Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

I know why the entombed mummy sings...

In the late 50's-early 70's there was a deluge of marvelously British horror films from Hammer Studios, you probably already know that. But did you know their 1959 MUMMY secretly rules? While they sucked on UHF TV with their washed out prints and bad editing and pan and scanning, they look damned great on DVD. Being British and smart as paint the filmmakers often enriched these pics with colonial and class issue subtext, including a sub-subtext linking buxom beauty co-stars with pre-Christian paganism? Jolly brave and true of this upstart little studio, and damned British. When I read the words Pinewood Studios in end credits now I get all tingly... be it early James Bond, The Avengers, or lovely Hammer.

Many of the Hammer films have aged well; maybe it's that the DVD spit and polish really brings out the deep reds, maybe it's the pre-Christian roots and rigid class system creating far more sparks than would similar situations in the States; Britain's longer history of international third world exploiting and economic inequality makes their horror films--which after all deal with the 'return of the repressed'--- so much more "rich" than ours of the same period. For weird old America we have Edgar Allen Poe ("the divine Edgar") and maybe Ambrose Bierce and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and then we run into a wall. But England has a whole Victorian era to plunder; the monsters generally come from the wealthy class, and the peasant girls are the first to get it, the nobility last to be suspected and by far the most decadent. Hammer horrors invariably include a cozy tavern scene full of comic relief hypocrite doctors and priests, agitated innkeepers who won't let their daughters divulge information ("Hush up, girl!"), witnesses who no one believes because they're tipplers, and a cowardly populace who bar their door at night.

But the one I want to single out as exemplary in its completely Britishness and gutsy approach to monsterness is Hammer's THE MUMMY (1959), expanded from the 1932 original to include the Victorian equivalent of a Middle Eastern terrorist, an Egyptian Egyptologist (the nerve!) named Mehemet Bay (George Pastell) who dares suggest that ancient burial relics should stay where they are, undisturbed, or the very least stay in Egypt and not become mere curiosities for the swaths of unwashed gawkers at the British Museum. How dare this fez-wearing heathen even suggest such a thing?! But the even-keeled screenplay lets this Mehemet Bay off with plenty of sympathy; he even prays to Karnak, the god of said mummy, to release said mummy's spirit at the end of his vengeance spree. And his house is pretty nice-looking. I'd rather live there than in Cushing's wearily formal mansion. The two actors play well of each other, and their climactic battle of wits--- with Cushing blithely baiting the Egyptian into a confession by dismissing Karnak as a second-rate deity-- is truly a unique sociologically ambiguous moment in horror.

Of course it's not perfect, unless you believe Brits have way too much faith in guns over supernatural juggernauts. Every night he gets a visit from a seven foot-tall mummy who smashes doors apart and barges through rooms like a freight train, and--even after two shots from his revolver did nothing the night before-- Cushing's sure his shotgun will do the trick. What saved him the night before was the late inning presence of his worried wife, as usual the spittin' image of the mummy's dead love. And of course, Cushing insists on sending her away during the mummy attacks, so she'll be "safe." Ah so brave! So blind. So British.

Feminist-wise the film fares little better: the beautiful, cat-eyed Yvonne Furneaux (Carole's sister in REPULSION,  Marcello's clingy girlfriend in LA DOLCE VITA) is the 'living image' of the dead high priestess, the point where if Cushing had a brain he'd just ask his wife to tell the mummy to go back and kill Mehemet. Instead, even after she saves her fey and disinterested husband's life once already, Cushing sends her upstairs, "like a good little girl." Even more brainlessly, at the climax, he has her wait out in the bushes with the inspector so "she'll be safe." And of course, the cops stationed outside fall like dominoes and she's spirited off, as we all know she must. Then again, we don't watch these films to see how to smartly deal with the undead, we watch them to see heavy-breathing beauties walk down dark corridors in their foxy Victorian era negligees, and then get carried into bogs by lovesick corpses.

And man, what a girl. Slim old Peter Cushing looks like he'd be crushed in the sack with her, frankly - she's like twice his weight in this film, and he seems to be implying his characters' secretly queer by the way in which he coldly dismisses her affection; he'd much rather wrestle with a manly mummy! Oh those lads of British theater! Christopher Lee is great as the bandaged (and in flashback unbandaged) high priest, getting to use only his expressive eyes and lumbering gait; you can feel all the horror and anger of being entombed alive for centuries in his sad, lovelorn expression. Hey, if I had been buried all those centuries, I'd try to carry Yvonne Furneaux off to my swampy lair too. If I was unable to speak my love (since the cats back in my home epoch cut out my tongue) or write her sonnets (since my heiroglyphic-writing hand was paralyzed) I'd have to demonstrate it in other ways, like obeying her commands with a shambling wordless courtesy.

I love Cushing! I love this mummy more than all the Universal sequels to the Karl Freund original combined. Which says exactly nothing. Is there anyone in monster fandom who loves the mummy over other monsters? Who is like a 'mummy' fan? To me, the mummy is right at the level of the Wolfman, who leaves me kind of nonplussed, though WEREWOLF OF LONDON has great atmosphere. I love DRACULA (1931) the most, and the Hammer vampire films--with a few tedious exceptions--are my favorites. Still, Hammer's MUMMY is a mummy to be reckoned with, a juggernaut that wastes little time in moving from the door to your throat. Even the lengthy flashback to Egypt is creepy, with long ceremonies of death, death and more death, the strange props that make it associatively linked with Kenneth Anger's unforgettable LUCIFER RISING (1972).

And lastly, one can't ignore the vein of rich critique to be found in exploring the fey way Brits claim Egyptology as their own little playground in these films, seeing Egyptians themselves as having little to no right to their own artifacts, and also even after it's clear Karnak is a badass god who can help mummies live through untold centuries, he's still considered a pagan superstition compared to the god of these fey British scientists, and Mehemet Bey's way cooler and sexier than Cushing in the film. (coming off the best, actually is the American accented Eddie Byrne as the inspector). When the white patriarchal reps see this giant mummy resist bullets and crush larynxes with ease, they still refuse to believe in him, even when he walks off with their girl! I root for the mummy every time! Go mummy! This time you shall be free, shall be free. Even if freedom means a mucky swamp grave, there to float and dream until Jimmy Sangster writes you into life once more. Kharis, you magnificent bastard, I read your scroll!

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