Hammer Film put out some fine work in the fifties and sixties, often on an extremely low budget and with a bevvy of shocking and salacious elements. Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula helped to revitalize interest in classic movie monsters, and after striking a deal with Universal Studios, movie monster back on the big screen! The first film after this deal was inked was 1959’s The Mummy, which saw release on September 25, 1959 in its native UK.
The Mummy, of course, included icons Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing battling each other once again, continuing their famous onscreen rivalry. It would also go on to spawn three sequels from Hammer, making their version of the series nearly as prolific as Universal’s original. In honor of the film’s anniversary, let’s take a look back at this classic.
“[…] there is a level of restraint and subtlety in this movie that you don’t see in many of [Hammer] films.”
Anyone with passing knowledge of classic horror monsters won’t see a ton of surprises from the plot of The Mummy; in fact, the film takes its characters and plot almost beat for beat from two of Universal’s original Mummy films. Peter Cushing plays archeologist John Banning, part of an excavation team opening up an ancient Egyptian tomb in the year 1895. Lucky for him, an injury keeps him from being at the site when the tomb of Ananka is opened and a terrible evil is unleashed upon the world.
A few years later, Banning learns that the expedition was cursed after opening the tomb. A member of the expedition, Mehemet, is now controlling the mummy of a priest named Kharis (Christopher Lee), who was buried alive in Ananka‘s tomb. Using an ancient scroll, Mehemet directs the mummy to attack Banning and his beautiful wife, Isobel, who bares a striking resemblance the princess Ananka – which of course becomes a significant plot point.
Overall, it’s a pretty standard story for a Mummy film, but it works remarkably well, both in pacing and on the acting front.
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So, is Hammer’s take on The Mummy worth watching? Absolutely! If nothing else, watching Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing square off on film is always a blast. Lee’s intense gaze is out in full force throughout filming due to the excellent make-up and costuming keeping his face almost entirely obscured throughout the film. It doesn’t quite give Lee the chance to devour the scenery like his work in Hammer’s Dracula films, but he puts on a commendable performance here, with Cushing doing much of the dramatic heavy lifting.
Probably the best part about The Mummy, however, is how much it tries to buck the trends of some of Hammer’s more exploitative films. Perhaps it’s because this was supposed to open the door to Hammer using more of Universal’s classic movie monster stable (which never really gained much traction outside of their take on the Mummy stories in this film and its sequels), but there is a level of restraint and subtlety in this movie that you don’t see in many of their films.
Much of this is due to director Terence Fisher. In an interview with The Kinematograph Weekly about the film, and later recalled in the book The Mummy in Fact, Fiction, and Film by Susan Cowie and Tom Johnson, he said: “These pictures are a genuine cinematic form. I have always strenuously tried to avoid being blatant in my pictures. Instead, whenever possible, I have used the camera to show things – especially nasty things – happening by implication.”
Fisher’s approach definitely works. He could have gone totally over the top with his take on The Mummy, but he allows your imagination to fill in a lot of the details. Coupled with the excellent costuming and make-up work, this makes Hammer’s take on The Mummy one of the few films about that particular monster that can actually boast some truly effective horror elements.
Hammer’s film may lack the classic Hollywood flare of Universal’s movie monster stable, but Fisher’s approach to the film genuinely makes it stand out as an incredibly effective take on the famous Egyptian monster.
Lee’s subtle work as the monster definitely steals the show, but it is Fisher’s direction that holds the film together and gives it an opportunity to shine. The choices he makes in staging, lighting, and camera placement are very deliberate and effective – nearly every scene featuring the mummy shows him towering over all of the other characters on screen. Lee is 6’5″, but some creative optical illusions are used to grant his monster a towering and intimidating presence in every scene he appears.
Cushing’s role in the film could be a bit of a throw-away, but he works well with his character’s arc and makes Banning flawed and believable, despite the extraordinary events occurring around him. He brings a collected, “English gentleman” air to the role at first before unleashing the intensity he brought to his other famous Hammer Horror roles – Van Helsing and Dr. Frankenstein – as the body count and insanity of the film builds towards the climax.
“[Christopher] Lee’s subtle work as the monster definitely steals the show, but it is Fisher’s direction that holds the film together and gives it an opportunity to shine.”
All of these things come together to make Hammer’s take on The Mummy an absolute blast to bring out this fall, especially during the Halloween season. On the back of a pair of powerful performances from Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing and some brilliant cinematographic choices from director Terence Fisher, it will please veterans of the horror genre and newcomers alike.