Wednesday, March 30, 2022

THE MUMMY (1959) Blu-ray Review

The Mummy (1959) d. Terence Fisher (UK) (86 min)

In 1895, archaeologists Stephen Banning (Felix Aylmer) and his brother-in-law Joseph Whemple (Raymond Huntley) unearth the opening of Egyptian princess Ananka’s tomb, much to the excitement of Banning’s son John (Peter Cushing), who is laid up with a broken leg but refuses to leave the site until his father breaks the seal. A local follower of the god Karnak, Mehemet (George Pastell), cautions the Westerners with a dire warning: “Whomever disturbs the tombs of Egypt… dies.” They shrug him off, but within moments, Banning is rendered a gibbering idiot after his encounter with… something. Three years later, ensconced in a mental hospital, he emerges from his stupor long enough to warn his son that the curse of Ananka is real, and is shortly thereafter dispatched by the murderous hands of the princess’ guardian mummy, former high priest, and forbidden lover Kharis (Christopher Lee), resurrected by Mehemet. Whemple is next on the bandaged assassin’s hit list, followed by John, although the latter escapes his fate when his wife Isobel (Yvonne Furneaux) distracts Kharis with her striking resemblance to Ananka, awakening a centuries-old fire in its dessicated breast….

Having enjoyed massive success with their adaptations of Dracula and Frankenstein, Hammer struck a deal with Universal for the production of yet another color version of one of the studio’s classics, though screenwriter Jimmy Sangster incorporates more plot elements from the 1940s sequels The Mummy’s Hand, The Mummy’s Ghost, and The Mummy’s Tomb rather than delivering a straight remake of the 1932 hit starring Boris Karloff. Reuniting the dream team of Fisher, Cushing, and Lee (the three had recently collaborated on The Hound of the Baskervilles earlier that same year), the studio served up another smash commercial success, and while never quite attaining the “must-see” status of their other Gothic offerings, Hammer cranked out three sequels of varying quality over the next decade.

For his final big monster makeup gig, Lee was swathed in bandages and his visage held immobile with piano wire behind f/x man Roy Ashton’s mask. (This represents one of Ashton’s high water marks, with his crowing achievement, 1961’s The Curse of the Werewolf just around the corner.) While reports of the actor’s suffering were legion (injuring his shoulder and back carrying Furneaux to and fro, banging his shins and ankles on the various below-surface pipes in the “swamp,” and being bruised from the squibs for the ineffectual bullet hits), Lee calls upon his considerable mime skills, using his eyes and body to great effect to communicate a wide spectrum of emotions. Additionally, his athletic, improbably well-muscled mummy is legitimately terrifying at times (as opposed to Lon Chaney Jr.’s slouching, portly version), smashing through doors and windows in quest for his quarry.

Despite his lighter workload, Cushing did not escape unscathed physical duress. The prop gun, excessively loaded with gunpowder, temporarily deafened him and left burn marks on his face and hands. Despite these mishaps, the icon delivers like the pro he is, limping about on his character’s improperly healed leg, drolly delivering Sangster’s somewhat ponderous dialogue about Egyptian curses and vengeance against his bloodline, and hurling himself about in the face of Kharis’ overpowering might. As Alfred Eaker observed on his 366 Weird Movies website, “No one gets strangled like Cushing.”

In his fourth pairing with Lee (and the sixth film they did together, if one counts their non-shared scenes in 1948’s Hamlet and 1952’s Moulin Rouge), the two stars continue their winning formula of good vs. evil, with delicate shades of gray on both sides. (Banning is not wholly heroic – he and his family are technically thieves, after all – and Kharis is acting from a place of devotion to his long-lost love.) It was also Cushing’s idea to plunge the harpoon mounted over the fireplace through his foe, inspired (or perhaps attempting to justify) the poster artwork showing a flashlight shining through the monster.

Aylmer and Huntley do fine with their supporting one-note roles, but it is Cyprus-born George Pastell (aka Nino Pastellides) who makes the biggest impression outside of the two stars. His Mehemet is no cardboard villain, but rather an intelligent and venerable gentleman whose conviction of his beliefs requires a blood sacrifice from those who have defiled the gods (or god, in this case, that of “Karnak,” which is actually a city in Egypt rather than a legitimate deity). The scene where he and Cushing press each other for information is as suspenseful as any of the monster sequences, playing out like a superb chess match, with neither revealing too much, warily circling one another in the small drawing room.

In addition to appearing in Hammer’s first sequel, Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964) as an Egyptian scholar, Pastell enjoyed an extensive voiceover career, redubbing everything from James Bond (You Only Live Twice’s Tiger Tanaka) to Dr. Zhivago, earning himself the moniker “the Paul Frees of Britain.”

Despite the fine work from the aforementioned individuals, as well as cinematographer Jack Asher’s mysterious and haunting colored gels, The Mummy never really soars in the way that its predecessors had. Part of it is the overextension of legendary production designer Bernard Robinson’s resources; while he had worked miracles with Gothic castle sets and ornate mad scientist laboratories, he is somewhat thwarted in his task to create a realistic sandswept African landscape exterior on what is clearly an indoor set, complete with painted sky. There’s a certain charm to the theatricality of it all, but this is the first time that viewers and critics were forced to add on the apologistic “considering the budget with which he had to work” whilst dishing out the praise.

The other hindrance, oddly enough, lies in the too-familiar script. Given that he was forbidden to borrow any of the elements of Universal’s versions of Dracula or Frankenstein, Sangster was forced to conjure entirely new mythologies based on the source materials. Here, not only does he not have a literary template from which to springboard, he’s been given license to borrow whatever he chose from the five preexisting films and borrow liberally he does. The result is a mummy movies that feels much like other mummy movies because it’s basically a composite of what went before.

Now, that’s not to say that Fisher and Co. don’t tart it up a bit, adding nasty X-certificate bits like Kharis’ tongue removal and backs being broken over moldering knees. (Apparently, the fabled “Continental version,” shot for foreign markets, also inserted shots of topless female handmaidens – who were then rendered literally topless, i.e. beheaded – and a protracted, gorier, and more explicit tongue excision sequence, though I’ve never seen it firsthand, so that could all be apocryphal.)

Bottom line, if you’ve never seen a mummy flick before, Hammer’s entry will absolutely serve the turn. It’s a handsome effort with top-notch performances (marking the only time Lee, Cushing, Michael Ripper, and George Woodbridge all appeared in the same movie!) and solid production values, yet somehow doesn’t quite manage to earn its “classic” standing, at least in this horror fan’s eyes.

Unfortunately, there has not been a satisfying Region 1 Blu-ray release to date, with Warners’ bare-bones 2015 release as part of their “Horror Classics, Vol 1.” box set marking the only hi-def option currently available. However, Icon Home Entertainment (based in the UK) released a lavish two-disc set in 2013 that includes a commentary from Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby, numerous documentaries and featurettes, and Fisher’s 1952 crime drama Stolen Face as a bonus film! Hopefully, some enterprising distributor (hello, Shout! Factory) will secure the rights at some point and give The Mummy the North American release it deserves.


Ian Simmons of Kicking the Seat and I sat down this week to talk about the film on the YouTubes! Check out our conversation HERE: 

The Mummy is available now on various purchase platforms (including, yes, Amazon), though I highly encourage folks to ask their local used record/movie store to order in for them. (In my case, that’s Laurie’s Planet of Sound in the Lincoln Square area of Chicago.) Let’s keep looking out for the independents!


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