The new restoration of Hammer’s original take on that staple of traditional horror, the vengeful Egyptian mummy, does a fine job of enhancing the lavish visuals and quality production design of the 1959 chiller. While the film itself is by now as much of a historical artefact as the shady relics that drive its lightweight plot, it can still be evocative and enjoyable for a contemporary audience.
Set in the late nineteenth century, the film follows a family of knowledge-hungry Egyptologists, including Hammer regular Peter Cushing (slightly wasted on a bland protagonist role) as John Banning, a dutiful son who finds himself and his nearest and dearest menaced by an ancient curse. After Banning’s father and uncle trespass in the tomb of a long-dead princess (who happens to double up as the High Priestess of an obscure but vindictive Egyptian god), and tamper with the sorcerous Scroll of Life, certain representatives of that good old-time religion set out to punish these European interlopers by tracking them back to Blighty on a mission of murder.
The action soon cuts to the murky landscapes of late-Victorian England, which seems to be populated entirely by pompous authority figures and an underclass of scruffy Irish stereotypes; a glum, earthy setting compared to the sandy opulence of the Egyptian sets. Yet in the midst of the humdrum Englishness, a strange form stalks through the mist and shadows; the deadly Kharis, played underneath the filthy bandages by Christopher Lee, Hammer’s go-to guy for physically-intimidating unnatural abominations. Sluggishly-paced death ensues, with the movie relying on Lee’s impressively-charged screen presence to provide the suitable atmosphere of horror, rather than cleverly-staged action or visible grue.
The Mummy is unlikely to make anyone jump in 2013, though it has a certain nostalgic, almost innocent charm. You would think that a Mummy movie would throw in lashings of hubris and greed to add spice to the motives of its doomed tomb raiders, but the family Banning are never portrayed as anything more than curious, mild-mannered academics, which makes it hard to get much sense of pathos out of their peril; Kharis’ deadly quest comes across more as an exercise in ritualistic box-ticking than as an eerie supernatural vendetta.
The plot jolts from tame confrontation to laboured expository scene, marking off clichés in the process. There’s the usual moral about the dangers of meddling with buried secrets; the sceptical, rationalist authorities; and the familiar theme of a monster humanised by doomed love (Kharis still bears a torch for the princess whose resting place he guards, to whom Banning’s adoring wife bears a strange resemblance).
It might be unfair to point out how old-fashioned a fifty-year-old movie is, but a modern audience can’t help but roll their collective eyes at how French actress Yvonne Furneaux (who secures a place on the poster by virtue of being the only female character), has nothing to do but represent an ideal of wifely beauty in a pseudo-romantic tug-of-war between Lee and Cushing.
Despite this, there is still much to like about Hammer’s Mummy. The re-mastered visuals are really nice for the eyes, whether depicting the haunted bogs of England, the eerily-lit luxury of the Princess Ananka’s tomb, or the glistening ooze on Kharis’s lean, powerful frame as he rises out of the mud to seek vengeance. The stand-out sequence, unusually enough, is an expository flashback thumped down in the middle of the story, a starkly-awkward break in the narrative that seems to be there solely to show off period detail.
The glossy visuals are at their most impressive here, as the camera lovingly ogles drawn-out scenes of ancient funeral rites, with Lee’s pre-mummification High Priest solemnly intoning the praises of his god (there is a lot of solemn intonation in this film), while Cushing’s Banning meticulously narrates over everything. It might lack the scale of a true epic, but it’s hard to fault the idea of having Christopher Lee play a grim, human-sacrificing pagan High Priest.
Lee is definitely up to the acting challenge of conveying strong emotion in spite of hidden features; no mean feat considering the limitations of being swathed in unflattering linen and reduced to an awkward, jerky gait. His blazing eyes can convey both anguished pining for his lost love and pitiless hostility towards his blaspheming targets.
His more conventional partner in crime, Cypriot actor George Pastell’s aggravated Egyptian Mehemet Bey, adds themes of religious fanaticism and anti-modern angst to the mix, egging on the Mummy with bloodthirsty prayers one moment and speechifying about the sanctity of Egyptian culture the next. This adds some depth to the film, making what would otherwise be little more than a faceless, ancient threat into a walking symbol of a modern culture clash.
On balance, The Mummy is worth watching for aficionados as a time capsule of the respectable traditions of British horror, and the formative years of Hammer; a time when monsters could still lumber and lurch, their approach full of ponderous menace rather than shocking suddenness. Kharis isn’t returning from the bog anytime soon; more recent big-screen Mummies have been CGI fiends who shrug off the hokey bandages as quickly as possible, so it can be refreshing to remind yourself of the classic image of the sullen shuffler. Those in search of more visceral thrills can stick to Brendan Fraser.
The Mummy (1959) Restoration will be released on Blu-Ray and DVD on October 14th 2013.
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