Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb

It’s nearly Christmas, so let us think of those less fortunate than us: specifically, the Mummy.  Even before this summer’s Tom Cruise-led flop, ol’ bandage face had a chequered screen history.  The 1932 Universal feature had Boris Karloff in front of the camera, Karl Freund behind and a certain topicality (Tutankhamun’s tomb had been excavated just ten years prior) but it’s the only Universal Monsters movie that never got a direct sequel, with the studio choosing instead to make a series of unconnected mummy movies without the characters from Freund’s film.  It was left out of Universal’s previous attempts at relaunching its monster franchise (2004’s Van Helsing, 2010’s The Wolfman and 2014’s Dracula Untold), relegated instead to an admittedly profitable family adventure franchise starring Brendan Fraser.

For a mummy movie with actual horror chops, you have to turn to the Blind Dead films of Amando de Ossorio, or Hammer studios.  What is it about the Hammer movies?  Studiocanal’s current series of Blu-Rays has made part of the answer clear; they look terrific, and Hammer’s tremendous cinematographers make the monster more imposing than ever.  It’s perverse that, having cracked the secret of how to make a tall man wearing bandages menacing, the best Hammer mummy movie should eschew this image completely.  And yet, despite a name that sounds like a euphemism for menstruation, 1971’s Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb tears up all of the mummy-movie rules, and does so triumphantly.

Unlike the other, rather more generically plotted, Hammer mummy movies, Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb has a fine story drawn from Bram Stoker’s 1903 novel The Jewel of Seven Stars.  After the success of Dracula, Stoker turned to his lifelong fascination with Egyptology for a follow-up, though as with his vampire novel the true subject matter is in the subtext.  Stoker’s novel is shot through with an unease about the first wave of feminism, but it also acknowledges the justness of their complaints.  Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb begins by showing the primal horror that underpins Stoker’s story; the drugging, mutilation and murder of the fictional Queen Tera by her high priests.

Tera’s hand is severed and thrown to jackals, and when Andrew Keir’s Julian Fuchs uncovers her miraculously-preserved body the stump begins pumping out blood.  The effect is dated but still impressively repulsive, as are the torn-out throats that ensue as Tera’s spirit begins reasserting itself in the real world.  As a comparatively late entry into the Hammer cycle, the gore and sex are pushed to the foreground, the latter in the form of Valerie Leon in a dual role as Tera and Fuchs’s innocent daughter Margaret.

Leon might be the only performer to appear in the three key franchises of mid-20th century British cinema: Carry On, Bond and Hammer.  Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb asks her to play the two archetypal female roles in horror; the Final Girl and the sadistic villainess.  She’s clearly having the time of her life, as are most of the rest of the cast.  The acting is definitely not naturalistic but it’s all on the same level of artificiality, which makes it easy to accept.  Special mention has to go to James Cossins and David Jackson as two asylum nurses, who bicker camply and sneer at their patients like they’re in a lost League of Gentlemen sketch.

The visually striking asylum scenes, with their subjective, swooping camera angles, were shot by an uncredited Michael Carreras, who took over as director after Seth Holt died in the final week of filming.  It was the last and most serious incident in a wave of misfortunes that began when Peter Cushing had to relinquish the role of Fuchs because of his wife’s illness.  Marcus Hearn’s featurette speculates on how the film would have turned out had Holt lived, pointing to a strangely shot car crash as being clearly unfinished.  Maybe – but it also bears a strong visual resemblance to the supernatural death of the high priests at the beginning.  Did Holt want us to see Tera at work in this apparent accident, or is it just a pleasing ambiguity caused by the film’s chaotic production?

The fact that you can argue about this kind of thing at all signals that Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb is a cut above the simpler pleasures of the other Hammer mummy films.  From its cosmic opening (set to music by Tristram Cary, who had previously scored the first Dalek episodes of Doctor Who) to its unforgettable take on Stoker’s twist ending, it’s smarter, nastier, classier and weirder than its predecessors.  It brings together all the disparate methods Hammer used to scare audiences – the psychological horror of the asylum, the occult horror of Tera’s reincarnation, the sadistic-erotic horror in Leon’s performance as Tera – into one deliciously stylish melodrama.

BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB IS OUT NOW FROM STUDIOCANAL

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