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Baby-boomer horror film fans bear a particular affection for the output of Britain's Hammer Studios, the family-owned facility renowned through the '50s and '60s for delivering tidy-budgeted fear and fantasy forays and reaping equally tidy box office returns. The company's sanguinary takes on a pair of familiar fright figures, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958), spurred franchises for the British studio in the same manner as these iconic monsters had for Universal a generation before.
Hammer's successes wound up spurring a 1958 agreement with Universal, wherein the American studio granted remake rights to its legendary stable of monster properties. The first production made pursuant to the deal - The Mummy (1959) - stands as one of the most crisply crafted and memorable shockers to emerge from Hammer's heyday.
This remake of the 1932 Karloff opus pulled together the signature talents of the House of Hammer. The leads were assigned to Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, already established as a fiend-and-foil tandem through playing the creature and his creator in The Curse of Frankenstein and the vampire and Van Helsing in Horror of Dracula. Director Terence Fisher, the once self-described "oldest clapper boy in the business" who found breakout success with The Curse of Frankenstein, was on board, as were screenwriter Jimmy Sangster and production designer Bernard Robinson.
The narrative opens in 1895 at the site of an Egyptian archaeological dig, where a party headed by Dr. Stephen Banning (Felix Aylmer) prepares to breach the walls of its find, a tomb believed to be the lost resting place of the Egyptian princess Ananka. Banning's son John (Cushing), confined to camp with a fractured leg, cannot share the moment of triumph. So Banning and his brother-in-law Joseph Whemple (Raymond Huntley) enter the crypt without him, shrugging off the arcane warnings of Mehemet (George Pastell). After confirming their find, Whemple leaves Banning to share the news with John, but returns to the tomb to find his brother-in-law reduced to gibbering lunacy.
Britain, three years later: the institutionalized Banning finally becomes lucid, and John is summoned to his side. The elder archaeologist warns his son of a curse on their entire party, which John chalks up to continuing delusion. However, they soon gain a new neighbor in the shire in the person of Mehemet, who in turn has transported the mummy of Kharis (Lee), the high priest who had been entombed alive with Ananka, and resuscitated him with an incantation from an ancient scroll.
John and Whemple pore over their research on the legend of Ananka, as a flashback sequence reveals how the princess was abruptly taken mortally ill, and how the heartsick Kharis was condemned for his heresy in attempting to revive her through the power of the scroll. They are also struck by the resemblance of a rendering of Ananka to John's beautiful wife Isobel (Yvonne Furneaux). This coincidence, of course, will come into play as Mehemet seeks to fulfill his promise of vengeance.
Swathed in the effective makeup of Roy Ashton, with his imposing physical presence and the profound sadness conveyed through his eyes, Lee added another classic monster characterization to his resume. The scene where Kharis emerges from the bog where Mehemet's porters lost his crypt remains memorable. As always, Cushing provided the ideal complement, as a man of reason forced to confront the terrible truth underlying a legendary curse.
In retrospect, The Mummy is surprisingly free of the degree of gore that marked the early Hammer Dracula and Frankenstein efforts. In an interview given to The Kinematograph Weekly during production, Fisher stated that "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."
Further, The Mummy bears more commonality with the subsequent entries in the Universal series than with the Karloff original. "I must, at some point, have been shown these earlier Universal films," Sangster recalled for Tom Johnson and Deborah Del Vecchio's Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography (McFarland & Company, 1995). "How else could one explain the same character names and plot elements? But I honestly don't recall doing so - it has been thirty-five years, you know!"
The Mummy would prove prodigiously successful in Britain and abroad, and Hammer would plumb the Egyptian sands a few more times over the years with The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb (1964), The Mummy's Shroud (1967) and Blood From the Mummy's Tomb (1971). Of the other projects initially contemplated under the Universal deal, The Phantom of the Opera (1962) proved a double rarity for Hammer flicks of the era, with its large budget and largely disappointing returns. The third property ultimately went unproduced, and a Hammer remake of The Invisible Man (1933) would, ironically, never be seen.
Producer: Michael Carreras, Anthony Nelson Keys
Director: Terence Fisher
Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster
Cinematography: Jack Asher
Film Editing: Alfred Cox, James Needs
Art Direction: Bernard Robinson
Music: Franz Reizenstein
Cast: Peter Cushing (John Banning), Christopher Lee (Kharis, The Mummy), Yvonne Furneaux (Isobel Banning/Princess Ananka), Eddie Byrne (Inspector Mulrooney), Felix Aylmer (Stephen Banning), Raymond Huntley (Joseph Whemple).
C-88m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jay S. Steinberg