Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Walk Like An Egyptian

Mummy movies, if you'll pardon the expression, seem like they're cursed. Is there a horror sub-genre with a worse ratio of good movies to misfires? I can't think of one. Hammer films was victimized more than most by this. They made a conditional success with their first mummy movie, and then made a complete hash of it with subsequent entries. The last of these was Blood From the Mummy's Tomb (1971, directed by Seth Holt), which seems like it was cursed (if you'll pardon the expression) from the start. It was originally set to star Peter Cushing, who bowed out when his wife died, and then its director, Seth Holt, died before finishing the film. The film was finished by an uncredited Michael Carreras with Andrew Keir in the role intended for Cushing. For all that, it could have been a lot worse. Blood From the Mummy's Tomb, it turns out, is a mummy movie without a mummy.

This is a typically cheap Hammer production from the studio's dotage. They've eschewed an expensive period setting this time out, resetting Bram Stoker's Jewel of the Seven Stars in a contemporary (in 1971) London. The story finds the ka of the long dead Egyptian princess, Tera, guiding the hand of a team of archaeologists as she attempts to resurrect herself. The object of her plan is Margaret Fuchs, daughter of Dr. Julian Fuchs, head of the expedition. Margaret was born at the exact moment Tera's tomb was opened and she's a dead ringer for Tera. This is obvious to the team, given that Tera has been perfectly preserved over the millennia, undecayed and only absent a hand that the priests lopped off when they assassinated her. Tera, it seems, was a mistress of dark arts. As an adult, Margaret feels Tera's pull, and is at the center of a string of ghastly deaths as Tera attempts to assemble the paraphernalia she needs to complete her resurrection. The members of Dr. Fuchs's team are dying one by one. The exception to this is the venal Dr. Corbeck, who is hastening Tera's return. He hopes to control her. Tera may have other ideas, though...

This movie is pretty up front about what it's about: It's an ode to star Valerie Leon's cleavage. Leon plays the dual role of Margaret and Tera, and both of them figure in the film's prologue, where her principle assets are emphasized from the start. Mind you, Leon is absolutely spectacular along these lines and this film puts her into terrific fashions when it isn't having her wander through the film in very low cut gauzy nightgowns.

This film is also one of the first really in-joke-laden post modern horror movies. Margaret has a boyfriend, for instance, whose name is Tod Browning, while other signs point to members of Hammer's stock company and behind the scenes personnel. None of this really serves the movie.

As far as horror goes, there are a lot of deaths in this movie, but not really much variety. If ever a movie cried out for the themed deaths of the Dr. Phibes movies, this is one of them. Instead, all of the victims in this movie suffer the same kind of injury to the throat, though it's red and bleeding in most cases as Hammer tried to come to grips with the new graphic violence of the 1970s horror movie. This is even more true in the scenes involving Tera's severed hand, including the scene in which it is lopped off and fed to the jackals. This has a surprisingly nihilistic ending, too, given that Hammer films are usually fairly conservative when it comes to right and good winning out. In this film, everyone of any consequence dies except Margaret or Tera. Which is which is a question the movie leaves to the viewer as it rolls the credits. It's a nice touch, actually, one that tends to subvert the usual Hammer pearl-clutching about how a woman's sexual awakening is the prelude to the apocalypse. There's some of that here--the mind-controlled Margaret is another version of one of Hammer's vampire wantons--but Margaret is shown to have a perfectly healthy sex life before this happens, so it's a mixed signal.

Also somewhat muddied is the xenophobia at the heart of Hammer's mummy movies. These are movies that bear the burden of empire and reap the revenge of the colonized natives. Perhaps a sign that the staunchly imperial worldview of Hammer had resigned itself to Britain's lost empire, the primacy of British colonial patriarchy is not victorious in the end here.

In any event, it's an interesting film. I wish it were better than it is. It's too well-lit, for a start, which is painfully obvious in the film's best sequence, a freakout at a sanatorium. It also raises interesting erotic possibilities that it probably shouldn't have, including some weird necrophiliac subtext between Dr. Fuchs and the sleeping, undead Tera, because it's totally unwilling to actually go there even as it makes suggestions in the audiences' head.

Current tally: 13 film

First time viewings: 11

From Around the Web

DeAnna at All Things Perfect and Poisonous tastes some Raw Meat and finds it yummy.

The Rev. Anna Dynamite returns with a passle of reviews, and relates a funny story about your humble bloginatrix herself involving Mario Bava's The Whip and the Body. Boy is my face red.

Eric over at Expelled Grey Matter stays in high school for Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II.

Tim over at The Other Side plunges into lesbian vampires, Jean Rollin-style, with The Shiver of the Vampires.


Lokke said...

Of the dozens of mummy films I've seen, I can only recommend two: The original, the best, The Mummy.... and the fun and zany 1970s Horror Express.

Brian said...

Great title for a lethargic, forgettable movie. Chuck Heston's The Awakening, based on the same Bram Stoker novel (Jewel of the Seven Stars), is dismal in its own way (but at least there was no false advertising in the title).

Osiris help me, but I still have a soft spot (apparently in the head) for the Universal Mummies of the '40s, especially for the parade of great character actors they featured: Wally Ford, George Zucco, Turhan Bey, John Carradine, and company.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Brian,

Yeah. It's about middling early seventies Hammer, which means that it's pretty forgettable. I've seen The Awakening and thought about mentioning it, but my memory of it is hazy at best (I saw it on HBO sometime in 1981 and never since). I thought it best to leave that sleeping dog to lie.

I remember watching all Universal's mummy sequels on Saturday afternoons as a kid but I haven't seen them since. I thought Hammer missed an opportunity by naming their undead princess "Tera" instead of "Tana." I mean, they're indulging in other in-jokes, so why not, eh?