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Kharis & Ananka: The First Tragic Love Story

Hammer’s The Mummy

(#1 in The Month of Hammer Horror)

by Tony Nash

(Mild Spoilers will be present)

(All opinions are of the author alone)

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The Mummy (1959) *****

Peter Cushing: John Banning

Christopher Lee: High Priest Kharis/The Mummy

Yvonne Ferneaux: Isobel Banning/Princess Ananka

Eddie Byrne: Inspector Mulrooney

George Pastell: Mehemet Bey/Akir

Felix Aylmer: Stephen Banning

Raymond Huntley: Joseph Whemple

Michael Ripper: The Poacher

Written by: Jimmy Sangster

Directed by: Terence Fisher

Synopsis: After father and son archeologists Stephen and John Banning, along with relative Joseph Whemple, open the tomb of Egyptian Priestess Princess Ananka, cult devotee Mehemet Bey vows revenge for the desecration. When his father is institutionalized after going mad and then murdered, John begins to suspect something strange is afoot. When Bey suddenly moves to England with a strange case, the mystery deepens. The story of a High Priest buried alive for his blasphemous love of the Princess figures into events.

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The last of Hammer’s inductee remakes of classic Universal Monster movies might have the least in blood and darkness, but is exceptional on story and character. Remade from the first two sequels to the Boris Karloff original, audiences are treated to well meaning historians and archeologists, highly devoted cultists, and reincarnated royalty. The main difference between the early Universal sequels and Hammer’s first installment is that Hammer’s Mummy is an otherwise good man who made one bad decision and never really loses his humanity. Most of the Universal Mummies were either bad right from the start or were more or less mindless drones ordered about by cult devotees. That this Mummy is able to maintain an essence of free will and mind makes him a far more interesting character. This aspect plays a very important role in the film. That the hero recognizes early on that something about the tomb excavation has an air of evil to it, knowing in some way something will be following. That the main focus is on the love story end of the plot adds a bit of Dark Romance that helps the film move along well and the route the characters must travel to reach the end. The film takes on more of a Fantasy/Thriller feel rather than a Horror feel in that while there are some jump scares, there’s nothing overtly brooding or atmospheric that would give it that sense, which aids the film in being something different.

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An interesting historical inaccuracy in most Mummy films, this one in particular, is the subject of reincarnation. In reality, the Ancient Egyptians didn’t believe in the notion of reincarnation, for them once a person died, they went to the afterlife and that was that. It has so far never been proven in any of their surviving parchments and hieroglyphs that the Ancients took reincarnation seriously. Now this isn’t to say screenwriters and directors were ignorant while doing their research into the subjects they were talking about,  but it does seem a little odd they would continually work in that aspect to other films. Generally this notion is seen as Romantic and a good plot device for the Mummy’s downfall as the love he died for will once again return him to the afterlife, hence a more interesting storyline and conclusion for the audience.

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Peter Cushing, one of the two leading faces of both Hammer Horror and Amicus Horror, shines in one of his few Romantic leads as John Banning. Cushing plays Banning with his usual elegance and charm, adding in a layer of skepticism his other characters didn’t have, normally taking on their missions with the notion what their encountering is real. A man brought up to believe in what he sees and hears, Banning is initially skeptical about his father having raised a mummy from the dead. It’s only when he learns his father has been killed from the otherwise safe haven of a mental hospital that he begins to believe there’s a connection between it and the opening of Princess Ananka’s tomb. Relying on his education that every mythology and lore has a vein of truth in it, Banning begins to realize there may very well have been a High Priest who loved the Princess and by attempting to raise her from the dead lead to his punishment of being mummified alive. Having Cushing go from skeptic to believer was a really interesting choice for the director and screenwriter as most archeologists take the legends of the cultures whom they research and rediscover with a grain of credibility as the truth is often stranger than fiction. While there’s nothing too complex about Cushing’s character, he does play him as an ordinary man who suddenly finds himself in an extraordinary situation and does his best to come out of the situation alive, which is just as interesting as a complex character.

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Christopher Lee, the 2nd leading face of Hammer Horror and Amicus Horror, who, along with Lon Chaney Jr., has the distinction of playing most of Universal and literature’s greatest monsters. Lee is at his best in the role of Kharis/The Mummy, played with a rare form of pain and pathos. Unlike most mummies, Kharis had in life been a good man and devoted to his ruler and god, but his love for Princess Ananka, which was forbidden as Ananka was a Priestess of the god Karnack and a Vestal Virgin, and such a love would be tantamount to treason and suicide. Kharis’ love led to the most tragic, fatal mistake any man or woman could make, and he willingly pays the ultimate penalty. In spite of being mummified and dead for over 2,000 years, Kharis has managed to maintain a level of his human self, very much aware of where he his, how long it has been, and what destiny/prophesy have etched for him. Because he hasn’t forgotten who he his and what he was about, Kharis maintains his tragic stance as his memories will lead to the downfall of the cult’s stance of revenge. Lee, whose monster roles were usually evil until the last, does his best as a figure who can gain audience sympathy as this particular character has only ended up in his situation for being human.

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George Pastell, a Mediterranean-Naturalized British actor, who specialized in ethnic roles, is the prime definition of villainy in the role of Mehemet Bey. A religious Zealot through and through, Bey is depicted as a man who’d do anything, regardless of consequence, to avenge the blasphemy done to the god he worships. Single minded in what he believes he has to do, Bey spends the better part of almost five years preparing and making ready the vengeance his god demands against those labeled unbelievers. Unlike other devotee’s played by noted character players like John Carradine, George Zucco, and Turhan Bey, Pastell’s character is completely unwavering in his duties, which leads to his own undoing as he forgets a golden role of the past ages. Having this sort of devotion makes Bey a more realistic character and gives better depth to the level of his villainy. Pastell’s use of his voice and facial expressions, convey well the dedication the character has for his cult and the god at the center of it.

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Only three sequels came about from this film, in part due to Lee’s reluctance to continue playing the Mummy. The make-up had been difficult for Lee to move about in and he had severely injured his back after picking up actress Yvonne Ferneaux, the injury already bothering him after being hit by the prop bullets. The prop bullets also caused severe burns that caused Lee to miss a few days of shooting to heal up. The upside to the make-up was that it made the Mummy very realistic and showed how it would’ve probably moved around.

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While some have called this the weakest of the Hammer Universal adaptations, the film does well in conveying a truly tragic love story that never got to reach a full on conclusion. The characters might be one-dimensional and only have the simplest of back-stories, but they still come off as real and the audience is able to care about them. The story might have some plot holes and inconsistencies, but it still moves along very well and doesn’t feel like it’s too far out and not believable. Since it worked more of an atmosphere instead of relying on violence and gore, most viewers tend to dismiss this film as average, but in reality works very well. An underrated film that deserves more attention that it’s been getting.

(This is my all time favorite Horror film and my all time favorite Hammer film and comes recommended all the way. It’s not perfect, but it hits all the right notes, has great performances, good and steady pacing, and great atmosphere. Christopher Lee gives one of his most underrated performances and proves you sometimes only need eyes and brief facial expressions to tell what a character is thinking. The UK Blu Ray offers the best quality and extras for fans and the US release is good in both transfer and audio for people on a budget.)

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