After enjoying much success with their full-colour range of resurrections of Universal’s "Frankenstein", "Dracula" and "The Mummy" catalogues in the late fifties, it wasn't surprising that Hammer Productions would cash in with a slew of sequels in the following decade, just like their 1930s forebears had done before them. As usual, quality began to slide, but at least the Dracula and Frankenstein franchises could usually rely on either Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing respectively to provide a solid anchor with their always watchable performances. Hammer's Mummy series was a different matter, though. The original 1959 Hammer Mummy film was always the one of the three initial colour Gothics that seemed to offer the least promise for interesting follow-ups, given its reliance on what was basically a proto stalk-and-slash premise; but that didn't stop the studio bringing numerous lumbering, bandage-clad Egyptian hulks back to life over the following years -- usually when all other monsters in the Hammer coterie had been well and truly exhausted.
"The Mummy's Shroud" was one of the last in this pretty unremarkable series of formulaic pot-boilers, made as part of the original eleven picture deal Hammer struck with Twentieth Century Fox in concert with their long-time partners Seven Arts, and which includes some of their most beloved titles, such as “Dracula Prince of Darkness” and “The Plague of the Zombies”. “The Mummy’s Shroud” was to be the eleventh and final beneficiary of this deal, based on a story outline by Anthony Hinds (working under his pen name John Elder) but with a screenplay written by director John Gilling that was, apparently (according to 2nd assistant director Christopher Neame) penned in only five days. It was made to play as the supporting second feature to Terrence Fisher’s “Frankenstein Created Woman” but perhaps its most enduring legacy is that it was the final Hammer film ever to be shot at Bray Studios before dire economic conditions then consuming the British film industry necessitated the more cost effective move to Elstree.
With production design and art direction by Bernard Robertson and Don Mingaye, photography by Arthur Grant and a rousing score by Don Banks, “The Mummy’s Shroud” is also one of the final films to retain that classic Hammer aesthetic, so intimately associated with the Bray Studio years; so despite the rather poor reputation the film enjoyed at the time of its release and for many years afterwards, it has developed a special place in many Hammer fans’ hearts. It is by no means comparable to Gilling’s Cornish Classics, “The Plague of the Zombies” and “The Reptile”, and the director himself has dismissed it as being his worst movie in subsequent interviews. However, thanks to excellent and often memorable performances from a cadre of supporting cast members, it actually now seems to stand up rather well, and Gilling’s direction, particularly of the murder scenes, which, although mostly bloodless are always rendered effectively and imaginatively, is often superb.
Many will find it rather slow in getting to the point though. In fact, the film is half-way through its total running time before the Mummy even rises. It starts with a long and unnecessary prologue which must constitute one of the most unpromising openings to any Hammer film ever, with a voice-over that some used to claim had been supplied by Peter Cushing, though it clearly isn’t him. In this clumsy section of the film, the tale of the child Prince Kah-to-Bey (Toolsie Persaud) and his faithful servant, Prem (a boot polish blackened Dickie Owen) is shown in flashback, in an artificial-looking Egyptian palace set sparsely populated with a few unbecoming extras. Kah-to-Bey is forced to flee into the desert after a rival overthrows his father the Pharaoh (Bruno Barnabe) in a bloody coup. With the rest of his family slain, the young Prince is spirited away in the nick of time, along with a retinue of slaves. The small band is forced to trek across the desert but get caught out in a sandstorm. With no food or drink, the whole group eventually perishes, with Prem first burying his charge, wrapped in a shroud on which is written an incantation which will summon his own mummified remains of to life should anyone threaten the resting place of his master, and marking the site with a hieroglyphic inscription.
When Prem the servant is later discovered, thousands of years later, by Western archaeologists, his mummified remains are mistaken for Prince Kah-to-Bey, since they bear the royal seal that was handed to him just before the prince’s untimely death. Sir Basil Walden (Andre Morell) and his team of archaeologists set out to find the real remains, but are also caught in a sandstorm in a sequence paralleling the journey the prince’s retinue took across the same landscape thousands of years before. The expedition's financier, rich industrialist Stanley Preston (John Phillips) organises a rescue party which he reluctantly has to head himself, since his own son, Paul Preston (David Buck), is one of those lost.
Preston locates Walden's party just as they find Kah-to-Bey's hidden tomb, and on viewing their great discovery he connives to have Walden (who is seriously ill from a snakebite sustained seconds after encountering the tombs guardian, played by Roger Delgado) shipped off to a mental asylum so that he can take credit for the discovery himself! Kah-to-Bey's remains are displayed as the centrepiece among a host of other ancient artefacts and reliquaries -- covered in the shroud he was first found wrapped in -- in front of the mummy of his faithful servant; but the two guardians entrusted with the defence of Kah-to-Bey's tomb are plotting revenge against everyone who set foot inside their master's resting place. After they recite aloud a prayer from Kay-to-Bey's shroud, Prem the Mummy comes to life to seek the death of most of the cast, one by one!
This is a fairly standard Mummy picture, with all the usual plot ingredients one expects to find in such material laid out obligingly to proceed along fairly predictable lines. The film's hero Paul Preston (played by David Buck) is utterly bland, and blonde model-actress lead Maggie Kimberly is striking-looking yet curiously detached as hieroglyphics translator Claire de Sangre. Neither of them really play any significant part in the movie until the end when, as the last remaining members of the team which uncovered Kah-to-Bey's tomb, they manage to destroy his mummified protector by repeating the spell that undoes the curse (which is also conveniently written on the boy heir’s death shroud).
But although the leads may be lacking and the film doesn’t have the star power that drives weaker entries in the Hammer cannon, Gilling’s handling of the material accepts the limitations of the standard Mummy plot line (which tends to get reiterated in every sequel) and instead develops interesting wrinkles on the standard character types so often found in these films, but which are here used to express various facets of the ‘colonial guilt’ motif which so often lies behind Mummy’s curse narratives and, in particular, are at the root of much of Gilling’s work for Hammer.
Gilling was returning to the Hammer fold after becoming rather bored with routine television directing jobs on ITC series’ such as “The Saint” and “Department S”. He’d always seemingly had a rather strained relationship with the studio and a reputation for being difficult, often falling out with screenwriter and producer Anthony Hinds, for instance. Nevertheless, Hammer for some reason continued to invite him back after each and every dispute, although “The Mummy’s Shroud” turned out to be his final engagement for them. There may have been no big names in this picture but it was blessed with an excellent ensemble cast headed by Andre Morell, who seem to have inspired the director to indulge the creative freedom usually denied him in his TV work to create some deliriously over-the-top sequences, non-more so that those featuring the gleefully cackling Catherine Lacy, who is even more disconcerting than the shuffling Mummy who is the movie’s ostensive threat thanks to her role as mysterious toothless clairvoyant tomb guardian Haiti, which she attacks with an uncommon relish that is actually rather disturbing. Her fortune teller’s ‘lair’ is doused in red gel lighting and shot in a dreamlike vortex of wide angle lenses with hideous masks looming into the foreground to create a phantasmagorical realm of the macabre that is often very disquieting.
Morell's most famous role for Hammer was probably his turn as Dr Watson opposite Peter Cushing's Sherlock Holmes in the Hammer version of "The Hound of The Baskervilles". Here he gets cast at the top of the bill, and after his appearance in Gilling’s “The Plague of the Zombies” the previous year the average audience member would probably have naturally assumed he’d be the main lead. Instead, he unexpectedly becomes the Mummy’s first victim: packed off to an asylum by the selfish and overbearing industrialist financing the expedition he escapes and, wandering deliriously through the narrow back alleys and bazaars of the fictional Mezzara setting, created by Bernard Robertson on the back lot at Bray, he is beckoned into Haiti’s lair and given one of the most unnerving crystal ball readings one could conceive of, as she delights in informing the ailing Lord of his imminent fate. ‘I want to rest,’ whispers the weakened explorer. ‘You are soon going to die, you’ll have plenty of time to rest!’ she cackles in reply!
Playing Haiti’s unlikely grown-up son Hasmid, the co-guardian of Kay-to-Bey’s tomb, is Roger Delgado – who is equally delightful (through the blacked teeth and ‘boot polish’ swarthiness of his make-up) in an underwritten but suggestive role. The Mummy itself is an uninspiring creation played by stunt man Eddie Powel (who had stood in for Christopher Lee during the stunt scenes on the original 1959 film), who is expected to trudge about in a cheap looking costume. The Mummy make-up was the preserve of George Partleton, who had the unenviable task of replacing Hammer’s best make-up man Roy Ashton; he based both of his Mummy designs on real-life examples from the Egyptian Rooms of the British Museum, but Powel can do little more in his restricting costume than attempt to make the most of his size to portray a lumbering cloth-wrapped behemoth, here, with none of the underlying emotion and expression that Christopher Lee was able to add to the thankless role available to him. That said, Les Bowie and Ian Scoones do come up with an excellent disintegration sequence for his finale, shot at Bowie’s studio in Slough, Bershire where the team recreated the original Bray set on a special rostrum so that they could work underneath it to perfect the final stages of Prem’s collapse into a dusty heap of decaying bones.
Once Morell's character is killed off, it falls to John Phillips and Hammer bit-part regular Michael Ripper to inject some life into the formulaic screenplay. Phillips gives a very necessary over-the-top performance as the arrogant, bullying but cowardly industrialist Stanley Preston while Ripper, for once, gets a substantial role as Preston's harassed assistant, Longbarrow. The interplay between these two players provides some of the film’s best moments. Ripper seems to have frequently benefitted from meatier roles in those Hammer films that were overseen by John Gilling, but here he takes an unsympathetic character – a diminutive, nervous, scurrying lickspittle treated with contempt by the boss he fawns over – and injects him with pathos and tragic humour before he is disposed of incredibly brutally.
The third female presence in the movie appears on the surface to play little part in the action, yet Elizabeth Sellers excels as Barbara, the enigmatically serene wife of Stanley Preston. Like all the females in Gilling’s screenplay, she appears to have some sort of second sight and the curiously detached way in which she quietly observes her husband’s conniving and bullish machinations as though she knows they’re all ultimately for nothing adds considerably to the film’s intrinsic air of mystery. Maggie Kimberley’s character Claire may be fairly underwritten but she too possess this same uncanny ability to sense the future of the strident males who surround her (but not, crucially, her own). Women in this film are sensitive to the numinous atmosphere of their ancient surroundings and the connection it affords to a timeless deep history that cannot be rationally explained, on a more instinctive level than the paternalistic male characters who all violently go about pursuing their goals and are driven by the urge to learn and catalogue through their discoveries, but cannot intuit the truth of the situation they are confronted with. Gilling emphasises this implied theme by shooting their deaths at the hands of the Mummy in such a way that each male victim (and all the victims in this film are male!) is unaware of what is about to happen to him until it’s too late: Walden is left in a delirious stupor before his head is crushed by the monster; site photographer Harry (Tim Barrett) only gets to observe the dim reflection of the Mummy in his developing fluid before he is doused in the stuff and perishes in flames; Longbarrow crushes his glasses while getting out of bed to book his master’s ticket out of the danger, and cannot see the hulking figure approaching him before he is bundled up in his own bed sheets and hurled out of a third-storey window; and Phillips himself is approached from behind while he waits for a guide to take him to the harbour, after his decision to abandon everybody and escape on the midnight boat back to England.
Revisiting this last hurrah from Bray Studios proved an unexpectedly enjoyable experience for me, when previously I’d always considered “The Mummy’s Shroud” to be one of the very weakest entries in a fairly uninspiring franchise. It looks very handsome in HD as well, benefitting from a healthy clean-up and a clear reproduction of Arthur Grant’s lighting schemes, which keeps to muted colours for the most part but adds lurid dabs of red gel in the murder sequences. The newly produced ‘making of’ documentary from Marcus Hearn lasts for twenty-two minutes and efficiently covers the main areas of interest with special aplomb. Historian Denis Meikle fills in the details of the film’s production background; Egyptian history expert John Johnston discusses the mythological basis of Mummy film story tropes and how they plunder the legends surrounding the 1922 discovery by Howard Carter of the tomb of Tutankhamun; David Huckvale analyses Don Banks’ florid but traditional score; and Jonathan Rigby mounts a defence of the film founded on the excellence of the performances of its ensemble cast. This documentary is accompanied by a moving five minute to-camera tribute to David Buck by his widow Madeline Smith (who of course needs no introduction to Hammer fans), and rounded off with an extensive stills gallery (“Fear the beat of the cloth-wrapped feet”) and fifteen minutes of trailers for “The Mummy’s Shroud” and the other two titles recently released on Blu-ray by StudioCanal (and to be reviewed here soon), “Rasputin the Mad Monk” and “The Devil Rides Out”. All in all, this is a pleasing addition to the expanding HD Hammer catalogue, which comes with a DVD copy for those yet to make the switch-over.