By Scott Dorward
The Mummy (UK, 1959)
“Seems I’ve spent the better part of my life amongst the dead.”
The golden age of Hammer Horror was coming to an end by the time I was born. Their films refused to stay dead, however, and found a second life on television during my childhood, playing a huge part in my initiation into horror fandom. They are still amongst my favourites to this day. There is a uniquely British, gothic charm to them. Watching one feels like curling up in front of a warm fire on a dark winter night. Just with a bit more blood.
Despite this, I somehow managed to miss out on watching The Mummy until now. It’s not the only such hole in my viewing I plan to fill this month.
It is 1895 and the Banning family — a clan of British archaeologists — are on an outing to Egypt. There, they have located the lost tomb of Princess Ananka. A local community leader, Mehemet Bey (George Pastell), protests the archaeologists’ violation of this sacred site. John Banning (Peter Cushing) is unable to take an active role in the excavation due to a broken leg. This turns out to be a blessing, as it saves him from his father’s fate of being driven mad by something horrible within the tomb.
Three years later, back in England, the father is beginning to regain lucidity after a long convalescence in an asylum. This is cut short, however, when he is murdered by the reanimated form of Kharis (Christopher Lee), high priest of Karnak. Kharis, we learn, was the illicit lover of Princess Ananka. When she died, he attempted to resurrect her using the Scroll of Life, but was caught in the act. For this blasphemy, he was buried alive in her tomb to act as its guardian.
Mehemet Bey, also now in England, is in possession of the Scroll of Life and Kharis’ mummified remains. Will he be able to use them to take vengeance upon all those who defiled the tomb? Will John Banning survive this uncanny onslaught? Why is Banning’s wife, Isobel, the very image of Princess Ananka? (Really, seriously, why? This is never explained.) And why does everyone in this remote area of English moorland have a different accent? Some mysteries are simply beyond human comprehension.
One thing that particularly struck me during this film was what a physical presence Christopher Lee was in his youth. In many scenes, he towers over everyone else on the screen. While the mummy is frightening enough for being a deathless monster, the sheer size of Lee turns him into something truly terrifying.
For its time, The Mummy is unusually critical of British colonialism. While John Banning is ostensibly the hero, Mehemet Bey’s motivation is portrayed in wholly sympathetic terms. His speech about British archaeologists being grave robbers, stealing the sacred relics of his culture, particularly resonates. Whether or not this warrants sending an undead assassin to strangle your enemies is debatable, but his heart is in the right place.
On a related note, when I watched The Mummy on Amazon Prime Video, it opened with a warning about the use of brownface. Most of the Egyptian characters are portrayed by white British actors in heavy makeup. I’ve not seen such a warning before, but it seems timely. Obviously, this has become a sensitive issue in recent years, with streaming services withdrawing films and TV programmes due to the use of blackface and similar. Adding a warning like this seems like a better solution to me, or at least a less extreme one. Admittedly, as a white bloke, I’m probably not the best person to decide this. I am, however, happy that it didn’t stop me from being able to see The Mummy.
The Mummy has all the elements of a classic Hammer Horror. It is a nastier reinvention of a Universal monster movie. Peter Cushing plays the hero and Christopher Lee the monster. It has a script by Jimmy Sangster and is directed by Terrence Fisher. The latter half of the film is filled with dark moorlands that exude gothic atmosphere. And yet…
When people talk about the classic Hammer films, The Mummy rarely gets a mention. It was overshadowed by the more successful franchises spawned from their versions of Frankenstein and Dracula. I had to search IMDB to check if there were any sequels to The Mummy (there were three, none of which I had heard of).
It is possible that the Egyptian imagery and the tropes of the film simply didn’t resonate with audiences of the time, especially after the more familiar settings of Frankenstein and Dracula. My suspicion, however, is that it’s just not as good.
The Hammer films of the 1950s and ’60s were filled with blood, lurid imagery and startling reinventions of what had gone before. While they may seem tame today, they were shocking for their time. In comparison to its more famous brethren, The Mummy does seem rather tame. Sure, there are some strangulations, and Christopher Lee makes a memorable monster, but the execution doesn’t feel much more daring than the Universal films Hammer was updating.
More than that, the story itself is about as linear and predictable as you will find in a Hammer film. This is a fairly simple revenge tale. Given the premise, I imagine anyone reading this review could write a quick outline that would successfully predict most or all of the story beats. While it can be unfair to complain about older films being hackneyed — after all, clichés and tropes have to originate somewhere — I suspect this would have been just as true in 1959 as today.
That said, it is possible that the film simply seems dated. It occurred to me while watching that 1959 is almost as long ago today as 1898 was from the making of the film. That realisation made me feel as dusty and archaic as anything stolen from an Egyptian tomb.
Despite all this, I still enjoyed The Mummy. It’s hard to complain about any film starring both Lee and Cushing, and cosy familiarity is certainly part of the enduring appeal of Hammer. If you wanted to introduce someone to Hammer Horror, however, I would suggest that The Mummy should be pretty low down your list.
A Final Note
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- 1 – Baskin (2015)
- 2 – The Bar (2017)
- 3 – The Editor (2014)
- 4 – The Beach House (2019)
- 5 – The Mummy (1959)
- 6 – The Wind (2020)
- 7 – Tigers are Not Afraid (2018)
- 8 – Voices From Beyond (1991)
- 9 – Dearest Sister (2016)
- 10 – Patrick (1978)
- 11 – The Transfiguration (2016)
- 12 – The House at the End of Time (2013)
- 13 – The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)
- 14 – The Hallow (2015)
- 15 – Night of the Demons (1988)
- 16 – Deep Dark (2015)
- 17 – The Witch Who Came From the Sea (1976)
- 18 – Black Sheep (2006)
- 19 – The Battery (2012)
- 20 – Eaten Alive (1976)
- 21 – Satan’s Slaves (2017)
- 22 – Evolution (2015)
- 23 – Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood (1973)
- 24 – The Dead Center (2018)
- 25 – Your Vice is a Locked Room and I Have the Only Key (1972)
- 26 – The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (2013)
- 27 – Here Comes the Devil (2012)
- 28 – Gretel & Hansel (2020)
- 29 – Two Thousand Maniacs (1964)
- 30 – The Stepfather (1987)
- 31 – In Fabric (2018)
Be warned that I may alter this list according to availability, what I feel like watching at the time, and sheer capriciousness.
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!