I am a big fan of the 1932 Universal The Mummy with Boris Karloff. It is a romance as much as a horror film, with an incredible performance by Karloff. But I had high hopes for Hammer Film’s The Mummy, especially because it starred Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, two actors who were completely awesome in Horror of Dracula. Hammer’s The Mummy is closer to the later Universal Mummy series, starting with The Mummy’s Hand in 1940, than it is to the original 1932 film, but it is still greatly entertaining. In fact, it definitely improves on The Mummy’s Hand.
Dr. Stephen Banning (Felix Aylmer) and his brother, Joseph Whemple (Raymond Huntley), are excavating in Egypt for the tomb of the Princess Ananka. His son, John Banning (Peter Cushing), is with them, but he has broken his leg and his uncle worries that unless he leaves the site and gets immediate medical attention, his leg will not heal properly. Before entering the tomb, Dr. Banning is warned by an Egyptian, Mehemet Bey (George Pastell), not to enter. There is a terrible curse on it, he says.
But Dr. Banning enters anyway and finds an ancient Scroll of Life, which contains a spell that can bring back the dead. When his brother finds him a little later on, he has had a complete and unexplained breakdown and is taken back to England to a sanitarium. John Banning and his uncle finish up the dig, but John waited too long to fix his leg and now has a permanent limp.
Three years pass and Mehemet Bey has a large box shipped to England. He is a follower, it turns out, of the Egyptian god who Princess Ananka served, Karnak. He has brought a mummy with him, Kharis, who was once a high priest to Karnak, but who loved the Princess Ananka and was buried alive and cursed to watch over her as punishment for breaking his vows and trying to use the sacred Scroll of Life to bring Ananka back to life. Soon Mehemet Bey is controlling Kharis using the scroll (he took it from Dr. Banning) to wreak revenge on all those who desecrated the tomb of Ananka: Dr. Stephen Banning, Joseph Whemple and John Banning.
Of course, the mummy gets sidetracked partway through his murder spree when he runs into John Banning’s wife, Isobel, (Yvonne Furneaux), who looks remarkably like the princess Ananka (the actress plays the princess in flashbacks).
What took me aback, initially, is how Peter Cushing plays the film’s protagonist, John Banning. He is mild-mannered, a bit buttoned-up, almost sounds like David Niven at times. He’s nothing like the Van Helsing of Horror of Dracula. He also has a limp, so he is not the most agile hero, either. He is nearly strangled by the mummy several times, though he is quite brave in facing him. He uses his brain, primarily (especially in taking on Mehemet Bey), and is only shaken into a real display of emotion when he fears for the life of his wife when she is carried off by the mummy, though he is never so terrified that he loses his wits.
Christopher Lee, on the other hand, is the saddest mummy I have ever seen. Even Boris Karloff has nothing on Lee’s mournful eyes, which stand out all the more for being the only part of him visible through all his mummy wrappings. Karloff’s mummy had hope for the future, for a reunion with his lost love, but Lee’s mummy knows there is no hope. When he sees John Banning’s wife it is like he is grasping at a straw, for the return of his lost love.
After the murder of Dr. Banning and Whemple, an inspector comes in from Scotland Yard to investigate, Inspector Mulrooney (Eddie Byrnes), who is highly skeptical of John Banning’s story, at least until evidence begins mounting up. That is what I like about earlier films, especially Universal Horror films: people aren’t stupid. They aren’t implausibly eager to embrace a supernatural explanation, but aren’t backward in accepting one if the evidence is there. But the very English Scotland Yard inspector is just one part of a very English countryside for the second half of the film. This very Egyptian mummy is running about the English countryside, frightening poachers and giving people a lot to talk about in the pub.
Mehemet Bey is allowed to speak passionately against the despoiling of Egypt’s ancient tombs by the English, though his methods of revenge are somewhat extreme. But he is allowed to be an intelligent presence, if also a fanatical one. I did appreciate that this Hammer film kept him on topic regarding revenge. In the Universal series, all the priests of Karnak end up falling for the leading lady and using Kharis to steal her away while Lon Chaney, Jr. (who usually was playing the mummy) looked on long-sufferingly (I couldn’t figure out what the deal was; were these priests of Karnak too sheltered when they were young?).
I also appreciated what a calm leading lady Yvonne Furneaux made as Isobel (apart from fainting once, but she had to do that so the mummy could carry her draped over his arms artistically in true monster movie tradition). But she knows her power over Kharis. All she has to do is speak and he obeys, however reluctantly. When she tells him to put her down at the end, he looks heartbroken. Cursed, centuries old, controlled by other people (Bey and Isobel), he looks weary, which is not to take anything away from his scare power. At 6’5 and wrapped in moldering bandages, he’s an unnerving presence coming towards people, towering over all his victims.
As I noted, the 1959 The Mummy has a lot in common with the Universal Mummy reboot, which began in 1940. In this series (which gets increasingly silly), the mummy is named Kharis, he was a high priest condemned to watch over the Princess Ananka’s tomb, the archaeologist’s name is Banning, the god’s name is Karnak, there is a priest controlling Kharis. The end of the 1944 The Mummy’s Ghost, which is the third of the later mummy films, is also familiar, except in the 1944 films, Kharis not only sinks into the bog, he takes the lady with him (which was at least original). But Hammer’s The Mummy does it better.