Friday, September 16, 2011

Torn From The Tomb To Terrify The World!

The Mummy(1959)
Director: Terence Fisher
Cast: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Yvonne Furneaux

The Mummy is less a remake of the Karloff 1932 masterpiece, than an assemblance of bits and pieces from the 40s Universal series about Kharis the mummy. It improves greatly upon those b-movies by offering a more serious, dramatic approach, heightened by the most frightening and physical mummy in film history, courtesy of Christopher Lee. Often overlooked in the line of great, classic Hammer chillers, this is actually one of the studio's best and most compelling works.

The film is set in the 1890s and begins with the opening of a tomb in Egypt. Dr. Stephen Banning(Felix Aylmer) is the leader of the expedition, accompanied by his son, John(Peter Cushing), who has suffered a leg injury and can't venture into the tomb and Steve's partner, Joseph Whemple(Raymond Huntley, who was the original Dracula of the stage). When the tomb is opened, a strange man named Mehemet Bey(George Pastell) warns the archaeologists that "he who rob the graves of Egypt, dies!", but he is not listened to and Steve and Joseph enter the tomb, discovering the tomb of Princess Anankha. There's also a scroll there that brings life to the dead, and predictably, Steven reads from it, as all movie archaeologists do and unleashes the mummy of Kharis(Christopher lee), though we don't know until some time later. Screams are heard from within the tomb and Steven is found in a state of shock. Later, the tomb is resealed and John remarks that he felt a sense of evil about the place.
A few years later, John visits his father in a nursing home and discovers the story about the mummy and thinks that the old man is suffering from dementia. Of course, he's not and the mummy has found his way to London, along with Mehemet Bey, who is his master. The mummy's sarcophagus is accidently thrown from a wagon into a swamp and he rises, in a wonderfully atmospheric bit and goes stalking after Steven Banning, breaking into his room and strangling him. John is shocked by the death and the next night, explains the mystery of Anankha to Joseph, via a flashback. Kharis was a high priest of the god, Karnak, and was in love with the Princess. When she passes on, he decides to ressurect her, but is damned for his blasphemy and his tongue is cut out and he is buried alive. As John finishes the story, Kharis arrives and crashes through two doors and proceeds to strangle Whemple, even as John fires a pistol at him. John tries to explain to Inspector Mulrooney(Eddie Byrne) that the killer was a mummy, but is not believed. Knowing that he is the next to die, he arms himself with a shotgun and tells his beautiful wife, Isobel(Yvonne Furneaux) to stay in her room. Kharis arrives and recieves both blasts from the shotgun and keeps on coming, even getting a spear shoved through him! Isobel yells for him to stop, and is the spitting image of Anankha! Kharis' eyes fill with sadness and he leaves the estate, his task incomplete.
The inspector places together the facts and after interviewing several people(including hilarious town drunk, Michael Ripper) comes to the conclusion that the killer is indeed, a mummy. He reveals to John that an Egyptian has recently moved into the neighborhood and John visits him, antagonizing Bey into revealing his purpose, in one of the film's highlights. John is convinced that he's responsible and sure enough, Kharis and Mehemet go to the Banning home that evening. Isobel comes to John's aid and is able to halt Kharis from completing the job, but Mehemet goes to kill her. This infuriates Kharis, who breaks his back and carries off Isobel to the swamps, with John and Mulrooney in pursuit. A posse arrive, armed with rifles and shotguns and when John is able to get Isobel free from Kharis, the mummy is blasted to pieces, sinking beneath the murky depths of the swamp, along with the scroll of life.

The Mummy is one of the best Hammer horror films and probably the scariest mummy film ever made. While previous mummies were often slow moving and lethargic, Christopher Lee brings an alarming quickness and physicality to the role that makes him sort of resemble a mummified Terminator! He appears to be literally unstoppable, taking all manner of punishment, most of which was apparently real, as Lee was injured during many of the stunts, all of which he performed. During the scene where he goes after Raymond Huntely, Lee crashed through two doors to get him, which were not loosened, and ended up dislocating his shoulder. Later when he went after Cushing for the first time, he smashes through some french windows with real glass. The squibs that explode on his chest were so severe that they left powder burns for weeks and to add to that, he had to carry French beauty, Yvonne Furneaux, a few hundred yards, take after take.Undoubtably, Lee brought alot to the role and was instrumental in the film's success. Beyond the phsyical aspect of the character, Lee's body language and highly expressive eyes made his mummy the most sympathetic since Karloff, as well as being one of the most pitiable of all movie monsters. The expression on his face when he reaches for Yvonne Furneaux, is heartbreaking and proves his mettle as an actor to be reckoned with. It's one of Lee's best performances and one that deserves more credit than it generally recieves.

Peter Cushing is, as usual, thoroughly excellent in his portrayal of John Banning. Like Lee, he brings an added measure of physicality to the part, leaping over desks and dodging and fighting in a realistic manner, despite his character's limp. His line readings are superb, especially when speaking of something evil, making the situation that much more harrowing and real. His moment with George Pastell is great, as he initially introduces himself warmly and gentlemanly, proceeding to invite the villain into a false sense of comfort, before slyly making remarks about Karnak and the stupidity of his followers. It's a great moment and Cushing delivers it very well. He proves, once again, that he was horror's most valued hero.

The rest of the cast perform very well, Eddie Byrne bringing a stern authority and some humor to his role of the detective, who has to be forced into believing in the supernatural. Felix Aylmer is effective as the elder Banning, losing his mind and adding a sense of urgency to the character, as only he is aware of the true terror. Michael Ripper does what he does best, and that's stealing scenes. His reported sighting of the mummy, describing him as "ten foot high!" is a personal favorite of mine. And of course, Yvonne Furneaux is an absolute fox, in the best Hammer tradition, looking exotic as Anankha(complete with hinted nudity) and delectable as Isobel, the eye of Kharis'(and John's!) affections. It's not so hard to see why and of all the "Hammer Glamour" girls, she has to be one of my favorites. Special mention must also go to George Pastell, who about outdoes all the previous priests of Karnak(except for George Zucco) in his role of Mehemet Bey. He's a great villain and brings even a tinge of sympathy to the role of religious fanatic, being brought back for a similiar, though less-villainous role for Hammer's The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb(1964).

Terence Fisher's direction is typically fine, keeping the same sense of pace that he brought to all his shockers and utlizing beautiful technicolor photography, that is particularly good in the moody and fog enshrouded swamp scenes. While the film bogs down a little in the flashback segment, it does little to detract from the overall excitement of this picture. Aided by a sharp script that combines the best elements of previous mummy films and adding Hammer's patented blood and thunder, along with some sexiness, The Mummy manages to be another classic and a great film in the careers of all involved. This was one of my best liked monster flicks as a kid and it still manages to entertain, planting itself firmly on the list of the 100 greatest horror films and as the most intense mummy of them all.

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