Thursday, June 1, 2006

Murder Across Millennia

THE MUMMY (1959)

Towards the end of the Universal Mummy cycle, the monster devolved into a harmless joke, shambling and closing on his prey with all the menace of a turtle. Hammer makes Christopher Lee’s Kharis a constant threat, an automaton that crushes the throats of his victims.

ALTHOUGH most modern readers have been conditioned by decades of horror stories and movies to expect a Mummy to be intrinsically evil, initial literature portrayed them as intelligent, reasonable and even philosophical beings, such as in Leopardi’s 1827 The Dialogue of Frederick Ruysch and his Mummies. It wasn’t until later in the century, however, that the Bad Mummy became a stock device, particularly in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lot No. 249, which illustrates the shift in tone in the wake of important archaeological discoveries, and the increase in Britain’s involvement and later occupation of Egypt. Hammer’s spin on such mysticism is one of the studio’s most glamorous productions, enriching the expected violence and spectacle with a memorable, melancholy undertow. Continuing director Terence Fisher’s fascination with Gothic Romanticism, THE MUMMY sees John Banning (Peter Cushing) excavating the tomb of Princess Ananka, only to have the mummified corpse of her former lover Kharis (Christopher Lee) instructed to murder the desecrators.

THE MUMMY was one of the last of the first wave of British horror films that enjoyed enormous world-wide success, and may arguably stand as the finest of all Mummy movies. The basic plot is little more than a series of predictable monster attacks, but Jimmy Sangster’s script uses politically-based complexities, as the priggish English battle the vindictive ideologies of the third-world. Mehemet Bey (George Pastell), the devout worshipper acting only out of love for his God, is mercilessly baited and dismissed by colonial contempt. In the most memorable scene, Banning’s midnight visit to Bey - a verbal confrontation between East and West – contains more malice than the violent sequences. Lee’s Kharis is a powerful and fast-moving adversary, a Golem-like juggernaut with a swift and deadly grasp. His human signs of adoration and weakness upon recognition of Isobel Banning (Yvonne Furneaux) as a dead ringer for Ananka, are all communicated through evocative eyes and precise mime; equally striking is the actor’s initial clumsiness after emerging from the swamp, as though unused to manoeuvring his limbs. In stark contrast is Cushing’s subtle performance as the cold fish archaeologist with a pronounced limp and death wish, his emotions as atrophied as the muscles in his leg.

A typically hyperbolic ad mat for THE MUMMY.

The film’s prevailing sense of atmosphere is generated in deeply saturated tones that include eerie greens and rich crimsons (Fisher's wide masters are equally sumptuous and full of detail). Franz Reizenstein's sweeping score is the best in any Hammer film; the main theme carries the weight of a Hollywood Biblical epic, and its cues augment Kharis' murder missions with regal flourishes, and evoke his tenderness when confronted by the vision of his undying love. A sexual reading of THE MUMMY can see the men as weaklings, either cripples or sex slaves; even in afterlife, the female is in charge. This interpretation hits hard in the final confrontation, with Kharis reduced to a mere puppet in the hands of a woman who simply resembles the princess to whom he's so devoted. Seemingly, the power of the feminine sex trumps all - English society, ancient religions, and even magical prowess.