(This is part three of a series about the man, the myth, the legend–the Mummy. Part one is here, or follow the “gods and monsters” tag to see all the installments. Information was sourced from a variety of books, articles, films, and museum resources, but all opinions and conclusions are my own. Enjoy!)
III — Hammered to Death
Consider the history of ancient Egypt. The Old Kingdom crumbled slowly, dying under the weight of dynastic infighting and the drastic cost of the pyramids. It suffered a death by stagnation. In contrast, the rising Middle Kingdom was a short but sharp period of innovation and expansion, rising swiftly and accomplishing great things before, like the previous age, beginning to decay. With the death of the queen Sobekneferu, who ruled for just four years, the Middle Kingdom began to die too.
When Abbott and Costello mocked the established formula in 1955, the old, black-and-white mummy was officially as dead as the Old Kingdom. Now Hammer attempted to change the script. Three films would follow their 1959 effort: The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964), The Mummy’s Shroud (1967), and Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971).
This was an unusual period of innovation in Mummy films. While the 1959 entry essentially served as a remix of the previous established plots, the three following films would each feature unique Mummies with differing backstories, none of whom had ever appeared before—or have reappeared since.
In The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb, the Mummy is Ra-Antef (Dickie Owen). Ra-Antef represents the first major departure from the mummy formula: he was not himself cursed, and is never depicted as anything less but a decent and intelligent person when he was alive. He died not because he defied the gods or the pharaoh, but because he was murdered by his jealous brother Be. Now, as a reanimated mummy in the early 1900s, Ra-Antef is driven by the generalized “curse of the pharaohs” to kill those that desecrated his tomb.
But there’s a twist. A second curse was laid on the brother who killed him—to live forever until killed by Ra-Antef! A curse that naturally cannot be fulfilled, thanks to Ra-Antef already being dead when it was cast. A bit of a pickle.
Thus, once his tomb is discovered, Ra-Antef is reanimated by his own immortal brother with the sacred “words of life” and given a dual purpose. The curse of the pharaohs demands that Ra-Antef kill those who violated his tomb; his brother, however, wants Ra-Antef to kill him too. Immortality, it seems, has lost its spark for Be.
This film is noteworthy for not only being the first true break from the previously established lost-love formula, but also the first case of a Mummy who is completely blameless. Ra-Antef committed no sacrilege or murders, and didn’t even do anything to cause his own death: he is entirely a victim and tool of those around him. The true motivation behind the plot is his brother (now living under the name of Adam Beauchamp, played by the wonderfully energetic Terence Morgan), who finds eternal life intolerable:
“Life without end is the only pain I can no longer bear. Oh, my darling, don’t be frightened of death. Welcome it as a release from the torture and torment that is called life.”
Most of the remaining moral subtleties inherent in a Mummy film are not present. The discoverers of the tomb are not culpable in Ra-Antef’s reanimation and therefore shoulder no blame for his killings, while Ra-Antef himself is guided by the curse and essentially unleashed by Beauchamp. All the deaths, including the Mummy’s own origin, thus fall squarely on Beauchamp. Even the curse of the pharaohs, which is implied to affect all royal mummies, had no power until Beauchamp reanimated Ra-Antef for his own reasons.
Thus, while breaking from the lost-love plot, Ra-Antef’s story continues the trope of having the Mummy be the tool of a High Priest character. Be/Beauchamp, who has lived forever and knows all the ancient magics, can use Ra-Antef for his own purposes before finally committing suicide by mummy.
Hammer expanded on this new idea of the blameless monster with 1967’s The Mummy’s Shroud. Here, there are two mummies, but only one Mummy—Prem, an adult slave of the young prince Kah-to-bey, who set himself to protect the prince in both life and death. When an expedition uncovers Kah-to-bey’s hidden tomb, the tomb guardian (a fellahin named Hasmid, here playing the role of our High Priest character) awakens the mummy of Prem to seek revenge for the desecration.
Prem represents a few firsts in the annals of mummy films. First, he is almost entirely emotionless: while previous actors had done what they could with the role and conveyed emotions through their eyes and gestures, Prem is expressionless, almost doll-like with his blank face and lack of concern for his victims. Lon Chaney Jr. clutched his chest as if his heart ached; Christopher Lee used his skeletal thinness and expressive eyes to show Kharis’s suffering; but Dickie Owen as Prem is both relatively smooth-moving yet mechanically uncaring. If we hadn’t had the prologue detailing Prem’s undying devotion and love for his young master, he would seem like a characterless robot. But knowing who he was and why he acts this way, he becomes a monster born of loyalty.
Prem also breaks from previous mummy practice by taking opportunistic kills. He moves more quickly than the dragging Kharis and seems to enjoy his work: in a brawl in a photographer’s studio, he bashes the photographer to the floor and then, holding a bottle of acid up like the chalice at at Christian communion, breaks it over his unfortunate victim. Another man is muffled in his own bedclothes and flung through a window, to an ignominious death in a horse-trough on the street below.
Finally, Prem is the first Mummy to give us what we now consider a standard of the genre—the creature’s death not by mortal means, but by Egyptian magic under the control of the protagonists. The closest precedent would be Imhotep in 1932, who was struck down by the goddess Isis herself; all mummies that followed were burned, sunk in swamps, or buried in collapsing buildings. But in The Mummy’s Shroud, as Prem seeks to kill hero Paul Preston, his lady love Claire de Sangre reads the sacred “words of death” from the titular shroud. In an eerie stop-motion animated shot, Prem tears himself apart and crumbles to pieces.
Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971) broke another barrier by featuring the first female Mummy, Tera. Unlike previous mummies, Tera was depicted not as withered and wrapped in bandages, but seemingly in suspended animation in her coffin—a result, perhaps, of having the lovely Valerie Leon in the dual role of Tera and heroine Margaret Fuchs.
However, Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb is chiefly notable for not really being a classic mummy movie at all. While the themes of tomb violation and ancient curses remain, the story is actually a throwback to the Egyptian Gothic novels of the 19th and early 20th centuries—being based on the Bram Stoker novel The Jewel of Seven Stars, and bearing a suspicious resemblance to H. Rider Haggard’s She. Though an ancient Egyptian sorceress-queen, Tera’s powers are more closely connected to astrology than the old gods, and her seductive nature suggests the classic image of the Circe-like enchantress.
Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb was not a great success. Its first director died midway through production, and the new director’s differing take on the project is obvious during a viewing: the story is meandering and the stakes are unclear. Today, Blood is largely forgotten. Perhaps the premise simply couldn’t grab audiences: The Awakening, a 1980 film also based on The Jewel of Seven Stars and released by Warner Bros., was a box-office disappointment.
The Hammer period of innovation had, like the Middle Kingdom, ended with a decline and a disappointing queen. It would be almost thirty years before the Mummy returned to prominence.