Sunday, October 9, 2011

October 6th: The Curse of The Mummy's Tomb (1964)

After three months of hard work, archaeologists Professor Eugene DuBois (Bernard Rebel), John Bray (Ronald Howard), Sir Giles Dalrymple (Jack Gwillin) and Annette DuBois (Jeanne Roland), the professor's daughter, have uncovered the tomb of Ra-Antef (Michael McStay), the Royal Prince of Egypt. According to Egyptian legend, Ra-Antef was exiled by his father, Rameses VIII, due to the treachery of his jealous younger brother Be. Becoming the king of a nomadic tribe in Libya, Ra-Antef planned to return to his homeland to avenge himself, but Be, learning of his plans, has Ra-Antef killed.
Though the dig is a success, the archaeologists are dealt tragedy when Professor DuBois and servant Achmed (Michael Ripper) are murdered by superstitious locals. Egyptian Inspector Hashmi Bey (George Pastell) arrives shortly afterwards to offer Sir Giles £70,000 to display Ra-Antef's tomb in an Egyptian museum. Though Sir Giles is willing to take the offer, the dig's financial backer, American businessman Alexander King (Fred Clark), turns the offer down in favor of taking Ra-Antef and his treasures on tour throughout Europe and the United States. Sir Giles, disgusted by King's willingness to exploit Egyptian legend for monetary reasons, resigns from the expedition and is banned from Egypt, effectively ending his career.
Arriving in London for the first show, Bray and King work around the clock getting everything ready for the opening, while Annette is romanced by the elusive Adam Beauchamp (Terence Morgan) and Giles drinks his sorrows away. When Ra-Antef's mummified corpse (Dickie Owen) disappears during the show, Bray realizes that Ra-Antef has been re-animated to murder those who have desecrated his tomb.
While The Mummy and his horror brethren of Frankenstein's Monster, Dracula and The Wolf Man are best remembered for their appearances in the Universal films of the '30s and '40s, their appearances in the Hammer films of the '50s, '60s and '70s are every bit as beloved by the horror community. With bigger budgets, technicolor and fewer restrictions on censorship, Hammer produced gloriously Gothic films with rich color, sexy dames in short-cut dresses and gruesome gore effects, resulting in such iconic films as Horror of Dracula, The Mummy and Frankenstein Created Woman, many of which starred screen icons Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing and were directed by Terence Fisher, the godfather of Gothic horror.
The Mummy, from 1959, remains the definitive Mummy movie, far superior to the boorish, slow-moving Boris Karloff iteration from 1932 and the action-packed blockbuster with Brendan Fraser as an Indiana Jones wannabe. All three men, fresh off the success of The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula, were at the top of their game, with Fisher delivering a gorgeous, stylish production, Cushing giving one of his best performances as the dashing John Banning and Christopher Lee was appropriately imposing as Kharis.
Unlike the sequels to The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula, Lee, Cushing and Fisher had nothing to do with The Curse of The Mummy's Tomb. In Fisher's place, Michael Carreras, the son of Hammer co-founder James Carreras and producer of many of Hammer's best known films, stepped in as writer and director with a cast and crew that, save for actors Michael Ripper, George Pastell and production designer Bernard Robinson, were new to the world of Hammer Horror. While it's easy to immediately dismiss the film as nothing more than the studio head giving his son an ego boost by putting him in the director's seat, Michael Carreras has some real talent as a writer and director and The Curse of The Mummy's Tomb, surprisingly, turns out much better than expected.
From a screenwriting perspective, Carreras takes a page from Universal's Mummy movies in that, like The Mummy's Hand, The Curse of The Mummy's Tomb bears no connection to its predecessor, other than the same basic concept of a team of archaeologists digging up a Mummy that comes back to life. Furthermore, Carreras wisely avoids the usual stereotypes of Mummy movies; Ra-Antef's origin of betrayal and righteousness is unique from any other Mummy movie, some of the cliches typical of these movies are turned on their head and the common theme of reincarnation, present in virtually any other version of this story, is nowhere to be seen. That's not to say this film is completely unique; the Mummy is still a guy wrapped from head to toe in bandages hunting down those who desecrated his tomb by opening it and most of the character types are very familiar, but what is different gives Carreras' film a touch of class, setting it apart from Fisher's film.
That's not to say The Curse of The Mummy's Tomb is equal to The Mummy. Indeed, the sequel sees a notable fall in quality from what Terence Fisher did. The film's biggest problem is its pacing; Fisher is great at moving a story along. When you look at films like Horror of Dracula, Dracula: Prince of Darkness and Frankenstein Created Woman, Fisher sets up his story, characters and conflict within the first 15 minutes, giving plenty of time for the rest of the film to build atmosphere and let his actors fully develop their roles and storylines. In Carreras' case, he starts off with the dig already complete; he robs the audience of seeing the archaeologists at work and develop, making it harder to connect with them as the film progresses.
To be fair, Carreras' writing isn't solely to blame for this; his lead actors aren't exactly A-level. In the lead role is Ronald Howard, best known for playing Sherlock Holmes in the 1950s, a role that Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee played in later years. To put it mildly, Howard is no Cushing. Emotionless and distant for much of the film, Howard isn't necessarily terrible; he just fails to leave an impression and, save from doing some sleuth work, never gets his chance to be heroic and dashing.
Jeanne Roland and Jack Gwillim don't do much better in their roles, either. Roland isn't anything special as Annette; she lacks the requisite presence needed for this kind of role, although she's attractive enough to understand why both Bray and Beauchamp vie for her affections. Gwillim is a respected stage actor and appeared in such films as Lawrence of Arabia, A Man For All Seasons and Sink The Bismarck!. Suffice it to say, this isn't exactly his type of film and he doesn't look particularly pleased to be here. Given his resume, Gwillim should be able to convey a sense of gravitas and weight but just stumbles around and mumbles out his dialogue.
Fortunately, the supporting cast is decidedly stronger. In the role of American promoter Alexander King, Fred Clark brings some much-needed charisma to the film; King is a colorful character who, despite being responsible for Ra-Antef's resurrection, is incredibly charming and funny. George Pastell, who played Mehemet Bay in The Mummy, is the only returning actor, albeit in an unrelated role as Hashmi Bey and it is he who gives The Curse of The Mummy's Tomb its gravitas and weight. Best of all, however, is Terence Morgan, TV's Sir Francis Drake. As the elusive Adam Beauchamp, Morgan delivers a compelling mix of charm and mystery, making the audience both enjoy his presence and distrust his interest in Ra-Antef.
Speaking of Ra-Antef, it's time to discuss how Dickie Owen does as the titular character. Without question, Christopher Lee's performance as Kharis in The Mummy was downright creepy. Despite being covered head to toe in bandages and latex, Lee brought a surprising amount of intensity to the role, using his distinctive eyes and imposing presence to great effect. Even taking into account the fact that this is a different Mummy, it's hard not to compare Owen and Lee and Owen comes up a bit short. Though tall, Owen doesn't exactly have a skeletal build; his protruding stomach is downright distracting, as are his arms, stretched out on his side at all times. By the way, didn't he have his left hand cut off!? Dickie Owen is by no means a terrible Mummy; he gets the job done and his kills are surprisingly vicious, but one can't help wonder how much better Ra-Antef would've been if it was Christopher Lee.
Perfectly watchable and entertaining throughout, The Curse of The Mummy's Tomb achieves greatness in its climax, primarily due to revelations about Adam Beauchamp. When first introduced, it is clear that Beauchamp has ulterior motives behind his interest in Ra-Antef; he acts as if he knows more than he says and becomes frustrated with the archaeologists' mistaken beliefs regarding the legend.. Go ahead and try to figure out what Beauchamp's role is in the story, but regardless of whether its predictable or not, one can't help but appreciate the novelty of this character. It brings a real weight to the story and makes the climax much more gripping, now that you're no longer sure whether to fear or pity Beauchamp and Ra-Antef.
I give The Curse of The Mummy's Tomb 3.5 out of 5 Stars. As hard as it tries, this film just can't live up to Terence Fisher's definitive interpretation. The main cast is just uninteresting, the tension is missing for most of the film and the Mummy makeup leaves a lot to be desired. Fortunately, Carreras pulls it off, thanks to his stylish directing and, more importantly, his effective script, which puts some clever twists on the subject matter and creates a Mummy legend very unique. This, aided by impressive set design, commanding performances by Clark, Pastell and Morgan and an intense climax, makes this one of the better Mummy movies around.

Next Up: October 7th: Night of The Demons 2 (1994)

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