Written by Jimmy Sangster
Directed by Terence Fisher
Starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Yvonne Furneaux
US Release December 16, 1959
RT 88 min.
Home Video Warner Brothers
Classic Horrors rating = 9 (out of 10)
Hammer’s 1959 version of The Mummy is not a remake of Universal’s 1932 classic; instead, it uses some of the best components from the entire five-movie franchise to craft a definitive version of adventure and horror. In fact, it borrows less from the original Karloff version than it does from the subsequent four: The Mummy’s Hand (1940), The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), The Mummy’s Ghost (1944) and The Mummy’s Curse (1944). Entirely discounting Tom Tyler’s portrayal in The Mummy’s Hand, Christopher Lee’s Kharis/mummy is also less Karloff than he/it is Lon Chaney Jr.
Lee goes beyond any of his predecessors, though, to create a monster entirely his own. From the moment his keeper, Mehemet Bey (George Pastell) reads from the scroll of life and Kharis rises from the bubbling swamp into which his shipping crate fell from a speeding horse-drawn cart, Lee’s mummy moves with jerky motions and stumbles as it walks. But it evolves, eventually moving faster and becoming less wobbly. He’s a strong force, able to break through barred windows and doors, as well as strangle his victims with the deadly grip of his hand at the end of an outstretched arm.
Beneath cloth and bandages that cover everything but his eyes, Lee is impressively expressive with limited facial movement. We know his tongue was removed before he was mummified and buried alive, but his cheeks sometimes puff out as if he’s trying to speak. We easily identify the shock and confusion when he sees Isobel Banning (Yvonne Furneaux) and recognizes her resemblance to his long lost Princess Ananka. We later witness the equivalent of shame or embarrassment in front of his master when Mehemet Bey realizes he did not complete the task of killing her husband, John Banning (Peter Cushing).
This all happens in 1898 England, but let’s go back to 1895 Egypt, where John’s father, Stephen (Felix Aylmer) and uncle, Joseph Whemple (Raymond Huntley) have been searching for Ananka’s tomb for 20 years. John joins them on the most recent expedition, but is waylaid in his tent with a broken leg when the tomb is discovered. His two elders enter it against a warning from Mehemet Bey: “He who robs the graves of Egypt dies.” They cut the royal seal and enter a “marvelous, absolutely undisturbed,” green-hued chamber. When Joe returns to tell John the news, Stephen finds the scroll of life and a hidden door slowly creaks open…
Racing back to the tomb at the sound of screaming, Joe discovers a whimpering Stephen. Three years later, he’s a resident of the Engerfield Nursing Home for the Mentally Disordered, where the doctors believe his condition to be permanent. In a semi-lucid state, Stephen summons his son to tell him about the mummy he brought to life when he read the scroll. “It hates us for desecrating the tomb of the princes. Someone has found the scroll. The mummy is released again.” Later, he escapes the nursing home, is diagnosed with a “persecution complex,” and then is found and placed in a padded cell.
Now, recalling Mehement’s words to Ananka in Egypt (“For this desecration you shall be avenged”), and witnessing his prayer to the god Karnak at the swamp (“Guide this servant on his important task”), Kharis/the mummy can claim Stephen as his first victim. Let the bar breaking, window crashing, one-handed strangling begin. The “verdict of the court” is murder by person or persons unknown, “committed by some homicidal maniac that no doubt came from outside and left afterwards.” Convinced that there’s more to the story, John pulls the “Ananka folio” from the bookshelf and recounts the history of the princess with a glorious flashback.
This is the part of The Mummy (1959) that’s relatively consistent among previous versions of the story. The legend says that in 2,000 B.C., the high priest, Kharis, was secretly in love with Ananka and tried to resurrect her when she died. When he was discovered for this blasphemy, he was punished by being mummified and buried alive. However, except for what happens with Imhotep/Ardeth Bey in the original The Mummy (1932), it is not Kharis seeking revenge himself. In the form of the mummy, he’s used simply as a tool by someone else to destroy those who desecrated the tomb.
The flashback sequence is beautiful, the most sumptuous yet for a mummy movie and one of the best examples of how Hammer did so much with so little. The colors are vibrant (particularly on the Blu-ray, where Peter Cushing’s eyes are as blue as the Egyptian paintings on the tomb wall.) However, following the flashback, the last part of the movie doesn’t work for me as well as the first. Once Uncle Joe tells John, “Legend is historical myth; treat it as such,” and Inspector Mulrooney (Eddie Byrne) announces that he believes only in the cold, hard facts, the fresh take becomes a familiar tale… with a few visual exceptions.
Director Terence Fisher uses some creative angles throughout, albeit briefly. For example, when Stephen contemplates his experience in a scene intercut with the mummy’s arrival in town, the camera is tilted, perhaps to represent his unbalanced mental state. Later, there’s a shot from Mehemet Bey’s point of view as he prays on bended knee. A couple times, the mummy walks into the camera, creating a blackout. Shadows are effectively used prior to explosions of mummy violence, creating suspense and giving the illusion that the creature is larger than he really is. (Playing “Poacher,” Hammer regular Michael Ripper comments, “It was 10-feet tall!”)
Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster’s otherwise fast-moving script becomes redundant when the details of Stephen’s initial “attack” in the tomb are recounted. It would have been fine to show what was originally withheld; however, it repeats too much of what we’ve already seen. And, even though we’ve seen clear views of the mummy by now in the movie, I’m still not so sure leaving the chain of events to our imagination wouldn’t have been more effective. Remember that we barely saw the bandage-wrapped Kharis in The Mummy (1932) when he surprised the invaders of the tomb. In fact, watching only a trailing bandage slide out the doorway was more frightening
The first encounter between the mummy and John recalls Lee and Cushing’s climactic encounter as Dracula and Van Helsing in Dracula (aka Horror of Dracula) the year before. Instead of leaping across a table to release a curtain, though, Cushing/John jumps backward over a desk to avoid an arm. He then grabs a fireplace poker and rams it into the mummy’s torso, causing, of course, no damage. It’s all very thrilling, as are moments when gunfire aimed at the creature cause dusty explosions in the spots where they hit. Not much is required for this by the special effects department, but they maximize the impact.
Since a mummy is not one of my favorite monsters, I’m sometimes reluctant to revisit this movie and therefore forget how much I like it. It’s not the best Hammer horror, but it’s one of the best, right up there with the aforementioned Dracula and The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). The difference between those two and The Mummy, though, is that The Mummy is self-contained. Subsequent Hammer mummy movies have nothing to do with it; they are not sequels and tell stories of their own. That may be for the better or worse, because that also means they don’t have Lee and Cushing. A Hammer film without them is sometimes instantly inferior.