Thursday, July 1, 2010

Queen of Darkness

BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB (1971)

Valerie Leon enjoys British cult status ten times over: one Hammer horror, seven CARRY ON's, and two James Bond's. From 1969 to 1975, she was best known for her Hai Karate commercials, and later spoofed her man eater image by playing a whip-cracking dominatrix in REVENGE OF THE PINK PANTHER.

IN early 1970s London, Margaret (Valerie Leon) suffers a recurring nightmare about an ancient Egyptian Queen, to whom she bears an uncanny resemblance. The priests who entomb the Queen first chop off her hand but, after throwing the member to the jackals, are killed by a mysterious force that lacerates their throats (as are the animals). A day before her birthday, Margaret's father, archaeologist Professor Fuchs (Andrew Keir), gives her a ruby ring. This artifact was discovered when, twenty years before, Fuchs and four others broke into the tomb of Queen Tera and found the item on her disembodied hand. At that moment, thousands of miles away, Margaret's mother died giving birth to her, signaling the start of Tera's sorcery.

Similar to TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA (1970), there is a sense here that a complex society exists beyond the surface, with a number of mixed motive individuals caught up in the supernatural, rather than the black and white tableau of Terence Fisher. Also, with the marginal exception of THE WITCHES (1966), the film is Hammer's first Gothic to have a contemporary setting, and the production moves towards the ambiguous endings that would become standard for horror cinema in the 70s: is it Margaret or Tera, swathed in bandages, that survives in the hospital bed at the climax of the film?

BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB is a lurid adaptation of Bram Stoker's mystical novel The Jewel of Seven Stars (1903). It is a film as much about images as it is about characters: snake and cat statues, the skull of a jackal, the ruby ring and a fixation with throat-cutting and Valerie Leon's breasts.

BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB was one of Hammer's most cursed productions. Peter Cushing was initially cast as Fuchs, but Keir was hurriedly drafted in because of Helen Cushing's ill health. Screenwriter Christopher Wicking was banned from the set after an altercation with producer Howard Brandy, a young art department employee died in a motorcycle accident, and director Seth Holt succumbed to a sudden, fatal heart attack with a week's filming still to complete. Michael Carreras, who had just became the studio's Managing Director, prepared for a total re-shoot, but ultimately finished the production and supervised the assembly himself.

Despite all this behind the scenes chaos, the film is a welcome re-imagining of the Mummy sub-genre, moving away from a rampaging monster. It also possesses an atmosphere unlike any other Hammer, which is refreshing particularly in context with the studio's cheapening output; the drab modern suburbia seems almost permanently overcast, the nocturnal gloom an appropriate atmosphere for the return of Tera. It is as if Holt's spirit hangs over the production, creating an eeriness and melancholy that crosses the barrier between life and death. The problems that plagued the film inadvertently contributed to its non-linear style, but BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB has a Lovecraftian feel. The film also benefits from an effective severed hand, and disturbing shots of Tera's lactating stump oozing blood after each killing.

Bruce Timm's rendering of Leon for the back cover of Richard Klemensen's indispensable Hammer fanzine Little Shoppe of Horrors #24 (May 2010).

Dubbed throughout, Leon gives a suitably dream-like performance in her dual role. Shakespearean actress Amy Grant was initially cast as Margaret/Tera, but Sir James Carreras soon over-ruled in favour of Leon, despite her inexperience in leading roles. Consequently, the actress felt insecure on set, and one can only yearn for the part to have been offered to Martine Beswick, who would have devoured the role. Keir makes for a fine Cushing replacement, but his role of Fuchs is irritatingly underwritten, even hinting at incest. James Villiers is suave as the scheming Corbeck, and Aubrey Morris gives a bizarre showing as the sunglass-wearing Dr Putnam. And in an early attempt at an in-joke character name, Australian Mark Edwards plays Margaret's boyfriend Tod Browning, who is written out well before the climax even though he receives an "and introducing" credit.