In the last years of the 1950s, Britain’s economy boomed under the auspices of Prime Minister Harold ‘Supermac’ Macmillan’s ‘Never had it so Good’ Conservative government and -- in 1959 -- during a year in which many classics of mid-20th century cinema emerged from British shores, a flourishing Hammer Film Productions also continued its unparalleled rise from its Thames-side base near Winsor in Berkshire, to become one of the country’s biggest business success stories in a home-grown industry that was entering the peak of its ascendancy during a Golden Age. At the same time, Hollywood found itself struggling to cope with a recent loss of studio monopoly and to control its newly enfranchised stars. After the huge box office successes enjoyed by its previous two Gothic Technicolor spectacles, “The Curse of Frankenstein” and “Dracula”, made in conjunction with Warner Brothers and Universal-International respectively, the company found itself suddenly in the unusual position of having been granted full rights to raid the Universal monster back catalogue with impunity. There was never really any doubt, though, that this third Hammer foray into the archives in search of 1930s horror icons to plunder would result in it taking on “The Mummy” – the last of the original ‘Big Three’, first brought successfully to the screen for Universal by Boris Karloff in the 1932 film, directed with expressionistic flair by Karl Freund.
As has often been pointed out, despite the striking makeup work created by Jack Pierce in that film the Mummy is only seen in its opening scene, after which Karloff’s Imhotep is fully revitalised and appears in human form throughout, in a story by Nina Wilcox Putnam and Richard Schayer that is in truth merely a much more fluidly conveyed remake of Tod Browning’s “Dracula”. For Hammer’s new version there were certain prerequisites required of the adaptation that would have to be fulfilled in order to satisfy the film’s Universal backers, involving the appearance of Hammer’s two leading men of the day, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, who’d most recently been paired up on the Hammer production of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles”. But, despite Lee having been catapulted to worldwide fame since his charismatic turn as Dracula the previous year, Hammer were to afford their new leading man none of the courtesies shown to Karloff by Universal bosses when they’d allowed their biggest star to cast aside Pierce’s restrictive Mummy makeup for the majority of his role in the 1932 film. Instead, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster’s innate talent for distilling the essence of each of the classic horror scenarios he was given to adapt for 1950s audiences -- jettisoning unnecessary details and structuring his plots around only the essentials of each subject -- was to be combined with Universal-International’s enthusiastic collusion in allowing Hammer to rifle through its film libraries for inspiration, so that his version of “The Mummy” could freely take story elements from not just the Karloff original, but also a 1940 remake called “The Mummy’s Hand”, and three subsequent B-movie ‘40s sequels – “The Mummy’s Tomb” (1942), “The Mummy’s Ghost” (1944) and “The Mummy’s Curse” (1944) -- in which Lon Chaney Jr. donned the pancake makeup and bandages to play a more traditional, slow-shuffling version of the ancient reanimated corpse.
Sangster simply retained the poetic core of the Karloff original, such as its use of the recitation of The Scroll of Thoth (in Sangster’s script it becomes The Scroll of Life) in order to revive the Mummy, rather than the Tana leaves of the subsequent films; while the central romantic idea of Imhotep’s long lost love being reincarnated in a modern form is also put to use in the Hammer reworking; but the rest of the new adaptation is a hodgepodge of story details and character names from the plots of the various lacklustre sequels (the Bannings’ father and son relationship comes from “The Mummy’s Tomb”; Princess Ananka and the quick sand ending are from “The Mummy’s Ghost”) headed by Christopher Lee finding himself forced to follow in the 4,000-year-old cloth footsteps of Tom Tyler from “The Mummy’s Hand” and Lon Chaney Jr. from the three sequels, as the dusty, sclerotically mud-encrusted mummified High Priest Kharis.
The hierarchy at Hammer House appeared at times during their lengthy working relationship to harbour irrationally resentful attitudes towards Lee, feeling that while Peter Cushing was their real star (he had, after all, already achieved a large measure of fame on stage and on British TV before even being cast in “The Curse of Frankenstein”) Christopher Lee somehow owed all his success to them and so really shouldn’t be such a – as Michael Carreras once put it – ‘difficult bugger’. At the same time, they were understandably much more inclined to forgive Cushing almost any transgression, even when he’d recently pulled out of appearing in the lead role in “The Man Who Could Cheat Death” -- citing his exhaustion after the gruelling shoot for “The Hound of the Baskervilles” -- giving only six days’ notice. This caused a great deal of embarrassment to the company, who had sold the film to Paramount explicitly on the promise of his involvement. Yet Cushing was welcomed back with no hard feelings merely a few months later for “The Mummy”, and it was his towering co-star Lee who found himself stuck once again in what looked on the surface to be a thankless supporting role as a lumbering, inexpressive B-movie monster, hidden behind layers and layers of restrictive and extremely uncomfortable makeup. Lee’s misery on this film ended up being even greater than the suffering he’d previously endured as a virtual unknown on “The Curse of Frankenstein”: for one thing, makeup man Roy Ashton forgot to leave holes in the nostrils of the Mummy’s face mask, forcing the actor to ‘breathe through the eye holes’. And during a scene in which the Mummy is required to smash through the front door of John Banning’s house, the supposedly easily broken prop door was inadvertently locked, causing Lee nearly to dislocate his shoulder in the process. Although Lee’s stunt double Eddie Powell took the performer’s place for the shots in the film in which the Mummy is shown being blasted in the chest with a shotgun -- donning the concealed breast-plate in which an explosive charge was packed into a built-up section of the costume -- the actor also had to carry out the stunt for rehearsals, and later also found himself having to endure being submerged in the tank at Shepperton Studios for close-ups in the swamp scene, when Kharis emerges from the murky depths, his battered 4,000-year-old body glistening with a slick of fresh mud.
But what Christopher Lee managed to do with this part, in fact highlights just what a good thing Hammer Productions had going for them, thanks to his continued participation and willingness at the time to endure such indignities, difficulties and slights. He turns what could have been an unremarkable role as a stomping, cloth-wrapped juggernaut, designed in Sangster’s screenplay merely for crashing – literally -- through the atrophied but decorously arranged propriety of late-Victorian English complacency (in what amounts to the first of what became a long line of Hammer Gothics to tackle the subject of post-colonial guilt), into a poignant essay in timeless, forbidden love enduring across the ages, with Lee using his mime skills in eking out through the subtleties of body language and the expressiveness of his eyes alone, latent themes that are barely elucidated in the script, but which run concurrent with the depiction of the clash of civilisations taking place in the main narrative between the traditions of the old East and the modernity of the West: themes that have to do more with the tragedy of Kharis’s internal struggle between his religious obligations to a displaced 4,000-year-old culture he once betrayed for love, and a yearning passion that transcends both the considerations of time and his own now forgotten traditions.
In fact, the success Lee had helped Hammer achieve in the last few years inadvertently also led to a cooling off in his association with the company after his powerhouse performance in “The Mummy”, thanks mainly to the less friendly relationship between himself and Michael Carreras, in comparison to that which had been established before under producer Anthony Hinds. Michael was less inclined to rely on the leading man duo of Cushing & Lee and this became important when Company Director James Carreras sold a 49% stake in Bray to Columbia Pictures in order to fund an expansion of Hammer’s activities that would see it go on to develop projects for TV as well as continuing with its film output. Hinds, who had overseen the making of both “The Curse of Frankenstein” and “Dracula” at Bray, found himself having to spend more of his time in London at Hammer’s head office in Wardour Street, helping James Carreras oversee the dissolution of Hammer’s distribution arm Exclusive Films, whose business would from hence-forth be handled by Columbia distribution instead, under the terms of the new financial deal. “The Mummy” being the third of Hammer’s high profile colour Gothic epics, and its marketing being tied very much to the emphasis of that fact, led Hammer to once again stick to employing largely the same team who had worked such fantastic magic, despite limited resources, on both the previous Gothic monster films (as well as the intervening “The Hound of the Baskervilles”), with the contributions of key members such as art directors Bernard Robertson and his assistant Don Mingaye, lighting cameraman Jack Asher and director Terrence Fisher being particularly prominent in facilitating once more that special combination of bold, colourful dynamism and lavishly upholstered elegance which had become the Hammer Gothic trademark.
However, the replacement of Anthony Hinds with Michael Carreras as producer was just the biggest and most prominent of several changes in personnel which had in the meantime taken place behind the scenes, each of which was to leave its individual mark of difference on the end results of this production, standing it ever so slightly apart from its two Gothic predecessors. This time Franz Reizensteinn would provide a beautifully fantastical score -- his only work for Hammer despite many citing his music here as some of the best in any film produced by the company. Instead of the distinctive, strident orchestrations of James Bernard, “The Mummy” sees Reizensteinn employ a swirling eddy of choral melodies and magical xylophone leitmotifs that compliment Fisher’s delirious fable in which an extended flashback to an ancient 4,000 year-old Egyptian past during the middle of the film seems weirdly ameliorated, and inestimably more solidly real and vibrant than the nearly always studio-bound goings on in its swamp-bog-under-moonlight dream vision of Victorian Home Counties Britain, seen throughout the rest of the film. Reizensteinn was not usually associated with horror scores, but he did go on to write another one for Sidney Hayers’ “Circus of Horrors” the following year.
Reizensteinn’s sophisticated musical polish adds an epic quality to proceedings throughout “The Mummy” while lending a grand depth and emotional character to Fisher’s inevitably uneven realisation of Sangster’s screenplay, which was inclusive of that lengthy flashback sequence only because it had been written and shoehorned in by Michael Carreras himself as an excuse to wallow in the colourful exotica of Egyptology. This was not Carreras’s first horror effort for Hammer in the role of producer – he’d also co-produced “The Man Who Could Cheat Death” with Anthony Nelson-Keys – but Michael had never been a fan of the company’s Gothic material. He much preferred the adventure stories, war pictures and costume historical epics that Hammer occasionally produced, over the horror movies for which the company had recently become (in)famous. His stint in control of the production schedule would coincide with a greater diversification in Hammer’s output over the next few years. “The Mummy”, though, turned into Carreras’ pet project and mixed romanticism with horror content to produce what critic Jonathan Rigby calls Gothic Exotica. To accommodate the epic vision he had in mind, the production combined shooting on the cramped stages and back lots at Bray with work at Shepperton Studios, where the jungle clearing and rock face explosion outside the entrance to Princess Ananka’s tomb were filmed, as well as the burial procession for the flashback sequence and the night-time swamp scenes, the latter to make use of the larger tank facilities at Shepperton.
Carreras’s influence is most keenly felt, though, in the amount of Egyptological detail he insisted be added to the movie. The film ends up being an odd mishmash of historical inaccuracies and howlers perpetrated in the script by Sangster (who, for instance, builds the fundamentals of the story on his having mistaken Karnak for a god rather than a place after hurriedly reading up about the Temple of Karnak from an entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica) during the course of a plot paired down from the best bits of the Universal Mummy flicks. But this sits alongside immense attention to detail in the design and construction of the sets and ancient Egyptian props. Bernard Robertson turned to outside specialists for some of the funerary and embalming artefacts he would need in order to properly furnish Ananka’s burial chamber and tomb with the correct possessions and religiously significant objects used for the Egyptian funerary rituals and the procedures surrounding the process of mummification. He employed a sculptor who worked for a firm called Theatre Zoo (which specialised in making animal masks) called Margaret Carter to make them all. She’d previously supplied Hammer with the hound mask in “The Hound of the Baskervilles”, and Carter (who later married Robertson) duly constructed all these detailed props -- such as the Anubis mask seen being worn by the priest/embalmer for an elaborate burial procession that comes during the fifteen minute flashback -- which lend such unique character and a great deal of Michael Carreras’s much sought after ‘Egyptian razzmatazz’ to the movie.
Carter supplied funerary Ushabi figurines and plentiful other ornaments and artefacts to decorate the burial chamber discovered by the Banning expedition at the start of the story -- all to designs specified by Robertson and a special adviser, employed by Carreras to bring authenticity to the production, by the name of Andrew Low. Low seems to have been somewhat of an elusive figure (researchers have drawn a blank in trying to dig up information on him) who set himself up as an expert in innumerable disciplines down the years. He apparently made Carter’s life a misery by insisting minute alterations be administered to some of her designs for better accuracy, requiring several of them to be remade entirely; he even questioned the precise shade of green she’d used to paint the mask of Anubis at one point. Robertson and Mingaye mixed artistic styles from different dynasties in the colourful décor which adorns the Princess’s burial chamber, but their work captures the spirit of the time period being depicted, which would have been full of brilliantly painted palaces and temples. Many of these props would see use again in “The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb” which would be written, produced and directed by Michael Carreras five years later. For the sake of contrast between the ancient past, portrayed in flashback, and the present day, the burial chamber and tomb are given to look old and faded when they are re-opened by the elderly Stephen Banning (Felix Aylmer) and his brother Joseph Whemple (Raymond Huntley) in the 1895 scenes, when in fact they probably would have looked little different from when they were first sealed 4,000 years previously. Only with their exposure to the air from outside the funerary complex would they have gradually begun to fade, but the effect this artistic licence creates (emphasising the death of the lost world from which Christopher Lee’s revived Kharis has been cast adrift) adds to the sense of romantic tragedy embodied in this unlikely figure of a mummified High Priest who has been condemned for blasphemy in his own age but brought back to life 4,000 years later by an fanatical adherent of the now forgotten god Karnak, to wreak revenge on those who have desecrated his religion. Despite the occasional mistake and the artistic licence necessitated by certain plot details, Hammer scholar Bruce G Hallenbeck is probably right to call “The Mummy” ‘one of Hammer’s best-researched films’.
Among the intake of personnel now complementing the remaining members of the original Hammer team was new head makeup man Roy Ashton -- the former assistant to the company’s departed makeup genius Phil Leakey. With his extraordinary makeup for this film, Ashton creates a hugely effective and haunting image of love surviving the physical ravages of entropy and bodily decay. Once again, Ashton tried to ground his work in historical legitimacy, visiting an exhibition on Ancient Egyptian artefacts at the British Museum and reading up on detailed accounts of the mummification process recorded in the works of the Greek historian Herodotus. When the imagery that flows from his striking statuesque face makeup and rotting body bandages is combined with Christopher Lee’s counter-intuitively delicate performance, the High Priest Kharis emerges as a weirdly sympathetic figure, disinterred from a tongue-less living death (a fate bestowed on him for his act of heretical transgression in secretly attempting to revive his dead lover after she has been offered in death to the great god Karnak) and bound and sealed behind several tons of ancient stone slab, his impassive, almost fossilised visage nevertheless aches with sorrow and longing for Ananka’s modern day reincarnation when he claps eyes on her in the unlikely form of archaeologist John Banning’s (Peter Cushing) wife Isobel, played by Yvonne Furneaux. For Michael Carreras was not only eager whenever possible to dress proceedings with the kind of decorative exotica derived from a close study of Egyptology; he also made an effort to cast the film with stars not usually associated with Hammer Film Productions.
The French star Furneaux had made movies in which she’d appeared alongside Errol Flynn earlier in the ‘50s ,and she was perfectly cast by Michelangelo Antonioni in one of his early films, “Le amiche” (1955), where she was ideally suited to play one of the director’s vacuous upper-class dress puppets. She did not consider the work of Hammer to be worth dwelling on and claimed to have only taken what is admittedly a pretty thankless dual role as Isobel/Ananka because she had nothing else better to do. Margaret Carter found her difficult when fitting her for the Princess Ananka’s Egyptian headdress; she kept refusing to wear it properly, pushing it back up her forehead and claiming it didn’t make her look good (only when Furneaux was on set and unable to move in her sarcophagus could Carter surreptitiously adjust the headdress so that it was back in the correct historically accurate position). However, once exposed to the utter commitment and seriousness with which Cushing and Lee and the rest of the cast approached their work, she realised that she would have to take the venture a little more seriously than she had been prepared to before. Furneaux went straight from the sets of Bray and Shepperton to those of Cinecittà Studios in Rome in order to star in Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” and later appeared in Polanski’s “Repulsion” as Catherine Deneuve’s sister Helen. Here though, she has little more to do than let her hair down in front of the arched French windows at the entrance to Bray Studios’ Ballroom soundstage 3 (which was doubling as John Banning’s study at the time) thereby halting Lee’s apparently mighty and completely undefeatable Kharis in his tracks after he smashes through the glass doors, looking to bring vengeance down upon the head of her crippled husband. But her casting, decorative though it was, undeniably brings an extra touch of the class Michael Carreras was keen to add to the image that Hammer’s output would attempt to project over the course of the next few years.
Veteran actors such as Felix Aylmer, who plays John Banning’s father Stephen, and Raymond Huntley (who was the first person to play Dracula on the West End stage in the 1920s) as his uncle, provide suitable gravitas. While Irish actor Eddie Byrne, who had recently starred in Hammer rival Monty Berman and Robert S Baker’s “Jack the Ripper”, is a solid presence as the down-to-earth Inspector Mulrooney, whose understandable unwillingness to take seriously John Banning’s claim that he and his family are being stalked by a murderous 4,000 year-old Mummy, imported from Egypt by a fanatical follower of the great god Karnak, is gradually worn down under a weight of evidence provided by a suite of Hammer’s finest repertory stalwarts. These include George Woodbridge’s rosy-cheeked local Police Constable and drunken Irish carters Pat & Mike, played by Harold Goodwin and Denis Shaw, who’re included as comic light relief but also have a vital part to play in the development of the plot when they’re employed by sinister fez-wearing foreigner Mehemet Bey (George Pastell) to transport a crate of supposed Egyptian relics back to his home, but accidentally manage to deposit it in a nearby swampy bog instead; and, of course, Michael Ripper is present and correct, like you knew he would be, as a ferret-like poacher who spies Kharis returning from the first of his kills soon after being brought to life by Mehemet’s recitation of incantations written on the Scroll of Life, causing Ripper’s skulking ne’er-do-well promptly to retire in haste to the local tavern in order to recover his wits with the aid of a stiff drink.
“The Mummy” is oddly structured. Thanks to its inclusion of a total of two flashback sequences which appear within minutes of each other in the middle section of the film, the development of the action, in the form of the threat initiated by Kharis’s first attack on the English archaeologists, is suspended for twenty minutes or so while we’re invited to turn our attention instead to the colourful romance of a studio created Egyptian pre-history that tells of the love story between Kharis and Ananka. All of which is being recounted with reference to a folio plucked from a shelf in John Denning’s study, and which prompts the archaeologist to repeat an anecdote recorded in it that his uncle (and fellow explorer) would have surely already have known, given his involvement in the previous expedition and its aim of discovering the site of the burial chamber and tomb of Princess Ananka by retracing the same route that legend recalls her entourage taking during a pilgrimage to the birth-place of the god Karnak, and along which she was taken suddenly ill and died. The second flashback which follows close on its heels actually repeats a large chunk of material from the start of the film all over again. This is rendered necessary so as to delay the first appearance of the Mummy, who is inadvertently resurrected by John’s archaeologist father soon after the initial discovery of Ananka’s resting place. The elderly Stephen Banning is, as a consequence of the encounter, sent clean out of his mind by the irrational forces of a lost age – but that insanity is also attended by a new understanding that the world does not move to the rhythms his logical mind once assumed, leaving him unable to function outside of the Nursing Home for the Mentally Disordered he ends up confined to while he waits for the ancient past to catch up with him, as he now knows it one day must. Fisher shoots this material in an uncharacteristically stylised way, with crazy slanting Dutch angles emphasising Banning senior’s newly discombobulated mind.
Although the flashbacks are awkwardly placed, and its choppy structure makes the film very much more dependent on the successful staging of four key set-piece sequences in which, each time he appears, Christopher Lee’s Mummy bursts through the ordered, emotionally suppressedstuffiness of late Victorian upper middle-class society (of which Cushing’s John Banning is an impeccable paragon), the film still addresses interesting issues that resonate with postwar affairs very current at the time of its release, given the fallout from Britain’s recent central role in the Suez crisis of 1956, and the sense in which that fiasco had seemed to announce the shattering of the image of Britain’s place in the world as a paternalistic leader, and the beginnings of a post-colonial settlement which saw the rapid dismantling of the country’s former outposts of Empire soon after, with many colonies seeking and achieving independence throughout the following decades. “The Mummy” plays to these British post-colonial fears of vanishing influence and power with a hero who is rendered lame through a poorly set broken leg near the start of the film, and whose father (the representative of the colonial past John is attempting to perpetuate) is first driven mad then destroyed by a creature which can even penetrate the sound-proofed parameters of his padded cell. John Banning’s physical disability is combined with a resolve that can seem like emotional sterility -- a fact especially emphasised during a scene in which he attempts to communicate with his addled father at the nursing home, just before the man’s murder, but is unable to understand his mumbled warnings. His father’s exasperated final shot – ‘you’re a fool, John’ -- seems to encapsulate everything Stephen has come to realise but which John cannot yet grasp about the fallacy of their dismissive approach to the beliefs of a past they have sought to excavate and expose to the unseeing eyes of an alien culture.
John’s physical and emotionally crippled state is set against Christopher Lee’s powerful build and Kharis’s role as a passionate, atavistic force from the ancient past, which has been called upon by Mehemet Bey, the modern-day follower of the very god Kharis once served, specifically in order to do battle with and overthrow both the intellectual assumptions and the actual power nexus of the present day colonial oppressor. In fact, Lee’s Mummy is even given what amounts to a birthing scene, when he is raised from a womb-like swamp and shown tottering up onto the banks with tentative, staggering steps -- covered in an oily amniotic slick of mud and looking just like a new-born foal experiencing its first moments in the world. Kharis is being brought into this strange new environment specifically as a tool for doing Mehemet Bey’s bidding; unlike the shuffling Mummies of the old Universal films, Lee’s is a fast-moving, unstoppable breeze block of a colossus, impervious to bullets (great chunks are memorably blasted out of him by shotgun blast, to little effect in slowing him down) and who smashes through heavy oak front doors, tears iron bars from the window of a secure cell and crashes through the French windows of Banning’s study -- each time at the request of Bey, who is surely the film’s version of Gamal Abdul Nasser: a sophisticated modern man who wears a suit and assumes the guise of a gentleman while living in the midst of his quarry in a large country mansion – but who is also someone who calls upon an ancient god of the past for his power, unleashing irrational forces of disorder and violence in order to oppose the racism and unthinking sense of superiorly enjoyed by the cosy English archaeological elite he sets out – using Kharis as his vehicle – to destroy.
Sangster’s script brilliantly explores the tensions in the dynamic between the destructiveness of Bey’s fundamentalist religious fanaticism (‘he who robs the graves of Egypt dies!’) and the stifling arrogance and implied racism that could be seen underlying Banning’s belief that his discipline exerts intellectual and cultural control over the display and interpretation of the artefacts of the ancient past taken from Bey’s country. It becomes the focal point during a scene, which is played beautifully by both Cushing and Pastell, in which a suspicious Banning deliberately and slyly sets out to probe Bey’s involvement in the Mummy Kharis’s reign of terror by questioning the intellect of anyone who could worship such a second rate god as Karnak, in order to expose the cover of gentlemanly urbanity Bey has assumed on the fringes of polite society in Victorian England. The back and forth in the ensuing politely conducted ‘debate’ allows each to appear equally as persuasive in their argument, and the film does a fairly good job of balancing our sympathies between these two doctrines, which clearly have equal capacity in them for being oppressive, and each of which also has a point in some ways; but the especially clever move Sangster, perhaps inadvertently, then makes is to show that Kharis himself, despite having been made Bey’s agent of vengeance on those who have defiled the sacred tombs of the god his modern Egyptian master fanatically follows, has also been called to account by his own people in the past for a similar crime to that which Bey now holds Banning and his party responsible: Kharis’s all-consuming love for Ananka led him, 4,000 years ago, also to ‘insult’ the god Karnak by breaking all ordained rules of custom and attempting a Faustian resurrection of his lover when she’d already been ceremonially pledged in death to Karnak for the afterlife. This is what led Kharis to be punished so severely for his transgressions -- having his tongue removed (so that his screams would not disturb the ears of Karnak as he was being tortured) and being sealed, still alive, inside his former lover’s burial chamber for all time.
Thus, there is an unlikely parallel struck between the obsessions of Banning and those of Kharis, both of whom have been led to cast aside the traditions and established customs of ancient Egypt in pursuit of a specific passion. The connection is symbolically realised in there being seen to be such similarity in the looks of Princess Ananka and Banning’s wife Isobel. There is no explanation or justification offered for this coincidence in the plot; it’s merely a device for fleshing out the idea that the clash between orthodoxy and those who challenge it will always find its echo down the ages. But we’re also invited to compare the motives of these two ’blasphemers’: Kharis’s willingness to cast aside the traditions of his people in the name of an all-conquering love from beyond the grave is set against Banning’s dry, academic determination to apply intellectual dominance over the past in furtherance of an academic career: a boundless, timeless love versus an emotional atrophy. As Bey and Banning pursue their battle of political wills, it is Kharis who ends up becoming the film’s most sympathetic character.
“The Mummy” was made for £100,000, and released in the US before Britain so that Universal could capitalise on the summer market in the drive-in theatres – always the most profitable time of year for this type of film. As usual, it had suffered some degree of censorship at the hands of the BBFC during the script stages, with the British censorship body being careful to point out that the beheading of Ananka’s hand-maidens during the funerary rituals in the flashback sequence should not be seen on screen. Hammer also filmed but self-censored a shot of Kharis’s tongue being removed before his entombment. A version of Ananka’s burial ceremony in which her Nubian hand-maidens were shown completely topless rather than veiled in diaphanous garments was also shot for the Japanese market, although it does not appear to have survived, and only production stills remain to confirm the scene was ever filmed. The BBFC also required Kharis’s demise be portrayed less explicitly than it is written in Sangster’s script, which had the Mummy’s face being blasted to pieces by shotgun fire as he sinks into the swamp at the end. Despite this neutering of Sangster’s bloodthirsty imagination “The Mummy” was a huge success; and despite its subsequent reputation entailing it not being rated as highly as “The Curse of Frankenstein” or “Dracula”, its release saw it break the previous year’s box office records set by “Dracula”, and it was even received fairly well by the British press -- which was a rarity indeed when it came to Hammer Productions’ horror output at the time.
Among Hammer’s three colour re-workings of the Universal catalogue, “The Mummy” best sums up the trend at the time in British cinema for colourful spectacle and epic escapism, thanks to the preferences of producer Michael Carreras. But it also discreetly considers ideas then bubbling under the surface of national consciousness about the changing nature of Britain’s place in the world in a post imperial age; simultaneously iconoclastically celebrating the overthrow of a stultifying old order, yet also offering concerns about the unleashing of primitivism and chaos this might also bring along with it. This 3 disc Blu-ray/DVD combo pack from ICON Entertainment offers a superb restoration by Deluxe, which sees the film looking wonderfully vibrant and sharp. Out of the three recent restorations of the first Hammer Gothic colour films this seems to be the best. Controversy invariably reigns when it comes to these early pictures over which aspect ratio is the ‘correct’ one. This disc offers the film in both its 1.66:1 theatrical screening aspect ratio (which is a considerable improvement over the 1.85:1 ratio seen on the previous Warner DVD release) and the full frame 1.37:1 it was originally filmed in by Terrence Fisher. Both feature subtitles for the hard-of-hearing.
The presentation comes stuffed with tons of great extras, all of which feature on the combo pack’s single Blu-ray disc or are spread across two DVDs. Heading up the list is another enjoyable commentary by Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby, both of whom once again offer a multitude of facts concerning everything from career details about the most obscure cast members to detailed accounts of the production history, all delivered in their customary chatty but erudite and informed manner. Complementing this are three wonderful documentaries produced by Marcus Hearn for Flashpoint Media. “Unwrapping the Mummy” is an exemplary ‘Making Of’ doc featuring interviews with the likes of the late Jimmy Sangster, wardrobe mistress Rosemary Burrows, sculptor Margaret Robertson (née Carter) – who provides a nice anecdote about how she and Christopher Lee used to greet each other by the names ‘horrid’ and ‘nasty’ respectively -- and some archive video of producer Michael Carreras, alongside production context and history from film historians Denis Meikle and Marcus Hearn. Also contributing once again, this time to an analysis of Franz Reizensteinn’s score, is David Huckvale – author of ‘Hammer Film Scores and the Musical Avant-Garde’ – while John J Johnston, vice-chair in Egyptian Exploration and Archaeology provides historical context and background for the film’s portrayal of ancient Egypt. In addition to this film-specific piece, the disc also features a charming 15 minute featurette presented by Jonathan Rigby that’s all about Hammer’s informal repertory company of actors – the faces who appear time and time again in film after film, but who rarely get recognised or talked about. Most people recognise and look out for Michael Ripper of course, and he is as prominently featured here as you’d expect him to be. But there were many others, and this short and affectionate piece gives them their dues.
“The House of Horror: Memories of Bray” is just that, an utterly nostalgic 45 minute collection of anecdotes and memories from surviving members of the Hammer ‘family’ who worked at Bray Studios. The format is simple but effective: Marcus Hearn, Wayne Kinsey and Jonathan Rigby appear on camera to provide a synopsis of the history of the company’s time at Bray, while the likes of continuity girls Renné Glynne and Pauline Harlow (née Wise), assistant director Hugh Harlow, actor Melvyn Hayes and actress Janina Faye among others, talk about how they came to work at Bray, and recall their memories of their experiences while there, which often become quite emotional when they also recall the moment when it all came to an unexpected end with the decision to close the place down. Hearn and Rigby are at pains to point out that, despite the oft mentioned ‘family atmosphere’ associated with the working environment at Bray, for the ‘top brass’ at Hammer House in London, it was always a mill stone around their neck to have to maintain an entire full-time workforce, even when there was no film in production. The decision to abandon Bray was an entirely pragmatic one on their part.
Also included is an episode of “The Word of Hammer” TV series featuring clips from Peter Cushing’s Hammer films, with narration by Oliver Reed; a HD archive of poster images, production stills and behind the scenes shots from “The Mummy”; an industry promo reel restored (without sound) in HD; and a PDF booklet, viewable from a computer, by archivist Robert J. E. Simpson.
But if that wasn’t enough, there is also another full length film included on the disc!
“Stolen Face” is a minor black and white second feature from 1951, produced by Anthony Hinds during the Hammer/Exclusive association with American producer and distributor Robert Lippert, who supplied the film’s US stars -- the Veronica Lake-like Lizabeth Scott, and Paul Henreid: a casualty of the McCarthy hearings who appeared in a number of early Hammer films while blacklisted in the US, and who later went on to become a director on a number of episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”.
The director for this film though was Terrence Fisher, not long after his having left his post as an editor for Gainsborough Pictures, and here found working on a quaint but weird plastic surgery meets Pygmalion picture, written by Martin Berkeley and Richard Landau from an original story by Alexander Paal (who later wrote and produced “Countess Dracula”) and Steven Vas.
Based on the dubious if not offensive premise that physical deformity ‘causes’ criminal behaviour, Henreid’s Dr Philip Ritter tours prisons reforming evil women by making them look pretty again. After enjoying a “Brief Encounter” holiday fling in the English countryside, having met Scott’s beautiful blonde world-class pianist Alice Brent in a country pub, he’s later driven to despair when it turns out that she’s already pledged herself to marrying another man (André Morell). Despite being in love with Ritter, Alice feels she must abide by her previous obligations to Morell’s tweedy David, her concert promoter. Ritter goes into a funk as a result of this and hits on the hairbrained scheme of remodelling imprisoned Cockney recidivist Lily Conover (Mary Mackenzie) -- recently driven to live a life of crime after being horribly facially scarred during the Blitz (?!) -- with the face of the woman he’s loved and lost … and then, just to compound the immorality of this, he marries her! Naturally, Lily continues her light-fingered proclivities during the subsequent union, while Ritter desperately tries to do everything possible to cling onto the illusion that he can remake her in the image of Alice. The film becomes a creepy “Vertigo” meets “Frankenstein” nightmare, with Ritter becoming increasingly unhinged as the image of the sweet-natured ‘Alice’ he once knew is systematically corrupted by Lily’s antics, such as her flirting with deadbeats in jazz bars, stealing from expensive department stores left, right and centre (requiring Ritter to cover for her by paying for the stolen goods later) and holding raucous parties at their home in a well-to-do neighbourhood where that sort of thing just doesn’t go on.
The duality of good and evil theme which was recurrent in Fisher’s later work for Hammer, and the obvious plot parallels with “And Frankenstein Created Woman”, make this an interesting curiosity in retrospect, but it only really ever scratches the surface of the weird psychology inherent to the material. When Alice becomes free to go back to Ritter (Morell’s ever so decent rival having done the decent thing and released her from her marriage obligations when he realises that she loves another man), she’s oddly forgiving of his frankly twisted scheme to give another woman her face and, frankly, the viewer’s sympathy starts to sway more towards Lily when the married Ritter starts seeing his ‘true’ Alice again on the sly. There’s an inordinate amount of very primitive back projection, and lots of nicely spoken tweed-clad characters smoking pipes littering this quaintly starchy production, that ends with Lily conveniently falling from a speeding train during a violent argument, thus leaving the lovers free to live happily ever after. Hurrah!
“The Mummy” has worn well, and now looks better than it has ever looked since its initial theatrical release in 1959. This is another excellent addition to the re-mastered HD Hammer catalogue – perhaps even the best so far. Recommended highly.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!