I’ve always preferred Universal to Hammer in the field of monster movies, but there is no denying the allure and talent behind those British films. With two of my favorite actors, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee frequently starring, you know you’re in for a good time when you sit down to watch a Hammer film (generally speaking).
Hammer was famous for taking the Universal monster stories and taking the action, gore, and sexuality up a notch. Given the fact that I enjoyed their reworkings of Frankenstein and Dracula a great deal, the next logical step forward for me was to watch The Mummy.
This film takes place in the 1890s, and begins like many in its genre, with a team of archaeologists attempting to find a tomb. Stephen Banning (Felix Aylmer) heads the expedition, with his son John (Peter Cushing!!) ailing from a broken leg nearby. They are busy looking for the tomb of Egyptian Princess Ananka when a local priest warns them that their actions beg for consequences. Of course, there is a curse involved.
While poking around inside the tomb, Stephen finds an ancient scroll and starts reading from it. Apparently seeing something shocking, he starts to scream and goes into shock (it is later revealed that him reading the scroll revived the mummy Kharis). The others find him there, and later pack up some of their finds and return to England. A few years later, Stephen is living in a nursing home, and evidently snaps out of his state. He tells John about what really happened in the tomb—reading the scroll had brought back to life a mummy, specifically Kharis, the high priest and forbidden love of princess Ananka. He was entombed alive thousands of years ago for trying to resurrect her. Apparently, Kharis’ mission is to destroy the desecrators of the tomb.
Later on, the mysterious Egyptian priest from the beginning of the film arrives in England, bringing with him a large crate. He hires two drunkards to transport it to his home, but they go so fast that the crate falls off the carriage into a swamp. Using the scroll, he commands Kharis, who was inside the crate, to kill Stephen Banning. The film really shows its stuff whenever Kharis is on a rampage. He breaks the barred window at the nursing home and strangles the old man Stephen, and later kills Joseph Whemple, John’s uncle and another expedition member.
John, now acquainted with this monster, realizes he is the mummy’s next target and vows to destroy it. In one of The Mummy‘s more exciting scenes, Kharis breaks in to John’s home and nearly kills him, only to stop when he is distracted by John’s wife Isobel, who looks exactly like the long-dead princess Ananka. John swiftly gets to the bottom of this and suspects the Egyptian newcomer (the priest) has something to do with it.
At the film’s climax, Kharis, under the priest’s command, attempts to kill John again. Kharis becomes distracted by John’s wife and kills his master when he tries to intervene. Carrying Isobel outside, Kharis is followed by John and some policemen into the swamp, where he is defeated by volley after volley of bullets and sinks beneath the waters.
The Mummy clearly takes inspiration from other films in its genre that came before it. Not just Universal’s film of the same name from 1932, but also a few of its ‘sequels’. Elements from Universal’s original film are used, like how Stephen Banning mistakenly revives Kharis by reading the scroll, and the mummy believing John’s wife is the reincarnation of princess Ananka. Otherwise, the name of the mummy, Kharis, is taken from Universal’s The Mummy’s Hand (1940) as is the concept of the mummy being controlled by a sinister priest. Kharis being transported overseas to kill off the expedition members is lifted from The Mummy’s Tomb (1942) and the swamp-centered finale reminded me of a similar one from The Mummy’s Ghost (1944). It is worth noting that this film also spawned ‘sequels’, three of them, none starring Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee.
Hammer’s The Mummy suffers a bit from being so derivative; there’s not a ton of surprises in store for a mummy film made after so many others. Thusly, it is a bit predictable in terms of story. This film also suffers from the use of flashbacks. It’s inevitable that a mummy-centered flick will have some flashbacks to ancient Egypt, the mummy character’s origins, yada yada. The one that this film boasts goes on for far too long! I suppose it was lengthened to give Christopher Lee a speaking role (Kharis the high priest; Kharis the mummy has no lines), but it overstays its welcome time wise. The second(!) flashback shows us the resurrection of Kharis from old Stephen’s point of view; this time we actually see Kharis scaring the crap out of Stephen and driving him into his catatonic state. I question the inclusion of this second flashback. One did not need explicit confirmation that it was Kharis who appeared in Ananka’s tomb at the start of the film. That supposition, I think, was easy enough for the audience to conceive on their own.
On the upside, whenever Kharis is on a rampage, the film really shows its stuff. Who doesn’t enjoy seeing well-dressed Peter Cushing fight Christopher Lee in a monster costume? It’s great fun to see these two icons duke it out in Hammer’s monster movies. This film does benefit from its cast greatly. Lee, who is hardly recognizable as the title character, still effectively shows signs of emotion and conflict behind the makeup, especially when he believes John’s wife is his princess. Cushing is decidedly calculating as John; refined but not afraid to get his hands dirty in taking down the mummy and his priest. One of the film’s best scenes is a great performance-driven war of words when John pays a visit to priest Mehmet Bey (George Pastell) and they begin to argue over the true aims of archaeologists.
The Mummy did not entertain me as much as The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) or Horror of Dracula (1958), but it isn’t bad. It is worth watching, even through the boring segments (like the too-long flashbacks) just to get to the good, meaty parts. This isn’t Hammer Horror at its finest, but it’ll do nicely.
Be on the lookout for another Laurel and Hardy short film review this coming Saturday; next Wednesday I will be reviewing a surprisingly good horror sequel… stay tuned, and don’t go poking around ancient tombs unless you want monsters following you!