Friday, May 26, 2017

Worth Mentioning - Half-Bone, Half-Bandage, All Blood-Curdling Horror

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.


It's Hammer time for the Mummy.


THE MUMMY (1959)

As a child, I had a horror magazine with several fold-out posters in the middle of it, and among those posters was one of my first exposures to the monstrous mummy. This poster was a color image of a mummy that was absolutely filthy, and I had no idea what movie this mummy was from. It wasn't the mummy I was familiar with at the time, the one from The Monster Squad, and it wasn't from one of the black and white Universal films, either. It would be many years before I would find out that the mummy on my childhood poster was Christopher Lee as a mud-coated Kharis in Hammer Studio's 1959 mummy movie... and it would be many more years beyond that before I would ever see the movie that mummy was in.

Hammer is known for following in the footsteps of Universal's classic monster output, which isn't to say that their work is of a lesser quality; while I prefer the Universal movies myself, Hammer is extremely popular with horror fans. They followed Universal's example in their own way, delivering gothic horror films with classic monsters in their own, colorful, British style. Hammer dealt with some of the same characters as Universal's films, but their Dracula and Frankenstein movies have nothing to do with the films Universal made about Dracula and Frankenstein.


The Mummy is a different situation. When Hammer decided they wanted to do their own take on the concept of a bandage-wrapped, undead killer, they approached Universal about it and secured the remake rights to those original Mummy movies. They then proceeded to cherrypick elements from Universal's entire Mummy franchise, mixing together ideas, characters, and scenes from all of their Mummy movies except Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy.

Directed by Terence Fisher and written by Jimmy Sangster, The Mummy 1959 is built out of pieces of things that worked before, so why wouldn't they work again this time around?

This hodgepodge begins in 1895, when the men of the Banning/Whemple family, including Peter Cushing as John Banning, are searching the Egyptian countryside for the lost tomb of Princess Ananka, High Priestess of the Temple of Karnak. This quest to find the tomb has been going on for twenty years already, and it comes to an end just as the film is getting started. The tomb is located and John's father Stephen (Felix Aylmer) enters... and inside the tomb he sees something that drives him mad.

 

That something is the mummy of a man named Kharis, who loved Ananka so much that when she died he attempted to resurrect her with the Scroll of Life. Kharis's love for Ananka was forbidden in the first place, since she was bound to Karnak, and for the sacrilege of trying to raise her from the dead he was wrapped in bandages (after his tongue was cut out so his cries wouldn't offend the gods) and entombed alive inside Ananka's tomb, sentenced to watch over her for eternity. The Scroll of Life was also placed inside Ananka's tomb, and by reading from it Stephen accidentally revived Kharis.

Before anyone else sees Kharis, a local named Mehemet Bey (George Pastell), who had previously tried to warn the Bannings that "He who robs the graves of Egypt dies", takes control of the mummy and hid him away. Three years later, by which time the Bannings have long ago returned home to England and placed Ananka's body in a museum, Bey decides it's time to show the tomb raiders just how true his warning was. He brings Kharis to England and sets the mummy loose to seek out and kill the men who dared to disturb Ananka's tomb.


Of course, John proves harder to kill than the others, because he's played by Peter Cushing. While John fights for his life, a twist is added into the story at the hour mark - the time when most of the Universal's Kharis movies would have been ending - as John realizes that his wife Isobel (Yvonne Furneaux) looks just like Ananka. This fact causes some unexpected trouble for Kharis and Bey in the final 28 minutes.

Mixing together bits and pieces of all the Universal Mummy stories worked quite well, resulting in an excellent film that I enjoy almost as much as the movies it's based on - and probably even more than the original 1932 Mummy. I just like it better when a mummy movie actually has a shambling, bandage-wrapped mummy as the antagonist, and the '32 Mummy ditched the bandages very early on.

I am tempted to say that casting Christopher Lee as a silent character buried under bandages and mud who just rampages around strangling people and breaking things seems like a waste, but then again such a character was worthy of being played by Lon Chaney Jr. on three different occasions, so maybe it wasn't such an odd move after all.



THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY'S TOMB (1964)

Hammer's second Mummy movie was entirely the brain child of Michael Carreras, the son of the studio's founder James Carreras. The younger Carreras built this project from the ground up, writing it (under the pseudonym Henry Younger), producing it, and directing... and unfortunately, the end product just made me think that maybe Hammer should have saved some Universal material for them to adapt into this one, too. Following the entire Universal Mummy franchise and Hammer's 1959 The Mummy, this is the first of the bunch that I found to be a chore to sit through.

I just could not get into this movie. I can't tell you how many times I sat through the first 10 minutes, restarting it again and again as I struggled to become engaged by what I was seeing. It didn't work. At no point did I find what was going on to be interesting, and I couldn't even tell you why the film was repelling me within the first few minutes. The connection just couldn't be made.

Set in 1900, the story is the standard stuff - a group of Egyptologists ignore warnings of a death curse to unearth the ancient tomb of a man named Ra-Antef. Soon after the discovery, people begin to turn up dead. There may be something to this death curse legend after all.


I found The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb to be achingly dull, but it does have a couple bright spots in that it does some things that no previous Mummy movie did. For example, the mummy of Ra-Antef isn't put in a museum. Instead, it's to be taken on the road, where people will be charged to look at it. This mummy also has a different back story than his predecessors; this isn't a tale of lost or forbidden love, but of sibling rivalry. Ra's jealous brother Be had him accused of being a witch and exiled, and before Ra could clear his name Be had him killed. When the assassins working for Be had done the job, the forgot to take something off the corpse: a medallion with the Words of Life inscribed on it. A medallion used in ceremonies to revive the dead.


51 minutes into the film's 77 minute running time, there's finally even indication that Ra has been revived himself to commit some murders. Played by Dickie Owen, this bandage-wrapped mummy does do some shambling and attacking, but all is not as it seems. Ra isn't the only ancient character in the film...

I'm sure this movie has its fans who appreciate it, but I didn't enjoy the time I spent watching it. I'd recommend watching any of the previous Mummy movies over seeking this one out.



THE MUMMY'S SHROUD (1967)

If there's one thing I can really give the Hammer Mummy series credit for, it's the fact that they kept the back stories for the mummy characters fresh. They could have just had the same mummy coming back for each film, like Universal did with Kharis, and maybe they should have done that, but since they didn't they made sure that each mummy had a distinct history.

For The Mummy's Shroud, which John Gilling directed from a screenplay he wrote with Anthony Hinds, the story begins in the year 2000 B.C., when a son named Kah-to-Bey was born to Egyptian Pharaoh Men-ta. When Men-ta's younger brother Almen-ta pulled off a violent coup, a slave named Prem fled into the desert with young Kah-to-Bey. Unfortunately, Kah-to-Bey died out there, and Prem wrapped his body in a sacred shroud before succumbing to the conditions himself.


In 1920, an expedition discovers the bodies of Kah-to-Bey and Prem, having them set up as a museum exhibit. Unhappy about this turn of events, a local man who served as "the Keeper of the Tomb" reads the words on the mummy's shroud - words that revive the bandage-wrapped Prem, played by Dickie Owen (who also played the murderous mummy in The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb). Prem sets off on a mission to eliminate everyone involved with the expedition that disturbed his final resting place and the resting place of Kah-to-Bey.


It takes over half of the film's 86 minutes for Prem to shuffle into action, which is a major part of why I think maybe Hammer should have had the same mummy character each time out. If the mummy has already been established in a previous film, you don't have to waste so much time doing the whole expedition thing all over again.

Despite so much time being taken up by "been there, done that" scenarios, The Mummy's Shroud does manage to be a decently entertaining film. It's nothing special, but it's not too bad and it painlessly passes the time. Prem isn't exactly an impressive looking mummy, but there is something quite creepy about him, and he pulls off a couple kills that are better than the usual mummy strangulation. That's about the most you can ask for at this point.



BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB (1971)

When Universal first set out to make a Mummy movie, they were hoping to find an existing mummy story they could adapt for the screen, since they had so much success turning the works of Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker into Frankenstein and Dracula. None of the mummy stories they could find did it for them, though, so they ended up going with an original story for The Mummy in 1932. When they were going through literary works, one of the few mummy stories they would have had to choose from would have been Bram Stoker's 1903 novel The Jewel of Seven Stars - and given the fact that they could have used the line "From the author of Dracula!" in marketing if they had based the film on Stoker's novel, it's surprising they didn't decide to do just that.

Universal's monster movie successor Hammer did not pass up to make a mummy film based on Stoker's book, the adaptation being written by Christopher Wicking and released as Blood from the Mummy's Tomb. Certainly more of an attention-grabbing title than The Jewel of Seven Stars.

This follows in the footsteps of Mummy '32 in that it's a mummy movie that doesn't feature a shambling, bandage-wrapped mummy as its villain. Mummy '32 did have a shambling, bandage-wrapped mummy in it for a quick scene, though. Blood from the Mummy's Tomb doesn't even have that.


This is a story of reincarnation. The mummy in question is Valerie Leon as Tera, the "queen of darkness" whose corpse lies perfectly preserved in her tomb, but whose spirit may live on in the body Margaret Fuchs (also Leon), the daughter of one of the men who has disturbed Tera's final resting place. And in case you wonder how you're supposed to pronounce "Fuchs", it sounds like "fooks".

Things play out as a slow burn of strangeness and nightmares, with terrible things happening as a result of the expedition that discovered Tera's tomb while we gradually realize the depth of Margaret's connection to the evil mummy.

I wasn't all that into the way the story is presented and I didn't care for the characters, but I did find this film to be an admirable attempt to try something different with the mummy concept, and it has a creepy atmosphere. This isn't a film that I'm likely to choose to put on when I want to kick back with a random horror movie, but it was worth the viewing I gave it.

Sadly, this franchise about curses ended with an entry that seemed to have a cursed production. The film lost its original star Peter Cushing after one day of production when he had to drop out because his wife had fallen ill. She passed away just days later. Five weeks into the six week shoot, director Seth Holt collapsed into an actor's arms on set and died of heart failure. Michael Carreras, who directed The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb seven years earlier, stepped in to direct the last week of scenes.

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