THE SHORT VERSION:
Hammer takes on another old school horror classic, and this is their best effort.
Christopher Lee’s turn under the bandages is simply brilliant. As is Peter Cushing’s in normal clothes; did you expect anything less? The flashback scenes are marvelously executed. This is the best mummy flick ever made; any classic horror fan should see The Mummy.
In 1957, Hammer Studios revitalized the old school gothic horror genre by tapping into creature library made famous by Universal Studios in the 1930s, rewriting the stories, and putting the results up in brilliant color. By 1959, Hammer had finally come to a formal arrangement with Universal, allowing them to work with a little more ease and not have to go to great lengths in order to avoid being sued. The first result out of the gates was The Mummy, and it is some of the best stuff that Hammer ever produced; arguably, it may be the best.
The screenplay borrows much from the plots of several of the old Universal flicks. Here, our story begins in Egypt in 1895. Stephen Banning (Felix Aylmer, Becket) and Joseph Whemple (Raymond Huntley; Meet Mr. Lucifer) are two old English archaeologists. Together with Stephen’s son John (Peter Cushing, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed), they have found the entrance to an Ancient Egyptian tomb located far off the beaten track. It is the tomb of Princess Ananka, High Priestess of the God Karnak. As Stephen is about to enter, he is warned by an Egyptian named Mehmet Bey (George Pastell, From Russia With Love) to turn back before it is too late, but Stephen of course pays him no heed. Instead, he unhesitatingly steps inside, and discovers exactly the wonderful tomb he had been hoping for. But then, something goes wrong. A scream is heard while Stephen is alone in the tomb, and when Joseph comes to see what’s wrong, he finds Stephen draped over the sarcophagus a gibbering wreck.
A year later, John has taken over the dig, and the audience watches as he re-seals the entrance to the tomb, though not before taking its treasures out for display at the British museum. As John and Joseph leave, Mehmet Bey steps forth, and vows to get back into the tomb to recover the sacred instrument by which the long-buried Princess Ananka can be avenged for having her rest disturbed, regardless of how long it may take him to do so. Once he has recovered that instrument, he further promises, he will go to the ends of the Earth to use it.
Flash forward to England, 1898. Anyone care to guess where that instrument is going to end up being used, or what it might be? You’ve read the title of the movie, haven’t you? Hammer’s take on The Mummy may borrow heavily from its Universal predecessors, but there can be no question that this film is superior to all of those that came before in every way. Well told, tightly directed, and superbly acted, this movie comes as close to being perfect as one is ever going to find in mid-century horror.
It all starts with the reliable pen of Hammer favorite Jimmy Sangster. Yes, the story he writes if a familiar one that any mummy movie fan has seen before, but he weaves its elements together so well that the audience doesn’t necessarily notice, and even if they do, what they notice is that be taking only the best of the old pieces and adding in a few of his own, he’s written a superior story. Things are further helped along by Hammer’s other “old reliable,” Director Terence Fisher, here doing what may indeed be his finest work. The pacing of The Mummy is constant: always in motion even when the action is at a break. Thanks to the atmosphere that Fisher’s direction generates, even conversations held over a desk carry tension, and action sequences that could easily have gone wrong given that they involve a lumbering mummy and a man with a bum leg (very nice touch, that) instead carry a high level of thrill and excitement. Fisher also has an excellent sense of when to pull that action trigger, knowing exactly how long to hold the anticipatory suspense before letting the audience have it for maximum effect. Directorially speaking, The Mummy truly is flawless.
A particular treat comes during the film’s flashback sequences. Normally, such sequences kill pacing for the greater good of telling the story, but here, no such pacing sacrifice is made; it all just flows. They’re also quite gorgeous to look at, as the production design for The Mummy is first rate. Ananka’s tomb is wonderfully realized and appropriately filled with the treasures of a Princess (this absolutely does not look like some cheap, dusty old set), and as we see it during the flashback, exquisitely painted. Also standing out is the view we have of Ananka as she lies freshly placed in her sarcophagus: she looks elegant, her death mask masterfully designed, and – most impressive to me as a detail – she is completely surrounded by flowers when many would have been happy just to have her lie in an empty box and be done with it. It’s these little things that help to make good movies great. When we see the tomb in “present” day, it is also wonderfully aged, maintaining all of its majesty while still clearly showing the ravages of time. There’s just no such thing as sloppy work here.
Along with the look and the direction, another element that makes the flashbacks so compelling is that they get their supporting narration from Peter Cushing, who easily has one of the greatest voices in all of motion picture history. As anyone at all familiar with the man’s work can expect, Cushing put in a marvelous performance throughout the entire film, not only carrying the audience to the past with his voice, but hold our attention in the present with his action. Cushing is at his best here, breathing into his character the intellectual joy of an academic as well as the strength of purpose that all film heroes require. (A particularly superb scene for showing off Cushing’s skills involves a rapid fire conversation between his character and Mehmet Bey about, among other things, the nature of archaeology, which actually sounds quite at home amidst modern academic debates on the subject.) It’s also interesting to see how an actor famous for always being in motion handles the script challenge of a permanently injured leg, and the answer is: wonderfully. He never forgets the injury and always plays it, but he doesn’t overplay it as so many others might, and if you’ve ever had an injured leg for any amount of time, you’ll also see that he makes his adaptations accurately. He compels one’s attention every moment that he is on the screen.
Given how much power is conveyed by Christopher Lee’s voice and again by his facial features, one might wonder how much is sacrificed by the fact that in this role, he’s wrapped up almost entirely in bandages and unable to speak (his tongue is actually removed in one of the flashbacks, the prior to that, one does get to see and hear Lee unmummified), especially if one has already seen how things ended up when he took a turn as Frankenstein’s monster. The answer is that nothing at all is sacrificed, and that indeed, this film’s mummy may be the finest of all of Christopher Lee’s Hammer monster performances, even rivaling his most famous role as Count Dracula. This is a mummy with range, and Lee is able to convey that through both body language and the only part of his face left for the audience to see: his eyes. When Kharis is wrapped in flashback and about to be entombed, Lee’s eyes convey not just fear, but absolute terror. (And how often do you see a scared mummy?) When Mehmet Bey pushes Kharis too far, Lee through his eyes alone expresses a face exploding with rage, and when Kharis sees Isobel (Yvonne Furneaux, Frankenstein’s Great Aunt Tillie) and sees in her the features of Ananka, the love there is unmistakable. What’s most remarkable about all of this is that Lee is able to switch these expressions in a mere instant, which again without the benefit of a visible face is simply amazing.
Our mummy, though, is expressive with more than just his eyes; this mummy is violent. Our first introduction to Kharis as a killer involves him having to get through three different layers of a sanatorium window, first bending back bars, then shattered glass, and then shoving free an interior grate. The violence of this moment can only be described as explosive, and that’s before he comes in and actually gets down to the business of murder. All in all, my reaction to this scene comes down to a single word: WOW. This may be one of the most effective color-era classic horror monster moments ever, and incredibly, it’s followed up by another one later on when Kharis literally crashes through a door to reach his next victim. [It is also a testament to Christopher Lee’s remarkable strength that this door was really bolted shut when he crashed through it. That’s the take you really see on the screen. It resulted in one of several injuries Lee suffered on the set, and yet, professional that he is, he acted through all of them.] No mummy filmed before or since has been so effective as this one, and here, even Christopher Lee’s real-life next door neighbor, the great Boris Karloff, must bow to a superior performance. This truly is a monster to be reckoned with.
One must also take a moment to recognize the look given to Lee’s mummy. For many, a mummy is just bandages and go, but the costume department here recognized the costume as more than that. The wrappings are wonderfully done, and the effects of age and being drenched in a bog are also gorgeously realized, which is especially challenging in the age of color. Just enough strips are left hanging to give a notion of wear, and even though only the actor’s eyes are left exposed for him the express with, the facial bandages are wrapped in such a way that during a close up shot, it’s still possible to recognize that there is a real face beneath. You won’t see an expression, but there’s just enough of a hint of real humanity there to give Kharis that much more life, and oh how that pays off.
After watching this movie again, it floors me to think that Hammer’s rendition of The Mummy doesn’t get nearly the same attention as its more prolific Dracula and Frankenstein films do. This is easily the best of their original classic horror titles, and indeed may be their best horror film, period. Wonderfully scripted, tightly directed, and amazingly acted, at the end of the day, The Mummy really is as close to perfect as one is ever likely to get on a Hammer budget.
Bottom line, Hammer’s The Mummy is arguably the finest film the studio ever produced; if it isn’t, it’s definitely top three. It is also beyond doubt the finest mummy movie any studio has ever produced up through the present day, and for any fan of the genre, this movie is one that simply needs to be owned. It’s just too good to stay in the tomb, and absolutely deserves to be rediscovered by the masses and given props as one of the true greats of classic horror.
IMAGES: MARCUS BROOKS