Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Mummy’s Shroud (1967)

Dir : John Gilling

1920, an archaeological expedition led by Sir Basil Walden (André Morell, "Plague of the Zombies") discovers, after much hardship, the supposedly cursed tomb of the ancient Egyptian child prince Kah-to-Bey.
Returning with their discovery, they find that the expedition's arrogant, pompous and scheming backer Stanley Preston (John Phillips, "Village of the Damned") is taking all the glory for himself as he plays up his role in finding the tomb to the press, as his long suffering Wife Barbara (Elizabeth Sellars) and his scolded press officer Longbarrow (Michael Ripper) flail along in his wake.

When the ill Sir Basil is suddenly carted off to the local Asylum due to a supposed breakdown, Preston's son, Paul (David Buck) wonders how involved his Father was in getting his rival certified, but soon he and the other members of the expedition, Claire (Maggie Kimberly), who seems to have psychic feelings of doom, and Harry (Tim Barret, "The Deadly Bees") have greater things to worry about as it seems the curse that was cast on anyone who enters Kah-to-Bey's tomb seems to be coming true, as the boy Prince's mummified protector (Eddie Powell, Christopher Lee's regular stunt double) starts to hunt down the desecrators......

“The Mummy’s Shroud” was famously (or infamously) the last film to be shot by 'Hammer' at their Bray Studio home. It’s also a film that starts off deceptively poor in many ways.

The needlessly long (7 minutes!) pre-credits flashback sequence about Kah-to-Bey gives us far too much unnecessary background story (reportedly narrated by Peter Cushing, though I'm not so sure) and sports Egyptian sets that can certainly be described as fun if not remotely convincing (let alone authentic) and which are decorated with supposedly ancient artefacts that look like they were made the day before shooting commenced.
Add in the fact that most of the Egyptians are played by podgy white guys with 'instant tan' smeared on and things do not look good.

The inclusion of the highly eccentric ‘Tomb Keeper‘, Hasmid (the original "Dr Who" 'Master' himself, Roger Delgado) ,who springs out of the darkness in full black- face make-up, rants a lot of (supposedly) Egyptian curses with an English accent before scuttling off like something from a comedy sketch, also bodes ill.
As does the look of the Mummy itself, which is let down by the fitted suit looking bandages and extremely obvious eyeholes in them through which can be seen the rather too well preserved eyes of Eddie Powell.

Not all these opening moments are poor (there is a great scene where Preston is dictating to Longbarrow the deadly hardships that the members of the expedition, including himself, are going through to break into the tomb, while he actually lounges in a chair sipping drink from his ornate decanter) but the film does need a miracle it seems if it is going to make anything really worthwhile of itself. And it gets one!
When the expedition return out of the desert the movie suddenly erupts with engaging character moments and interaction , some (I stress, some) excellent performances and some very well crafted horror moments.

The violence and bloodshed may be pretty restrained here (the film now rates a 'PG' in the UK) but there is a palpable air of merciless brutality that surrounds from the Mummy and its attacks and the first murder in particular is very well done and delivers a real punch despite the actual act being played out of camera shot.
Another thudding (literally) death scene is when the Mummy casually hurls a poor soul through a window to smash onto the concrete below, a scene that delivers a rare splash of crimson to the proceedings.

But it is really the characters and the actors performances that make “The Mummy’s Shroud” ultimately such a success.
That most beloved of 'Hammer' support stalwarts Michael Ripper is given a far bigger role than normal here and he does an exceptional job.
As the kindly but cowed Longbarrow he has some marvellous scenes and delivers moments of real pathos when he comes face to face with the naked disdain and selfishness that Preston shows towards him, while being too weak to do anything but bow and scrape.
You can truly feel his own self-loathing and despair at his own cowardess thanks to Ripper’s astute line delivery and subtle facial movements.
Ripper really should have been used more by 'Hammer' rather than just for landlords and scared villagers and his performance here shows why.

John Phillips delivers a suitably blustering, bullying performance as the nasty Preston and even manages to break out of the rather one-dimensional bad guy role he's been given when Stanley is interacting with his Wife and son.

David Buck is given the closest thing to a hero role here as Paul and does a solid job and he delivers a barnstorming performance in the scene where he accuses his Father of arranging Sir Basil to be placed in the asylum.

Maggie Kimberly though (who was basically given no dialogue in “Witchfinder General” for a reason) lets the side down and delivers a rather poor performance, full of theatrical pouting, melodramatic turns to the camera and stilted line delivery. Luckily she is not given that much to do, but when she is she generally hurts the scene.

Thankfully Elizabeth Sellars gets us back on track and really shines in her later scenes as Barbara’s normally caged dislike for her Husband smashes free to deliver some excellent interplay with Preston that generates some cold as ice scenes between the two as Barbara shows her disdain for the self-serving man who has obviously smothered her own feelings and personality under his own selfish bluster for far too long.

Andre Morell was always a reliable and solid actor who, like Peter Cushing, always gave his all to a role.
As the weary, distressed, almost permanently ill Sir Basil he is underused here but adds a seriousness to the film that is sometimes missing in some of the out of place (though enjoyable) tongue in cheek, and even camp, performances, from the support actors and their colourful roles (like Delgado’s Hasmid).
Talking of which a scene with a delightfully wizened old fortune teller (who turns out to be Hasmid’s Mother!) is a melodramatic joy as the actress, Catherine Lacey (The Sorcerers"), plays her role up for all it's worth.
The deadly serious finale to this same sequence though shows perfectly the hit and miss blend of high melodrama, campness and straight ahead horror that plays a big part in the make-up of "The Mummy's Shroud".
Something that ensures the film remains very entertaining between the scares (or the wait for them, seeing as the Mummy does not go a hunting until the half way mark) far more than most 'Hammer' films around this period (like the dull as dishwater between the fangs "Dracula: Prince of Darkness"), but at the same time it means the first half of the film is not quite as dark as it perhaps should have been.

But it is all these many rich and interesting characters (actually very rare in most 'Hammer' films away from the main villain or hero) which make "The Mummy's Shroud" so damn watchable even when it moves away from it’s horror elements.
And Director John Gillling (“The Scarlet Blade“, “The Flesh and the Fiends”) brings energy to the Mummy’s assaults as well as letting the character moments run at just the right pitch to make a cohesive whole. It’s certainly his best film for ‘Hammer’.

So despite the less than impressive looking Mummy and the dubious Egyptian make-up and sets, the effective horror sequences, the mainly fine acting and interesting characters ensure that "The Mummy's Shroud" is one of 'Hammer's' most satisfying, multi-layered and entertaining films.
Nice gutsy finale too and all in all this movie shows just how bad the later (and quite laughable) "Curse of the Mummy's Tomb" was at delivering everything that "The Mummy's Shroud" does so well. It's also (Lee's make-up and the presence of Cushing aside) far more entertaining and engrossing than the overly-lauded "The Mummy".
So the best 'Hammer' Mummy film (for that is what it is) is just waiting for you to lift it's shroud and discover it's treasures within. So hunt it out.

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