It’s a piece of Hollywood folklore that would appear to have been in place much longer, but – apart from a few gag-oriented shorts made during the silent era – the mummy wasn’t part of the horror pantheon until Karl Freund unleashed The Mummy in 1932. Legend has it that, cinematographer-turned-director Freund made the film in response to Tod Browning’s Dracula, which he had photographed in 1931. Freund, a major figure in the days of German expressionist cinema, was said to have been dissatisfied with the staid approach Browning took to the material, and so he approached The Mummy as a sort of thinly veiled remake designed to “school” the other director on how it should have been done. Whether this is really true is a matter of speculation, but there’s no denying a certain structural similarity between the two films, as an undead being works his magic on a damsel in distress, while an elder savant figure looks to destroy the creature before he accomplishes his goal.
Many viewers have complained that the film is slow and lacking in incident, and on the face of it this is true enough – it is really more of a tone poem, and whether one appreciates it depends on whether they respond to the film’s peculiar atmosphere. Even so, the opening of the picture, with Boris Karloff’s titular character stirring to life and shambling off into the night, leaving young archaeologist Bramwell Fletcher in a state of abject hysteria, is justly celebrated – it also happens to be the only sequence in the film where Karloff is presented in the iconic makeup of a full blown reanimated mummy. For the rest of the film, he adopts the guise of wizened Egyptian scholar Ardath Bey, complete with fez and parchment-like skin.
When Universal decided to revisit the property in 1940, with The Mummy’s Hand, they introduced the character of Kharis, the mummy, an unstoppable force who would come back for a series of progressively weaker sequels. The character – slightly rechristened as Klaris – would return to face his mightiest foes in the inevitable Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955).
When the time came for Hammer Films to make their version of The Mummy, they were only able to do so by virtue of a new production deal with Universal-International Pictures. The company sensibly decided to reunite much of the same team which had been responsible for The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958), including director Terence Fisher, cinematographer Jack Asher, screen writer Jimmy Sangster, and stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. By this stage in the game, the crew had become very familiar with each other and their working methods, and The Mummy finds them honing their craft to an even greater degree.
Sangster always maintained that he never saw any of the Universal horror films, and while he may have been truthful in this, he did have access to the scripts of the old mummy series when he was preparing this screenplay. This is borne out by the repetition of various character names and incidents that had been peppered throughout the franchise, and it has the unwitting effect of making The Mummy into something of a “greatest hits” package of mummy films of the past. Truth be told, if the film has a major deficit, it is in the screenplay. Sangster is not able to bring anything resembling the fresh perspective that had made his Frankenstein and Dracula screenplays so successful, and it has been accurately noted by some critics that it relies, instead, on a series of murder scenes which make it into something of a precursor to the stalk and slash films of the 1970s onwards. Sangster also displays a certain laziness, in using the name of an Egyptian city ( Karnak ) as the name of the God to whom Kharis is a high priest.
On the upside, the film is beautifully realized by Terence Fisher. By this time, he had developed a real flair for the Gothic, and working in harmony with cinematographer Asher, he creates some of the most memorable images in his entire filmography. The film has been criticized for its patently phony exterior sets, but in fact most of these sets suit the dreamlike, unrealistic atmosphere on display. Only a clumsy Egyptian flashback scene feels like a misstep, and the remainder of the film is smooth in its execution. The scenes of Kharis in the swamp don’t approach any kind of realism, but they clearly don’t aspire to, either. Asher utilizes lighting which makes his approach on the initial Frankenstein Dracula pictures look positively staid – vivid highlights of red, green and blue spotlighting help to emphasize the theatrical nature of the proceedings, and the end result was praised by none other than star Christopher Lee (in an interview included on the CD release of Franz Weizenstein’s score for the film) as “the best looking film Hammer ever made.”
The cast performs beautifully. Lee gives one of his most affecting performances as the mummy. A lesser actor would have simply soldiered through the makeup and made no real attempt at building character, but Lee does not resort to such tactics. His gift for mime comes through frequently, and he makes the character come to life with genuine pathos instead of coming off as a mere killing machine. Peter Cushing is saddled with a less fully realized character than usual, but he manages to convey a certain sadness and melancholy of his own. The scene in which he goes out of his way to antagonize the sinister Mehemet Bey (an equally splendid George Pastell) includes some choice dialogue, which the actor clearly relishes. Interestingly, whereas Kharis had been depicted as having paralysis on the left side of his body in the Universal film, thus requiring Tom Tyler (in The Mummy’s Hand) and Lon Chaney, Jr (in the subsequent straight horror outings) to drag a leg and keep an arm motionless, here Kharis is presented as limber and fast moving, while Cushing is saddled with a lame leg. This has the effect of making Cushing’s hero figure somewhat ineffectual against Kharis, thus upping the suspense angle considerably during their confrontation scenes.
Beautiful Yvonne Furneaux (later to work with such major filmmakers as Federico Fellini and Roman Polanski) may not have taken the project very seriously (she reportedly loved Cushing but had no appreciation of Fisher’s talents) but she still gives a strong performance in an admittedly one dimensional role, as Cushing’s doting wife – who also happens to be the reincarnation of Kharis’ beloved Princess Ananka (this reincarnation business was a trope in the mummy series, and would later spill into various Dracula adaptations, ranging from the Dan Curtis telefilm of 1973 to the recent Dario Argento version of 2012). Felix Aylmer (Cushing’s costar in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet), Raymond Huntley (once famous for playing Dracula on stage), Michael Ripper (making one of his first Hammer Gothic appearances, and soon to become a staple) and the aforementioned Pastell also shine in their supporting roles
With its lush cinematography, gorgeous score and fine acting, The Mummy found favor at the box office – thus setting off an inevitable chain of follow ups (not really sequels) of its own. Michael Carreras graduated from producing the first film to producing, writing and directing the first follow up, The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964). Granted, Carreras had a tough act to follow – but the end result is one of Hammer’s least successful Gothic horrors, and arguably the worst horror effort of their golden period.
The story deals with an American showman (Fred Clark) who finances an expedition to discover the mummy of Ra-Anted; when the mummy is uncovered, the showman takes it on the road for the benefit of curious yokels. Things get messy when the creature comes to life and goes on a rampage.Carreras clearly took his inspiration from King Kong (1933), with Clark subbing for Robert Armstrong’s Carl Denham. Alas, despite impressive production values and beautiful widescreen cinematography courtesy of the great Otto Heller (Peeping Tom), the film lumbers as slowly as its bandaged protagonist. Clark is a hoot as the prototypical “Ugly American,” and he manages to work in a bit of humanity to the role where he is able. Terence Howard is also effective as the suave nobleman with a mysterious secret, while George Pastell reprises his role as the mummy’s “guardian,” albeit in a more sympathetic vein this time. Michael Ripper is squandered in a blink and you’ll miss it appearance, however, and Ronald Howard (TV’s Sherlock Holmes) and Jeanne Roland make for a dull romantic couple. The mummy is played under wraps by Dickie Owen, but he is given scant opportunity to function as anything more than a brute.The film performed reasonably well when released as part of double bill with Terence Fisher’s vastly superior The Gorgon, and Hammer revisited the material yet again with The Mummy’s Shroud (1966).
Here, another crass businessman (John Phillips) bankrolls an expedition, this time headed by distinguished archaeologist Sir Basil Walden (Andre Morell). The tomb of Kah-to-bey is unearthed, thus unleashing the fury of guardian mummy Prem; gradually the members of the expedition fall victim to the curse of the mummy’s tomb.The film was written and directed by the talented John Gilling, who had just completed two very fine Cornwall-set Gothics for the studio: The Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile. Inspiration was running dry by the time this one rolled along, and Gilling would later dismiss it as a bit of hackwork for a paycheck. Truth be told, he handles the material with considerable flair.
The issue, however, is that the film suffers from the same slightly flea-bitten look which was beginning to affect Hammer’s product around this time. Producer Anthony Nelson Keys had hit upon the idea of filming two films back to back on the same sets, with the same personnel, but while this idea was cost effective, it started to take a toll on the quality of Hammer’s product. Thus, The Mummy’s Shroud shared much of the same cramped sets that were utilized by Frankenstein Created Woman, and both films have a rather flat, ugly look to them, especially when compared to the product Hammer had been releasing before. As with the films that preceded it, The Mummy’s Shroud is essentially structured as a series of elaborate revenge-murder scenes. Gilling tackles these setpiece with tremendous verve, however, resulting in a few nicely timed shocks. The scene of a character having his head crushed like a ripe melon by the mummy is suggested rather than shown, but the choice camera angles and sound effects give it an appropriately icky quality. Alas, the film is again burderned with another awful Egyptian flashback scene – this one actually commences the action, and it could be that the film’s lousy reputation is due to this; by starting the film off on such a bad note, it may have lost some of its audience before it had much of a chance to win them over.
It would take Hammer several years to revisit the mummy subgenre, and when they did, it would prove to be one of their most bedeviled projects. Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971), adapted by screenwriter Christopher Wicking from Bram Stoker’s novel The Jewel of Seven Stars, is one of the most willfully unusual titles in the history of Hammer horror. Wicking’s fragmented approach to storytelling was popular for a time during the late 60s and early 70s, and he would write some of the more inventive and unusual horror films of the period for Hammer (Demons of the Mind) and AIP (Scream and Scream Again). Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb sees him working from the Val Lewton approach to horror, with ample suggestion and nothing in the way of a bandaged, shambling monster. In its place, we have statuesque Valerie Leon as the demonic Queen Tera, who is reincarnated into the form of naïve Margaret Fuchs. She is the daughter of obsessed archeaologist Professor Julian Fuchs (Andrew Keir), whose research into Tera has put them both in considerable danger.
Stoker’s story would later be adapted as an episode of Tales of Mystery and Imagination, with Isobel Black in the central role, and it would again be adapted for the big budget but rather dreary Charlton Heston vehicle, The Awakening (1980). Blood, for all its faults, remains the best version of the story. It was directed by the brilliant Seth Holt, who had previously directed two of Hammer’s finest films: Taste of Fear (1960) and The Nanny (1965). Holt had established himself as a major talent as a film editor, and he would find himself at the helm of a series of beautifully accomplished films – however, he was also an alcoholic, and his problems with this disease prevented him from directing more than a handful of pictures, as well as some episodes of episodic television. Blood would become his final film – and one he didn’t even have the advantage of completing. Several weeks into production, Holt died. He was only 47 years old. Executive producer Michael Carreras was put in the difficult position of trying to salvage the film. He toyed with the idea of scrapping the material and starting afresh, and he approached Hammer stalwart Don Sharp with this idea. Sharp balked, however, and Carreras realized that it would be more cost-efficient to soldier on and complete the picture himself. He was reportedly horrified by what Holt shot, however, as it was done in a very strange, elliptical manner.
He would later say that he figured Holt had a plan in mind, but he had not shared this plan with anybody else; it therefore fell to him to make some sense of the material. He fired Holt’s favored editor, and resumed production with himself installed as the new director. Final credit would go to Holt alone, however, though there’s little question that the end result bears only scant resemblance to what he would have assembled, had he been able to complete it. Carreras deserves credit for making something workable out of the material, but it has to be said that his talent as a director was considerably less than Holt’s. Thus, for every moody, beautifully realized sequence, there’s another far clunkier and less elegant scene to slog through. The end result is uneven, with at least one sequence (the death of a major character in a car crash) coming off as utterly laughable because of how poorly it is staged (this sequence, incidentally, was not shot by Holt).
Leon dominates the film. Though dubbed by another actress, she brings a truly ethereal presence to her role. Her transition from normal young woman to wanton and vile monster is successfully managed – and sexist as it may sound, she certainly does fill out his various eye catching outfits (skin watchers need to bear in mind, however, that she refused to do nudity – so that’s a body double when she gets out of bed in the nude). Andrew Keir (Quatermass and the Pit), a powerful and compelling actor, is cast in an unusually weak and powerless role – reminding one of how Andre Morell fared in The Mummy’s Shroud. Fuchs is sidelined with a stroke early on and spends much of the action staring wildly from his bed. It is well known by now that Peter Cushing had been cast in this role, and stills exist showing him acting with Leon for one day. Sadly, his beloved wife Helen became desperately ill, and Cushing bailed to be with her – she would die soon after. For once, this was a mummy film that truly did appear to be cursed. Whether Cushing would have fared any better in the role is open to speculation, but one cannot complain about Keir’s performance – it’s just not that dynamic of a part to begin with. James Villiers (The Nanny) is superbly sinister as Corbeck, a member of Fuchs’ team who has gone off the deep end of the occult. Villiers plays the role with a touch of camp villainy, but he definitely makes a tremendous impression and steals many of his scenes. Aubrey Morris (A Clockwork Orange) also adds to the camp factor with his bizarre but memorable portrayal of a family GP with a penchant for wearing dark glasses.
Though understandably uneven, Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb remains one of the company’s most successfully offbeat offerings of the period. In lieu of buxom vampires and heaping helpings of nudity, it offers up a moody and elliptical approach to a familiar type of subject matter. It would become the final mummy adventure for the company, and all things considered, it made for a good stopping point.
The mummy would inevitably rise again under the auspices of other production companies – the blood and guts fueled 80s would see Dawn of the Mummy, for example, while the current propensity for overdone CGI and mindless thrills would be reflected in Stephen Sommers’ mummy films for Universal – but Hammer’s contributions remain noteworthy, with their 1959 original comparing well to the 1932 classic that started it all.