October 28, 2008

The Mummy (1959)

1957 saw the beginning of a new era for a small British company named Hammer Film Productions, as that was the year when the release of Terence Fisher's "The Curse of Frankenstein" borough a new style of Gothic horror to the world with great success. After this new version of Mary Shelley's novel came "Dracula", also directed by Fisher and released the following year, fully establishing actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee as the horror icons of a new generation. The great success of Hammer's new Gothic horror (completely in Technicolor) brought the attention of Universal, which granted Hammer Studios the remake rights for their horror films. Once the arrangements were made, Hammer's executives picked three of Universal's films to remake: "The Mummy's Hand", "The Phantom of the Opera" and "The Invisible Man" (which in the end wouldn't be produced). 1959's "The Mummy" was the first of the three to be made, so Kharis the mummy would be resurrected one more time.

The story begins in Egypt, in 1895, when a team of archaeologists led by Stephen Banning (Felix Aylmer), discover the tomb of Princess Ananka. Stephen's son John (Peter Cushing) and John's uncle Joseph Whemple (Raymond Huntley) are also part of the expedition, but John has been resting in his tent due to an injured leg. While Joseph leaves the tomb to inform John about the discovery, Stephen finds and reads the legendary Scroll of Life. But the Scroll awakens an ancient force so terrifying that drives Stepehen insane and leaves him into a catatonic state. John and his uncle decide to return to England with their discoveries in order to take Stephen to a hospital. Three years later, Stephen recovers his senses, and tells his son about what happened that day in the tomb: the Scroll brought to life the mummy of Kharis (Christopher Lee), a priest of Karnak who was sentenced to be the Princess' eternal guardian because of his forbidden love for her. Now Kharis is in England, brought to punish those who awoke him by Mehemet Bey (George Pastell), current priest of Karnak.

In charge of creating the new mummy was writer Jimmy Sangster, who had been responsible of Hammer's previous big hits. Taking the plots of "The Mummy's Hand" and "The Mummy's Tomb" as the basis, as well as elements from Universal's other mummy films (including the 1932's one), Jimmy Sangster conceives a story that rejuvenates the saga of Kharis, updating it to the darker, Gothic style that Fisher and him had been developing at the British studio. In "The Mummy", Sangster places considerable importance to character development, focusing mainly on John Banning, a somewhat arrogant skeptic who is going to discover a force beyond his comprehension. As in the Gothic novels of old, this is probably the film's main theme: the "normal" everyday life being assaulted by an abnormal, supernatural force from outside. While "The Mummy's Hand" had a tone of action and adventure, Sangster's story takes more of the mystery and suspense of "The Mummy's Tomb", elements that are enhanced by the very human traits of the characters, which are less "heroic" and more realistic.

As in his previous films, once again director Terence Fisher makes great use of frequent collaborator Jack Asher's excellent cinematography to create a haunting Gothic atmosphere of dread that goes hand in hand with the story's inherent mystery and suspense. Because unlike Fisher's previous films, the key factor in "The Mummy" is precisely the suspense, in the shape of a hidden supernatural menace roaming the English countryside, hunting for those skeptics who dared not to believe. It is also a very dynamic film, finding the perfect balance between thrilling action and moody suspense, with director Fisher letting the film flow smoothly and the story unfolding nicely at a fine pace (although a certain flashback runs a bit too long for its own good). Despite the low budget, Fisher and his crew did a great job in recreating the exotic atmosphere of mystery and adventure that archaeological expeditions to Egypt had in the late 1800s, which gives the film a very appropriate style akin to pulp novels and other fantasy and horror comic books.

Now, besides Fisher's directing and Sangster's writing, the acting is another thing where Hammer films tended to excel in those first years of their venture in the horror genre, and "The Mummy" is not an exception. As John Banning, Peter Cushing is remarkable, mainly because this time he is neither the ultimate mad scientist (as his Baron Frankenstein) nor the epitome of good (his Van Helsing), but basically a common man from Imperialist Britain whom is about to discover a world beyond everything he believed as real. George Pastell plays his complete opposite, Mehemet Bey, a man for whom the ancient Egyptian traditions are everything. As the exotic, yet elegant Bey, Pastell delivers a subtle, understated performance that works effectively in contrast not only with Cushing, but also with Christopher Lee's physically imposing Kharis, which while not Lee's best performance, really shows the huge screen presence Lee can be. Finally, the beautiful Yvonne Furneaux is really good as John's wife Isobel, although her character, while pivotal, is quite small.

While much less popular than both "The curse of Frankenstein" and "Dracula", Terence Fisher's version of "The Mummy" is yet another gem by Hammer Films' finest filmmaker that's another of those rare films that truly prove that sometimes a remake can be a good thing for a film. Filled with interesting concepts and original ideas, Universal Studio's Kharis films weren't really good but here Sangster and Fisher manage to extract the diamond in the rough that was the saga of Kharis the mummy and create what could be considered as its ultimate version. True, low budget definitely hurts this movie more than Hammer's previous hits (mainly because "The Mummy" was certainly a more ambitious production), and another problems is that, as written above, a certain flashback slows the film dangerously after running a bit too long; however, in my personal opinion, those are minor quibbles on a great film that rescues one of the forgotten icons of horror and literally imbues him with new life.

Often overshadowed by Hammer's "Frankenstein" and "Dracula" films, "The Mummy" is really another success by the team composed of Fisher, Sangster, Cushing and Lee that's almost as good as their best efforts. It may feel slow for modern standards, but it's a remarkable piece of Gothic horror and, despite its noticeably low production values, one of Fisher's best looking films. Kharis the mummy definitely had a difficult time in the movies made by Universal in the forties, suffering from bad directing, bad actors and bad writers (specially in "The Mummy's Curse", when writer Griffin Jay was replaced) in a series of films that never achieved the full potential the concept had; but fortunately, the legendary British studio resurrected him for one great final dance. Sometimes remakes are a great thing.


Buy "The Mummy" (1959)


jriddle said...

I'm something of an heretic when it comes to Hammer's output; as entertaining as a lot of the films undeniably are, they're still, for the most part, basically formulaic programmers, the filmmakers behind them competent jobbers without much to say. They're often credited with the Gothic revival that followed them, and, while it's true their success helped bring about that new wave of films, the Hammer movies themselves were often put to shame, quality-wise, by the films that emerged at the same time from Italy, the U.S., and even Mexico. The Hammer films' reputations are largely a consequence of their then-scandalous violence and sexual content, and while this content certainly resulted in a storm of controversy at the time (mostly from elderly British critics who, one suspect, were paid by the harrumph), it seemed the stuff of tame children's fare within only a few short years.

All of that said, the first Hammer MUMMY film is, indeed, one of their gems. Not a classic, by any stretch of the imagination, and largely a rehash of elements of the Universal films, the film is well-enough assembled and manages enough original touches (and beautiful Technicolor photography) to put it in the top tier of the studio's output. I've always thought of it as the legitimate sequel to the 1932 film. Not in the same class, mind you--few films are--but a film that is actually worthy of the original.

J Luis Rivera said...

Hi jriddle! Hammer horror goes downhill quickly in the 60s, or so I've heard (I'm new to them, sort of), although their 70s films with Ingrid Pitt are great in my book.

I prefer Corman's Gothic films in color to Hammer's, so I guess their reputation comes for being influential, not exactly "great" (Nevertheless, I do love "The Curse of the Werewolf").

Guido said...

I'm really loving this series of reviews, great work.

And now that you mention Corman, I think his absolute best work, one that wouldn't necessarily be considered a horror film [although pretty horrific stuff happens in it], is The Intruder.

After an output of so much schlock, I never would've imagined that he'd have such a film in him.

Do try to see it.

Un saludo!

Guido said...

OK, thanks to this review [and my devotion to Peter "Moff Tarkin" Cushing], I'm including this in my horror marathon that will start later tonight.

Cushing is the only actor that rivals Vincent Price in sheer creepiness and presence.