Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Mummy

The Mummy (1959)
Dir. Terence Fisher
Written by Jimmy Sangster
Starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Yvonne Furneaux, George Pastell

In 1959, Hammer Studios was solidly in the horror business. And brother, business was a-boomin’. Prior to 1955, Hammer Studios had been an unremarkable little studio churning out serviceable but conventional dramas, comedies, and thrillers. But 1955 brought THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT, a sci-fi horror shocker which earned a notorious “X” rating and such a surprising payday for Hammer that the sequel, QUATERMASS 2, was produced for more than twice the budget of the original. But by the time the excellent QUATERMASS 2 premiered in late May 1957, the world already had its eyes on another Hammer film which had come out a few weeks previous: THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, starring then-unknowns Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee and filmed in color for the first time in the story’s history. When FRANKENSTEIN returned more than 70 times its modest budget, Hammer smelled blood in the water and followed it with DRACULA the following year. When that too proved a substantial financial success, the writing in blood was on the wall: for the next two decades, Hammer would be nearly exclusively in the horror business. And the first order of business was to get back out there and replicate the formula that had put their name on the map as closely --and as quickly-- as possible.

Since Hammer had begun their horror cycle with two loose adaptations of Universal Horrors classic monster films, the next logical target was another one: 1932’s Boris-Karloff starring THE MUMMY. Unlike Dracula and Frankenstein, this Universal property was not based on any classic work of literature, and was more strongly inspired by the 1922 discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun and the subsequent rumors of “the curse of the tomb” which had supposedly claimed the lives of expedition financier Lord Carnarvon and others. Hence, the Hammer adaptation was not especially bound by any particular text, and ultimately has little in common with its presumptive 1932 inspiration, though the story eventually incorporates elements from several of its sequels, notably THE MUMMY’S HAND, THE MUMMY’S TOMB, and THE MUMMY’S GHOST. But that hardly mattered; what really mattered was re-assembling the dream team that had made Hammer’s first forays into horror such a success. Director Terence Fisher, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, production designer Bernard Robinson, and stars Cushing and Lee all returned (missing were composer James Bernard --subbed out for German composer Franz Reizenstein in one of only three film scores he composed-- and producer Anthony Hinds, replaced by Anthony Nelson Keyes and Michael Carreras), and the stage was set for lightning to strike a third time .

All the pieces were in place for another home run, but unfortunately THE MUMMY doesn’t quite match the lofty standards set by its progenitors. It’s not a disaster, of course; there are plenty of good things about it. It’s every bit as handsome a production as you would hope from a Hammer film of this era -- including some loving rendered hieroglyphics and Egyptian art, and a sumptuously decorated and lit Tomb set (who knew Egyptian tombs had green mood lighting?)  with a plethora of great-looking artifacts obviously modeled closely after the ones found in Tutankhamen's tomb a few decades prior. And unlike a lot of so-called “mummy” movies I can think of (looking at you, ETERNAL KISS OF THE MUMMY, THE MUMMY 1932, and THE AWAKENING), this one actually has a fucking mummy in it, and he’s clearly the star of the show. Lee, as the titular character, looks fucking boss as hell; the makeup on his mummified, gray face is some of Hammer’s best (something of a backhanded compliment for a company not known for amazing effects work), really desiccated and gross, even if he’s also surprisingly buff for a guy who’s been death 3,000 years (not that I’m complaining; in the next sequel, made without Lee, we will learn that a short, dumpy mummy is not an improvement). 

Lee doesn’t exactly have a ton to do; he has some semi-embarrassing brownface flashbacks as an ancient Egyptian, but mostly he’s just silently lurking around in mummy getup. Even though doesn’t get to do a ton of acting, however, it was absolutely worth casting Lee because, A) he’s buff as hell and that mummy seriously looks intimidating, and B) as he did with both his Frankenstein's monster and his Dracula, he again proves how underrated he is as a purely physical actor. This character moves entirely differently from his other two classic roles; he looks stiff and strange and ancient without resorting to the stereotypical arms-out mummy shuffle from the Abbot and Costello movies. He never seems to be rushing, but somehow (partly because he’s so tall) he seems like a real physical threat, not something you could just casually walk away from. Director Fisher knows exactly how to shoot him, too -- in both senses, as he conjures some splendid horror framings with the menacing brute,* and also peppers him with gunfire which has the visceral punch of blasting through the wrappings straight through the body (something you could really only get away with in a bloodless mummy in 1959 England).

So there’s plenty of good stuff here, but the fragmented, inelegantly pieced together narrative structure which would increasingly become a problem for Hammer in the years to come (as budgets shrank and writers were increasingly hard-pressed to churn out product), is already in evidence here. Cushing is the ostensible lead, but he’s barely present and mostly incidental to the entire first half of the movie, which takes an awkwardly long time to really coalesce into a coherent conflict. It’s nearly 50 minutes into this slim 88-minute production (including an extended and completely unnecessary Ancient Egyptian flashback stuck haphazardly in the middle, which brings the movie to a screeching standstill) before Cushing is solidly fixed as the protagonist, effectively negating any possibility of a satisfying escalation. Once the exposition and flashbacks are out of the way and it comes down to Cushing v Mummy, things pick up significantly and move confidently to a perfectly satisfactory climax, but it doesn’t quite have time to build up the same momentum its predecessors were able to muster.

...yeaaaah, not a good look, in retrospect.

Cushing does his usual fine work, even with a not-very-interesting and dangerously passive character. He does get to shine near the end, when he gets to have a very well-written and well-staged tense conversation with his modern-day Egyptian adversary (Cypriot character actor George Pastell, stuck in the regrettable recurring role of “ethnic villain”) who is controlling the mummy. The thinly veiled verbal battle between the two film vets --with Cushing goading his enemy til he tips his hand-- is as riveting a bit of drama as anything involving the monster. Unfortunately the way he goads him is, like the whole movie, rife with uncomfortable racial tension; the Brits have a pretty open contempt for the Arab characters and the movie doesn’t even remotely entertain the idea that the Egyptians may have a reasonable point about having their cultural heritage stolen, to be carted off and put behind a glass case thousands of miles away in front of gawking Victorian foreigners hoping to get a cheap kick out of their discomfort with death under the guise of historical curiosity. It’s also one of those funny movies where our “civilized” heroes mock the primitive superstitions of the ignorant foreigners, and don’t seem fazed in the slightest by the fact that the events of the movie demonstrably prove those “superstitions” are correct. Haha, those ignorant savages think they can raise a supernatural punishment from beyond the grave, how ridiculous and ignorant they are. --Later-- Haha, those ignorant savages successfully raised a supernatural punishment from beyond the grave, and we all witnessed it and confirmed it was true, how ridiculous and ignorant they are.

Its cumbersome plotting and dated, uncomfortable racial politics ensure that THE MUMMY is one of the lesser Hammer films of this period. But even so, it still maintains that fundamental Hammer feel, a mix of opulent production, heavy gothic atmosphere, and classy performances mixed with a hearty dose of crass genre exploitation. It has Fisher, Sangster, Cushing and Lee on board, a classic movie monster re-imagined for the late-50’s British horror resurgence, and more than a handful of splendidly-staged horror beats. And hey, Michael Ripper as a rabbit-poaching drunk! That’s about as solidly Hammer a pedigree as exists on this Earth. THE MUMMY may be a little too flawed to qualify as an essential Hammer production, but it’s certainly a quintessential one.

*Particularly the movie’s most iconic image, with the mud-encrusted mummy slowly rising from the fetid waters of an English bog.



Play it Again, Samhain
  • TAGLINE: This is really before taglines were a thing, but the poster reads: Fear Will Freeze You When you Face… THE MUMMY
  • LITERARY ADAPTATION: No, a loose (although uncredited) adaptation of various Universal Mummy sequels
  • SEQUEL: First in a series of four
  • REMAKE: Yes, clearly a remake of the Universal film from 1932, even though the plot is not the same at all
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: Maybe respected British thespian Sir Felix Aylmer? Surely if you’re a “sir” you count as A-list?
  • BELOVED HORROR ICON: Cushing, Lee, Michael Ripper, director Terence Fisher
  • BOOBIES: None
  • MULLETS: None
  • THE UNDEAD: Mummy!
  • POSSESSION: No, although this would become a standard feature of later Mummy efforts.
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): No
  • EVIL CULT: While the fictional Egyptian god “Karnak” seems like mainstream Ancient Egyptian religion, the modern-day Karnak-worshipper pulling the Mummy’s strings seems pretty cult-y.
  • TRANSMOGRIFICATION: Ancient Egyptian into Mummy
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Fairly low, major production from Hammer’s heyday.
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: If the British want to take your country’s historical antiquities, you should really just let them, attempting to punish them for it later ends badly for everyone.
  • TITLE ACCURACY: Definitely an actual Mummy here.

I should say, this is a pretty strong 3-sequel effort, it's obviously quite a bit stronger than, say, THE ARRIVAL. But 4 didn't feel quite right, so I erred on the side of caution (and historical fact, as it actually got exactly three sequels, though all theatrical, obviously)

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