell brings an appropriate menace to the role. A confrontation between him and Cushing is one of the film’s best moments, as the latter rather coyly engages with a predatory enemy that doesn’t realize he’s slowly becoming the prey. It’s a terrific game of cat-and-mouse that creates tension with nary a mummy in sight, which is a testament to the strong character work found in Hammer classics. These bombastic, commanding personalities are just as essential as the monstrous effects and baroque set designs of these productions.
Hammer eventually settled on the same course as its predecessor when it came to The Mummy. While Lee and Cushing appeared in multiple Dracula and Frankenstein sequels, they’d never grace another Mummy film, as Hammer opted for a bunch of unrelated follow-ups. Maybe that was apt, though: after all, this film burns through nearly the entirety of Universal’s Mummy cycle, eventually even echoing The Mummy’s Ghost (albeit without that film’s unexpected bummer of a climax). Only The Mummy’s Curse—that weird, tacked-on series capper that mysteriously moved the franchise to Louisiana—is spared, which is just as well. Having just watched both that entire series and the Hammer effort in conjunction, I’m in a unique position to say that the latter is a more than worthy compilation.
In fact, a potential pairing of both the original Mummy and this one would make for the most interesting Universal/Hammer double feature: not only would the déjà vu be minimal, but it would also highlight the studios’ attempts at wrestling with that “difficult third album” syndrome. While the pair’s Dracula and Frankenstein efforts are unimpeachable, genre-and-era-defining masterpieces, the Mummy films have always felt like weird (but always interesting) tagalongs.
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