by Jordanna Morgan
My first memory
of the horror genre comes from a lazy summer night in childhood. As I sprawled
half-asleep on the living room rug, a moodily elegant old movie about
"Egyptian relics" was playing out on television—but my drowsing came
to an abrupt end when the protagonist's unfortunate father, locked up in a
soundproof asylum cell, received a most unwanted visitor. The Mummy, appearing
in the previous scene as a slow and limping automaton, had transformed into an
incredibly swift and brutal engine of vengeance—and the feeble old man was
trapped, pounding on the cell door until the monster came to crush his throat. I
still remember how the horrifying futility of his fate sat me bolt upright.
later, I first saw the original Boris Karloff interpretation of The Mummy,
I was somewhat disappointed by comparison.
version of The Mummy represents some of the company's finest work.
It stands the test of time flawlessly, promising to do so for years to come,
with production values and performances that are all top-notch. And in more than
forty years since it was filmed, I suspect I have not been the only young person
for whom The Mummy was an introduction to its true star: Peter Cushing.
Archaeologist Stephen Banning (Felix Aylmer) has invested twenty years in his
search for the tomb of the lost Princess Ananka. At the site of a lonely
Egyptian archaeological dig, an artifact is found which fuels his hopes of
achieving that ultimate success. His partner, Joseph Whemple (Raymond Huntley),
is more skeptical—particularly in light of an accident that has left Stephen's
son John (Peter Cushing) with a broken leg. Stephen refuses to order John back
to base to have it treated, proclaiming it as his son's decision to make.
John, of course,
lights up with the same zeal as his father
when he sees the scarab-like seal they have found. Despite the misgivings
of "Uncle Joe", he declines to leave the site of the dig, eager to
receive news of the findings as soon as the tomb is excavated. Joseph refuses to
believe the delay can be justified, but he is powerless to intervene in the
mutual choice of the excited—and willful—father and son.
"That boy is
going to have a twisted leg for the rest of his life, and it'll be your
fault," he concludes sternly to Stephen Banning.
At last, the day
for the opening of the tomb arrives. John, remaining laid up due to his leg,
must wait for word from Stephen and Joseph. As the two older men prepare to
enter the tomb, Joseph remains dubious about the dig and fretful over John's
be alright, man. You haven't heard him complaining, have you?" Stephen
because he's as pig-headed as you are," replies Joseph.
(Thus is John
Banning's stubborn streak established. That quality goes on to manifest itself,
subtly and otherwise, at many points in Cushing's skilled performance.)
archaeologists can proceed, a further wrinkle develops in the arrival of Mehemet
Akir (George Pastell), a wiry, well-dressed Egyptian who requests that they stop
their work. But Mehemet is not a government official, and Stephen dismisses him,
even when the Egyptian hints at danger; "He who robs the graves of Egypt
dies," he quotes, in deadly earnest. Stephen will have none of this, and
proceeds to enter the tomb with Joseph. Within, the royal seal of Ananka on the
door of the inner chamber promises fulfillment of all his hopes.
In due course the
tomb is revealed—cavernous, haunting, lit by an eerie greenish light and
dominated by the gilded casket of the Princess. While Joseph goes off to tell
John of the find, the oblivious Stephen continues to explore, and soon discovers
an artifact which he identifies as the Scroll of Life. As he studies it with
eagerly trembling hands, an unnoticed crypt in the rock stands ominously.
excitement is tempered by frustration over his injured leg. He encourages Joseph
to return and help his father.
enjoy his moment of triumph," Joseph says. But not so—the remark has
barely left his lips before a cry of terror echoes from the tomb. John starts in
alarm, his face contorting with pain as his leg is jarred. Joseph rushes back to
the tomb, where he finds Stephen reduced to incoherent gibberings.
Half a year has
passed. John is now up and about, limping painfully with a cane, as he and
Joseph prepare to seal Ananka's tomb once more. Stephen was sent to a nursing
home in England, and a letter from John's wife Isobel (Yvonne Furneaux) reports
that the elder Banning's condition is unchanged.
Neither John nor
Joseph are unhappy to see the closing of the tomb. "I've never worked in a
place that had such an aura of menace," John remarks gravely. "There's
something evil in there... I've felt it."
As the doorway to
the tomb is obliterated by explosives, the lurking Mehemet prays to his god,
Karnak, with a vow to exact revenge upon Ananka's desecrators. Now in his
possession is the Scroll of Life.
John Banning has been called to the Engerfield Nursing Home. His father,
believed a hopeless case, has suddenly asked to see him. Though he has no memory
of the accident which caused John's pronounced limp, his mind is set on another
aspect of the dig: the mummy. Not Ananka's mummy, but "the Mummy who
lives", and which he says he saw. "It came from the rock when I read
the Scroll," he protests, becoming distraught as he tells John that the
Mummy will kill them. When John attempts to soothe him with assurances that it
was only his imagination, Stephen shuts down on him.
fool, John," he announces defeatedly. But he does not let his son go
without one final warning.
Cut to the local
grog shop. Pat and Mike (Harold Goodwin, Dennis Shaw), a folksy, tipsy pair of
gents, have the dubious job of carting a coffin-sized box which they were told
contains "Egyptian relics". After the prerequisite bout of whimsical
back-and-forth, the two set out into the night, with their cargo lying loose in
the back of the cart.
through the local bog takes them past the nursing home, where Stephen Banning
wakes, murmuring about the Mummy. His ensuing outburst of panic is heard from
the road by Pat and Mike, and as they make haste to escape the area, the box
tumbles into the shadowy bog and sinks.
Come morning, a
search for the box ensues in the ominous red mire. Who then should appear but
Mehemet; the box was his, and upon learning it cannot be recovered, he is
at the nursing home, an unhappy John Banning is told that his father has grown
violent. For fear of him harming himself in his "persecution complex",
he has been locked in a padded cell.
In the bog that
night, Mehemet reads from the Scroll of Life, raising the Mummy (Christopher
Lee). The towering creature staggers up from the murky waters, covered in
bandages and caked with mud, and is sent forth by Mehemet to wreak vengeance on
those who desecrated Ananka's tomb.
At the asylum,
Stephen Banning is tucked away for the night in his cell. The Mummy soon arrives
to snap the metal bars of the window, crash through the glass and strangle the
life out of the frenzied and helpless elder Banning.
inquest concludes that the murderer must have been a lunatic, yet one who came
from outside the asylum. John Banning cannot believe this act of violence was
random, and decides to examine his father's papers in search of a possible
motive for the murder.
That night, he
and Joseph explore Stephen's records. John's thoughts keep returning to the
events of Ananka's tomb and his father's warning about the Mummy. Once again
Joseph is skeptical, and to prove a point, John recounts to him the legend of
Princess Ananka's death. (Which, of course, is explored in a lavishly appointed
and filmed flashback sequence, replete with ritualism and narrated by Cushing's
Furneaux) had died during a pilgrimage. Kharis (Christopher Lee), the high
priest of Karnak, chose to have her buried in a secret tomb far from home. In
his forbidden love for her, he plotted to resurrect her with the Scroll of
Life—but he was discovered. His tongue was cut out, and he was buried alive,
forever destined to guard his Princess in death.
that his father, knowing this legend, let his imagination get the better of him.
Joseph cautions John not to let the same thing befall him.
Mehemet once again sends forth Kharis to wreak vengeance. On his way to the
Banning house he is seen by a poacher (the perennial Michael Ripper), who rushes
into the tavern babbling about a giant, to the amusement of his fellow patrons.
Whemple bids goodnight to John, but he is barely out of the study before the
Mummy bursts through the doors of the house and mercilessly kills him. John's
attempt to intervene is futile, even when he fires several bullets into the
killer's bandage-swathed body. (Not to mention unsuspectingly seizing
Christopher Lee by the very shoulder he had just dislocated while breaking
through a locked door! I wince every time I watch this scene.)
Mulrooney (Eddie Byrne), a pragmatic London investigator who is incredulous at
John's claim of having shot the killer with no effect. He is even more dubious
when John proclaims his belief that the killer was a living mummy.
these Egyptian things?" he says. "I thought they were always dead
usually are," John replies matter-of-factly. He proceeds to reconstruct the
events at Ananka's tomb as he now believes they truly happened. His father had
found and read the Scroll of Life, resurrecting Kharis—the mere sight of whom
was enough to drive the elder Banning mad. But someone (actually Mehemet)
intervened and stole the Scroll. Now, with his father and uncle dead, John
suspects that he will be the next to die.
Mulrooney is only
interested in facts, however, and dismisses John's wild tale. As he sets about
canvassing most of the film's minor players, he learns of the giant in the bog,
the lost box of "relics", and the mysterious Egyptian who was so
untroubled by their loss.
Mehemet dispatches Kharis to complete his task, and kill John Banning.
As John leafs
through his father's files regarding the Ananka legend, he is struck by his
beautiful wife's similarity to the long-dead Princess. Isobel is uneasy about
the murders, but John is even more so, and he admits to her his belief that he
will be next. She is upset to learn that he intends to lie in wait for the
killer alone, but he tells her there is nothing else he can do while the police
disbelieve him. Finally, he insists that Isobel should lock herself in her room.
wonderful to watch in this scene. As Banning contemplates facing the Mummy, and
little by little lets on about it to Isobel, there is an almost absent-minded
nervousness about him. He paces the room, takes out a cigarette which he forgets
to light, and acquires a slight hesitation to his words—all of which is
interspersed with the gentle affections by which he tries to reassure his
When the Mummy
arrives, John is waiting with his gun, but he cannot stop it either by bullets
or a spear through the midriff (a device suggested by Cushing, to give credence
to a film poster showing a perforated Kharis). The Mummy almost succeeds in
strangling the life out of John.
(This seems like
Lee's favorite mode of attack; previously he went for Cushing's throat as both
Frankenstein's Monster and Dracula. My theory? Cushing choked so realistically
that director Terence Fisher liked to capitalize on the talent... However, I
John is spared
when the commotion attracts Isobel, and at her outcry, the Mummy abandons his
victim. Longingly Kharis advances toward Isobel, the image of his lost
love—and then he simply turns and lumbers away.
skeptical, Inspector Mulrooney has found that his facts are beginning to line up
with Banning's "theory", which now includes Isobel's resemblance to
Ananka. When he mentions the alleged Egyptian who has taken up residence nearby,
John becomes set on finding out more about him. Mulrooney warns him not to
engage in private police work, but John goes out to visit his suspect anyway.
believing the younger Banning to have been killed by Kharis, is preparing to
return to Egypt. He is startled to find John on his doorstep, in the pretense of
paying a neighborly call, but is quick to invite him inside. And with a thinly
veiled awareness of each other's knowledge of the truth, the two engage in a
conversation, which soon develops into a painstakingly polite verbal sparring
match that is perhaps Cushing's finest scene in the film.
innocently enough, mildly questioning John about whether it troubles him to
remove the remains of kings from their tombs and put them on display. He denies
that he himself is troubled by such
things. But when John adroitly leads him into discussion of Karnak, belittling
the deity's believers, Mehemet begins to exhibit a growing agitation. By degrees
he accuses John of intolerance, ignorance, and blasphemy.
"I think you
will not go unpunished," he says, idly sauntering closer to Kharis' crypt.
But he goes on to
glibly apologize for his behavior, and John takes his leave, noting along the
way that Mehemet now has the seal to Ananka's tomb among his artifacts. When he
is gone, Mehemet vows to Karnak that his and Kharis' failure will be remedied.
Back at the
Banning household, John endures chastisement by Inspector Mulrooney as he loads
his guns. Mulrooney is angry that Mehemet has been forced into action, and takes
Isobel out of the house where John again waits for the Mummy. But the Inspector
and his men are soon incapacitated by Mehemet and Kharis, who break into the
house. Kharis attacks John, and a shot fired from his gun brings Isobel running.
Kharis releases John at her command.
Kharis to kill Isobel, but the Mummy rebels and kills Mehemet instead, taking
from his body the Scroll of Life. Isobel faints as Kharis carries her away, but
John regains his senses in time to witness the escape. Mulrooney reappears on
the scene, and they set off on the Mummy's trail.
Isobel into the swamp, pursued by John, Mulrooney and a small force of armed
men. Isobel comes to in Kharis' arms, and at John's instructions, tells Kharis
to put her down. He obeys, and when she is safely away from him, the men open
fire on the Mummy.
John holds Isobel
as Kharis, the Scroll of Life in hand, disappears into the dark waters of the
The Mummy is a classic example of Hammer Films
at its finest. Director Terence Fisher, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster and
production designer Bernard Robinson are all at the top of their form. The
story, well-rooted in the age-old themes of love and revenge, is classical and
economical. The mummy makeup devised by
Roy Ashton is incredible. The sets are beautiful, moody and atmospheric, and the
cast is uniformly excellent.
role is an interesting one, and unique among his roles for Hammer. John Banning
is neither the misguided instigator nor the dedicated pursuer of the evil with
which he comes into contact; he is an ordinary man thrust into fantastic
circumstances, and his life depends upon his reactions.
might have performed the role woodenly, but in Cushing's infinitely skilled
hands, John is a complete person with natural fears and strengths. At the same
time, he possesses the strong-willed intelligence and sensitivity that makes
almost all of Peter's characters stand out, be they hero or villain. From
comforting Isobel to confronting Mehemet, Cushing endows every action and word
with expressiveness and purpose.
It was not only
Cushing who made the most of his role; the Mummy is far and away my favorite of
Christopher Lee's monster portrayals, and it's painfully clear how hard he
worked at it. Kharis does not simply lurch like a zombie through his scenes. On
the one hand, Lee is intensely active, smashing through windows and breaking
down doors (and thereby suffering injury in the relentless athleticism of the
role). On the other hand, his Kharis is mutely, stirringly emotive, expressing
with his eyes and movements a very human torment over his unrequited love and
as the damsel in distress, just might be the one leading lady in a classic
horror film who never utters a scream; Isobel has a bravery not many female
horror leads share. She is breathtakingly beautiful, and her regal grace befits
the reincarnation of a legendary princess. Toward her husband John, she displays
an endearing affection and concern—and toward the lovelorn Kharis, a realistic
balance of fear, courage and even pity. It's truly unfortunate that Furneaux did
not appear in more Hammer films, because she would have been an incredible asset
to the horror genre.
player in the film gives a peak performance. George Pastell has a sinister,
civilized ruthlessness as Mehemet. Felix Aylmer is properly obnoxious as Stephen
Banning, a father who thinks more of his work than his son, and who takes
callous pride in John's toughing it out for the sake of the same. Eddie Byrne
portrays a fine dogged skeptic as Inspector Mulrooney (and incidentally, he also
had the honor of being killed off in one of my favorite non-Hammer Peter Cushing
films—the effective sci-fi outing Island Of Terror). And Michael Ripper
makes memorable use of his amusing dialogue as the nervous, excuse-making
But the film
truly belongs to Cushing, whose graceful presence and sense of realism are its
backbone. As always, he played his part for everything it was worth and more,
and came away with one of the best and most memorable films of his career.
© 2002 Jordanna Morgan
Below are two posters from THE MUMMY. Click on the image to view the larger version of the posters.