The story of The Mummy is one of horror’s most classic. We all know it and have seen it in the course of our lives countless times. Why exactly that is and how a mummy became one of the genre’s most tried-and-true monsters is an interesting topic, but one thing is for sure, Christopher Lee certainly didn’t hurt it’s popularity. Made by Hammer Film Productions in 1959, this is the fifth true Mummy movie (Universal made 4 of them in horror’s golden-age), but brought the monster to viewers for the first time in color. Featuring the mummy Kharis, the story borrows from two of the 1940’s takes on the monster. Is it any good? Is the popularity of a mummy as a horror icon at all backed up by the movie? I’m about to get into that. Normally, this is where we warn you about spoilers but come on, it’s a mummy movie. Who gives a shit? The characters in the film ignored warnings and things turned out great for them so why don’t you do the same, ok?
Reviewed by: Jake
I really want to just punt on this section this week because it’s a fucking mummy movie and we all know the beats, but I’m not going to. You’re welcome. Don’t say I never made sacrifices for you, dear reader.
It’s the late 1800’s and a group of archaeologists discover the tomb of Princess Ananka (Yvonne Furneaux). Among them? Peter goddamned Cushing aka John Banning. Small problem for Banning though. He’s laid up with a bum leg and can’t do fun things like break into ancient tombs and desecrate the sacred order the ancient worshippers of the god Karnak worked hard to conceal. Instead, his father (Felix Aylmer) and some of the other guys on the expedition get the privilege of ignoring the warning of Mehmet Bey (George Pastell) that they will pay the price for their entrance into the sacred tomb. While down in the tomb, Banning the elder makes matters worse by reading from the ancient Scroll of Life, inadvertently waking the mummy Kharis (Christopher Lee) from his slumber. He promptly goes catatonic and gets thrown in a British loony bin.
Fast-forward three years - old man Banning snaps out of his state and promptly calls for his son to tell him how badly he screwed the pooch. Simultaneous to all of this, Bey has travelled to cheery England to exact revenge on the Bannings for messing with the tomb. His preferred method of revenge exaction is via aforementioned living mummy, Kharis. It’s all quite simple, he just has to get the dead guy to England and hire some drunks to deliver him so Bey can command Kharis to waddle around and choke people.
Annnd, that’s exactly what happens. Under Bey’s order, Kharis lumbers around and picks off the members of the expedition one-by-one. Banning is very aware of what’s going on and tries to warn folks of their impending death via choking, but he fails. He also tries killing the mummy by shooting it but A) it’s already dead so good luck with that and B) Banning hasn’t trained in zombie defense because he doesn’t go for the head.
Eventually, Banning is the only one left and the main target of Kharis. The problem for Bey is that Banning’s wife (also Furneaux) looks a whole lot like Ananka, whom Kharis was sworn to protect in the first place. See, when she died, Kharis committed the ultimate sin in trying to resurrect her because he liked her a whole lot. For that, he had his tongue cut out and was wrapped in bandages and buried alive in her tomb as her eternal protector. Seeing as he hasn’t really had a brain for a few thousand years, it makes sense that he would fail to see past the resemblance and realize she isn’t actually Ananka. Bey tries to take matters into his own hands and off them himself, but Kharis, protecting who he thinks is Ananka, kills Bey instead and makes off with an unconscious Mrs. Banning. When she awakes she orders him to put her down and he does. He’s then shot by a firing squad and sinks into the swamp with the Scroll of Life. I guess that’s what it takes to kill him? OR is it?..
What the Movie Does Right
Hammer is what this movie does right (this movie was done right by Hammer?) All of the Hammer takes on the horror classics brought the foundational characters in horror to a new generation. There was a lot more color, blood, cleavage and general sexiness in these new movies, too. It was the taste of a new generation, afterall… Jokes aside, the Hammer movies were known for being edgy for the time. I think this particular film is a bit less intense, but that’s more due to the nature of the story than anything. Also, being a Hammer joint, that means you get the talent of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee on screen. Big bonus there.
The other major thing this movie does right is simply being a mummy movie. This is a bit of a weird space for me, personally, because I don’t really find the mummy to be one of the scarier figures in the pantheon of horror, but you cannot argue with its status as one of the genre's most enduring and beloved symbols. If there were a monster Mt. Rushmore, the mummy would be on it.
If you really think about it, the mummy is really just an OG zombie with a cool backing explanation that’s rooted in a real, interesting ancient civilization. I’m definitely a fan of that. And this movie is one of the foundational movies in the catalog of mummy flicks. The most famous has to be the original Universal picture from 1932 starring Boris Karloff in the role, but this ain’t too shabby either.
I’d also like to quickly point out that the set design and costuming in this movie is pretty well done. While things definitely look like sets, they have the charm that only classics can bring to the table. It looks dated and antique, but in an endearing way.
What the Movie Does Wrong
Your mileage is going to vary significantly with this movie based on how much you like older movies. It is slowly paced, quiet, and certainly lacking action by today’s standards. I personally found this movie to be extremely boring. Aging and preference changes are a real thing. That’s pretty much the foundational aspect of Hammer and what the company’s movies are known for in the first place. They ratcheted things up from the 30’s and 40’s, but 80 years later, this doesn’t really have the same sort of shock factor. We’re post-torture porn era at this point, so a lumbering monster that chokes Englishmen out isn’t really going to do it.
I hesitate to add anything else in this section because I do think the film’s successes vastly outweigh what it does poorly. It’s a good movie that is probably going to be hard to watch for a modern viewer. That’s just reality.
Story: 5 - this is a pretty standard version of the tale of the mummy. It’s actually the third story in the mummy-verse using Kharis as the titular monster, so it wasn’t doing anything new even when it came out in ‘59, but it hits the beats you need to hit if you are doing a mummy flick.
World-Building / Immersion: 4 - This was hard to sit through and I was on my phone a lot, which makes me feel bad. I appreciate this movie for what it is and it is interesting conceptually, but it was a hard one to stick with.
Scare-Factor: 2 - The particular flavor of scare associated with the mummy as a monster is the least frightening to me of all the classic monsters. The reason this isn’t a 1 simply because the horror of how the mummy became the mummy (being buried alive) is and will always be a fucked up thing.
Effects (or Judicious Lack Thereof): 6 - I was tempted to go higher with this score because this brought the mummy to viewers in color for the first time, but I can’t. The sets and costuming are both solid, and the sound is pretty good (for the time) as well, but this movie is an antique at this point.
Overall: 5.5 - I appreciate this movie more than I like it. I would only recommend this to genre fans that want to have the feather in their caps of having seen the classics. Hammer is a super big player in the history of horror, and you have two genre legends playing alongside each other in this movie. It’s a classic that is now super old. It wouldn’t be my most recommended mummy movie, nor would it be my most recommended Hammer movie, but it is an interesting and important flick in the history of horror that should not be forgotten.