Mummy, The (1959)

The Mummy (1959)

Torn from the tomb to terrify the world!

A team of British archaeologists discover the untouched tomb of ancient Egyptian Princess Ananka. They are warned not to disturb the tomb but don’t heed the advice and a terrible curse befalls them. Three years later back in England, the curse comes to life in graphic fashion as the undead guardian of the tomb comes to wreak vengeance upon those who desecrated the tomb.

 

After tackling Frankenstein and Dracula and giving the old guard a new lease of cinematic life in lavish Technicolour, Hammer turned to another of the famous Universal monsters for their next film. Brought to life with the same Gothic atmosphere and graphically violent approach as its predecessors, The Mummy is arguably the lesser of the ‘big three’ monsters which is hardly something to worry about since the other films were genre-defining classics. Even more so since this one doesn’t technically remake Boris Karloff’s 1932 version of The Mummy and has more in line with it’s sequel, The Mummy’s Hand, in which the bandaged creature is given iconic screen time. Basically taking all of the elements that would work from the Universal series and bundling them all together in one package, The Mummy has big footsteps to follow in and almost manages to follow them, but not quite.

Belaying its low budget, director Terence Fisher brings to life this fantastical tale through a variety of amazing sets. From the ancient Egyptian mummy’s tomb right through to the eerie swamps in which it’s resurrected, the sets are bursting to life with detail, all astutely picked up on by Fisher. He rings every last drop out of the budget, transporting the viewer back to a recognisable era of discovery and mystery. The swamp set provides the film with it’s greatest moment, that of the mummy rising up from the murky depths, slowly writhing and wriggling it’s way to the bubbling surface.

The presentation of the film oozes the Hammer vibe but it’s remarkable how different this feels to both The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula. It feels fresher, more modern and a little more exciting and unpredictable. That’s not to say it isn’t predictable. Everything pans out the way it should for a mummy film with secondary characters not making it to the final reel and such like. It does take a while to get going though as the story needs establishing before the mummy can arise. There is a lengthy flashback to ancient Egypt in the middle of the film and it is just that – lengthy. It’s quite unnecessary to take up as much time as it does and a few cuts here and there would have quickened the pace up at a crucial point just after the mummy has claimed his first victim. Instead it acts like a speed bump, putting the brakes on momentum that the film is building and then letting it build again.

Peter Cushing stars as John Banning and….well its Peter Cushing. You shouldn’t need an introduction to him if you’re even a part-time horror fan. It’s hardly Cushing’s best performance, certainly the worst of the ‘big three’ Hammer horror originals but that was because both Van Helsing and Frankenstein are generally more iconic and unmistakable characters from literature. Banning is simply just a normal man written for the purpose of the film. Cushing does what he does and it’s great to see him in his prime when he was able to tussle and roll around in the thick of the action. Never really an action man, Cushing handles the action scenes well but, as always, saves the best moments for his verbal exchanges with other characters.

A testament to his talent, Christopher Lee brings to life the mummy solely through mannerisms and use of his eyes. The monster is ruthless, almost stealth-like in its methods but at the same time there is an eternal aurora of tragedy surrounding it. The audience knows that his only crime in his previous life was love and thus the monster is sympathetic. Having said that, during the scenes in which the monster powerfully strides across the screen, smashing doors open and choking the life out of its victims, it’s hard to feel anything but outright fear. Lee’s physical presence makes for a formidable monster. The make-up effects do their job too. We all know that he’s a guy in bandages but there are some memorable visuals involving the mummy, notably the previously mentioned one in which he rises up from the swamp.

George Pastell deserves a mention as Mehemet Bey, the Egyptian who commands the mummy. He’s undeniably sneaky and shares the film’s best scene with Cushing as the two men verbally spar off against each other: Cushing trying to provoke him into revealing more about himself and Pastell passionately talking about his religion and beliefs. The script is really sharp here but it’s the delivery which makes it work.

 

Complete with great performances, a strong plot, good special effects and a sharp script for its day, The Mummy is one of Hammer’s best films and easily the best mummy film to date. It’s just lacking that little bit of spark which would turn it into a genre classic. Being overshadowed by two such genre classics doesn’t do it any favours though as expectations are high going in and there’s no way that it could top The Curse of Frankenstein or Horror of Dracula.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

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