Friday, June 12, 2015

The Mummy (1959)

Christopher Lee is dead...for now.  And the past few days have seen a deluge of tributes, with Lord Summerisle replacing avatars and people tweeting "RIP Dooko" (annoying) and "RIP Dracula" (hilarious).  Lee was pretty much the last of the old-guard greats, the last bastion of Hammer, and it's unlikely that we'll see a similar talent in our own lifetimes.  But he left behind a deep body of work, so why not dive in now?

Lee was the first person to wrest Dracula from Bela Lugosi's grasp.  You can talk about the Lonster and the other dudes who wore the cape, but nobody until Lee was able to shift the character out of Bela's long shadow.  So it should be interesting to see how Lee's performance here compares to another horror titan, Boris Karloff in the 1932 version of The Mummy.  Will we see another claim staked here?

Egypt, 1895.  An archaeologist family has uncovered the lost tomb of Princess Ananka.  The son (Peter Cushing) languishes in a tent with a messed-up leg while his dad delves into the burial chamber.  Dad unwittingly revives something that rends his sanity.  And that's the prologue.

England, 1898.  Dad's in a home for the "mentally disordered" when deaths start happening.  Could it have something to do with the Egyptian guy in the fez who's been hanging around town?  Well, of course it does.

If you're experienced in horrordom, you can pretty much predict the story from the word "mummy". So let's discuss the traits that are distinct to this Mummy.  I would argue that Lee gets tons of chances to display acting range, far more than you might expect in a mummy film.  As Kharis, quondam high priest of the god Karnak, he's responsible for overseeing the burial rites of the dead Princess Ananka.  In these scenes, Kharis bears a serious and imperious face—he's setting an example for the Egyptian people and opting for ritual over displays of grief.

But, later, we discover that Kharis has been in love with Ananka and we get a second tomb scene complete with Kharis pleading to the god for a resurrection of his beloved.  Lee in these scenes is super-good, acting with the eyes and suitably strained facial expressions.  Kharis, who had been the central acolyte for the religion of Karnak, is condemned by the same religion for his human frailties and muted, then mummied.

As the revenant Kharis, Lee does indeed give a definitive portrayal of the Mummy.  This Mummy ditches Karloff's gloomy menace for full-on frightening spirit: he storms across lawns with purpose, batters his way through doors and windows, and chokes people to death with one hand in a matter of seconds.  You could directly compare this performance with Karloff's as The Monster and not find Lee lacking.  As a role rooted in body language, it's one of the best ever.  I love the look, too, as the mummy here is more slimy than dusty, bandages all wet with mud.

Beyond Christopher Lee's laudable performance, this Mummy also impresses with its characterizations.  The main baddie isn't really so bad, he just objects to grave robbing!  And the dad archaeologist displays flaws of his own during his limited screen time—Mehemet the evil Egyptian cares more about a princess corpse than this dad does about his own son.  Best of all, Kharis is given opportunities to earn our sympathy, a small miracle for a non-speaking role.  

There are drawbacks here, like the low budget bulging in some of the Egypt scenes or the not-World War Z-speed early scenes.  But this film is one of the better that 50s horror has to offer and is certainly one of the crown jewels of mummy movies.