How would you suppose that a film titled Blood from the Mummy's Tomb would begin? Would you guess that it would be with resolutely generic sans-serif titles over a starfield, all space movie-like? If so, congratulations on your insight, and also, what the hell, because I, for one, was so thrown by the opening title that I fast-forwarded a bit to make sure the suspiciously generic DVD I got from Netflix wasn't just some lousy bootleg thing. But no, that's legitimately how the film opens - plain yellow titles on a starfield.

As it turns out, that's not even a completely random image: stars end up playing a significant role in Blood from the Mummy's Tomb. More significant, certainly, than mummies, of which there are none. Not as classically-defined, at least. There is a perfectly-preserved body found in an ancient Egyptian tomb, belonging to the witch queen Tara (Valerie Leon), but mummification has absolutely nothing to do with her preservation. There are absolutely none of the narrative touchstones common to mummy films (revenge for desecration, cultists as the villains), except for the modern woman who is a dead ringer for an ancient woman, and even that is played in a wholly different way. The plot, adapted from Bram Stoker's novel Jewel of the Seven Stars, involves the ghost of the wicked queen attempting to force a team of archaeologists to stage a ritual resurrecting her in the body of one of the men's daughter, and while the whole "evil ghost wants to be reborn" detail is perhaps a bit tired and overdone as a scenario in its own right, you have to allow that it's not predictable from the onset.

The genre-savvy viewer, confronted with both the production company (Hammer Films) and the year of release (1971) will instantly realise that Blood from the Mummy's Tomb is one of the many products of the period when Hammer was starting to flail about horribly, looking for any way to stay fresh and vital in the marketplace it had basically invented at the end of the '50s. As has been discussed so often by so many writers, the loosening of standards in the late '60s was not kind at all to the studio whose Super Edgy plunges into sex and violence consisted of busty women with low-cut tops and a bit more stage blood than anybody had seen before. When extreme gore and full-on nudity entered the cinematic lexicon at the end of the decade, Hammer turned, in the blink of an eye, from the producer of particularly adult horror into a fusty, old-fashioned bunch of conservative Brits, out of touch and stalled in past glories. This was not a fate the company accepted blindly, but attempt to actively combat with many experiments both fascinating and humiliating in the early '70s.

In the particular case of Blood from the Mummy's Tomb, we have, first, the setting: though it's never completely insisted-upon by Christopher Wicking's script, the costumes and sets make it absolutely clear that this is a contemporary-set film, something that Hammer rarely dabbled in much, and never before their earnest attempts to retain young viewers kicked into high gear around this time. Second, we have a few shots of posterior nudity, performed by a body double, and a costume for the lifeless Tara that reveals as much boob as you can possibly show, from all different angles, and still claim that you've got the actress wearing "clothing", and this is not performed by a body double. Third, there is quite a lot of blood - nothing that registers as "graphic", three years after Night of the Living Dead, but the movie's title isn't messing around, what with the repeated image of Tara's right arm, terminating in a stump, dripping bright red blood for punctuation. Or, for that matter, the repeated image of Tara's hand, crawling around like a hellish little crab. Or the way that every person who dies has the same ripped-out throat effect that is, in truth, not very convincing. But it does speak to Hammer's desire to be more vicious and brutal as cinema generally moved in that direction.

Anyway, setting aside completely the matters of Valerie Leon's underboob or bloody stumps, it's all rather zesty and weird. It opens with Margaret Fuchs (Leon) having nightmares of Tara's execution, done with far more coherence-breaking editing than one would ever expect from a Hammer production, particularly one that was left to be finished by Michael Carreras, Hammer executive and largely unimaginative director, after the first director, Seth Holt, died during filmmaking. At no point does the film return to something as elliptically-assembled as this initial dream sequence, but there are quite a few points (mostly related to Margaret's personality being taken over by Tara's) where it at least manages to get good and weird, and the overall feeling of the movie is that it's far more unhinged as a piece of filmmaking than the stately, handsome Hammer films of yore.

And this is mostly reflected in the story, which is clear enough, as such things go, but fully commits to the somewhat random and inexplicable sense of things going badly wrong more typical of fiction from Stoker's era than from the film's own (I have not, I should admit, read Jewel of the Seven Stars). Tara's evil is never clarified or defined; it is wickedness at a cosmic level, not a personal one, and this applies even, in a degree, to the way she makes her evil manifest: Margaret's father, Julian (Andrew Keir), and his colleagues Corbeck (James Villiers) and Berrigan (George Coulouris) are all pawns in Tara's game, but how that happened, beyond "she spread her evil influence upon them" is left refreshingly unexplored. It's a story in which bad things just are, and the good characters try to resist them, weakly. Possibly my favorite aspect of the narrative is Margaret, who at times, for no reason, simply goes bad, with Leon (a Carry On... veteran presumably cast for her looks first) doing a surprisingly great job of blanking out her humanity at places, and suggesting in a creepy way that Margaret somewhat enjoys the feeling of being taken over by a merciless ghost witch. It's underplayed well by both the actress and her director(s), happening so inexplicably that it makes watching the film similar to being in it, at least to judge from how all of the good characters seem to keep getting blindsided by the terrible things happening to them (best moment: Rosalie Crutchley's spiritual medium having a flat-out panic attack in the moment she realises that she's about to die).

The whole thing ends up being far more of a psychological horror film than I'd have ever expected, heavily invested in the fear of losing one's mind to a malevolent force on the one hand, and the fear of not being sure who you're looking at when you stare into "friendly" eyes on the other (the film's final shot, something of a cheap joke on mummies, carries this latter them right up to the end). On the whole, it's not the most sophisticated thing Hammer ever made (it's a bit too bright, the makeup isn't very good, and there's a lot of repetition for just 93 minutes), and it's hard not to wish the same script had been made with a stronger overall cast, but it's moodier than it had reason to be, and brainier, too. Turns out that the only thing keeping mummy films from reaching their full potential as troubling stories of murder and psychosis were the mummies.

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)