Monday, March 06, 2017

Mummy Movies

I caught a couple of Hammer's Mummy movies over the weekend - to be precise, I watched exactly half of their Egyptology output, as the only ever made four Mummy movies.  Of these four, arguably only the first, The Mummy, made in 1959 and starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee (in the title role), is actually any good.  Their last entry in the genre, 1971's Blood From the Mummy's Tomb, has its supporters: it is certainly a good looking movie with a lot of atmosphere and some decent suspense sequences, but it is undermined by a confusing script (based on Bram Stoker's Jewel of the Seven Stars) and serious production difficulties/  Peter Cushing had to leave the film early on due to his wife's illness, to be replaced by Andrew Keir, and director Seth Holt died suddenly, before he could complete the film.  Michael Carreras stepped in for the last week of filming and madea valiant attempt to put together a coherent film from the footage.

The other two Hammer Mummy movies were both made in the sixties and have attracted few admirers.  Both Curse of the Mummy's Tomb and The Mummy's Shroud are essentially B-movies, made on low budgets to form half of a double bill, but neither is without points of interest.  Despite a low budget and lack of any of Hammer's regular top line stars, 1964's Curse of the Mummy's Tomb is surprisingly good looking and, under Michael Carreras' direction, manages top create some good atmosphere, particularly once the action moves to turn-of-the-century London.   Whilst the film's Mummy lacks the sheer  presence that Lee had brought to the role in 1959, it still makes an effective monster, especially when looming out the fog at its victims.  John Gilling's 1966 The Mummy's Shroud has far lower production values, with most of the action confined to a studio-bound recreation of Cairo, consisting mainly of whitewashed interiors.  It does, at least boast the presence of Andre Morrell - although top-billed, he makes an early exit.  Roger Delgado gives a satisfyingly over-the-top performance as the villain, with Catherine Lacy as his cackling, fortune-telling mother, giving him a good run for his money.  The film's Mummy, whilst not the most convincing-looking mummy (although, ironically, it was closely modeled on a real mummy, which can still be seen in the British Museum), is surprisingly violent, dispatching his victims by throwing them through windows or poring acid over them.  Set-pieces such as these are undoubtedly the film's highlights, well handled by Gilling, who also manages a startling sequence when the Mummy first opens its eyes and a startling climax where it, quite literally, tears itself to pieces.

Ultimately, both films demonstrate the fundamental problem with Mummy films:  it is virtually impossible to vary the plot.  It's always the same: a tomb is 'desecrated' by American or European acrcheologists, invoking a curse which involves a Mummy coming to life and murdering them.  Both films tr to bring in variations - Curse mixes in a 'Wandering Jew' element with a character turning out to be the Mummy's brother (and murderer) who is cursed to live until he dies by his brother's hand, while Shroud brings in a sub-plot involving the Mummy protecting the tomb of a long-lost boy Pharoah - but essentially, they are just remakes of the 1959 film.  Blood From the Mummy's Tomb at least tries to be innovative, bringing in reincarnation and dispensing with any actual Mummys perambulating around London.  Interestingly, both Curse and Shroud feature rapacious capitalist businessmen who want to exploit the Mummy for profit, exhibiting it around the world as some kind of fairground attraction.  This immediately makes the Mummys' main victims much less sympathetic.  Wheras in the 1959 film one couldn't help but feel that the archeologist victims were essentially blameless, in these two films you are left feeling that some of the victims had it coming.  Of course, the main reason for this plot device was to induce some audience sympathy for the Mummy in each film, both of whom lacked Kharis' complex back story in Hammer's first Mummy movie.

And that's the problem with movie Mummys: once they've become a mummy, swathed in dirty bandages, they lose their individuality and capacity for any kind of emotional expression.  Only Lee in The Mummy succeeds in projecting and emotion, via his blazing eyes and longing looks at the reincarnation of his lost love.  Hammer's subsequent Mummy's were bit-part players, lacking Lee's non-verbal acting skills.  Plus, other than murder people, the film-makers never find anything really interesting for the Mummy to do.  He might carry off young women displaying lots of cleavage, but ultimately he presents no sexual threat, unlike a vampire or the bestial likes of Mr Hyde or the werewolf.  Nevertheless, despite all of my reservations about Curse and Shroud, I still have a fondness for them.  They aren't classics and certainly can't match any of Hammer's best films on any level.  But they are efficient B-movies which deliver ninety minutes or so of solid, if undemanding, entertainment.

They are certainly far better than any of the later Universal Mummy pictures of the 1940s.  I once watched all of these in a movie marathon on some long defunct digital channel and nearly lost the will to live.  While the Karloff original was glacially slow, it at least had some good set pieces and a decent cast, the best of them was the semi-sequel, The Mummy's Hand which, despite some irritating comic relief, builds up to a nightmarish climax, its shuffling Mummy with its withered arm making a surprisingly terrifying monster.  The Mummy's Tomb is just about bearable, but marks the start of Lon Chaney Jr's tenancy of the Mummy role, (although, in reality, it was usually stuntman Eddie Parker under the bandages.  The Mummy's Ghost and The Mummy's Curse, however, are terrible, with plots as indecipherable as the hieroglyphics on the walls of the Egyptian sets, a deathly pace and incredible lapses in continuity.



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