Friday, October 28, 2011

The Mummy (1959)

The Hammer Horror rendition of The Mummy is the second film to bear the eponymous title, though it heavily borrows characters, plot and ideas from some of the sequels to the original Universal pictures starring Boris Karloff in the titular role. Like most of the Hammer releases in its period, the production values are quite elaborate and contribute greatly to enjoyment of the film. The lavish sets and colors, the excellent score by Franz Reizenstein, the measured skill of the cast all compensate for the rather lackluster and predictable script here. It's a bit talkative, and nowhere near as action packed at the later 90s version starring Arnold Vosloo and Brendan Frasier, but then, it doesn't need to be. Hell, I could watch Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee juggle squirrels and sugar gliders while dressed in leotards and rabbit ears and be content.

*Thousands, 50+ years of spoilers*

I mentioned that there was a lot of dialogue here, and part of this the constant exposition being shared with the audience through the film. On one hand, this was probably a decent primer for the late 50s audience, who had several less decades than we do of Egyptology 101 in our cultural diets. A lot of the details seem fairly accurate, at least in the idealized sense, and Christopher Lee is superb as the priest Kharis, whose love for a Princess cursed him to protect her for all eternity as her somber mummified champion. His scenes both in priestly garb and the creature costume are a pleasure, and at times he's even difficult to recognize. But on the other hand, The Mummy really fails to build and deliver suspense. As soon as the Mehemet Bey character shows up to warn the archaeologists, and then curse them for disturbing the sanctified dead, we know exactly how the rest of the film will play out...and so it does, without any surprises in store.

Granted, anyone who had seen ANY of the Universal flicks would not be going into this with the expectation of shocks, but even the horror elements here seem rather tame. Kharis murders by strangling. He gets shot a few times. He crashes through doors and breaks bars in an asylum cell. Big deal, really. There are other Hammer Horror pieces with more gruesome details, but then, this is not that sort of outing, but more of an accessible production which stands on the designs of its sets, the costumes and the actors alone. This is more of a classy Romance/horror in the vein of Dracula than anything else. It was only 1959, after all, and the sick stuff would be kick started in the following decade, but it would not have hurt Terence Fisher to stretch the envelope just a few inches.

I should mention that Peter Cushing is rather a bad ass here, and never hesitates to go at the shambling mummy with a shotgun, or even a grapple. Fuck, if I had a millenias-old undead on my heels, ensorcelled to put a cap on my lifeline, I'd be hightailing it by land, air or sea to the other side of the planet, where the necromancer with a chip on his shoulder would never find me. I don't care if I have to live out the rest of my lifeline working a rice paddy, or carting a rickshaw about the stinking, disease infested streets. I am out of there. I am GHOST. Not Cushing's John Banning though, he'd rather face the problem head on. If only Grand Moff Tarkin had such balls, the Rebellion would have been quelled many galaxies ago, and we'd never have had to suffer the damned Ewoks!

In summation, The Mummy is a film one should watch for the performances and visuals more than the story, which you'll see coming from a mile away. It never creates the same sense of dread as later Hammer outings like The Lost Continent (1968) or Quatermass and the Pit (1967), but then, they were released in an era where studios were allowed to take more chances. If I had to compare this to the Karloff or Vosloo vehicles, then it probably places a solid third. I realize my preference for the first film of the 90s series might dismay some readers, but there can be no question that Arnold owned that role, and the light, Indiana Jones action flair had a few nice twists in it, not to mention the advances in film and effects. But as it stands, the 1959 cult classic certainly feels timeless enough thanks to the primary actors, who I'd consider two of my personal favorites in the entire pantheon of international thespians.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

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