Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Mummy (1959) Review

The final Halloween movie review for 2012 limps online swathed in dirty bandages with Hammer Studios’ version of The Mummy. When an ancient Egyptian tomb is unearthed by English archeologists the consequences turn out to be very grave for the trespassers. Good writing, excellent acting, beautiful sets, and the full use of Technicolor are all present in this intelligent story of forbidden love lasting beyond death.

The Mummy Title

Having struck cinema gold with their new and full color takes on Dracula and Frankenstein, Hammer Studios decided to revamp another of Universal Pictures monsters. The same team that made the previous hits was kept together for a third outing. Seeing Terence Fisher directing with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee headlining the cast, movie goers knew they would be in for a treat.

The Mummy Banning FamilyThe Mummy Mehemet

The year is 1895 and the location is a remote valley in Egypt. Of course it is actually a well appointed soundstage since Hammer didn’t have the kind of budget for filming on location. Still it manages to give a good impression of back breaking labor in the desert heat. There is only one reason to show this and that is to foreshadow something valuable being found. In this case, a blue scarab seal elicits a great deal of excitement from an Englishman who promptly runs it into a tent to show it off.

In the tent is John Banning (Peter Cushing), currently recovering from a broken leg that has not been properly set. The excited gentleman is his father, Stephen Banning (Felix Aylmer) who is under some criticism from a third man for not sending his son off to a doctor to get the leg set. It turns out this is a family affair, for it is John’s maternal uncle Joseph (Raymond Huntley) lodging the complaint.

So why is one small relic so exciting? It has hieroglyphics on it containing the name “Ananka.” The elder banning has spent the last twenty years of his life searching for the tomb of Princess Ananka and he can barely contain his excitement. Actually, he fails completely to do so.

That enthusiasm leads to a confrontation with a very dignified and polite fez wearing individual protesting the desecration of the tomb. Mehemet Bey (George Pastell) finishes with an unheeded warning blown off by Stephen and Joseph. Entering the tomb, they find it unlooted by grave robbers.

The Mummy Scroll BoxThe Mummy Secret Door Opens

Which means it is ripe for professional looting archeological retrieval! Verifying the tomb contains the deceased Princess Ananka, Stephen sends Joseph off to tell the laid up John about the find. Not content to wait for others or to properly document things, he eagerly pulls a scroll box from a recess in the tomb’s walls. This triggers an ingenious mechanism that slowly opens a hidden door in one of the walls…

In short order, Stephen is found out of his mind in the tomb and incoherent. Time passes and a now ambulatory John wraps up the dig by blowing up the entrance to the tomb. Watching from a distance is Mehemet, who happens to also have the scroll box. A vow of vengeance for violating the sacred resting place of the high priestess of Karnak is solemnly made and it is time to change settings.

 The Mummy John Visits His FatherThe Mummy Drunk Drivers

It is now three years later in England when John receives news that his father has become able to speak again and wants to see him. Accompanied by his lovely wife Isobel (Yvonne Furneaux), the junior archeologist finds out the only one his father will see. The doctor in charge of the sanitarium still has no clue what caused the breakdown, but hopes are that progress can no be made.

Awkwardly approaching his father, John quickly realizes that the old man has forgotten how his leg came to be broken and is not in full control of his faculties. The entire scene is permeated with sadness right down to a final warning from Stephen that “the mummy” is coming after them. If I were given a warning in such fashion, I would ignore it too.

A bit of comic relief that actually causes an important plot point follows when we are presented with two gentlemen (and I use that word very loosely) in a local pub. They have been drinking for some time and are about to down another pint each. Talk of a strange foreigner who hired one of them to deliver a crate leads to them arguing outside the pub.

The subject? Whether or not they are too drunk to drive.  Yes folks, we have an 1890s PSA. Since both are sotted, the perils of drunk horse cart driving are shown. One crate marked fragile ends up flying through the air into a nearby swamp to sink in the mire. UPS they are not.

Following the report to the local constable for further comic relief, we get to meet the stranger who hired the morons. Well, well, he is no stranger to the audience, though he now goes by Mehemet Akir now. Clever alias, that. Nobody would expect using the same first name, right?

The Mummy Reading the Scroll of LifeThe Mummy Rising from the Swamp

Later that night after all the locals have departed, Mehemet shows up the Scroll of Life that was contained in the stolen scroll box. What follows is one of the best scenes in horror movie history when the title character is summoned from the sunken crate. Rising from the muck and dripping mud, the mummy is ghastly in appearance.

Christopher Lee gave an amazing performance as the mummy. From the way he moved conveying what it would be like to relearn using your limbs to the expressions of his eyes, it is an amazing demonstration of how to act without a single line of dialogue. His lurching undead monster is a thing of nightmares and even better than his work as Frankenstein’s creation. You can believe he is a reanimated corpse.

The Mummy Close UpThe Mummy Death of Stephen Banning

The time for vengeance is at hand, so the devoted follower of Karnak sends his supernatural weapon to begin the dirty work of disposing those who despoiled the tomb of Ananka. First up is the elder Banning and not even the iron bars and screen meant to keep lunatics in can stop the ancient threat from breaking in.

Soon the murder is the talk of the village and an inquest makes it clear that the killer came from outside the asylum. Of course John is very upset to lose his beloved father, but it is the old man’s last ravings that haunt him. Perhaps there was something to what he said, after all.

The Mummy KharisThe Mummy Princess Ananka

As he and his uncle discuss Stephen’s life, John ends up reading an account of the death of Princess Ananka composed by his late father. Time for an extended flashback to ancient Egypt. Ananka died suddenly during a trip and the high priestess of Karnak was entombed under unusual circumstances.

Fisher and company went all out to show the elaborate rites involved in preparing, embalming, and burying an Egyptian noble. How accurate it is to reality, I cannot say but it looked impressive. Of course, it also served as an excuse to show off Fruneaux’s curves and that of Ananka’s handmaidens. Hammer’s trademark sheer white dresses are more sheer than normal in the flashback which probably added to the adolescent male segment of the box office.

The Mummy Ananka in SarcophagusThe Mummy Tongue Removal

Having presided over all the ceremonies, the high priest Kharis (Christopher Lee) breaks into the tomb afterwards. You see, he held a forbidden love for Ananka, for she was bound to Karnak while in life. Having spotted a theosophical loophole, the grief stricken man brings the Scroll of Life and attempts to resurrect his lost love.

It doesn’t go so well. Caught in the act by the other priests, Kharis fails to even put up a fight. The punishment for profaning the god is rather nasty and let us just say he won’t be saying anything ever again.

The Mummy Kharis CondemnedThe Mummy Kharis Buried Alive

But that is only the beginning of his punishment. It is his fate to guard the tomb of his beloved for all eternity and so he is buried alive. Lee’s portrayal of Kharis in life is noble and sad, which adds a emotional impact to the rest of the movie. No longer is the mummy a soulless murder machine, but a tragic character enslaved by Egyptian magic.

The Mummy Altar to KarnakThe Mummy Breaking Down the Doors

Back to 1895 we go. Batman may have the Batcave, but Mehemet has his side room shrine to operate out of. There he worships Karnak, depicted as a camel headed deity. Now I have forgotten most Egyptian mythology I knew as a child, but I do not recall a “Karnak” other than the temple city of that name. Also, the closest to a camel headed god would be the aardvark headed Seth or Set. So do not look for historical authenticity from this production.

Have you ever noticed how killers and creatures in horror movies always manage to get around unseen despite crossing large distances? Kind of ridiculous, isn’t it?

That does not happen in The Mummy. When Kharis strides through the night time forest, a poacher actually sees him. His natural reaction is terror, followed by flight, and finally a desire for a stiff drink -- which lands him in the local pub previously seen. For that alone, I would have loved the movie.

Having finished going through Stephen’s things in search for a motive for his killer, Joseph heads to bed. Normally there is an attempt to build up suspense for cheap scares, but Kharis smashes through the door without warning. It is an impressive display of the undead being’s superhuman strength and direct line purpose.

The Mummy Death of Uncle JosephThe Mummy Banning Fires the Pistol

John hears the ruckus and tries to save his uncle, but is swatted away with ease by the mummy. Several moments fumbling with a key to open the gun cabinet costs a life. Unable to do anything but unload his revolver into the back of the retreating monster, John has to watch helplessly since he can’t give chase. The improperly set broken leg has come back to haunt him. Worse yet, the bullets didn’t do any good, they just passed through the walking corpse.

The Mummy Inspector Mulrooney DoubtsThe Mummy Flashback

By this point the first murder has caused an inspector to arrive from London to investigate things properly. Inspector Mulrooney (Eddie Byrne) is the typical no-nonsense detective and listens to Banning’s account with great skepticism. That doubt only grows once he hears the theory it is a mummy brought back to life. It is during that explanation that we finally get to see what happened in the tomb three years before.

No matter what Mulrooney believes, one thing they agree on is that John is the next target. While the inspector goes off to investigate, the archeologist takes precautions for the next visit by the mummy. The stakes are rising and when he takes things into his own hands the die is cast with dramatic consequences.


While I used to run around and play Van Helsing from Horror of Dracula as a kid, my favorite Hammer film was The Mummy. There was something so sad about Kharis that it made feel sorry for him. As an adult, I appreciate the acting and characterization even more, I’m pleased to report.

This is the best mummy movie ever made, in my opinion. It has it all and is tightly paced at just under ninety minutes, so there is nothing there to drag the film down. What makes that even more impressive is that it isn’t a nonstop action film, but an intelligent story filled with all sorts of little subplots such as the relationships in the Banning family for example.  Every actor gets their chance to shine on screen, which makes the characters that much more believable.

Suspension of disbelief is never in question. In fact, the main story is very much about rational people dealing with a fantastic situation while remaining rational throughout. Banning and Mulrooney handle things properly and not once do you feel like shouting “YOU IDIOT!” at the screen. Not many horror movies can claim that.

I already mentioned how good Christopher Lee was at playing the mummy, yet I feel that no amount of praise can capture how great he was in the part. It was a superb performance in a mask where only his eyes could show and his body language could convey emotion. Peter Cushing and Eddie Byrne are nearly as good in their performances and Furneaux is adequate as Mrs. Banning.

Terence Fisher’s direction is sure handed at all time, with action scenes that feel like true life and death situations along with plenty of small moments for the characters to come alive. He is one of the more unappreciated directors of his time, which is a pity.

Having come out before the ratings system, it is officially an unrated film. Canadian classification is 14+, but I would say it is suitable for kids younger than that. PG would be the modern rating, not even PG-13. Things parents should be aware of include the previously mentioned sheer dresses on the handmaidens and the violence. There is no gore or blood and profanity.

I recommend The Mummy to horror movie fans, kids looking for a fright on Halloween, and anyone who enjoys a ripping good yarn in the English vein.


The DVD I have is the Warner Brothers edition packaged for the U.S.A. and Canada complete with bilingual covers.

Presented in anamorphic 1.66:1 widescreen, it will fill your HDTV with vibrant colors thanks to a good quality transfer. It hasn’t been fully restored, but it is obviously remastered. There are only a few dust specks here and it upscaled nicely on my Samsung BD player.

The sound is clear with English and French tracks both being Dolby Digital Mono. Subtitles for both languages are available.

The only extras are the theatrical trailer and an incredibly brief text listing of only some of the cast and crew.  It is the American trailer presented in letterboxed widescreen 4:3 ratio and is in decent shape, but not as good as the movie itself.








The Mummy Isobel BanningThe Mummy Drawing of Ananka

What are the chances that Isobel Banning and Princess Ananka are dead ringers? If you said a highly improbable 100 %, you are a winner! Normally in films of this type, it means she is the reincarnation of the dead high priestess. To the credit of the filmmakers, they did not do this. Instead it is just happenstance.

The Mummy Shotgun BlastThe Mummy Mistaken Identity

The shotgun blasts into Kharis looked incredibly painful, so it added to the idea of the mummy being unkillable when it barely slowed him down. That stuck in my head as a kid and it still is a fantastic effects scene.

That sad reach out by Kharis is a marvelous moment of pathos. Lee managed to emote through all those layers of costume and tug at the heartstrings. When he looked down in despair, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him.

The Mummy Mehemet OpinesThe Mummy John Fishes

There are few things as entertaining as a good verbal duel. The Mummy features an interesting one that nearly made Mehemet a sympathetic character. Banning’s needling to fish out incriminating reactions is better than anything Perry Mason ever pulled. But it is the debate itself that I enjoyed, for there was substance to the Karnak worshippers argument.

The Mummy John Has the ShotgunThe Mummy John Loses the Shotgun

Mulrooney accepting the implausible once enough evidence came to light was a pleasant surprise. His irritation with John stirring things up ahead of schedule was valid and it was nice to see a competent policeman in one of these genre films. They are as rare as hen’s teeth. Together they plan a trap. Banning doesn’t fare so well playing bait for the ambush, however. This time he doesn’t even get a shot off.

The Mummy StranglingThe Mummy Isobel Lets Her Hair Down

I find it interesting that both times Kharis tried to kill Banning, his wife had to save him. Though competent and a man of action, John is helpless against the mummy. It was amusing that Isobel had to let her hair down to fool Kharis. That should be a lesson to all ladies that they look better that way.

The Mummy Death GlareThe Mummy Rebelling

Now there is a death glare for the ages and it isn’t even a political debate. The power of love overcomes mystical enslavement much to Mehemet’s surprise. At this point I was rooting for Kharis.

The Mummy Carrying Isobel into the SwampThe Mummy Isobel Awakens

Well, up to the point where he decided drowning Isobel was a good idea. Obviously there is some brain rot going on. It does set the stage for a final confrontation where the good guys have a chance of stopping him.

The Mummy Put Me DownThe Mummy Villagers Shoot

Like many a man before him, a woman is his downfall. Come to think of it, Kharis has a slight problem with that reoccurring in his existence. Suckered into letting her go, the villagers and heroes open fire with multiple shotguns to devastating effect.

The Mummy Sinking

Poor Kharis. He sinks into the swamp with the Scroll of Life clutched in his hand. Given all the grief it has given him, he should have destroyed it. Moral of the story? There should be limits on what you do for love.

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