Approximately two months after The Man Who Could Cheat Death finished filming, the cameras started to roll again for the next Hammer horror flick. The Mummy (1959) would bring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee back together again in the familiar roles of hero and monster. But, this time, Christopher Lee is given an opportunity to act many scenes without extensive makeup or fangs via some fantastic flashback sequences. Those scenes help elevate The Mummy to one of my personal favorites from both Lee and Hammer.
Our movie begins in the year 1895 in Egypt as three archaeologists have just discovered the tomb of Princess Ananka. Peter Cushing is John Banning, who is sidelined with a broken leg as his father Stephen and Uncle Joseph enter the tomb. However, before they enter, Mehemet Bey (George Pastell, Konga, Maniac) warns them of the curse. Of course, they ignore it and enter anyway. When John’s uncle leaves to share the exciting news of what they found inside, we hear Stephen scream. He has found the Scrolls of Life and, as we discover later in the movie in a flashback sequence, after reciting the ancient text, he has revived the mummy Kharis (Christopher Lee), who falls under the control of Mehemet Bey.
The movie jumps ahead three years and we find that Stephen has suffered a mental collapse and never recovered. Yet, he miraculously awakes from his catatonic state and warns his son about what he did and that Kharis will now seek out revenge against those who desecrated the tomb. Soon after, Kharis kills Stephen as he begins the evil work of Mehemet Bey. Later, John shares the background story of Kharis as he tries to convince his uncle of what he believes is happening. It is here that we get an amazing set of flashbacks and Lee begins to shine in this film outside of his mummy wrappings.
The flashback sequence establishes that Kharis was a high priest who officiated over the funeral ceremonies after the death of Princess Ananka. Here is where the movie follows the 1940s Universal films more closely rather than the original 1932 flick with Boris Karloff. Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster would take elements from those 40s films and flesh out the background story of Kharis. Kharis was a priest who was in love with Ananka and would do anything to bring her back. Reciting the words from the Scrolls of Life, he nearly succeeds before he is caught. He is sentenced to be buried alive and watch over the princess for eternity. Personally, I loved these sequences as both the use of color and the Hammer set pieces far surpassed anything Universal attempted. And while Lee doesn’t speak any lines over Cushing’s narration, his visual presentation is really all we need.
The rest of the movie follows the usual pattern with Kharis discovering a young woman who resembles his beloved princess. Yvonne Furneaux (Repulsion) played the dual roles of Princess Ananka and John’s wife Isobel. He begins to seek her out as well so he can be reunited with his one true love. We have a climactic sequence in a swamp (never too far away in a good mummy flick) with John and the police in hot pursuit.
The Mummy is a truly fun film and one of my favorite Hammer films. Not surprisingly, most critics loved it, commenting how it was Hammer’s best effort to date. The film was also hugely successful in the United States. Yet, unlike Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula, it failed to generate a popular series of sequels. Only three more mummy films would be made over the next twelve years and none of them would be direct sequels nor would they feature either Cushing or Lee.
On a fun side note, Cushing’s broken leg and subsequent limp in The Mummy were actually written into the script after Cushing twisted his leg before filming. It adds a sense of reality to his overall performance, which is at the usual high Cushing standards. Lee does well in the mummy wrappings but excels in his role as the priest Kharis. Lee would write about how battered his body had become by this time after several roles put his body through some demanding stunts. The Mummy was no different as he would crash through windows and doors along with carrying Yvonne Furneaux into the swamp. Nonetheless, monster kids are thankful for his sacrifices, which we continue to enjoy so many decades later.
Next time, Lee dons a warlocks robe in the 1960 classic, City of the Dead aka Horror Hotel. Meanwhile, if you’ve never seen The Mummy, it is readily available on DVD and will be released on Blu-ray in October. Check out the trailer on YouTube and listen to episode 21 of the 1951 Down Place podcast as Derek and the boys do their usual top shelf review of this amazing flick.