Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Mummy’s Shroud

The Mummy’s Shroud (1967)
Dir. John Gilling
Written by John Gilling, Anthony Hinds
Starring Andre Morell, David Buck, John Phillips, Maggie Kimberly, Elizabeth Sellars, Michael Ripper

Well, who’d have thought it possible? 15 years after the events of CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB, and 20 years after the events of the original Hammer Production of THE MUMMY, well… this is really embarrassing, you’re not going to believe this, but the same thing happens again! Yet another team of racist British archaeologists uncover yet another mummy with yet another tragic backstory to flash back to, resulting in yet another painful Arab stereotype (plus a gypsy stereotype for good measure?) resurrecting the durn thing for some revenge. This time, at least, the girlfriend-archaeologist is a blonde so we don’t have to hear that she’s the exact double of an ancient Egyptian queen. Progress is being made.

You may rightly be dubious of the third-time’s-the-charm optimism of remaking the same basic plot for a third time (not even counting the original Universal Mummy movies it rips off) despite its current record of resulting in exactly zero acceptable mummy movies. But if we must try it yet again --and for the last time, I should add, since the fourth sequel BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB doesn’t even have a mummy in it-- I’m marginally happy to report that this is marginally better than the other two, arguably the “best” version of this dated and regressive languid convolution laboring feverishly to build a movie around the basic idea that a Mummy gets revenge on a handful of white people. It was not at all worth taking 256 minute and three movies to get there, but fuck it, this is the world we have, not the one we want. And if we’ve got to accept living in a world with three basically identical Hammer Mummy movies, we might as well try and enjoy what we got, and at least THE MUMMY’S SHROUD makes that about as painless as we could dare hope by this point.

It’s biggest success is that it wrenches the same story from the first two into a more workable form by introducing a clear villain. If they can’t give us someone to like (and why would they start now?) at least they need to give us someone to hate. And this one does exactly that. Oh, it has some supposed heroes --David Buck (voices in Bakshi’s LORD OF THE RINGS and THE DARK CRYSTAL), Tim Barrett (THE DEADLY BEES), Maggie Kimberly (small part in THE CONQUEROR WORM, nothing else) and --promisingly-- Hammer staple André Morell (HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES)-- as the archaeology crew scheduled for some Mummy-related fatalities. This cadre of players are, to their credit, rather more ingratiating than your typical generic pretty young Hammer kids. But the movie’s chief improvement on its predecessors is its villain, Shakespearean actor John Phillips (VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, TORTURE GARDEN, QUADROPHENIA) as the cold-blooded financier behind the operation. Phillips is not an overwhelmingly charismatic performer, but the movie finds setting him up as a irredeemable asshole to be an enormously helpful organizing influence. The previously versions had been irreparably crippled by their protagonists’ necessary passivity for the majority of the movie -- far too much time is spent trying to figure out what’s going on for any narrative conflict to gain momentum. Having someone we can root against gives our more heroic protagonists something to oppose, energizing them and also giving the inevitable mummy attacks a little more urgency, since we badly want to see this fucker get his canopic jarred, if you get my meaning.

Several more cosmetic details help too. Although Morell has a disappointingly small part (and looks like he’s seen some years of hard living between the previous years’ PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES and this role) the movie, unable to deliver as much Morell as you want, compensates with lots of Michael Ripper as a put-upon sidekick for the villain. Ripper is far and away the most enjoyable character in the movie as the the nebbish assistant, and his constant humiliations do a lot to solidify our hatred of his employer. And hey, he’s not in brownface, so that’s automatically an improvement from last time. The guys stuck in brownface this go-round are Richard Warner (also VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED) and Roger Delgado (“The Master” in the John Pertwee Dr. Who series). Delgado end ups with yet another distressing villainous stereotype (augmented by an equally broad Catherine Lacey [THE LADY VANISHES, SHADOW OF THE CAT] as his mother, who is, I guess, some kind of Egyptian Gypsy fortune teller with a crystal ball and everything?), but at least Warner gets to play a good guy; in fact, his inspector character is portrayed quite positively, certainly the only Arab character in the whole film series to be afforded any dignity. Again, that’s pretty faint praise, but an unambiguous improvement.  

I’m divided about the Mummy itself, which has a new look that features a somewhat goofy-looking painted-on face and some sort of weird mummy gauntlets. His attacks are a slight improvement, featuring more gimmicks (burning a guy with photographic acid!) but the biggest improvement is in the backstory. It’s just as unnecessary as in the previous iterations, but at least they stick it right at the beginning here, as a prologue and not a momentum-killing sidestory jammed haphazardly into the middle of the action. More importantly, the backstory is, for once, kind of interesting; it seems this mummy was a real nice dude once upon a time, a bodyguard for a child-king who fell victim to a murderous regime change. Unable to protect his young ward in life, the devoted manservant attempts to do so in death -- a surprisingly touching wrinkle which adds pathos and color to the title character, a rather dry and bloodless (ha!) instrument for destruction in the other films. The fact that we know the Mummy’s backstory matters not at all -- he’s used in the exact same manner as  the previous two films-- but our memory of the kindly, devoted bald man from the opening sequence* colors his reappearance as a desiccated corpse emblazoned with a daffy emoticon on his face, and adds a subtle layer of tragedy to the whole thing (particularly his gruesome final comeuppance, which genuinely seems like a much-earned release for the poor guy). Besides, Seeing the former child-king to whom he devoted his life --and to some extent seems to regard as a surrogate son-- unceremoniously displayed as a shriveled, naked raisin of a corpse (a rather startlingly realistic and grotesque prop, natch) for mildly interested British museum-goers actually does manage to feel like a cruel insult, so for once we can somewhat understand the outrage. He also has by far the best death of the series, a genuinely cool effects shot of a crumbling mummy ripping itself to pieces, which displays genuine hustle the series mostly lacks.

So there’s a lot of good here; the mummy looks a little silly, but he’s trying a bit harder and the overall story is much sleeker and better constructed. It sports generally stronger acting than the previous ones, and a more satisfying overall structure, even if it looks a little rinky-dink compared to Terence Fisher’s stately original.

But it’s still not all that great. In fact, if you must watch just one of these three nearly identical movies, I’d probably recommend the first one over this -- it’s a lot clunkier narratively (and more racist) but it probably boasts the definitive version of this iconography, which, it turns out, is really the only important thing anyway. I’ve been complaining for years that purported mummy movies like the 1932 Karloff version and the Chuck Heston THE AWAKENING don’t deliver any actual mummies, but after three middling attempts by Hammer to remedy that concern, I guess I’m finally forced to admit that this may be a concept that just plain doesn’t work. It’s a losing proposition from the get-go, riddled with fundamentally insurmountable problems which have nothing to do with execution.

To my mind, the problems with this basic premise are threefold:

1: Inherently passive protagonists. By its very nature, the structure of THE MUMMY, CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB and THE MUMMY’S SHROUD necessitates protagonists who don’t understand what’s happening to them and, until the very end, have no idea how to help themselves. Their story is built as a mystery, where they gradually realize there’s some ethnic type sending the mummy to bump them off one by one, and eventually figure out there’s some kind of sacred scroll they have to read at it or something. But of course we, the audience, already know all this stuff, it’s no surprise to us that there’s a mummy after them and we already know who’s behind it and why. This inevitably leads to the tiresome setup where our ostensible main characters gradually (and not especially cinematically) realize things the audience has known since frame one, a narrative miscalculation which is almost invariably a death knell for any movie which attempts it. It’s why poor Peter Cushing barely even registers until the final half-hour of the first movie, why the second movie has no recognizable leads at all, and this one finds any amount of urgency only in its villain.

2: A curiously dull monster. This one is harder to fathom, because, come on, mummy! It’s just conventional wisdom by this point that this is one of those iconic, immortal cinematic monsters, a cultural assumption which began when it became one of the flagship Universal Monsters and strengthened with Hammer’s insistence over the course of three movies that Universal must have known what they were doing. But has there ever actually been a good mummy film? Not that I can find. Not a single one. The origin of the mummy as a horror antagonist -- which we will explore ad nauseum in our next installment, I assure you-- does have deep enough roots that I think it’s fair to say there must be something there, but whatever it is, it doesn’t seem to have made it to the big screen. The Mummy, as he appears in his lengthy film career and especially in these three Hammer films, simply doesn’t have a lot going on. As I mentioned in the last review, he’s essentially just a solitary zombie that can’t bite you. The wrappings are a rather poor substitute for cadaverous gorey gristle, and even the best of them --Lee, obviously, with his towering menace-- are unable to impart much distinctness to the creature as a physical threat. All he can do is strangle or bludgeon you, and that’s only if you’re dumb enough to let him corner you somewhere you can’t maneuver away from. Not exactly the stuff of nightmares. But even if it did something cool --and it’s a moot point, since the single cool mummy beat in the entirety of the three movies is its own death in this one-- I think it would still be a losing battle because the movies are saddled with:

3: A plot which disempowers the mummy. Yes, the weird thing about all three of these mummy movies  --as well as every Universal Mummy movie I’ve seen (save the first)-- is that they effectively undermine the role of the mummy in his own movie! Like Tim Burton’s badly ill-conceived and overthought SLEEPY HOLLOW, the film is entirely precipitated upon our anticipation of its primary antagonist… who is then summarily reduced to a petty thug by an uninteresting and unimportant puppet master! Fucking why? ALL THREE of these Hammer films prattle on at length about the curse which falls upon those who violate the sanctity of the mummy’s tomb, but in all three cases the mummy itself is weirdly ambivalent about the whole thing, and it takes a more motivated modern character to command him. So even though the films each take long, painfully unnecessary sidetracks to explore the titular mummy’s backstory, it turns out to not matter in the slightest, or really even be related to what he’s doing in the present day. He might as well be a hired goon for all the actual investment he has in any of this. And since the real villain is merely a thoroughly contemporary religious fanatic,** the single most interesting aspect of the Mummy himself -- his connect to the genuinely amazing and mysterious ancient Egyptian culture, with all the enticing possibilities that conjures in the imagination-- is completely minimized and trivialized. The mummy could be a supernatural enforcer from any culture and any time period, for all the difference that it makes to the plot of these movies.

These three fairly immutable points are more than enough to thwart even a writer and director of John Gilling’s (THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS, THE REPTILE, THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES) high caliber. Gilling was by no means Hammer’s strongest visualist, but for my money he was one of their most consistently strong writers, generally crafting more compelling characters (and particularly female characters, as he did with PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES and does again here, albeit somewhat less impactfully) and better-structured narratives than most of his peers. Alas, the structure here more or less defeats him -- this iteration of the story solves many of the glaring pacing and narrative issues from the previous two, but it still doesn’t add up to much. Most of the best parts, in fact, tend to come from his care for tertiary characters like Ripper’s put-upon yes-man and Warner’s thoughtful, maturely performed inspector, rather than any of the real genre goods. It’s not a disaster as a whole -- it certainly offers more pleasures than irritations, even if those pleasures are of a decidedly mild character-- but those three crippling facts are enough to rob it of the necessary juice it badly needed to justify its existence as essentially the third retread of the same plot. Any goodwill it was once granted is, by this time, utterly exhausted; the engine has run dry. But Hammer was not quite done with the Mummy yet -- and the fourth entry was to take a starkly different direction. Prepare yourself, dear reader, for BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB.

*Weirdly, stuntman and sometimes-actor Dickie Owens, who plays the mummy in CURSE OF THE MUMMY'S TOMB but not the character that turns into the mummy in the flashback, would reverse those roles here, portraying the eventual mummy during his life, but NOT in his mummified form.

**Partially code for “guy who thinks it’s a little fucked up that these crazy Brits have stormed into the country at gunpoint and spent the last hundred years stealing every treasure they can lay their hands on and carting them back to their homeland to be gawked at by repressed Victorian thrill-seekers under a thin veneer of cultural curiosity.”



Play it Again, Samhain

  • TAGLINE: Nightmare Terror From The Tomb! promises one poster; Beware the Beat... of Cloth-wrapped Feet! the other advises. Obviously I love it when taglines wax poetic, and that second tagline is potent enough to hang a gimmicky mummy-themed disco song on.
  • LITERARY ADAPTATION: Still loosely based on a few of the original Universal Mummy sequels.
  • SEQUEL: Third in a series of four
  • REMAKE: Only to the extent that it borrows elements from older movies
  • BELOVED HORROR ICON: Andre Morell, Michael Ripper, director John Gilling
  • BOOBIES: None
  • MULLETS: None
  • DISMEMBERMENT PLAN: Mummy dismembers itself at the end, pretty cool.
  • THE UNDEAD: Mummy!
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): No
  • EVIL CULT: Well, the modern day guys ordering the mummy around seem to have some religious justification.
  • TRANSMOGRIFICATION: Ancient Egyptian into Mummy
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Medium, a mid-level production from Hammer’s heyday.
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: Don't paint a face on a mummy, come on guys, did we really have to have this one spelled out?
  • TITLE ACCURACY: Definitely an actual Mummy here, and a shroud is a plot point.

It's definitely a better structured and more enjoyable movie than the second one, but I still cannot in good conscience give it a 4-star rating. Think C+

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