Following the success of Hammer horror films such as The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula, Hammer released The Mummy 1959, which starred Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee as the bandaged monster.
There have been numerous theatrical versions of The Mummy. With the original releasing in 1932 and the most recent incarnation currently in development, with a scheduled release of 2017, it is appropriate to say that Universal’s classic monster has been around for nearly four generations. Sometime after Universal closed the coffin on their Mummy films, an English film studio resurrected the bandaged creature after finding great success in re-imagining monsters of Universal’s years past. In 1959, Hammer Film Productions, with distribution by Universal, would release The Mummy. Featuring two iconic stars – Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee – The Mummy, “all-new in technicolor,” would shock audiences and help cement the creature in monster movie history.
Much has been said and written of Rotten Tomatoes as of late due to the critical slaughtering of David Ayers’ Suicide Squad and Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman, but did you know that The Mummy 1959 holds a 100% certified fresh rating? That’s impressive given the 56% rating the 1999 version has, and the 93% that the original 1932 classic has. Is Terence Fisher’s The Mummy a nearly perfect monster/horror film? Could it truly be that good?
The 1959 version of The Mummy blends the best of the 1932 original with a satisfying amount of nods to later films such as The Mummy’s Hand, The Mummy’s Tomb, and The Mummy’s Ghost. The film tells a familiar story about Kharis, Princess Ananka, and the cursed group that awakens him, but almost dreamily elevates the later three concepts of Universal’s Mummy films to a classier affair. After all, after hits like The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula, could you expect any less from Hammer, especially considering this was their silver age take on the golden age of the classic Universal Monsters films of the 30’s and 40’s. Taking the characters from Universal’s previous films, characters like John and Stephen Banning, Joseph Whemple, and Mehemet Bey, the screenplay by Jimmy Sangster gives everyone a little more to do while also maintaining it’s feet firmly planted in a reality of sorts where curses, gods and monsters exist.
And gods and monsters do exist! After awakening the mummy in 1895 Egypt, three years go by and the full terror of Kharis is unleashed in London, England. While Kharis is essentially a proto-slasher movie monster, there’s something undeniable about Sir Christopher Lee’s performance as an imposing, deadly, muddy and bandaged creature. It’s not only terrifying when he kills Stephen Banning (Felix Aylmer) at the Engerfield Nursing Home for the Mentally Disordered, but rather intensely exciting when Kharis resurfaces and kills Joseph Whemple (Raymond Huntley) and attacks John Banning (Peter Cushing). Talk about an exciting and iconic scene! Kharis, since his Universal days, has always had a penchant for barging into rooms and strangling his targets with one arm. Lee, an impressively large man at 6’5″ tall, has a fight scene with Cushing, who stood 6 feet tall. Cushing, a talented, nuanced, and active fellow serving as one of the first actors to do action scenes and stunts, leaps over his desk and stabs Kharis. The scene is one of the best and most iconic moments in the film and rightfully so. Why not take a look at it below.
The Mummy is a great looking movie and it makes great use of its on location and sound stage work. While some have criticized the budget as it did not allow “on location filming for the Egypt footage,” the film is well shot and features great set designs by Bernard Robinson. Interestingly, a trend in Mummy movies is the London, England setting and 2017’s The Mummy will continue this running thread.
As with most of these particular movies, 1959’s The Mummy features a man behind the monster and in this case, it’s the familiar character of Mehemet Bey (George Pastell). We also get Yvonne Furneaux as the female lead who, as the script would have it, becomes the object of Kharis’ affection and ultimately his doom. The Mummy, quite similarly to The Mummy’s Ghost, concludes with Kharis lumbering off with Furneaux’s Isobel Banning, whom Kharis and John believe to be the reincarnated Princess Ananka. However, unlike the dark conclusion of Ghost, this 1959 version sees the town save Isobel and stop Kharis. Reawaken a mummy, kill the bad guy, save the girl. The three basic staples of any fun Mummy movie.
When we last mentioned The Mummy 1959 on Universal Monsters Universe, it was when we included the Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee version in our “The Mummy Movies Over Time.” The Mummy 1959 is one of my personal favorites among the Mummy films and was one of my favorite monster movies growing up. It was darker, a little more action oriented, and gave us an interesting creature that also resembled the generally iconic mummified and bandaged monster that we didn’t really get in the 1932 classic, except for its opening scene.
The Mummy, directed by Terence Fisher and written by Jimmy Sangster, is one of the finest depictions and guides on how to remake a monster movie. Or movie for that matter. It’s especially appealing to know that the creative architects of Universal’s upcoming “Monsters Universe” of films, Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan, have “obsessively watched Universal monster films… and to broaden the sense of genre, augmented that with a diet of Hammer Horror pictures.” With Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan behind 2017’s The Mummy (which Sofia Boutella just finished filming), it’s hopeful to know that Kurtzman and Morgan have more than likely re-watched 1959’s The Mummy.
(Steven Biscotti – @reggiemantleIII)