Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Mummy (1959)

Director: Terence Fisher                                   Writer: Jimmy Sangster
Film Score: Franz Reizenstein                         Cinematography: Jack Asher
Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Yvonne Furneaux and George Pastell

In the late fifties Hammer pictures in England licensed the rights to remake Universal’s popular horror films from the thirties. For their first two films they produced Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula. But the third film, The Mummy, may be the best of the three as a work of art. The story, created from parts of all the Universal Mummy pictures, does a terrific job of using the best from each story and creating a satisfying movie that is arguably better than any of the ones in the original Universal franchise. The film begins in Egypt in 1895 during the height of exploration there, with an expedition led by Peter Cushing and his father, Felix Aylmer. Cushing has broken his leg and his uncle, Raymond Huntley, wants it to be set properly back in Cairo. But a new discovery keeps Cushing there to see what’s in the tomb they’ve found. Just as Aylmer and Huntley are about to enter the tomb, George Pastell shows up and warns them that if they desecrate the tomb they will die. Of course they ignore him and find a great treasure of artifacts, all undisturbed, including the body of Princess Ananka. When Huntley goes back to tell Cushing, Aylmer finds a scroll. His screams bring Huntley back to the tomb only to find that he’s lost his mind.

Aylmer is sent back to London, but by the time the expedition is over his condition hasn’t changed. Finally, Pastell vows revenge on all of those who led the expedition. Then the story shifts to London, four years later, as Aylmer begins to regain his memory. He tries to tell Cushing of accidentally bringing the mummy Kharis to life--a scene that is shown later in the film rather than the beginning as it was in the Karloff version--but of course they don’t believe him and think it’s simply part of his mental illness. Meanwhile, Pastell shows up in the village where Aylmer and Cushing live with a large box. When the box inadvertently falls into the swamp Pastel, in a particularly effective scene, brings the mummy, Christopher Lee, to life and sends him after Aylmer. After Aylmer’s death Cushing and Huntley begin looking through his papers for some kind of clue to find the murderer. When Cushing reads the legend of Ananka to Huntley, the flashback sequence is absolutely beautiful, the same story as the 1932 version but in color. Now all that is left for Pastell is for Lee to kill Huntley and Cushing. The ending, taken from The Mummy’s Ghost, is a nice twist on the original.

When the mummy begins the murders in England the plot threatens to slow down, but the appearance of Eddie Byrne saves it. The sumptuous color photography and the improvement in acting over their first two horror films really sets this film apart and makes it one of the most enjoyable of the Hammer horror films. Though Peter Cushing does a phenomenal job in almost all of the Hammer films, in this one he is particularly good. His serious consideration of the supernatural elements bring in the audience and aids in the suspension of disbelief, while his limp from the broken leg is a nice affectation. Christopher Lee, unfortunately, was saddled yet again with a monster role as he had in Curse of Frankenstein, though the Egyptian flashback sequence gives him a bit more to do. Felix Aylmer and Raymond Huntley are both excellent actors and add immensely to the production, as does Eddie Byrne later on and George Pastell throughout. Unfortunately, Yvonne Furneaux doesn’t have to do much acting at all, at least not until the end. She is one of the more beautiful of the Hammer girls, and she is also the best of the lot in terms of acting. One only wishes she could have been in more Hammer films.

In terms of the crew, the usual suspects were all present for the most part. Terence Fisher does his standard workmanlike job, and with the added opulence of the Egyptian as well as Victorian sets the picture looks terrific. He was particularly pleased with the fact that this film had very little of the kind of gore that the first two films did, more content to imply violence than actually show it. Jimmy Sangster is responsible for the screenplay, one of the better of his early stories. The only thing missing is James Bernard doing the film score. But it must be said that Franz Reizenstein does a tremendous job with the Egyptian motifs, and still manages to capture the percussive flavor of Bernard’s Hammer scores in the process and the music winds up being another high point. The film was shot entirely in the studio, and yet because most of the sets are interiors it works rather well. Even the Egyptian scenes at the beginning and during the flashback are nicely done. The Mummy, while containing nothing really original, still manages to be an impressive outing for Hammer that produced a number of sequels as well.

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