(1959) Directed by Terence Fisher; Written by: Jimmy Sangster; Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Yvonne Furneaux, Felix Aylmer, Eddie Byrne and George Pastell; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“Film acting is basically done with your mind and with your eyes. If it doesn’t show in your eyes, it doesn’t convince anybody. But it did enable me, with movement and with eyes, to create a character once the priest had become the Mummy.” – Christopher Lee (from Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing and Horror Cinema, by Mark A. Miller)
After the success of TheCurse of Frankenstein and Horror ofDracula, the writing-directing team of Jimmy Sangster and Terence Fisher, along with stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, returned for Hammer’s third re-interpretation of Universal’s monster movies. In this case, Fisher and company proved the third time remained a charm. The Mummy is a classic revenge tale with a refreshingly sympathetic take on one of horror’s most enduring monsters.
The story opens in Egypt in 1895, where our protagonist, John Banning (Cushing) is on an archaeological dig with his father Stephen (Felix Aylmer) and Uncle Joe (Raymond Huntley). Unfortunately for John, he’s incapacitated by a broken leg, leaving the elder Banning family members to uncover the tomb of the princess Ananka. Stephen ignores the dire warnings from Karnak worshipper, Mehemet Bey (George Pastell), and suffers the consequences. Fortunately for John, he wasn’t present to witness the incident that drives his father mad, although he’s not off the hook. The story jumps to 1898 England, where Mehemet has traveled to enact revenge against those who have disturbed the tomb of Ananka. After his uncle and father (now living in a sanitarium for the mentally ill) are murdered, it dawns on John that he’ll likely be the next victim.
Cushing provides his character the suitable flourishes of sophistication and dry wit we’ve come to expect from his prior performances.* He walks with a permanent limp, a byproduct of the leg injury that never properly healed. But his malady hasn’t slowed down his fascination with ancient mythology or a desire to determine the intentions of the mysterious Egyptian who has taken up residence in his town. Cushing took an active interest in the filmmaking process, and The Mummy was no exception. Seeing a golden opportunity to exploit the potential of pre-production artwork for his film, he shrewdly suggested to Fisher that a spear should pierce the rampaging monster.
* The younger Banning sure knows how to turn on the charm. Noting his wife Isobel’s (Yvonne Furneaux) uncanny resemblance to Ananka he states, “She was considered the most beautiful person in the world,” then proceeds to kill the moment by following up with, “Mind you, the world wasn’t so big then.”
Lee arguably has the more difficult role as the 4,000-year-old title creature, due to his necessarily mute performance. In a flashback sequence, we witness the High Priest Kharis (Lee) violate the tomb of his beloved princess, resulting in the ultimate penalty. Kharis is subjected to a ritualized punishment, whereby his tongue is cut out,* and he’s buried alive with Ananka’s remains, condemned for all eternity to guard the princess from harm. Swathed in cloth strips from head to toe (or “another bandaged juggernaut,” as Lee described his character – from his autobiography, Tall, Dark and Gruesome), he conveyed more through his eyes than most actors could with their entire bodies and voices. This mummy is far from a mindless killing machine, thanks to Lee, who endows him with a soul. When Kharis looks upon Isobel, he evokes our sympathies, recalling an unfulfilled, forbidden love. Lee manages to pull at our heart strings, despite enduring physical pain** for the role.
* As was customary during this transitional era, Hammer catered to International markets with different versions of the same film, including more explicit scenes such as topless handmaidens and a bloodier depiction of Kharis’ punishment. Sadly, these cuts do not appear to exist on home video.
** Lee sustained back and shoulder injuries carrying Furneaux through a swamp in the movie’s climax.
Let’s face it, no one watches a Hammer film for a balanced treatise on cross-cultural injustice, but there was room in The Mummy for some post-modern social commentary. While it’s tough to excuse Mehemet Bey’s methodology as he exacts revenge against John and his kin, he has a valid point about the Englishmen’s insensitive treatment of his homeland’s culture. When John pays Mehemet an unexpected visit, it provides the Egyptian an opportunity to articulate the conflict between invasive outsiders versus preservation of culture: “It has often puzzled me about archeologists. Has it never occurred to them that by opening the tombs of beings who are sacred, they commit an act of desecration?” John sees no wrong in his profession, failing to see how his attempt to enrich his society’s understanding, comes only at the other culture’s expense. He adds fuel to the fire by calling the deity Karnak a “third-rate god.” From Mehemet’s perspective, it’s easy to see why he would consider John ignorant and intolerant, meddling in things he doesn’t understand for scholarly pursuit. The film’s relatively balanced approach is undermined, however, by some good old fashioned xenophobia, as when Mehemet states “In my country, violence is commonplace.” In an early scene, another character comments, “I don’t like the look of him. He’s a foreigner.”
If you’re digging too deep, you’re probably missing the point of The Mummy. Hammer’s spirited re-telling is intended to be nothing more or less than Saturday matinee material, featuring a re-animated revenge monster that kills people in gruesome ways. Fisher’s efficient direction, accompanied by a rousing, epic score by Franz Reizenstein, make sure that everything moves along at a good clip. Not everyone, including the writer of the 1932 Universal version, Nina Wilcox Putnam, was entertained,* but if it raised eyebrows in its day, it’s worth taking note. It’s another winner from Hammer that holds up admirably to its classic Universal counterparts, and really delivers the goods.
* Putnam referred to Hammer’s version as “this disgusting English remake.” (from The Hammer Vault, by Marcus Hearn)