October Horrorshow: The Mummy (1959)

Autumn is a time of cooler weather and football games, of trees transitioning into their winter hibernation, and rivers of blood flowing on screens all over the country. For this is October, a time when horror fans the world over celebrate the coming of Halloween. It is also time for the October Horrorshow. I’ve been doing this since 2009, making this the ninth year in a row the site has been dedicated to a month of horror film reviews. But in all that time, having reviewed over 200 horror flicks, I’ve never reviewed a movie from Hammer Film Productions. How in the world did that happen? In fact, I haven’t seen all that many Hammer films at all, much less for the Horrorshow. This month I’m going to fill in this unconscionable void in my horror film experience. I’m expecting it to be a worthwhile adventure. So, this year, welcome to the October Hammershow. Every day will feature a review of a Hammer film, plus some random horror flicks from other production companies scattered throughout.

First up is one of Hammer’s early efforts after they transitioned to making horror and science fiction. Tales featuring reanimated Egyptian mummies have been told at various times since the early days of cinema. With variation, the plot usually consists of an ancient Egyptian mummy being awakened from its slumber to wreak revenge on those who would desecrate the tombs of the Pharaohs, or High Priests of Anubis, or whatever. There’s also a love angle involved in most of these films. The mummy is a forlorn lover, pining for a mate who has long since turned to dust, but there’s always a replacement in a nubile lass who ends up being worked into the plot. Maybe there’s even a dashing male lead, whose normal concern would be treasure hunting, but who eventually ends up being the hero.

These tropes are integral parts of mummy flicks. So much so that even though I had never seen The Mummy, the 1959 film from director Terence Fisher and screenwriter Jimmy Sangster (get used to seeing those names this month), I already felt familiar with the plot, mostly because it was lifted directly from older pictures from Universal Studios. That’s not a knock. This Mummy may be familiar, but I suspect that has as much to do with its quality rather than any derivative nature.

In Egypt in the late 19th century, the tomb of Ananka (Yvonne Furneaux), a high priestess of the god Karnak, has been discovered by an archaeological expedition. The leader of the expedition, Stephen Banning (Felix Aylmer), is alone in the tomb when something emerges from a hidden room and terrifies him to such an extent that he ends up spending the next three years in a nuthouse. Afterwards Stephen’s son, John (Peter Cushing, another name readers will be seeing a lot of this month), who was also a part of the expedition, continues the excavation in his father’s absence, and eventually returns to England.

Although the expedition is finished, and the British Museum has received a new lode of trinkets, all is not well back home. That’s because it wasn’t just some ghost or specter that frightened poor Banning. It was, of course, a mummy. The mummy’s sleep has been disturbed by the Bannings. An Egyptian, Mehemet Bey (George Pastell), a contemporary worshipper of Karnak, has taken the mummy to England so that it can finish the job of killing those who violated the tomb of Ananka.

A wonderful flashback sequence shows us the origins of the mummy. He is Kharis (Christopher Lee, yet another Hammer stalwart), a high priest who is also very much into Karnak. He oversaw the burial of Ananka, but it is revealed that Kharis was secretly in love with the priestess, and for blasphemy he is entombed with his unrequited love, her guardian for all time.

What follows I don’t wish to spoil any further. But I can write that the plot flows at a wonderful pace. Although it’s much more deliberate than cinema of today, it’s not something a viewer should be conscious of.

There’s a lot of look and feel that one could associate with a Hammer horror film. They don’t call them gothic horror flicks for nothing. It’s all very Victorian upper class and very detailed. The atmosphere of this film, even though it was made on the cheap, is absolutely gravitational. It draws a viewer into its world as effectively as any great film one could name. Fisher’s direction was that effective. There’s not a whole lot of realism, considering the time in which it was made and the subject matter, but the distance from this film to modern viewers, while vast, makes The Mummy as fantastical as a fairy tale. It is a prime example of film’s power of escapism.

Cushing and Lee never get a chance to play off of each other all that much. All the speaking scenes with Lee take place in flashback, while afterwards he’s swathed head to toe in his mummy costume, and mute. Still, the two gave fine performances. That’s about all one can say about those two in any random Hammer film in which they star. They are inseparable from the mental picture of Hammer Film Productions. The only bizarre deviation would be if I found their work poor. Not a problem with this film.

Hammer. Cushing and Lee. A mummy. Not a bad way to start the month.