If you mention the film The Mummy there’s a good chance people will think of the 1999 version, or perhaps the black and white Universal Horror original. And whilst these are both great versions of the film, and the 1932 version did inform the Brendan Fraser film quite a bit, there is another version that was not only hugely popular, but helped shape other versions that came after it: the 1959 Hammer Horror film. And thanks to some great visuals, a strong script, and some superb casting, this is a movie you won’t want to miss out on.
Coming on the heels of Hammer’s other Universal Horror remakes, Dracula, and Frankenstein, The Mummy was not a remake of the Universal original as the name would suggest, but more of an amalgamation of the next two films in the series – The Mummy’s Hand and The Mummy’s Tomb. This new Hammer version took story and characters from these two movies and mashed them together to make one new, more streamlined version that actually worked well as its own feature film.
The Mummy tells the story of archaeologist John Banning (Peter Cushing), who has travelled to Egypt with his father and uncle in 1895 in order to find the lost tomb of Princess Ananka; a figure whose final resting place has been thought lost to time. When the expedition finds the tomb they are warned not to enter by Mehemet Bey (George Pastell), but the group ignores his pleas. Being laid up with a broken leg, John is unable to be there when his father and uncle enter the tomb for the first time, unsealing it after more than three thousand years. Whilst inside, something happens to his father that leaves him a nervous wreck, resulting in him having to be institutionalised.
Three years later, back in England, John has recovered from his injury, but his father has not. When a couple of local men are tasked with transporting some Egyptian relics to a newly occupied home near the Bannings they end up in an accident and lose the large case into the swamp; though this doesn’t seem to bother their employer, Mehemet Bey. Bey reads from an ancient scroll, and the living mummy Kharis (Christoper Lee) rises from the swamp and begins its mission to kill the men who entered Ananka’s tomb three years before.
Because of the sense of nostalgia that surrounds the Hammer productions, and the affection people have for the films, it’s easy to assume that they were huge movies with lavish production values; but in fact they were often the exact opposite. Hammer Horrors were seen as shock value movies, churned out quickly in order to make money and to appeal to horror fanatics and teen audiences. With this in mind, it’s genuinely surprising that The Mummy manages to look as good as it does, with the film boasting some excellent sets and locations that bring the story to life.
Whether it’s the desert of Egypt, the pristine interior of Ananka’s tomb with a creepy green glow, the stately home of the Bannings, or the eerie remote swamp, each location in the film manages to look unique and distinct from the others. You can tell that a great deal of effort went into the production of this particular film; which was something of a surprise considering The Mummy didn’t have the same brand recognition as Frankenstein or Dracula. But that’s part of the joy of Hammer: that each and every one of their films was treated the same, and given the same level of care and attention.
Director Terence Fisher was a name that Hammer fans were already familiar with at the time, having been the man who helmed both The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula, the two films that made Hammer a hit. He would go on to work with Hammer many more times over the years, producing some of the more popular films in their catalogue. Having adapted both Frankenstein and Dracula, and putting a new spin on the stories and characters, Fisher does the same here, and this film takes a step away from the Universal version of the monster, a man with desires and the ability to speak, and makes the creature into a hulking, imposing monster.
A huge part of why this version of the monster worked so well was because of Christopher Lee, who not only played Kharis in flashbacks, but portrayed the creature in his rotten, hulking form too. Despite never saying a word as the mummy, Lee brings a level of intensity and menace to the role just by his physical movement and the looks that he gives with his eyes (the only part of his body that you can actually see). It’s surprising how much Lee is actually able to bring to the role. But he’s also not alone, and is joined by his other Hammer icon, Peter Cushing, who takes on a heroic persona once again as the man Lee is sent to kill. Cushing plays the part well, and fits wonderfully into the aristocratic hero role; a role that does remind slightly of The Hound of the Baskervilles, which came out earlier that same year.
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This new Blu-ray release is possibly one of the best presentations of the film yet, with superb visuals that showcase how beautiful the film is. The new set comes with two full length audio commentaries, one from film academic Kelly Robinson who talks us through mummies in film and literature, and another with Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby, who discuss the movie and its place in Hammer history. There are some behind the scenes documentaries that take a look at the film, its production, and its music, complete with interviews with those who worked on the film and knew those who did. The new Limited Edition also comes with a gorgeous sturdy slip-case featuring brand new artwork from horror artist Graham Humphreys, a set of collector’s postcards, and a small book featuring writing and essays about the movie.
The Mummy is a surprisingly good movie, and one that manages to take some past ideas and inject a new spin on them that’s full of energy and character. Thanks to some lavish sets, a rousing score, and some superb acting, it remains charming and entertaining throughout. Whether you’re a long time fan looking for the best version of the film, or experiencing it for the first time, this new edition should absolutely be on your radar.
The Mummy is out now on Limited Edition Blu-ray from Second Sight.