Film Review: The Mummy (1959)

The Mummy 1959 “The best presentation of The Mummy!”

The Mummy 1959 DVDThe Mummy lives again! And on Blu-ray! Arguably the best film ever to feature a bandaged-wrapped unstoppable killing machine has been granted an extra-packed three disc DVD/Blu-ray combo release courtesy of Icon Entertainment, and it’s certainly a cause for celebration.

In 1959, after Hammer had scored worldwide success with The Curse of Frankenstein (1957 and a bit of an experiment) and Dracula (1958 and a slightly larger project that better showcased the talent on hand at Bray Studios), Universal turned over the rights to their 1930s and 1940s classic horror movies for Hammer to remake. As a result, Hammer’s next project was The Mummy, which managed to include elements not just from the 1932 Boris Karloff film, but also (and mainly) a remake of Universal’s ‘second wind’ of Mummy movies that were made from 1940 onwards (principally The Mummy’s Hand and The Mummy’s Tomb with a bit of The Mummy’s Curse for good measure).

Egypt, the late nineteenth century. The Banning family – comprising of father Stephen (Felix Aylmer), uncle Joe (Raymond Huntley) and son John (Peter Cushing) – discover, and break into, the tomb of Ananka, high priestess of the Great God Karnak. On entering the tomb Felix sees something he really shouldn’t, and it drives him mad. The family is cursed by Mehemet Bey (George Pastell), and when they return to England, Felix is placed in an asylum. Bey moves into a large country house close by, and pretty soon a large wooden box filled with ‘Egyptian Relics’ is delivered there by Hammer character actor Harold Goodwin and his friend. Unfortunately they’ve both had a bit too much to drink and the crate ends up at the bottom of the local swamp. Luckily, Bey has recovered the Scroll of Life from the tomb, and pretty soon Kharis the Mummy is up and about and bumping off members of the Banning family.

Hammer’s The Mummy is absolutely cracking stuff. After the success of their first two gothic horrors, Michael Carreras – usually relegated to Executive Producer duties – got the job of properly producing this one, and it shows. While Anthony Hinds was undoubtedly one of the masterminds behind Hammers success, Michael’s love of spectacle is what elevates The Mummy to something greater than it might otherwise have been. Carreras’ input, a bigger budget, and the general increase in confidence of a company hitting its peak are all on display here. The movie ‘feels’ much bigger than either Frankenstein or Dracula, the cast is a lot larger, and just to put some truly spectacular icing on this particular cake, Franz Reisenstein’s score is there to tell you that this is Hammer doing epic. And for a tiny company filming all this in a few sheds near Windsor this was a tremendous accomplishment and should be viewed as such. Bernard Robinson’s set design feels epic, and Jack Asher’s cinematography is gorgeous. Jimmy Sangster’s script condenses a whole cycle of Mummy movies into one film, and even if he mistook Karnak for a god rather than the location in Egypt it actually was, we can forgive him. Terence Fisher’s unobtrusive direction ensures that everyone’s skills are displayed to their best advantage.

The Mummy 1959

Last, but by no means least, we come to the cast. As well as an entire cadre of familiar British character actors we get the immortal teaming of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. In their scenes of confrontation together it almost feels like Van Helsing versus The Mummy, but the film is all the better for it. Even though Cushing is his usual accomplished self, the real star of the film is Lee – the first screen mummy to actually seem dangerous. He neither limps, nor drags bandages behind him, rather, he plays Kharis as a lithe, and vicious killing machine, fully capable of both breaking bars on a prison cell and a man’s back. At the same time his gift for mime, coupled with the superb makeup that leaves little of his face visible but his eyes, allows him to convey Kharis’ eternal sense of longing and the utter tragedy of his situation.

Icon Entertainment’s Blu-ray and double disc DVD release is excellent. There always seem to be a rush of indignant purists ready to decry all the recent Blu-ray Hammer releases but they really shouldn’t have anything to complain about here. For the aspect ratio obsessive (and we all are, aren’t we), here’s what’s important: the disc offers you The Mummy in two aspect ratio: the original Academy aspect it was filmed in (1:1.37) and the ratio in which it was shown in British cinemas (1:1.66). The Universal DVD release of ten years ago presented the film in 1:1.85. With each of these ratios you lose picture information so if you want to see as much of The Mummy as possible you need to select the ‘open frame’ i.e. 1:1.37 option. [The above has been the result of extensive research by your reviewer and detailed examination of all aspects involved.] Now that’s out of the way, the image presented on the Blu-ray disc is nothing short of spectacular itself. If there is a way to see this lushly-presented film, this is it. Colours are vivid and detail is sharp, making the movie look much younger than its 54 years.

Extras are plentiful. There is a new commentary by Hammer experts Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby, both of whom are extremely knowledgeable but just as importantly are always a pleasure to listen to. ‘Unwrapping the Mummy’ is a new documentary about the making of the film, and Jonathan Rigby presents a featurette on ‘The Hammer Rep Company’. For Bray fanatics there’s ‘The House of Horror: Memories of Bray’ to keep you happy for 45 minutes. There’s also the World of Hammer episode featuring Peter Cushing, and an original six minute industry promo reel for the film. In addition to all this, there’s a bonus feature as well. Terence Fisher’s Stolen Face was made just before Hammer hit the big time and is a black and white thriller in which plastic surgeon Paul Henreid alters the face of a convicted murderess so that she looks like the concert pianist he fancies (Lizabeth Scott) with predictable results. Like many of Hammer’s early 1950s efforts it’s a breezy little film that’s definitely worth checking out by fans of British movies from this period.

Add in a stills gallery and a booklet about the film and Icon’s presentation of Hammer’s The Mummy is probably the best packaging of this classic film one could wish for.

JOHN LLEWELLYN PROBERT

Director: Terence Fisher
Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Yvonne Furneaux
Certificate: 12
Release date: 14 October 2013

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2 comments

  1. The original version of this tale is always the best and the remake is good but with a lot of extra special effects. I saw this version of it on TV and I couldn’t take my eyes off it, it was just that good. I hope they show more of the classics. In this one they use weapons to try to stop the mummy. In the remix they use the spell book. I liked both.

  2. hammer films scared the bejesus out of me as a child, i loved them then and love them still. the 1959 mummy was one of the best. no special effect, no cg etc. just mr lee, tall, strong and total menace. the eyes tell all, love, loss, pain, hope, despair and revenge.

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