After retro-fitting and updating such classic characters as Frankenstein and Dracula with more modern (for the 50’s anyway) sensibilities, it was a shoo-in that Hammer Films would turn their attention to the rest of the monstrous squad made icons by Universal nearly twenty years earlier. So after a Dracula movie and two Frankenstein flicks, both infused with retina searing colour, it was only natural that the studio cracked open the sarcophagus and dragged out the Mummy for a bit of an airing – however, there was a slight issue. While Dracula is a pro-active blood sucker and the Hammer Frankenstein movies wisely focused more on the continuing mania of its titular Baron, whichever way you slice it, the Mummy was either always mindless, lurching muscle for an Egyptian sect leader or a wrinkled schemer, plotting supernatural “accidents” to further his fortunes with neither really being as effective as some of their inhuman stable mates. So which Mummy would Hammer unearth to break that true curse of the pyramids: the unfortunate fact that the monster is a little B-list.
It’s 1895 and british archeologists John Banning, his father Stephen and his uncle Joseph are all full of that tally-ho/what-what spirit as they accomplish their goal of uncovering the tomb of the high priestess of Karnak, Princess Ananka and can’t wait to get the thing open despite the warnings of curses and whatnot from the locals. While John regrets not being present for the big moment due to a broken leg that needs resting, Stephen and Joseph forge on blissfully in the belief that the very fact they’re British should be enough protect them from any bad things that could happen. However, their supposedly inpenetrable shield of white privilege crumbles when Stephen reads aloud from the Scroll Of Life and after the rest of the team rushes in to investigate his blood curdling screams, find the senior Banning in a catatonic state.
Years later, he emerges from his catatonia in a nursing home and sends for his son in a panic who arrives to hear that upon reading that nefarious scroll, his father awakened the mummified remains of Kharis, the high priest of Karnak who was disgraced and punished by being entombed alive are his secret love for Ananka was discovered and this lumbering thing will now seek out and kill all those who desecrated the tomb.
He’s not wrong, as Mehemet Bey, a devoted Karnak groupie, has arraigned to have Kharis shipped to England to perform his throttling-based revenge on the Banning family and who gets to work, strangling Stephen to death and freaking out drunk Irishmen as he loses through the night looking for his next target. John realises that sooner or later, he’s next and neither the police or his sizable rifle collection can help him – but maybe salvation comes in the form of his wife Isobel, who bears an uncanny likeness to Kharis’ long lost love.
Compared to some of the more radical adaptations the legendary studio has plumped for, their version of The Mummy is actually standard fare, eschewing screwing with the basics in favor of taking a bunch of Universal’s Mummy sequels (namely Tomb, Hand and Ghost) and binding the best bits together with some brown, decaying bandages. As a result, Hammer’s Mummy is probably the most concise, classic Mummy movie that exists, ticking all the boxes you’d expect from a flick starring the shambling one with curses, ancient flashbacks, choked-out english archeologists and reincarnated lovers aplenty and while it’s hardly original (it really is a Mummy’s greatest hits package), it’s given a sizable boost by some lavish, colour photography and some typically solid direction by Hammer regular Terence Fisher.
Of course, with this being Hammer, we get yet another serving of one of horror’s greatest double acts in the form of Cushing and Lee as once again we sit back and watch them square off from opposite ends of the antagonist/protagonist scale.
Peter Cushing is his usually spry self – although it’s always going to slightly weird for someone like me who grew up watching him as Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars see him vaulting tables like a champ and running his moldy attacker through with a spear. Still, his patented brand of stiff upper lippedness (not sure that’s a word, but here we are) in the face of the bout supernatural homicide that’s whittling down his family is always a treat to watch despite the fact that John Banning and his family were warned what would happen and everything that transpires is technically their fault. On the other side of the moral line is Chistopher Lee as the monstrous Kharis but while this towering version of the bandaged baddie is certainly imposing thanks to his tall frame and a face that niftily resembles an amalgamation of both his and Boris Karloff’s sunken features, the Mummy has always been a fairly bland creature, lacking the majesty of a vampire, the pathos of Frankenstein’s science project or the bestial ferocity of the Wolf Man. However, Lee is far too savvy a performer to simply stagger about the place, fatally altering the neckline of doughy englishmen and the admittedly impressive costume allows the actor’s eyes to be clearly visible, giving as a sense of empathy for the musty lug.
Still, the rampant leeching from Universal’s back catalogue restricts The Mummy from being a daring reimagining and instead feels more like a straight remake that’s mostly content to tread the same sandy footprints as past versions. However, while the movies it blatantly steals from were mere, mid-level Universal efforts, it does succeed in tidying them up and ups the excitement level by stepping up the violence upon the mute villain (shotguns and pistols and spears, oh my!) which achieves a pre-Terminator sense of the unstoppable as he crushes windpipe and snaps spines like he’s getting paid for it.
I guess, if nothing else, it proves how tough it is to make a truly original Mummy movie while sticking to the established formula, but it’s obvious that, for once, Hammer wasn’t interested to reinventing the wheel and their debut outing in all things pyramids and perils gives you plenty of Mummy musings to wrap your head around.