The Mummy (1959)

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Monday, 20 July 2009

(13:55:34 CDT)

The Mummy (1959)

I'm a The Mummy nut. I have watched, and enjoyed (I know, gasp!) all three of the American action-comedy remakes (some might say parodies). I recently reviewed The Mummy Legacy Collection, a collection of five Universal Studio films from the 1930s and 1940s comprising the standalone original, The Mummy, and four films from a related, alternate-universe series involving Kharis. A little bit of background for the films, if I may:

Imhotep and Kharis were both high priests who fell in love (in the more modern remakes, the object of desire was a pharoah's favorite woman, in the original it was a virgin priestess princess). They both tried bringing their love back from the dead. Both of them were cursed and had tongues cut out and so forth, only later to be revived in more modern times and set forth on a killing spree. In the original, and in the remake, it is a scroll/book of life. In the Kharis series, it is the leaves of the extinct (though seemingly still plentiful in dried form) tana plant. The big difference is that Imhotep (spelled Im-ho-tep while Karloff took the role) is a self-motivating, fully conscious entity possessed of magic powers. Kharis is controlled by the priest, has no magic powers, does not talk, and tends to move much more like a George Romero zombie.

In all of the American versions (Im-ho-tep, Kharis, and Imhotep, if you will) there is a subplot involving the soul of the princess being brought forth into modern times. The first two films of the Kharis series forego it, but by the third and fourth, it is part of the canon again. The general formula is that the mummy eventually finds the modern version of her, shortly after some dashing young man has done the same thing, and his plans begin to break down in the confusion. In a couple of the movies, the mummy ends up with his love, though these are the overall minority (and definitely tragic, since never does she chose to be pulled down into the swamps with him).

When I reviewed the Legacy Collection, I mentioned that the first and second movies of the Kharis cycle could easily have been edited together to deal with the fact that the second one does not have enough of a plot and the first one was a little too comical for the series. I failed to mention that the third one probably also could be thrown into the mix because it mostly just repeats the second one while adding only one truly memorably new scene, the swamp scene at the end. What I did not know at the time is that Hammer did exactly this back in the 1950s, with a different combination from what I had in mind.

Hammer's The Mummy is a 1959 color horror movie (much like their [Horror of] Dracula, I think it is the first color version of the franchise) that mostly replicates the storyline of The Mummy's Tomb but incoporates bits from at least three of the other Universal movies. Tana leaves are discarded and the Scroll of Life is returned. Outside of this and one other change (below), the Kharis cycle is clearly the more prominent reference. The mummy's name is Kharis, the princess is Ananka, and the action is set in the West, not Egypt. The Mummy's Hand, the comedic beginning to the Kharis series best remembered if you like 1940s "b" humor and for the blacked out eyes, though it is enjoyable to me, is mostly tossed aside. You have Steven Banning (a younger, funnier man in Hand) reimagined as an older, more forgetful Egyptologist. His sidekick is now no nonsense and his son, John Banning (not showing up until Tomb in the Kharis cycle) has recently broken his leg and so out of action. They find the tomb of Ananka, but tragedy soon strikes as John Banning sees something that drives him insane (the other reference to the original movie).

Three years later, John Banning walks with a limp (his leg did not heal) and an Egyptian man comes to his small town. Here, the plot is very much so out of Tomb, with some of the same scenes of a quaint townfolk, out of the way places, and so forth. The plot of the original Egyptologists being hunted down and destroyed is also from Tomb. The scariest scene from this portion of the film is the mummy coming out of the swamp and then going to the nursing home, and breaking the bars from the window while all you can see is a strange blur on the other side of the glass. The "one handed choke" has returned as the primary killing method of Kharis.


The Hammer mark is strong in this one. The "bogs" (replacing the swamp from The Mummy's Ghost) are delightfully Hammer, with strange colors and fog effects coming off of them. The mansions are both lavish and feel like set decoration at the same time. The pub is both grimy and cosy. What's more, that old horror device of a vehicle driven by inebriated idiots leading to vital contents being spilled over the side (into a bog, as well!) is used here. Possibly in its earliest form (I am researching this). Christopher Lee is massive as always (one character describes the mummy as "ten-feet tall", which works as a rough estimate) and Peter Cushing returns with the gentleman hero, combining post-Victorian class with running dashes over desks and, in one scene, a leaping spear jab into the mummy's chest.

They blend in elements from The Mummy's Ghost towards the end, though the blending is a little rough around the edges. With about half an hour to go, maybe less, John Banning suddenly notes that his wife (only present in two other scenes prior that I can remember) looks just like Princess Ananka. From there, we get the heartbroken Kharis plot in a couple of other moments, leading into a repeat of Ghost's chase scene back into the bog. One feels for Mrs. Banning, taken from her loving husband, but since the movie had only just introduced her as a character in the past few minutes, it robs it a little of the impact. A trap laid to catch the mummy fails, just as in Ghost (though this time the quickly aborted pit trap storyline is replaced by a series of sentries who are found and beaten in a nicely worrisome scene) and Also borrowed from Ghost is the priest. George Pastell's Mehemet Bey is most like John Carradine's Yousef Bey (as compared with a handful of other priests that showed up in the other movies), with very similar prayers and gestures.

The overall effect is a best-of compilation the Kharis series (excepting the one scene in The Curse of the Mummy where the Princess Ananka wakes up in the swamp, but there is no real way to have included it) and works well as a bonafide horror movie as well as a low budget period piece horror Hammer Studios were the master of delivering. It also completes, as it were, the prime trilogy of Universal Horror remakes (Hammer had already done Dracula and [The Curse of] Frankenstein, both starring Cushing and Lee as the "gentleman" and "monster", respectively). Breaking the flow in the middle to tell the story of Kharis slowed down the flow right when it was picking up, and some of the latter actions were a bit questionable, even though Banning confronting Mehemet Bey in Bey's home was a nice touch that first feels foolish, but letting Banning get a few verbal jabs in overall completes the movie. The final confrontation in the bog is aided if you have seen Ghost, but stands as tense on it's own.

The end result is not a perfect movie, it lacks a little of the jolt that the same rough team (not only Lee and Cushing, but Terence Fisher as Director, Jimmy Sangster on script, Jack Asher on cinematography, and two of the producers) brought to The Horror of Dracula (Dracula's bloody eyes and snarl as he exposes himself as a vampire in Dracula is far more memorable than even the muddy awakening of Kharis in this one) while fixing a few of the other bits that plagued the slightly earlier movie (Geography makes a little more sense, the comic relief scenes are placed more sparingly). This is better than any given instance of the Kharis cycle, and many fans prefer it to the Universal original. I, for one, will mark it as a Good movie and recommend it to both Hammer fans and old-school mummy horror fans. A lot happens in it's hour and a half (the density of events in the old Hammer movies is somewhat astounding) and most of it is worthwhile.

As something of a post-script, it is interesting to note that the limp that John Banning walks with serves little purpose besides to mark a similarity between he and Kharis (whose gait is faster and stronger than his Universal counterpart, though still quite stumbling). A similar technique was used in Dracula, with Cushing's Van Helsing sometimes repeating similar actions or poses as Lee's Dracula, and both being stronger men with control over others. Hammer never used this technique above a fairly subtle degree, but colluding the hero and the monster says some intriguing things about the horror genre in general.

As something of another postscript, the story goes that Lee took a lot of damage while making this movie. His shoulder was hurt while bursting through a door, he damaged his legs while stumbling over pipes in the bog scene, his back was hurt while carrying the unconcious Mrs. Banning, and the squibs from the bullet shots actually burned him. Take a moment, and give Christopher Lee a round of applause for taking one for the team and finishing the movie.

Si Vales, Valeo


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