October Hammershow: The Mummy’s Shroud

Hammer must have been out of ideas by the time they made The Mummy’s Shroud in 1967. At least, that’s what it feels like. There is not a single moment of tension or surprise in writer/director John Gillings’ film. But that isn’t to say The Mummy’s Shroud is a bad film. It’s not. It’s cheap and fairly stupid, and it doesn’t bother to challenge any of the tropes audiences had come to expect with a mummy film, but it has its charms.

Once again we see a British archaeological expedition to Egypt. Once again we see them breach an ancient tomb, despite the warnings of a local. Once again we see the origin story of the mummy told in flashback. Once again we see the mummy awaken and kill, one by one, all those who disturbed the tomb. Once again, we see all Egyptians played by Brits in brown face. It’s as predictable as the schedule on a commuter news radio station.

I do have something to write about the actors in brown face. It’s a subject that, in the 21st century, I feel like I would be derelict in not addressing.

I’m not going to impose my morality on a film that’s 50 years old. Nor am I going to disparage the actors who wore the makeup. The job of an actor is to play a role, and part of that, yes, can mean playing a character from another country or another race. They are actors. It is their job to pretend to be people they are not. In thinking about their profession in that way, it then becomes unreasonable to be offended by that as long as the character is not mocking a race. Playing another race becomes merely a different degree of difficulty. Of course, things are more The Mummy's Shroudcomplicated than that, but only because we have made them so. Race is a touchy subject, a story of oppression and marginalization that stretches back through all of human history. Our racial priorities have been among the most stupid things we have embraced as a species, leading to endless amounts of pain that continue to this day. We can’t let race go.

I didn’t want to think about race while I was watching this film. But then I saw the character of Prem, played by a fellow named Dickie Owen. Prem was the manservant of Kah-to-Bey, the heir to the throne of Egypt. Prem becomes the mummy, but in flashback we see him in the flesh. Dickie Owen is the last person Gilling and producer Michael Carreras should have cast as an Egyptian. Picture Charles Winchester III from the M*A*S*H television series slathered in bronzer and one will get some idea of why I had to write something about brown face. It’s absurd. I can’t believe there wasn’t anyone in all the British Isles the filmmakers could have cast to play Prem over the bald guy who looks like he works in the accounting department. Again, not going to impose my morality on either the filmmakers or Dickie Owen, but this was a lazy pick.

Anyway, Kah-to-Bey’s tomb is disturbed in predictable fashion and Prem, played in full mummy regalia by Eddie Powell, now must hunt down those responsible.

The main target is one Stanley Preston (John Phillips). He’s a loud-mouthed and privileged aristocratic sort. He loves telling tales about his own accomplishments, conveniently leaving out details that don’t serve his own aggrandizement. Preston is the type of man that those around him merely tolerate. He is no failure, and hitching one’s wagon to him has its rewards, but he will take advantage of those around him to get what he wants. We’ve all known or worked for someone like Preston, who walks a fine line between brilliance and repugnance.

The mummy begins working its way through the cast, and they all find themselves stuck in Egypt. The local police inspector, Barrani (Richard Warner), has barred the group from leaving as he inspects the growing number of deaths. That’s unfortunate for the protagonists, but good for us viewers, because it means we get to watch the mummy ramble slowly into another bedroom or such to strangle his quarry.

The Mummy’s Shroud has a lengthy setup before the mummy begins his work. That’s typical of films of the age. Gilling showed skill in this first half of the film. He showed a command of pace and character development. The performances from the cast were decent for the most part, and I found their stories to be engaging. What’s unfortunate is that all this setup doesn’t matter. We know the mummy is on his way, and he doesn’t care one whit for who is angry with whom or whatnot. That makes this setup, while not superfluous, interchangeable with any setup from any mummy movie. And then when the mummy does shows up, all individuality in this film disappears, as the film becomes identical to every other mummy film. Interchangeable and identical. That’s quite a feat by Gilling and company.

This could be forgiven, perhaps, if some grand effort had been made to make a very good mummy film. But there wasn’t. Everything is cheap and rushed, fitting this right in with Hammer’s catalogue. The mummy, the most important character, doesn’t look good. His wrappings look half done, the facial prosthetics are on a par with something one would see at a Halloween parade, and the figure of the mummy is not ominous at all. Not only was Owen miscast as Prem, Powell was miscast as the mummy. When he ambles along, he reminds me of a slow moving shopper at a grocery store rather than anything menacing. Mummies should be big and imposing. This mummy has a dad bod, which is only frightening to those who see it naked.

The Mummy’s Shroud, then, is completely anonymous. It owes everything to films that were made before it. Other than a spectacular effects shot at the film’s climax, it is ordinary and plain, of interest only as a relic.

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