The transformation of Hammer Films into the world's most prominent home for edgy, brutal, sexy genre films was completed almost entirely on the backs of 1957's The Curse of Frankenstein and 1958's Dracula, released in America as Horror of Dracula (the fuse was, however, lit by the violent sci-fi/horror film The Quatermass Xperiment). And as has been noted by pretty much everybody, these are the same two stories - though in the opposite order - that kicked off Universal's industry-defining run of horror films in the early '30s, which may or may not have been a deliberate choice. I think the one thing we can say for certain is that Universal's films had ensured that those characters would be especially prominent in the minds of horror film audiences, and the books were in the public domain and could be readily adapted.

The third major Hammer horror film, though, is the one where the studio finally, explicitly, remade a Universal classic, or rather a Universal series: despite its title, The Mummy of 1959 isn't based exclusively or even primarily on the 1932 Boris Karloff vehicle that more or less invented the idea of mummies as terrifying monsters. It is something of a condensed version of that film and the four unrelated mummy films Universal released in the 1940s, filtered through the Gothic sensibility of irreplaceable screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, and given all kinds of broody, British menace by director Terence Fisher, who wrenched the character of Kharis the living mummy violently from his cheesy B-movie roots and turned him into a figure of real danger.

The jump in quality is swift and absolute. It's amazing how the exact same elements - mummies recognize dead lovers from across the millennia, a fez-wearing acolyte of an ancient cult carting a mummy across the sea to wreak revenge - can be so much less hokey and so much more threatening with just a little bit better lighting and better acting - not even better acting across the board, really. As with most Hammer films of this vintage, it's Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee standing head and shoulders above the rest of the cast, made of solid, redoubtably British men, and women cast almost exclusively for their cup size.

It does prove, though, the difference between Lon Chaney, Jr. in the depths of his alcoholic loathing for the roles he was given, and Lee right at the moment that he had everything in the world to prove, having been more or less universally considered one of the key elements of both The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula, in both cases playing the iconic monster. Going three-for-three must have seemed essential to the upcoming actor (Christopher Lee, an upcoming actor! Almost as weird as the eternally patriarchal Peter Cushing playing a middle-aged man's son, but he does so here), who had not yet proven that he could do anything else, and needed to keep his swiftly-growing fanbase happy with his pantomime monsters if his career was going to keep evolving. It's not nearly as far to compare Lee to Karloff - their respective characters are written to be entirely different things - but if you put a gun to my head, yeah. I like Lee better than Karloff, as well. There would seem to be only so many things you could do as an actor with an unspeaking character that shuffles around and strangles people, particularly when burdened by the colossally unfortunate makeup Lee is made to wear, looking neither "face covered in rotted bandages", nor " desiccated human flesh", but "mud shaped into a wrinkly ball, with no particularly discernible facial features. Effectively, Lee has to be threatening, and later on torn with passion for his lost love, using virtually no other part of his body besides his eyes. And he does this superbly - his mummy isn't a patch on his justly legendary Dracula, but it's every bit the equal to his beloved Frankenstein monster.

That being said, the mummy barely appears - without a stopwatch in hand, I'd estimate that it's the least screentime Lee had in any of the three movies - and doesn't even start to appear until well into the movie. This is the Cushing show through and through, and though he reads onscreen as too old to play the character as the screenplay necessarily calls him out to be, he's still excellent as the heroic, thoughtful archaeologist John Banning, who was part of the 1895 Egyptian expedition that discovered the lost tomb of the Princess Ananka, guarded by the undying mummy Kharis, who in life was Ananka's secret lover (a fact we don't learn until well into the movie, during a lengthy history lesson which provides Lee with his only chance to speak - and wear bronzer to play a rather dubious Egyptian - but is otherwise the one outstanding mistake of the screenplay, punching the dramatic momentum right in the face, right in the middle). This latter fact is only discovered by John''s father Stephen (Felix Aylmer), who goes mad as a result, carrying us on a really elegant transition to 1898, and the asylum where the old man now gibbers about mummies.

It's at this time that the nefarious Mehemet Bey (George Pastell), priest of the ancient religion of Karnak (which Sangster explicitly holds to be the name of a god, an historical mistake the Universal films only made implicitly) arrives in England with Kharis in tow and vengeance on his mind. It occurs to me that one big reason that The Mummy is so much better than the later Universal pictures is that England in 1898 is a better place all around for a rampaging mummy to go on a revenge spree than New England in the 1940s, or Louisiana in whatever time frame it's meant to be. The mummy is accidentally dumped in a bog thanks to the interference of a couple of colorful locals, but raised successfully once Bey retrieves the Scroll of Life from the Banning collection, a narrative circuit that exists primarily to justify copying the wonderful "mummy comes out of the swamp" sequence from Universal's The Mummy's Curse. And from here on you can probably guess - Jimmy Sangster was a great, perhaps even revolutionary horror screenwriter, but he wasn't Christ come down off the mountain, and he still couldn't come up with better things for a mummy to do than wander into rooms and strangle people. Although he did come up with far better setpieces that make it much clearer why the victims couldn't just run, and the matter of Kharis's seemingly-resurrected lover, in the form of John's wife Isobel (Yvonne Furneaux), is at least refreshed in that she isn't an outright reincarnation, but merely a living woman with an uncommonly close resemblance to the dead Ananka. And she's given somewhat more interesting and active things to do to help stop the mummy than the bulk of the Universal heroines.

If I have any reservations to speak of with Hammer's Mummy, it's of a somewhat petty sort: basically, that it's not nearly up to the standards of the two major horror films preceding it. That's undoubtedly got something to do with the setting; vague European locales make for better Gothic fantasylands than anyplace in Britain, even the deep country where The Mummy takes place. There are still shadows filling the corners of old buildings, but the sense of grand decrepitude that makes Dracula such a visual feast are simply not here in anything like the same degree. And too, Cushing, though he's more than satisfactory as the hero, isn't being challenged as much as he had been in the first two movies, and simply isn't as interesting to watch; he's still a Hammer romantic lead, and they are simply a watery breed, even when they're being played by someone as prickly and authoritative as Cushing.

It also feels just a little bit re-tready: like "more gory, sophisticated Universal horror" was a shtick Hammer was settling into, rather than a well of inspiration (this is especially notable in Franz Reizenstein's score, when it is not being jarringly upbeat). That's almost certainly unfair; it's simply that the same writer, director, and pair of co-stars, along with predominately the same crew (production designer Bernard Robinson and cinematographer Jack Asher chief among them) rather naturally turned up a film that didn't feel hugely different from its predecessors. Still they were all luminously talented men, and the shtick was at this point still a very zesty and fun way of reviving old monsters (and would continue to be with dark/edgy werewolf and Jekyll & Hyde pictures a couple of years down the line). It's still archetypal work by Hammer at probably the strongest point of its history, and it's a completely rewarding dose of highly grim atmosphere and striking imagery.

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)