Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Warners has finally released the first of their Hammer holdings on DVD, one of the last of the first wave of British horror films that enjoyed enormous worldwide success in the late '50s. Remembered as the
third-rate series of chillers produced
by Universal a decade earlier, the theme of a living mummy was revitalized by the creative team at Hammer and remains, with the Karloff original from 1932, the best Mummy movie ever made. Warners has timed their library DVD to land on the shelf right next to the new Universal The Mummy Returns. Even if it does only sell 1/10th the number of units, this is a real movie, not Scooby Doo Meets the CGI Monsters.
Archeologist John Banning (Peter Cushing) is so intent on staying with his father's expedition to unearth the Egyptian tomb of Ananka that he refuses to have his broken leg properly set. He's therefore unable to assist when his father Stephen (Felix Aylmer) is unaccountably driven mad just as his dream of discovery comes true. Years later back in England, the now-crippled John again fails his asylum-restrained father when he discounts the old man's claims that a living mummy is loose in the world, much to John's later regret. Mehemet Bey, an Egyptian adept of the god Karnak, possesses both the holy scroll of life and the living mummy Kharis (Christopher Lee), and plans to use them to murder the English infidels.
Hammer's The Mummy is a superior horror entry second only to the company's superlative Horror of Dracula. Jimmy Sangster's tight script hews closely to the early Universal series because by this time Hammer was licensing the rights to that studio's originals. The new version retains the Kharis name as well as the flashbacks to ancient times, and the idea of the mummy threat returning to haunt the defilers of his crypt.
Hammer's prime horror team is in top form, with the inimitable Peter Cushing again playing his crisp, rational scientist and Chris Lee doing wonders with the kind of thankless part that had previously been sloughed off on a cowboy actor (Tom Tyler) or a stuntman who matched Lon Chaney Jr's heft.
This is a beautifully directed movie and one that needs to be seen wide screen to be appreciated. Terence Fisher plays his scenes in masters rich in depth and complexity, directing our interest within the frame rather than constantly cutting. When action does occur the cuts to close-ups are therefore all the more jarring. Several major action moments explode out of these master shots, cleverly contrasting the complacency of the veddy proper Brits with the ferocious primal force they've unleashed. John's advisor Joseph Whemple (Raymond Huntley) is strolling to the stairs when the doors behind him suddenly smash in. The shot holds as the mummy strides forward out of the depth of the frame to attack Whemple in medium closeup. The direction uses no buildup and neither does it telegraph the attack with music -- we're instead assaulted with sudden violence.
Lon Chaney's Kharis devolved into the most foolish of the Hollywood monsters because of his essential harmlessness. Shambling along on one bad foot and closing on his prey with all the menace of a turtle, Universal's Mummy became a joke the moment he ceased to be a credible threat. With his killings governed by a mad priest (George Zucco, John Carradine) and programmed with the burning of Tana leaves (yawn), the series quickly became tired.
Hammer's spin on the concept makes Kharis a powerful and fast-moving adversary, silent but with staring eyes, an automaton that barrels down a beeline to crush the throats of his victims. Until, that is, his mission is complicated by the vision of the woman he loved four thousand years ago. Flashbacks tell the tale of Kharis' blaspheming scheme to revive his dead lover Ananka (just as Karloff / Im-ho-tep had attempted) and the horrible fate meted out to him when caught in the act. The Golem-like hulk suddenly shows human signs of hesitation, adoration and weakness -- all communicated through Lee's evocative eyes and precise mime. Sangster and Lee basically combine Karloff's eternal love with the strangling boogeyman Kharis. Hammer's early films had powerful dramatic confrontations, and there are moments in The Mummy that are as good as any horror film ever made. 1
The basic plot is little more than a series of fairly predictable monster attacks. But Sangster has given the tale more layers of complexity. This was the first Hammer horror that can be said to be politically based; the priggish Englishmen go up against vindictive third-world pagan idolatry. For the success of this we can thank actor George Pastell (From Russia with Love), who makes of Mehemet Bey a devout worshipper acting only out of love for his God Karnak. We also like Bey because he's on the receiving end of colonial contempt -- dismissed at the tomb and mercilessly baited by the hero during what might be the film's best scene. John Banning pays a midnight visit to Mehemet Bay, hoping to provoke the murderous Egyptian into showing his cards. Both parties are playing a game -- John teasing Bey with contemptous slander against his country and religion, and Bey feeding his English guest the kind of stereotypical palaver he knows the Englishman believes -- that Easterners have no respect for human life, etc. Neither actor protects his personal image or otherwise softens the attack to make the scene more P.C., as would be done today. It's a direct confrontation between East and West, and the polite formalities exchanged carry more malice than the film's violent scenes. The Mummy makes a good double bill with Hammer's The Stranglers of Bombay from the same year, which also starred George Pastell and dealt more directly with a historical clash between colonial Britons and the 'primitive' cult of a third-world country.
Taking the film over the top quality-wise are two major factors, the photography and the music. The Mummy was printed in Technicolor, with saturated hues and deep inky blacks that made Horror of Dracula and The Hound of the Baskervilles powerful visual experiences. The richness of the images is spellbinding, from the mud caking Kharis' face to the limpid eyes of Isobel Banning (a ravishing Yvonne Furneaux, familiar as Catherine Deneuve's sister in Repulsion a few years later). Terence Fisher's wide masters are full of details -- the knicknacks in Banning's study, the oppressive ceilings and green & gold light in Ananka's tomb. On this DVD one can appreciate Fisher's more subtle touches, such as a few nicely canted shots. One shot manages a superb Escher-like perspective trick -- framed by George Pastell's altar, the angle makes Christopher Lee look ten feet tall.
Franz Reizenstein's music is by far the best score in a Hammer film. The main theme carries the weight of an epic like Miklos Rosza or Dimitri Tiompkin, with soaring vocals and a pounding beat, yet blasts out when needed to mirror the violence onscreen. The score greatly augments Kharis' motivations, sending him on his murder missions with regal flourishes, and evoking his devotion and tenderness when confronted by the vision of his lost Ananka.
In his book Hammer and Beyond, the British Horror Film, Peter Hutchings makes a good case for a sexual reading of The Mummy. The men in the story are weaklings. Sexless cripple John Banning doesn't seem to appreciate the sensuality of his wife Isobel, and the sex slave Kharis throws away his life and his faith for love of a dead woman. Even in the afterlife the all-powerful female is in charge, motivating murder across millennia. This reading hits hard in the final confrontation. Kharis may be the man with the back-breaking violence, but he's just a puppet in the hands of a woman who simply resembles the princess to whom he's so devoted. The power of the feminine sex trumps all: English society, ancient religions, magical powers.
Warners' DVD of The Mummy is beautifully detailed in 16:9 and lushly colored, making their previous flat and pale laserdiscs and VHS versions totally disposable. Some shots look a bit soft - but only parts of the frame, indicating that there may be problems in some of the elements, but none of this is the least bit distracting. The image has been cleaned of scratches and other blemishes. It simply looks great.
Not so promising is the Warners attitude toward The Mummy; this disc does not necessarily signal the imminent release of their other superior Hammer holdings, like Horror of Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein, and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (Note: now all available). At last month's studio day at Dave's the Laser Place, the Warner rep discounted that notion and (like most other studios) gave the attitude that library product was small potatoes. Unless The Mummy is a big seller, even titles like Them! aren't going to be coming out soon. Even if this disc does business (and the Hammer fans are not numberless, let's be honest) the earliest we could see more fantastic horror and science fiction from Warners will be 2003.
So Savant bought a copy of The Mummy this time around, to up the sales tally by a big One. As a fan, I feel like an Egyptian priest at the tomb of Hammer, with Warner archeologists refusing to bring out the goods. But this Mummy disc is treasure enough for the present.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Mummy rates:
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: October 6, 2001
1. Savant saw The Mummy first-run in 1960 with an audience that was totally captivated -- surprised and thrilled by the violence, and cheering and applauding at Kharis' climactic shift of loyalty.
Other DVD Savant Hammer Films Reviews:
X the Unknown,
The Curse of Frankenstein,
The Revenge of Frankenstein,
Hound of the Baskervilles,
Horror of Dracula,
The Brides of Dracula,
The Curse of the Werewolf,
The Phantom of the Opera,
The Kiss of the Vampire,
The Evil of Frankenstein,
The Plague of the Zombies,
Die! Die! My Darling!,
Quatermass and the Pit,
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed,
Dracula Has Risen from the Grave,
The Vampire Lovers,
Taste the Blood of Dracula,
Demons of the Mind,
Straight on Till Morning
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson