When it’s on: Saturday, 11 July (2.05 pm)
Saturday is Christopher Lee day. The great actor who sadly passed away a month ago is remembered on BBC2 with a Talking Pictures special, followed throughout the day by three of his films. Appropriately, they’re three Hammer flicks. Late in the night, the station is screening a fantastic double bill, kicking off with Dracula, which really introduced Lee as a powerful and versatile leading man. Later there’s The Curse of Frankenstein, more a vehicle for that other Hammer stalwart Peter Cushing, but featuring Lee as the hideous monster, utilising the actor’s height to great effect.
It’s easy to imagine Sir Christopher being miffed about having to accept roles that just took advantage of his physical attributes. You take the work that’s available, I guess, and two years after playing the monster he embarked on a similar role, as the eponymous bandage wearer in The Mummy remake.
There have been various Mummy films over the years, but the two that stick in the mind are the Universal entries from 1932 and 1999. The earlier version was made during the Golden Age of the studio’s Gothic horror output and is creepy even now. The bandaged Imhotep is on the screen for a fraction of the time, and instead the film’s suspense hinges on the performance of Boris Karloff, incarnated as the Egyptian Ardath Bay and intent on reincarnating his long lost love. The actor was at the considerable height of his powers, bringing undoubted presence to his scenes, whilst made up to look as though his face had been weathered by thousands of years in the ancient sand.
When Stephen Sommers revisited the material in 1999, the decision was made to do The Mummy as an action adventure romp, removing much of Imhotep’s fright value in favour of thrills, stunts and lashings of computer generated imagery. The result was either a mess or a delight, depending on the mood of the individual viewer. Certainly, not much of it made sense, but I remember going to see it at the time and enjoying it immensely.
The version that tends to get lost in the mix is Hammer’s take, a 1959 release that was made on the back of the studio’s loose reworking of old Universal classics. They’d given us Frankenstein and Dracula, and The Curse of the Werewolf was a couple of years away, so why not have a go at the Egyptian tale? At the time, it was another success within a sound run of hits, inspiring further entries within a slimly connected franchise, yet it’s less well known now and falls way short of the fond memories fans have for many other Hammers.
In spite of the surefooted Terence Fisher on directorial duties, Jimmy Sangster’s script, and Messrs Cushing and Lee in the cast, there are several good reasons why it’s less well known than other Mummy movies, let alone the Hammer Gothics. The first is that it’s surprisingly boring. This should be more or less impossible for a sub-90 minutes film from the studio that appeared to have found the formula for delivering well-crafted shocks, yet the Mummy (played by Lee and in the film known as Kharis) takes an incredibly long time to appear, and when he does seems to follow similar territory to that trodden by Frankenstein’s monster. Perhaps the sight of a lumbering figure wrapped in sodden bandages was the height of terror to contemporary audiences, but it seems a bit lame now. There’s some good stuff to be found here. The first sight of Kharis is of him emerging slowly from a swamp in a scene loaded with sweaty atmosphere. He turns out to have almost Golem-like qualities of indomitability, as evidenced in the moment when Cushing’s hero shoots him twice and then impales him through the stomach, and Kharis just keeps on coming, which both hints at the power he possesses and the anger that drives him, and is well acted by two performers who could put great physical work into their work.
But these scenes are rather too few and far between. Much of the running time is taken up with exposition, endless lashings of exposition. It isn’t the only Hammer film guilty of this, but whereas the later The Curse of the Werewolf contains real horrors in its back story, giving us not only the origin of the curse but applying a real sense of hopelessness to Leon, here it just feels like filler, adding extraneous detail to a story that viewers can already follow easily enough.
As Kharis, Lee is physically imposing and adds a neat combination of pathos and anger to what is a fairly one-note character. Using little more than his eyes, as the rest of him is swathed in bandages, Lee breathes more emotional depth in to the mummy than ought to be possible, elsewhere he’s retreading his character in The Curse of Frankenstein. A shame, as he’d proved his chops with his nuanced and menacing portrayal of Count Dracula and deserved better here. Cushing gets his usual ‘man of science’ role, but there’s little of the texture he was able to bring to Frankenstein and Van Helsing in his portrayal of John Bannon. This isn’t the actor’s fault, more a script that fails to suggest a man with anything like the moral ambiguity of Victor Frankenstein or Doctor Van Helsing’s academic background and faith in his methods. Bannon’s there because the tale needs him to emerge as the mummy’s nemesis, and that’s it. Better served is Yvonne Furneaux as Bannon’s wife, a doppelganger for Kharis’s ancient love. She’s a plot point, inserted into the script to give the unstoppable mummy a weakness, yet Furneaux at least adds some humanity to the part, a sense of peril that isn’t apparent elsewhere as the tale goes through its motions.
For a film costing a princely £1250,000, The Mummy looks fantastic, which is nothing less than viewers would have expected. Whilst the scenes in Egypt are rather obviously filmed on a stage, it looks decent enough with gorgeous levels of detail within Ananka’s tomb. But Marcus Hearn had it about right when he described it as ‘little more than a string of picturesque and nice-lit killings’. There are better versions of the story and scant surprise that, in this instance, Hammer’s effort is the one that has faded into obscurity.
The Mummy: **