Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: THE MUMMY (1959)

Having already made The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958), Hammer Films next turned its attention to reinventing the story of a different horror icon, the stiff-armed Egyptian creature known as The Mummy (1959). This adaptation, like the best of the Hammer horrors, stars Peter Cushing as the human protagonist and Christopher Lee as the monster, and it also benefits from the effective direction of Terence Fisher. Lavish, classy, and inventive in its take on the oft-told tale, The Mummy adds a hint of signature Hammer sex appeal to its story of undying love between an Ancient Egyptian princess and her devoted high priest.

Peter Cushing stars as British archaeologist John Banning, who discovers the tomb of the Princess Ananka along with his father (Felix Aylmer). As soon as they open the sacred grave, however, the Bannings begin to suffer ill fortune, beginning with John’s father, who goes mad after an encounter with Kharis (Christopher Lee), the living mummy who guards the tomb. Several years later, in England, Kharis and his keeper, Mehemet Bey (George Pastell), exact their revenge on the men who desecrated Ananka’s resting place, but the mummy is also attracted to Banning’s wife, Isobel (Yvonne Furneaux), who happens to look exactly like his long lost love.

The Egyptian story offers another rich opportunity for the combined talents of Cushing and Lee, with characters who follow the same general outlines as their earlier roles but still evoke unique interpretations from each performer. Cushing gets almost all of the dialogue as the intellectual but mild-mannered Banning, whose physical fragility is emphasized by a twisted leg. He’s a gentle family man, devoted to his father and his wife, and his inability to enter the tomb at the beginning of the film underlines our sense of him as one who has not deserved the grisly fate pronounced by the ancient gods. Lee, who speaks only briefly in a flashback scene, brings his tremendous bodily presence into play as the imposing mummy, but his eyes are even more effective. With them he conveys Kharis’ determination, his suffering, and his immortal devotion to Ananka. The impressive makeup adds to Lee’s overall impact on the viewer; he looks ancient and terrible without seeming too much like a guy wrapped up in bulky bandages, and the detail of his sealed mouth gives him an especially tragic air. Watch Kharis when he first sees Isobel and recognizes in her the image of his beloved princess; no other mummy has ever looked more physically dead and yet emotionally alive, the victim of a wounded heart that might have ceased beating but is still quite capable of breaking.

George Pastell, a Greek, gives a subtle performance as the modern day disciple of the ancient Egyptian god. He’s exotic without being cartoonish, and he makes a formidable opponent as the director of the mummy’s actions. Yvonne Furneaux, as both Isobel and Ananka, doesn’t have that much to do, but she looks terrific, and it’s easy to see why both Banning and the mummy fall in love with her, especially when she lets her hair down. We do get a few tantalizing glimpses of her naked flesh in the flashback scenes, although they’re pretty tame by Hammer standards. The rest of the supporting players are solid, as well, although there might be a touch too much emphasis on the boozy locals who react to the mummy’s appearances about the countryside.

For more Hammer classics from Cushing, Lee, and director Terence Fisher, see The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Horror of Dracula (1958), and The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959). You’ll also find Cushing and Lee teaming up in other horror films, including I, Monster (1971), Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972), and The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973); don’t miss their final collaboration in the wry horror-comedy, House of the Long Shadows (1983). Yvonne Furneaux also appears in La Dolce Vita (1960), The Lion of Thebes (1964), and Repulsion (1965). If mummy stories tickle your fancy, try The Mummy (1932), The Mummy’s Hand (1940), and The Mummy’s Tomb (1942) for more classics, or see more recent incarnations in Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (1990), The Mummy (1999), and the cult horror-comedy, Bubba Ho-Tep (2002).