Thursday, February 25, 2016

Blood From The Mummy's Tomb


Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb (1971)
Dir. Seth Holt, Michael Carreras (uncredited)
Written by Christopher Wicking
Starring Valerie Leon, Andrew Keir, Mark Edwards, James Villiers, Hugh Burden, Aubrey Morris



By the waning days of Hammer in the early 70s, the studio had produced exactly zero Mummy movies of any merit, despite three attempts in 1959, 1964, and 1967. They’re all cosmetically different, but they all feature essentially the same premise, which is, in itself, more or less a hodge-podge of recycled elements from the four Universal Studios sequels to their 1932 film THE MUMMY: Basically, a handful of racist white archeologists uncover a hidden tomb from the good old days, and a fiendish modern-day Egyptian with roots in the ancient traditions revives a guardian-Mummy to punish them for their transgressions. And you know what? None of them are very good. Not the original MUMMY, not THE MUMMY’S HAND, not THE MUMMY’S TOMB, not THE MUMMY’S CURSE, not Hammer’s THE MUMMY (1959), not CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB, not THE MUMMY’S SHROUD. With a near-zero success rate by 1971, one could only wonder why it was that people couldn’t seem to resist the lure of more Mummy movies. Failure had not seemed much of a deterrent for Hammer up to this point, but with very similar attempts from some of their top talent all ending up in the same middling rehashes, one can hardly help approaching their final Mummy movie, BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB, with a bit of trepidation. Was there really any new ground to cover here?


In fact, this final entry in Hammer’s Mummy series would go a very different route. The first three borrow heavily from the template of mummy fiction pioneered by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in his 1892 story Lot No. 249, and used, at least on a fundamental level, in the vast majority of Mummy fiction that followed it, particularly in the cinema (though notably not the 1932 THE MUMMY which brought the character to the screen for the first time). Doyle’s vision of The Mummy as a murderous puppet of vengeance resurrected by a modern-day believer is, in fact, so ubiquitous that you’d be forgiven for assuming it underlied the entire mythos behind the iconic monster. But you’d be wrong.


Hammer’s fourth film to feature the word “mummy” in the title adapts a completely different source, the other great fount of the mummy mythos, Bram Stoker’s 1903 novel The Jewel of the Seven Stars. While I can’t help but wonder if Stoker’s wasn’t at least subliminally influenced by Doyle’s mummy tales (particular his earlier 1890 tale The Ring Of Thoth, which posits a very different kind of ancient Egyptian magic -- a curse of eternal life rather than a curse of unnatural resurrection), his take on the material is starkly different in its mechanics, avoiding the template of Lot No 249 and imagining a very distinct species of mummified menace.

Oh I'm sorry, did I break your concentration?

Fundamentally, its horror comes from a totally different place. Instead of threatening us with murder at the hands of a resurrected corpse, Jewel is essentially a possession tale. It concerns a young Englishman named Malcolm, who is caught up in a strange situation when his fiance’s Egyptologist father suffers a mysterious attack which leaves him comatose. Gradually, it becomes clear that the source of the trouble is the (inanimate) mummy of an ancient queen named Tera, who intends to use the offending Englishmen to bring about her resurrection, possibly in the body of Malcolm’s fiance (who has been acting disturbing assertive recently, much to the horror of her male Victorian cohorts).


If that sounds vaguely familiar, why, it’s because we’ve encountered it before, as it was also the basis for the 1980 film THE AWAKENING, which featured none other than Chuck Heston (JEAN CLAUDE VAN DAMME’S THE ORDER) as the recumbent British (?!) Egyptologist. BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB has virtually nothing in common with that one, despite being ostensibly based on the same story, save the very loosest connection to a female mummy with designs on the body of an Egyptologist’s daughter. Other than that, they share not a single specific character or event, except, oddly, a character named “Corbeck” who is a villain here, the hero in the 1980 version, and, splitting the difference, a minor side character in the novel. In fact, the two films are more similar in what they lack: they both curiously minimize (to the point of omission) the main character from Stoker’s story --the barrister Malcolm who serves as a narrator-- and consequently both suffer from a serious lack of protagonist. While it’s true that Malcolm is more of an audience surrogate than a narratively crucial actor in Stoker’s tale, neither movie finds an adequate solution to the fact that both of the more important characters --the Egyptologist and his daughter-- are incapacitated or inactive for long chunks of the narrative, leaving no one around to consistently move the story along.


The Hammer version --the first direct screen adaptation of the story-- does have one advantage over its 1980 successor (and, for my money, the book itself): it’s much more eventful. The novel is almost structured as a stage play, mostly unravelling over one night, in one location (perhaps understandable, as Stoker’s day job was managing the Lyceum Theater in London). It’s a little short on whammy. Much of it is devoted to lengthy flashbacks and exposition, as well as detailed (and, apparently, quite accurate) descriptions of ancient Egyptian culture and artifacts. BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB helpfully adds a kind of slasher structure; the malevolent spirit here has a side goal of killing off everyone possessing one of its purloined artifacts, resulting in a series of grisly murders which give the whole enterprise a little oomph and establish it a little more clearly in the familiar tropes of the horror genre.



But even so, it’s an odd one. For example, it has no mummy in it, which seems kind of bold for a movie with the world “Mummy” right there in the title. At this point in Hammer’s Mummy cycle I admit I’d be willing to try anything, but even so, they usually reserved that level of flagrant false advertising for their posters. There is an ancient Egyptian princess named Tera (Valerie Leon, small roles in THE SPY WHO LOVED ME and NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN) recovered from an ancient tomb and everything, but she looks pristine and is not in any way mummified, which is completely understandable because come on, look at those boobs. Are you really gonna mummify those? What kind of monster would hide that from the world?


Of course, it should come as no surprise to you by this point that her discoverer, Dr. Fuchs (Andrew Keir, who replaced Brian Donlevy as Quatermass in QUATERMASS AND THE PIT*), has a beautiful daughter named Margaret (also Valerie Leon) who --you might want to sit down, this is really going to shock you-- looks identical to Tera, even has the same early 70’s hairdo. And, not to belabor this point, but the same amazing boobs, which the movie prominently displays every single second of runtime it can think of a reason to put Leon on-screen.**

Just to illustrate my point, mind you, not because I wanted to make this gif for any prurient reason.

Both Fuchs and his daughter are experiencing various levels of mind-whammy courtesy of Tera, and spend a lot of time wandering around with lax expressions and a thousand-yard stare, which I’d be tempted to say is probably Leon’s best move as an actor. But that isn’t really fair, she’s actually fine in both her somewhat vague roles, plus, again, boobs. Even so, the script has Keir comatose for most of the movie, and Margaret is stuck in one of those regrettable LORDS OF SALEM type roles where she’s getting increasingly possessed but doesn’t really know why or have anything she can do about it, making her a hoplessly passive protagonist (to the extent she can even be called by that name). 

Recognizing this and perhaps taking a cue from THE MUMMY’S SHROUD, they introduce a villain (James Villiers, ASYLUM, as well as a few early Hammers including THE NANNY and THE DAMNED) to give the proceedings a little structure lost from a lack of a clear central character. It helps a little (though it’s a bit unclear how his plan to reanimate the Mummy is different from Fuch’s plan --which is also to reanimate the Mummy-- even though they seem to hate each other), but actually the film works better when it’s not trying so hard to patch over its inelegantly constructed narrative. The story’s all over the place, piling up characters and meaningless subplots while simultaneously over-explaining and obscuring the mechanics of the supposedly central conflict here, which I guess, gun to my head, I’d have to define as, “who should have control over Margaret’s body?” At the very least, the movie seems to be vaguely constructed to posit as its most tangible conflict, “stopping Tera from doing, you know, whatever." But inexplicably, no character ever emerges who seems to have much interest in doing that, nor any ability to do so in any case. But somehow that doesn’t really hurt the film as much as it should. It should, by all outward appearances, be a frustrating mess. Somehow instead it’s intriguing, disjointed, bizarre and hypnotic. I don’t know that I really “get” it, but I like it.


Director Seth Holt (TASTE OF FEAR, THE NANNY) is, despite his sparse output, often regarded as Hammer’s most adroit director (including by no less an authority on the subject than Christopher Lee), and he amply demonstrates why he deserves that title here, crafting sequences and shots which are subtly stylish and elusively evocative, from the vaguely surreal pre-credits mummification scene onwards. It’s actually quite gorey for a Hammer film (many a throat is graphically ripped out) but it gets more mileage from its mysterious atmosphere (aided by a strong score from Tristram Cary [QUATERMASS AND THE PIT and THE LADYKILLERS]) than its bloodletting.  



Holt seems to be the first director to tackle the subject of The Mummy who gets --at least on some level-- that there’s something to this concept beyond “eeew, it’s dead, and it’s trying to grab me!” which is good, because whatever its flaws (and they are myriad) Jewel of the Seven Stars is definitely a story which is grappling with a lot of anxieties about identity that have nothing to do with marauding ghouls. We’ll delve a little more deeply into the novel in my forthcoming book-length “A Cultural Anthropology of Mummy Fiction,” but for now suffice to say it’s a novel deeply soaked in the anxieties of early 20th-century social upheaval and colonialist angst. The Mummy, at its most obvious symbolic level, is a revenge of the natives against their oppressors; I think it little coincidence that Lot No. 249 was written about ten years into the British armed occupation of Egypt, and Jewel of the Seven Stars about ten years after that.


But while the earlier work is somewhat more literal in its threat of bodily harm done to invaders, Seven Stars is something more existential, a fear that somehow while the colonized may appear comatose, they might just be quietly conspiring to steal our very soul. A rational fear? Of course not, but fears rarely are. I doubt Stoker was ahead of his time enough to realize it, but surely this was the deep, vague paranoia that inevitably comes with rationalizing your way into doing something that you know, on some fundamental level, is as wrong as could be. It’s a paranoid nightmare, but maybe on some level it’s also kind of a comforting fantasy to see the arrogant British getting exactly what’s coming to them, courtesy of a potent symbol of the ancient greatness of a now-oppressed people. And, of course, it serves as a perfect victim-blaming rationale to continue that oppression. It’s egomania delicately balanced with deep-seated self-doubt; the consuming insecurity behind all controlling bullies. Curiously, and perhaps tellingly, Seven Stars contains a chapter --deleted in later editions-- which makes explicit a detail which is almost always studiously ignored by supernatural horror writers: if Queen Tera does manage to outfox the English and use her magic to reincarnate, it doesn’t just mean the English lose, it means they’re wrong. About everything, about their most fundamental assumptions about the universe and their place in it. Most obviously about God -- their conception of Christianity certainly would not allow for ancient God-Queens stealing the bodies of young virgins-- but even more so, about the inherent superiority of their culture and moral worldview. It’s this existential dread about identity which underlies the more traditional possession elements of the novel, and makes it unique and provocative in a way the somewhat turgid narrative doesn’t even come close to.

Blood from the Mummy's Tomb - Trailer
Part of its unique strangeness also comes from its unusually (for 1971) bold editing, as you can see here (this is actually two scenes spliced together in the trailer, but the individual cuts are illustrative of the overall style, at least in its most aggressive scenes)


By the premiere of BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB in 1971, things were a little different -- the colonial days were well and truly over, and the days of multiculturalism (or at least less overt racism) were arriving. But there’s still the ghost of that identity anxiety which haunts the script. Writer Christopher Wicking (MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER) somewhat craftily universalizes the lingering doubts Stoker’s characters had in the absolute correctness of their beliefs, to go beyond the cultural into the philosophical. “Tera is far beyond the laws and dogma of her time -- and of ours!” the villainous Corbeck says. “Beyond good and evil?” asks Margaret. “Love, hate. She’s a law beyond good and evil, and if we could find out how far beyond… how much we can learn.” There’s a certain moral horror there, a sudden, gut-wrenching shift that occurs when the stable ground suddenly and jarringly moves beneath you, destroying your illusions of a constant, comforting reality. The characters can hardly deny that maybe this five-thousand-year-old magical spirit might know better than they do. Who are they to call her “evil” when her understanding of the universe is clearly so much more profound than theirs? No wonder no one seems much able or willing to resist her!


Not that I’m trying to imply BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB is exactly philosophical or that it has a message or anything. Just that at least on some nebulous poetic level, the filmmakers here seem to place the horror somewhere other than simply the throat-ripping ghost jackals (though they gamely include those, too). It’s what gives the whole enterprise the dreamy, unhinged quality it exudes with a surprising, but somewhat implacable, potency. Sometimes its overt  --as in the film’s arguable standout sequence, a frenetically edited and masterfully filmed death in a screaming madhouse-- but other times it’s more subtle, like the skin-crawling voyeurism of sleeping Margaret being surreptitiously watched from across the street by an unknown man. Although their boundary-pushing sex and gore were the catalyst that pushed Hammer to huge popular appeal, I’m inclined to think this fairly late entry is one of the purest iterations of their best impulses. It’s got the boobs and blood you want, but it’s more focused on the eerie gothic atmosphere you need, which is especially remarkable in that it’s a rare modern-set Hammer film.


It’s also almost unbelievable that it came out this well when you realize what a troubled production this one underwent. Production began with reliable old Peter Cushing in the lead role as Fuchs (it would have been his second go-round with a “Mummy,” after starring in Hammer’s 1959 film THE MUMMY); after only a day or two of shooting, however, his wife had taken ill and he had to leave the set. Ten days later she was dead, and an inconsolable Cushing was unable to return to the film (by his next starring role in 1972, his grief had taken such a physical toll on him that he had to be recast from “father” to “grandfather” of an actress only three years younger than Leon was here). Production resumed with Keir in his role, but was thrown off-track again by the untimely death of director Holt, who suffered an on-set of a heart attack, literally collapsing into the arms of actor Audrey Morris (A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, LISZTOMANIA). Holt died five weeks into a six-week shoot, and the film was finished by stalwart Hammer producer and sometimes-director Michael Carreras, who had already directed the tepid CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB. Carreras is no one’s idea of a classic director (though his oft-overlooked 1963 gimmick killer British giallo MANIAC is actually pretty good) but maybe Queen Tera got to him or something, because he really stepped up his game for this one, even apparently directing the film’s best sequence, the frenzied madhouse murder.

A still from Cushing's one day on-set. Keir is perfectly fine, but obviously this would have been better.


With a production backstory like that --plus a meager budget of around £200,000 (roughly $2,500,000 dollars today) and a punishing six-week shoot-- it’s pretty miraculous the movie is any damn good at all. It’s not without its problems, of course -- the cast is professional but hardly elevates the material, everything’s a bit overlit, and, more troublingly, the climax itself is clumsily edited and baffling in a less fun way the the rest of the film -- but shit, for a fourth sequel in a series with no previous films which could properly be called “good,” and all that far too late in Hammer’s life for us to reasonably expect anything legitimately worthwhile (DRACULA AD: 1972, possibly the studio’s artistic nadir, would follow the next year)... this is vastly better than it would be at all sane to hope for. It’s one of Hammer’s strangest and most intriguingly nightmarish exercises, but with just enough cheeky fun to keep from being entirely stodgy (they even name the extraneous boyfriend “Tod Browning” -- perhaps the very first instance of a horror character named in tribute to a beloved genre director, a trend which would eventually become inescapable?).


Aside from THE AWAKENING, Jewel of the Seven Stars would be adapted twice more: by Fred Olen Ray as THE TOMB in 1986 (though the fact that the fifth-billed character is “Stripper” suggests that it might be a somewhat loose adaptation) and in 1998 under the inexplicable title BRAM STOKER’S LEGEND OF THE MUMMY starring… Louis Gossett Jr?? I’m just going to go out on a limb here and say that even though I haven’t seen either of those, this is definitively the best film adaptation. It took more than 70 years from the first cinematic Mummy movie, and they even had to lose the title character to pull it off, but for one brief, glorious second, Hammer actually did the impossible and made a pretty durn good movie with the word “Mummy” in its title. The world should have probably gotten together and agreed to let the concept slip away into the abyss on a high note, but you know how these guys are, they never learn. The mummies keep getting older, we stay the same age.


* Much to Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale’s happiness, but to my great annoyance. I get that his original Quatermass is a more classic British weenie, but Donlevy’s abrasive, hard-nosed American take on the character is far and away the most interesting thing about the first two movies. Sensitive, blue-eyed Keir is a fine actor, but a bit more predictable.

** Lest you think it’s just me being pervy here, even the old fuddy-duddys over at Turner Classic Movies use the phrase “admirably ample bosom” in the first sentence of their plot description. At least I waited til you’d eaten your vegetables in the form of painstaking historical context.


COMPENDIUM OF HAMMER'S MUMMY CYCLE:
1959: THE MUMMY
1964: CURSE OF THE MUMMY'S TOMB
1967: THE MUMMY'S SHROUD
1971: BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB



CHAINSAWNUKAH 2015 CHECKLIST!

Play it Again, Samhain

  • TAGLINE: A Severed Hand Beckons From An Open Grave!
  • LITERARY ADAPTATION: Yes, of Bram Stoker's Jewel of the Seven Stars.
  • SEQUEL: Final of four loose sequels which are not really related to each other.
  • REMAKE: The novel was adapted into at least three more films, though they're not direct remakes.
  • DEADLY IMPORT FROM: England
  • FOUND-FOOTAGE CLUSTERFUCK: No
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: None
  • BELOVED HORROR ICON: I don't know that Holt directed enough films to qualify as beloved. Keir was in a couple Hammer movies, but I dunno.
  • BOOBIES: They show absolutely every single inch of flesh other than the nipple.
  • MULLETS: None
  • SEXUAL ASSAULT: No
  • DISMEMBERMENT PLAN: Hand lopped off, throat ripped out.
  • HAUNTED HOUSE: No
  • MONSTER: No
  • THE UNDEAD: Mummy! (?)
  • POSSESSION: Yes, it's primarily a possession movie.
  • SLASHER/GIALLO: No.
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): No
  • EVIL CULT: It seems like Tera had some pretty unorthodox religious ideas even for her time, so I'll say yes in this case. Although, does the fact that she turns out to be completely correct kinda negate the whole "cult" thing?
  • (UNCANNY) VALLEY OF THE DOLLS: None
  • EGYPTO-CRYPTO: Yes!
  • TRANSMOGRIFICATION: Ancient Egyptian Valerie Leon into Modern Day Valerie Leon. She may also turn into a Jackal or Leopard or something, it's a little vague.
  • VOYEURISM: Yes, Corbeck is spying on Margaret from the house across the street.
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Medium, a major release, but from the latter days of Hammer.
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: No matter how many bold artistic decisions you make, people are mostly just going to remember the boobs.
  • TITLE ACCURACY: While maaaybe technically correct in the loosest possible sense of the words "mummy" "blood" and "tomb," I think it's a little too misleading to completely vindicate. Call it 80%
  • ALEX MADE IT THROUGH AWAKE: N/A.
Margaret/Tera talks with a female archaeologist about herself.

4 comments:

  1. you lucky prick, you were like a day away from a massive campaign of everyone you know spamming you with the look if disapproval ("ಠ_ಠ") to shame you into posting

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  2. Hopefully the gif of Valerie Leon's boobs made up for the long wait.

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  4. Dude, clean this post up and then check out THE ETERNAL (1993), by Michael Almeryeda, it's a loose JEWEL OF THE 7 STARS version transferring the mummy to Ireland (an ancient druid preserved in the tannin-rich peat bog). Some of these paragraphs sing like weird music.

    ReplyDelete