Film

Don’t Open That Door! #44: 'The Mummy' (1959)

Welcome to our weekly field guide to 1950s horror and sci-fi movies and the creatures that inhabit them. This week: Peter Cushing gets wrapped up in an ancient curse in The Mummy.


The Mummy

Director: Terence Fisher
Cast: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Yvonne Furneaux, Felix Aylmer, Raymond Huntley
US Release Date: 1959-12-16

Alternative title: Walk Like an Egyptian

POSITIVES:

Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee are back again in Hammer remake.

Ancient Egyptian outfits were just too cool.

The Mummy is, as a monster concept, pleasantly bizarre. Think about it.

Colorful support from talented cast of Brit character actors.

Slow start gives way to energetic conclusion.

NEGATIVES:

A bit lackadaisical compared to Hammer's first two horror remakes, Frankenstein and Dracula.

Un-frightening mummy outfit looks more like spandex than bandages.

Lots of sitting around and talking, when really, people should be running around and screaming.

SYNOPSIS: Archaeologist Steve Banning and his buddy Joe are on the verge of opening the tomb of long-dead Egyptian princess Ananka when he is urged by a local Egyptian dude Mehemet to desist with their meddling and leave at once. (You can tell the dude's local by his fez). Dr Steve ignores the chap, of course, preferring to break into the surprisingly clean tomb and do all sorts of nasty intrusive scientific things. Meanwhile his son, the hawk-nosed John, mopes around in his tent with a broken leg. Maybe this is for the best after all, though, because five minutes alone in the tomb is enough to leave daddy twitching uncontrollably, jabbering on about resurrected mummies coming to kill them all. The others pack him off to a sanitarium and get on with the task at hand.


Alas, that task apparently involves being tracked down years later and slaughtered by the dead-come-to-life guardian of the tomb, the surprisingly well-preserved mummy of the title. Tall and gangly, mummy dearest casts an angular, lurching shadow across the English countryside, where it has been brought by the above-mentioned Egyptian dude. Dr. Steve tries to warn his now-hobbling son about the danger, but when was the last time you paid serious attention to someone residing in the Engerfield Nursing Home for the Mentally Disordered?

At this point we're halfway through and ready for the bodies to start piling up. There are a number of likely targets, chief among them Steve, John and Joe. We also hear the true story about how the mummy Kharas came to be, in what is arguably the most engaging portion of the movie. Mayhem ensues, including a couple of twists that come about as a result of John's wife Isobel looking an awful lot like Princess Ananka.

John, who is clearly the brains of the operation, is the first to put the pieces together. Unfortunately, by the time he does so, he and Isobel are about the only pieces left. Racing as best he can on his crippled leg, he strives to keep one step ahead of Kharas—who's none too steady on his feet either. The final showdown is at first suspenseful and then explosive. In the end, love conquers all. In a way. That's nice.

Best line of dialogue in the movie: "Confound this leg!" or possibly: "The best part of my life's been spent among the dead."

What gets mummified for good: A meddlesome professor; a skeptical uncle; a couple deputies; a dude in a Fez; an ambulatory band-aid.

What gets saved: True love! Which, as the Beatles remind us, is all you need.

Did you know? Egypt is famous for its mummies, but they were also made by the ancient Romans and Greeks, the Andes-dwelling peoples of South America, and—much more recently—by Sicilians in what is modern-day Italy. (Insert Mafia joke here.)

Don't try this at home: The ancient Egyptians really did take 70 days to embalm the body for mummification, just like the movie says. But, they also removed all the internal organs (except the heart), and used plenty of natron, a type of local salt that absorbed moisture and left the corpses dry but flexible.

This reminds me of... 1932's The Mummy starring Boris Karloff, and numerous other presentations from Universal Pictures, Hammer Films and others. For many, the Karloff rendition, in creepy black and white, remains definitive. The 1999 remake starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz is heavy on wham-bam special effects, but plays the story for campy laughs. Fraser can’t help himself, but the mummy deserves better.

Somehow their careers survived: Peter Cushing (John) and Christopher Lee (Kharas, the mummy) enjoyed long careers; some of their best-known collaborations are Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Horror of Dracula (1958) and The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959). Yvonne Furneaux (Isobel) starred alongside Catherine Deneuve in Roman Polanski's landmark Repulsion (1965), while Felix Aylmer (Steve)'s long career included roles in Spellbound (1940), Quo Vadis (1951) and Exodus (1960). Raymond Huntley (Joe) appeared in the bizarrely funny I'm All Right Jack (1959) starring Peter Sellers, as well as 1974 creeper Symptoms.


BOTTOM LINE: Not up to Hammer's previous standards, but entertaining nonetheless.

NEXT WEEK: The Mysterians (1957)

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