Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Mummy (1959)

It’s Hammer Time.

Hammer’s first mummy movie, titled simply “The Mummy” (1959), is a real treat, and one of the famed British studio’s best films.

I decided to re-visit this favorite after I got the new issue of Little Shoppe of Horrors, a magazine devoted to Hammer movies. The new issue looks at the making of all the Hammer mummy movies. I continue to be amazed, and delighted, that a magazine exists devoted to Hammer movies. Twenty years from now will there be a magazine devoted to Jerry Bruckheimer movies? I seriously doubt it and if there was, then I think it would be time for God to pull the plug on all of us. (The question if there will even be magazines in 20 years is a question for another day).

Hammer enjoyed worldwide success and broke box office records worldwide with their monster re-treads “The Curse of Frankenstein” (1957) and “Horror of Dracula” (1958). Both films starred Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee and were directed by Terence Fisher.

Universal, the great horror movie studio of the 1930s and 1940s, knew a good thing when they saw it and offered up their other past properties for remaking. The next property was “The Mummy” a semi-official remake of the 1932 Boris Karloff classic, and elements from the B movie Kharis series starring Lon Chaney Jr. as the slowest mummy in movie history. As Bill Cosby famously said about these movies, “If you can’t outrun the mummy, you deserve to die.”

For “The Mummy” Cushing and Lee were re-united, along with director Fisher, ace cinematographer Jack Asher and production designer Bernard Robinson, who always made the Hammer movies look more expensive than they were. Regular Hammer composer James Bernard did not return for “The Mummy”, instead replaced by Franz Reizenstein, and it’s one of the film’s happy accidents that Reizenstein’s score accompanies the film. Christopher Lee feels it’s the best score composed for a Hammer movie, and I agree.

Felix Aylmer and Peter Cushing play, respectively Stephen and John Banning, archaeologists looking for the tomb of the Princess Ananka. They discover the tomb, but John doesn’t enter, due to a bad leg. Stephen goes in and accidentally reads from the Scroll of Life, which brings to life the mummy Kharis (Christopher Lee). (A flashback to Ancient Egypt shows Kharis as a priest committing the blasphemous act of using the Scroll of Life to revive his beloved dead Princess Ananka. His punishment was having his tongue cut out, being buried alive in her tomb and serving as her protector for all eternity.)

Shipping the tomb’s contents back to England, the Bannings are followed by Mehment Bay (George Pastell, a terrific performance) who uses the revived mummy to stalk and kill the defilers of Ananka’s tomb. No lumbering Chaney Kharis here, but a fast moving, unstoppable instrument of death. In one of the film’s best scenes, Kharis breaks through the bars and screen of a sanitarium’s window to get at Stephen Banning, who pounds and screams furiously at the door trying to escape.

Eventually, Cushing’s John Banning is the last of the expedition’s members to still be alive, but he’s temporarily saved thanks to wife Isobel (Yvonne Furneaux) who eerily resembles Ananka. Is Isobel the reincarnation of Ananka?

This is a gorgeously shot film, one of Hammer’s most beautiful. The tomb scenes have an eerie green glow to them, and the swamp scenes look like there’s red glowing coals emanating from the marsh grounds. Not sure where the light is coming from but it doesn’t matter. In horror movies I’ll take atmosphere over logic any day of the week and “The Mummy” is drenched in atmosphere.

Lee gives a very good physical performance as Kharis. There’s terrific use of his body and eyes in his scenes when he’s staring at his reincarnated Princess. Cushing, of course, is marvelous, as he always is. Watching Cushing and Lee grapple together in a Hammer Gothic is like watching Fred and Ginger dance…all is happily right with the world.

For a horror film, one of the film’s best scenes is not one of terror but a long dialogue scene between Cushing and George Pastell. Both know what each other’s motives are when Cushing comes to call on the new Egyptian who moved down the road. They feel each other out and soon begin to spar about England’s legitimacy in looting Egypt of its archaeological treasures. Beautifully acted and filled with tension, it really shows off Terence Fisher’s strength as a director. (His other masterpiece, “The Devil Rides Out” (1967), has a similar scene).
But nothing can compare to Kharis’ first attack on the Banning mansion. Kharis smashes through the windows and is unstopped by Banning’s shotgun blasts and skewering by a harpoon. Reizenstein’s music is gloriously all out here, filled with pounding intensity and booming chords. Kharis disarms Banning and begins to strangle him, when Isobel enters the room and screams. Kharis looks at her and Reizenstein’s evocative main theme kicks in, redolent of all things Ancient Egypt. With this piece of music, we know Kharis is looking at the visage of his beloved Princess. The whole sequence is a wonderful textbook example of how effective good film music can be.

According to the Little Shoppe of Horrors, “The Mummy” played in the United States on a double feature with Universal’s odd vampire western “Curse of the Undead (1959). If I was a kid back then and knew that double feature was coming, I would have been unable to sleep for weeks. “Curse of the Undead” has a lot wrong with it, but not the poster. It’s one of my all time favorite posters. Isn’t this stunning?

Hammer followed with other mummy movies with middling success, but none to match the timeless appeal of their first one. It’s one of the best films from the studio and one of the great Gothic horror masterpieces of all time. A wonderful movie.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. Really nice review of an iconic Hammer film. To set much of The Mummy in the misty English moorlands was a stroke of atmospheric genius.

Kevin Deany said...

Thank you, I completely agree about the English moors setting. Those swamp scenes are magnificent. And for Hammer fans out there, the Watching Hammer site is a real treat. Highly recommended.

Rick29 said...

This is probably my favorite Mummy movie (though Hammer's BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB isn't bad and Valerie Leon looks quite fetching). You described my favorite scene in THE MUMMY, where the title creature crashes into the room and confronts Peter Cushing's hero. It is indeed atmospheric and colorful. My only complaint is that the modest budget shows in the flashbacks.

Rick29 said...
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Kevin Deany said...

Rick: I need to renew my acquaintance with "Blood from the Mummy's Tomb." Haven't seen that one in a while. The remake with Charlton Heston and Susannah York called "The Awakening" is pretty dire.