The Mummy

 Reviewed 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.

When, sometime later, I first saw the original Boris Karloff interpretation of The Mummy, I was somewhat disappointed by comparison.

Hammer Films' 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.




Egypt, 1895: 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 leg.

"Oh, it'll be alright, man. You haven't heard him complaining, have you?" Stephen cajoles.

"That's 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.)

Before the 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.

Outside, John's excitement is tempered by frustration over his injured leg. He encourages Joseph to return and help his father.

"Let him 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.


England, 1897: 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.

"You're a 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.

Their course 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 singularly unconcerned.

Meanwhile, back 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.

The police 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 distinctive voice.)

Ananka (Yvonne 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.

John proposes 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.

Meanwhile, 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.

Soon Joseph 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.)

Enter Inspector 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.

"One of these Egyptian things?" he says. "I thought they were always dead people."

"They 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.

That night, 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.

(Cushing is 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 fretting wife.)

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 digress.)

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.

Though still 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.

Mehemet, 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.

Mehemet begins 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.

Mehemet orders 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.

Kharis carries 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 swamp.




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.

Peter Cushing's 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.

Another actor 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 eternal punishment.

Yvonne Furneaux, 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.

Similarly, each 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 poacher.

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.

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