The Mummy's Shroud, Hammer Films' 1967 entry into their continuity-free mummy franchise, is typically regarded as pretty damn bad - or at least, pretty damn run-of-the-mill and boring, which is surely worse. I can't help but feel like that's a pretty unfair way of looking at it; if we want to compare to Hammer's earlier The Mummy, then no, it's patently inferior, but there are between 0 and 1 mummy films in all history better than Hammer's The Mummy. We might also compare it to the same company's The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb, and The Mummy's Shroud is so much better than that, there's hardly anything to talk about at all. For all the talk of how mummy films are basically the same story, I find that The Mummy's Shroud is actually somewhat original, being structured rather unexpectedly on the And Then There Were None model of assembling victims in an enclosed environment and then watching them try to squirm out while being killed one by one. More importantly, after The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb, it's such a relief to have something that looks halfway decent on the level of production design and lighting that I'd probably give it an enthusiastic pass even if it had, demonstrably, the worst script in the history of mummy cinema. Hammer Films, after all, was all about the mise en scène, the creation of heavily artificial, spooky locations; with that in hand (and while The Mummy's Shroud is hardly the best-looking film Hammer ever made, it's a solid piece of work), the rest simply doesn't seem to matter as much.

At any rate, I could definitely feel myself relaxing at the point where director John Gilling (one of Hammer's unsung heroes - prior to this, he'd overseen The Pirates of Blood River and The Plague of the Zombies, a pair of absolutely essential Hammer B-sides) and cinematographer Arthur Grant elected to stage the pathways inside an ancient Egyptian tomb with almost hilariously over-the-top shadows and close, choking angles, by which point The Mummy's Shroud had already wandered in both good and bad directions. The first of these bad directions is a lengthy prologue recounting how in Pharaonic times, the young son (Toolsie Persaud) of the Pharaoh (Bruno Barnabe) incited the ire of the king's brother, who arranged to have the child killed; the loyal guard Prem (Dickie Owen) was able to save the child from the coup, only to watch helplessly as he died in the desert. Wrapping the boy in a shroud and having the natural processes of the desert mummify him, Prem commits himself to eternal watchfulness. That's a whole lot of onscreen effort to get us to the standard-issue plot point of "killer mummy defending an ancient tomb from desecration", with the action being staged in a (perhaps deliberately) stilted, pantomimed way, and involving some of the absolute worst sets that Hammer ever tried to sell an audience.

On the other hand, we've also met the rather unusual cast of characters active this time around: in Cairo, in 1920, the wealthy industrialist Stanley Preston (John Phillips) and his awesomely passive-aggressive wife Barbara (Elizabeth Sellars) have come to Egypt to check on the efforts to find a missing archaeological expedition that Preston is paying for, and more to the point, to find their son Paul (David Buck), a member of that expedition. In this, Preston is aided by the appalling toady Longbarrow (Michael Ripper), who is unbelievably cowed by the other man's riches and prestige.

The expedition has been done in by a sandstorm, though its leader, Sir Basil Walden (André Morell) is convinced that they're practically on top of the tomb he's been hunting for. And of course that's exactly what turns out to be the case, and over the hysterical objections of local expert Hasmid (Roger Delgado), Sir Basil, Paul, and Claire de Sangre (Maggie Kimberly) enter the tomb and thus we arrive at that beautifully-lit stuff I was talking about, but only after being well-introduced to the eccentric sense of humor that pops up in unexpected places throughout the film, and to the weird character dynamics that will dominate the rest of the feature. The psychological balance of this film is downright perverse, next to all the other mummy films; unlike so many insane cultists before him, Hasmid (who in the natural order of things, is the one who uses an ancient scroll to raise the body of Prem as avenger against the despoilers of the prince's tomb) isn't really much of a presence in a film where the tensions between the bedraggled and distraught Sir Basil, suffering from a curse-induced snake bite, the avaricious, lying Preston, and the morally upright Paul are all much more the driving point of the plot, and whose most distinctive personality is surely Longbarrow, the role that gave Hammer stalwart Ripper his absolute best opportunity ever to show off in a more substantial, peculiar role than he normally got; and oh, how the actor took that opportunity and ran with it all the way. His Longbarrow is unlikably pathetic, but also too miserable not to feel sorry for; the perfect contrast to Preston, showing via reflection how the rich prig is as much an antagonist as the mummy is, the perfect embodiment of the future cliché of the snobby fuck who comes along just so we can root for his death.

In fact, one of the things that is oddest to me about The Mummy's Shroud (and perhaps explains its weak reputation) is that it's at its worst when the mummy is around. Played by stuntman Eddie Powell, the mummified Prem isn't necessarily bad as a threatening presence, and there are some fine moments of people being terrified to see him - there is a blood-red scene in a photography developing lab that works fantastically on entirely that basis, like something from a giallo of the same era - but the mummy himself is pretty damn bad. The facial prosthetic makes no attempt to look like anything but a mask (maybe another giallo touchstone? Assuming that any of this was happening deliberately), and not even a mummy mask, necessarily. There's a close-up of the mummy's eyes slowly opening that is simply appalling in its failure to resemble what it's nominally depicting in anything but the most abstract sense, and this is the worst moment in a strong of truly awful shots that cannot hide (though some of them try very hard) what a cheap piece of crap the monster is here. And yet his final destruction is just about the most striking thing in the whole film, for reasons entirely due to the special effects, so who knows.

More to the point, though, outside of the darkroom scene and a few individually striking shots, Gilling is plainly more interested in the human drama than the mummy horror at all points in the film. There simply isn't much variety or inspiration to the mummy attacks, which are kept to a bare minimum in the script, content instead to dole out plummy lines for actors who all give pretty fascinating, exaggerated performances that frequently verge on some kind of comedy that's more about being strange than being funny (outside of the young couple, because this is a Hammer production, and they were required to be milquetoast nothings). The human element of the film has a warped tone that makes the whole thing far more interesting than its mummy attacks would suggest; that said, anyone who requires good mummy attacks in a mummy film (this is a reasonable expectation) is probably not going to get much out of the film compared to someone who merely prefers good mummy attacks in a mummy film. Its strange pleasures are very real and pervasive, but they are almost directly opposed to its qualities as a horror picture, which on the whole I'd be inclined to describe as "good enough", outside of some awfully fine lighting. You can't have everything.

Reviews in this series
The Mummy (Fisher, 1959)
The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb (Carreras, 1964)
The Mummy's Shroud (Gilling, 1967)
Blood from the Mummy's Tomb (Holt and Carreras, 1971)