Saturday, 2 June 2018

Blood from the Mummy's Tomb (Seth Holt, 1971)


In which we make a donation (a sanguineous one, natch) to the Great Hammer/Amicus Blogathon by giving a take on the entombed terror of Tera.


The 'Mummy' subgenre of horror began its literal, literary life (or, rather, waking half life bestowed by the Scrolls of Thoth, perhaps?) in 1892 when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - one of the founding fathers of detective fiction and onlie begetter of the legendary sleuth of Baker Street Sherlock Holmes - penned the short story 'Lot No. 249' for Harper's Magazine: a tale of an Oxford student who acquires Egyptian relics at action, including a sarcophagous containing a mummy which he learns to reanimate and send out at night to wreak revenge on those that he believes have wronged him.  Cinema, never being far behind the written word when it comes to transferring frights onto film, was quick to join in with the fin de siecle zeitgeist of Ancient Aegyptology fostered by the discoveries of 19th century archaeologists such as Champollion and Flinders Petrie.  In 1901 the early British film director Walter R. Booth made the two-minute short The Haunted Curiosity Shop (one of many he made with director and producer R. W Paul in imitation of the pioneering trick films of French illusionist and special effects maestro Georges Melies) which featured among the many whirling apparitions that fill its brief running time a sarcophagous that opens to reveal a resurrected revenant in Egyptian dress who then immediately dessicates into a skeleton.  Not the most auspicious start for the Mummy in film, but we all have to start somewhere don't we?

A mere two years later, literature struck back when Irish-born author and creator of the very Lord of the Undead himself - Count Dracula - followed up his 1897 novel of nosferatu with 1903's The Jewel of Seven Stars.  A tale of an ancient and powerful dark queen seeking resurrection through the child of one of the defilers of her tomb, the novel touched an Edwardian nerve with its invocation of the feminine power for destruction as well as creation (the emerging phenomenon of the 'New Woman' scandalising the repressed and repressive regressive classes) and the then-shocking notion that an ancient and 'primitive' civilisation like Egypt may have in many ways been more advanced than that of the 'enlightened' early 20th century West - so strong was the feeling against some of the book's themes that Stoker would reissue it in a redacted and revised version nine years later, removing the chapter containing speculation about modern monotheistic religions being cast into doubt and the resurrected queen's power proving the veracity of the Egyptian pantheon - and also rewriting the open and downbeat ending for a less impactful Happily-Ever-After with the male hero marrying the no-longer cursed heroin.  Ugh.  Coward.


The silver screen career of the Egyptian undead had of course kicked into high gear in 1932 with the release of Universal Pictures' Karl Freund-helmed The Mummy, starring horror colossus Boris Karloff as the resurrected Imhotep.  The real spurt of reanimated activity, though, would take place in the 1940s, when first cowboy actor and Captain Marvel Tom Tyler and later Lon Chaney Jr., would incarnate Prince Kharis in The Mummy's Hand (Christy Cabanne, 1940) followed by its sequels The Mummy's Tomb (Harold Young, 1942), The Mummy's Ghost (Reginald Le Borg, 1944) and the same year's The Mummy's Curse (Leslie Goodwins).  These films would entrench the trope of the Mummy as a shambling bandage-clad zombie figure, that hideous strength that could withstand flames and bullets belying his great age and decayed form as he habitually crashed through French windows to carry off the latest negligee-clad incarnation of his lost Luxor love.

Kharis' (or, rather, "Klaris"') contractually mandated comedy encounter in Charles Lamont's lamentable 1955 Abbott and Costello meet the Mummy notwithstanding, it was down to Britain's Hammer Studios to take up the Tana leaves and breathe new life into his old body in time for 1959's The Mummy.  Directed by Terence Fisher, the godfather of Kensington Gore, on the heels of his rejuvenations of Universal's other '30s and '40s horror stalwarts in 1957's The Curse of Frankenstein and 1958's (Horror of) Dracula the film was a fusion-remake (is that a cinematic term?  If not, can i coin it please?) of The Mummy's Hand and The Mummy's Tomb, with the reincarnated princess carried off into the murky depths of the swamp in the strong arms of Kharis (as tall, dark and gruesome as ever in the form of Sir Christopher Lee) lifted from the climax of The Mummy's Ghost.  This Eastmancolour Egyptian outing would be followed up by Hammer not with a straight sequel - as with the Universal cycle - but with an out-of-continuity outing (as Universal's Hand was to their eponymous original) with the delightfully-named Dickie Owen taking on the fuller's earth and bandages in Michael Carreras' 1962 The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb.  Owen would again do his duty awakening to walk the land of Khem in all his strength and... uh... not beauty in John Gilling's 1967 proto-slasher (seriously, it follows all of the beats six years before Bob Clark's Black Christmas and eleven years before John Carpenter's Halloween) The Mummy's Shroud.

Clearly, most of the mileage had been wrung from the crumbling resin-coated bandages of the idea of a walking mummified engine of destruction at this point.  Another Mummy-themed movie would have to take a slightly different tack.  And lo, around 1970, two different people would seize upon Stoker's Jewel of Seven Stars as inspiration.  Getting there first was an instalment of ABC TV's (that's the British ABC - Associated British Corporation  - rather than the American Broadcasting Company) anthology series Mystery and Imagination.  Adapted from the Stoker work by acclaimed critic, author and biographer John Russell Taylor and directed by Guy Verney (helmer of the early 1960s Pathfinder television sci-fi trilogy [comprising Pathfinders in Space, Pathfinders to Mars and Pathfinders to Venus] as well as the only very recently rediscovered early episode of The Avengers 'Tunnel of Fear') this 75-minute condensation was retitled as the rather prosaic Curse of the Mummy and due to the constraints of late 1960s and early 1970s British television was something of a chamber piece, confining all of the action to a few videotaped studio interiors.  Featuring then-star of The Devil Rides Out (Terence Fisher, 1968) and Cry of the Banshee (Gordon Hessler, 1970) and now-regular of Emmerdale Patrick Mower as a square-jawed Malcolm Ross alongside the alluring Isobel Black (The Kiss of the Vampire [Don Sharp, 1963], Twins of Evil [John Hough, 1971]) as the increasingly possessed Margaret Trelawny, it stands as an effective enough transposition of the story to the small screen, but it was soon to be eclipsed as meanwhile, in a Borehamwood not far away Hammer Films were preparing their very own and extraordinary rendition.

A fairly troubled production from the beginning, and described by Hammer historian Marcus Hearn as "an unhappy film beset with tragedy", there is something of the deathly shroud of a curse over the movie that lends it a real life doom-laden quality.  Cast in the role of Professor Fuchs (the character having been renamed from the Cornish Trelawny, perhaps in honour of the noted explorer Vivian Fuchs who legendarily gifted the world the newspaper headline "Fuchs Off Again" when he left on his latest expedition*) was Hammer Horror stalwart Peter Cushing, carrying the baton for Mummy movies after starring as John Banning in the 1959 version.  However, after completing just a day's filming Cushing received the news that his beloved wife Helen had been hospitalised with emphysema and had to leave the set to rush to her side.  The studio's hasty attempts to re-juggle the filming schedule would come to nought as Mrs Cushing was to sadly pass away a week or so later.  Cushing, always devoted to his wife of twenty-eight years, was devastated and said to never recover from her loss.  Andrew Keir (previous star of Hammer's Dracula: Prince of Darkness [Terence Fisher, 1966] and Quatermass and the Pit [Roy Ward Baker, 1967]) was hurriedly cast as a replacement, having to learn the script over a weekend and start shooting on the soundstage on the Monday morning.


The dark 'curse' over the film would be followed up when, towards the end of the penultimate week of the scheduled six-week shoot, director Seth Holt (who had directed previous Hammers Scream of Fear [aka A Taste of Fear, 1961] and The Nanny [1965]) suffered a sudden and fatal heart attack, collapsing into the arms of actor Aubrey Morris.  Michael Carreras would have to step in to direct the final days of production on an exhausted and depressed set.


The film broadly follows the storyline of the original novel, with some embellishments in Christopher Wicking's witty and literate screenplay (such as the character of Malcolm Ross being renamed 'Tod Browning' in honour of the monochrome cinema's trailblazing horror director, and Aubrey Morris' character Dr Putnam sharing has surname with the 1932 Mummy's credited co-writer Nina Wilcox Putnam) - with an expedition to Egypt's 'Valley of the Sorcerer' (a name up there with the Valley of the Tombs of the Scorpion from previous Mummy Tom Tyler's 1941 The Adventures of Captain Marvel) profaning the sealed and name-stricken (her nomenclature, like Imhotep's, being scratched from her cartouche to obliterate her memory for all time) tomb of the priestess of the Dark Side Queen Tera.  The expedition consists of Professor Fuchs (Keir), Corbeck (James Villiers, previously starring in Seth Holt's The Nanny as well as Roman Polanski's 1965 Repulsion), Dandridge (Hugh Burden, the eponymous lead in The Mind of Mr J. G. Reeder [1969-1971]), Berrigan (George Colouris, a long-time collaborator with Orson Welles in his Mercury Theatre productions, appearing as Thatcher in Welles legendary 1941 Citizen Kane) and Dickerson (Rosalie Crutchley, Madame Defarge in Ralph Thomas' 1958 A Tale of Two Cities [a role she reprised in the 1965 BBC TV adaptation] and Mrs Dudley in Robert Wise's 1963 triumph of terror The Haunting).  Opening Tera's tomb at the exact instant that Fuchs' wife back home in London gives birth to their baby daughter Margaret (dying in so doing, and the newborn's heart stopping for an instant, before restarting as the sarcophagous is opened and mortals gaze upon Tera's face for the first time in millennia), the group split the grave goods between them: Berrigan taking a snake idol, Dandridge a jackal's skull and Dickerson a cat idol of the goddess Bast, while Fuchs fuchs off home with the majority of the crypt's contents including the sarcophagous and the mummy itself.  It's unclear exactly what Corbeck gets.  No wonder he's so uppity and pissed-off later.


So Fuchs keeps the embalmed and eternal corpse of an ancient death queen in her coffin in the basement of his London townhouse, raising his daughter who is the spitting image of said queen, as you do.  A totally healthy relationship, that, i'm sure.  Margaret Fuchs (oh i'm sure she does, in the gloriously imperious and sensuously beautiful form of Carry On and James Bond alumnus Valerie Leon) , born with a birthmark across her right wrist - in the place that Tera's hand was posthumously severed - that emos would kill for, finds herself wracked with strange dreams that come from beyond the shadowed veil of night and time that her boyfriend Tod (Australian actor Mark Edwards - who i recognised from an episode of HTV's Arthur of the Britons [1972], doing a good job in a fairly perfunctory role) can't help her with.  After her father gives her a ruby ring (taken from the severed hand of the mummy years before) a an early birthday present, Margaret finds herself drawn in to a strange and tangled web - a conspiracy thousands of years in the making.  Spied upon by the strange and icy Corbeck from a vacant house across the road from her home (the house's "To Let" sign displaying the names of "Neame and Skeggs" as an in-joke reference to production manager Christopher Neame and production supervisor Roy Skeggs), Margaret's dreams are as the coming of the doom of Tera, "She Who Has No Name" as she is slightly pre-Volemortianly termed.  After Fuchs is paralysed for attempting to defy Tera's design, Corbeck contacts Margaret and influences her to go along with the pre-ordained plan - for Tera to reincarnate when the seven stars of the Plough (or the Big Dipper, depending on your side of the ocean, i guess) align correctly with the insignia of the talisman ring.


The film is filled with nice nuances and touches, such as Tod's car being a 1920s-style roadster in keeping with the glorious age of Egyptology (such as Carter's discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb) in contrast to the present-day early 1970s setting - a car in which he meets his demise near the film's end in a crash so poorly shot and edited that one must conclude that it was a part of the hasty pick-up filming by Carreras rather than done during the main shoot by Holt.  There is also much glee to be gleaned by the genre fan from the casting - Hugh Burden and George Colouris having both appeared in Doctor Who (as Channing in 1970's Spearhead from Space and Arbitan in 1964's The Keys of Marinus respectively) and the score being provided by Who audio alumnus Tristram Cary, James Villers and James Cossins from the Eon James Bond franchise (Bill Tanner in For Your Eyes Only [John Glen, 1981] and Calthorpe in The Man with the Golden Gun [Guy Hamilton, 1974] respectively) and David Jackson (Olan Gan from Blakes 7 [1978-1981]) as the young orderly seemingly in the sexual thrall of Cossins' older orderly: a slight kinkster theme that recurs in the appearance of Jonathan Burn's character of 'Saturnine Young Man', the sexually ambiguous fingernail-painted acolyte of the preternaturally divining Ms Dickerson.  Which is nice.


Beyond the mere mortal concepts of Good and Evil, transcending the pale pale cast of mankind's morality, stands Tera - Egyptian accoutrements adorned and imperious.  She will strike, and cure out hearts.

(*Though according to David Marsh this is an urban myth.  Sod him, the spoilsport.)

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for adding this wonderfully researched and interesting post to our blogathon. It's great to hear more about the Mummy movies, as its often Dracula that leads the limelight in horror related posts.

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  2. Thanks for joining our blogathon! I'll second Gill's comments that it's nice to see Hammer's mummy films getting their due, for once. Enjoyable, informative read!

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