Mummy, The (Hammer 1959)
Hammer’s 1959 retelling of The Mummy took inspiration from the Universal movies which had gone before, but added a visceral new horror to its tale of ancient evil.
Directorial duties for The Mummy went to Hammer horror legend Terence Fisher, who brought his trademark combination of popcorn-munching excitement and brooding gothic menace to proceedings. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee shared top billing once again as archaeologist John Banning and mummified priest Kharis respectively.
Chronicling an archaeological expedition to a remote Egyptian tomb and its nightmarish consequences, The Mummy enjoys excellent pacing and captivating performances. With the action moving from windswept Egyptian ruins to a small English village, and including a lavish 15-minute flashback showing the fate of doomed Kharis, the movie also adds romantic themes which lend extra depth to the tale of horror.
The Mummy (Christopher Lee) is raised from the swamp by Mehemet Bey (George Pastell) in The Mummy (Hammer 1959)
While the story of The Mummy may feel familiar – indeed, the central plot conceit has been reworked in numerous other films to the point where it has become a pop culture staple – elements of the movie’s design and production merit close attention. For example, the introductory sequence showing the opening of Princess Ananka’s tomb makes it clear that access is not easy, the archaeologists squeezing through a claustrophobic gap in the ancient masonry to enter the tomb. A minor element in plot terms, perhaps, but a realistic inclusion that immerses the audience in the arduous nature of the expedition and further reinforces the ‘otherness’ of the tomb.
Similarly, Christopher Lee’s performance as Kharis adds a fresh type of horror to the character. Fast, agile and frighteningly strong, this athletic reimagining of the bandage-wrapped undead horror is worlds away from the shuffling zombie-like creature glimpsed in Boris Karloff’s performance for Universal. Lee’s intimidating stature makes Kharis more akin to a silent modern psychopath like Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers.
Christopher Lee as Kharis in The Mummy (Hammer 1959)
Lee and Cushing enjoyed strong support from their fellow cast members. Yvonne Furneaux gave a charismatic performance as Isobel Banning, whose presence of mind in her confrontations with Kharis made her far more than a helpless screaming damsel. Eddie Byrne portrayed the voice of scientific reason as sceptical Inspector Mulrooney, slowly won over by the overwhelming evidence before him. Meanwhile, Cypriot actor George Pastell played the role of Egyptian fanatic Mehemet Bey with a sinister gusto, and Michael Ripper provided an entertaining diversion as a permanently terrified poacher.
Released on the 16th of December 1959, The Mummy proved a success with critics and was to become one of Hammer’s most iconic horror movies. While the plot was admittedly lifted to a large extent from Universal’s The Mummy’s Hand (1940), The Mummy’s Tomb (1942) and The Mummy’s Ghost (1944), it cannot be denied that this rendition of the story is very much Hammer’s own.