Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (Hammer, 1964)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

During the afternoon Charles and I watched two highly contrasting films from the TCM horror marathon for Hallowe’en. One was The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964), the second Hammer Mummy movie, five years after the first one (which was a remake not of the 1932 Universal Mummy with Boris Karloff and Zita Johann, but the 1940 “reboot” The Mummy’s Hand) and a thoroughly silly film that never got the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 treatment but certainly should have. It was an auteur work from Hammer studio head Michael Carreras, who not only produced but also directed and (under the pseudonym “Henry Younger” — a pun on the name “John Elder,” used by fellow Hammer producer Anthony Hinds as a pen-name for his scripts) wrote it. It’s a farrago of mummy nonsense whose central premise is that Pharoah Rameses VIII had twin sons, who according to the imdb.com cast list were called Ra and Re (though what I heard — or at least thought I heard — on the soundtrack for the latter’s name was “B,” like the letter or the insect), and like the similar royal twins in Alexandre Dumas père’s story Twenty Years After a.k.a. The Iron Mask, from which Carreras a.k.a. “Younger” almost certainly pinched the concept, one of them was good, one of them was bad, and the bad one exiled the good one to the nomadic tribes of the Sahara, where they recognized his goodness and made him king until the bad guy’s assassins caught up with him and killed him.

Flash forward to 1900, and a group of Egyptologists — Adam Beauchamp (Terence Morgan), John Bray (Ronald Howard, Leslie Howard’s son and Sherlock Holmes on a short-lived 1950’s TV series), Sir Giles Dalrymple (Jack Gwillim) and Annette Dubois (Jeanne Roland, an oddly gamine-like actress for a Hammer leading lady, more Shirley MacLaine than Marilyn Monroe as a body type and saddled with one of the worst-ever attempts at a French accent — she got an “introducing” credit and it’s not surprising that after this performance almost no one ever heard of her again) — searching for the tomb of Ra and ultimately finding it, though not before Annette’s father (Bernard Rebel) falls victim to a gang of local thugs in the opening scene: they behead him and chop off his left hand in a sequence so ridiculously phony it reminded me of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (though in the Python film the very phoniness was the point of the joke).

Needless to say, there’s supposed to be a curse on the mummy’s tomb (hence the title), and the curse goes into high gear when the financial sponsor of the expedition, Alexander King (Fred Clark — and yes, from the moment I saw his name in the credits I wonder how on earth he would fit into a Hammer film), decides to tour the mummy and the priceless art treasures discovered along with it as a carnival attraction and make scads of money off it. Needless to say, the mummy himself (itself?) comes back to life and parades around — in a singularly awful, masklike mummy makeup that covers the mouth of the unfortunate actor (Dickie Owen) who has to play the part — and there’s also a nice bit of critique of cultural imperialism in the expedition’s dealings with their contact in the Egyptian government, Hashmi Bey (George Pastell), though quite frankly the 1932 Mummy had more to say about cultural imperialism in one line (in which Boris Karloff, playing the wizened old Egyptian Ardath Bey who’s really the revivified mummy Imhotep in disguise, laments, “We Egyptians are not permitted to dig up our ancient dead. That privilege is reserved for foreign museums”) than this film has in 81 minutes.

Indeed, when Carreras a.k.a. “Younger” inserted into his script a blue-green medallion with an inscription from the Middle Old Kingdom (considerably earlier in Egyptian history than the mummy character) that supposedly can be use to raise the dead, I only wished he’d used it to raise John L. Balderston, writer of the 1932 Mummy (who died in 1954), so he could have got a good script out of him! It turns out that Adam Beauchamp is really the revivified Re, or B, or whatever Ra’s evil twin brother’s name was, and that’s supposed to be the big climax of a film that isn’t terribly frightening (the Hammer movies were considerably dangerously edgy in their gore levels back then, but after the Hallowe’en, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Saw series, they’re practically kindergarten films by comparison!) but works — like a lot of the Hammers these days — as sheer camp.