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December 2012

The Mummy's Shroud

cast: André Morell, John Phillips, David Buck, Elizabeth Sellars, and Michael Ripper

director: John Gilling

84 minutes (PG) 1967
widescreen ratio 1.66:1
StudioCanal DVD Region 2

RATING: 5/10
review by Andrew Darlington

The Mummy's Shroud

'Here is the horror and the terror of a story that began in ancient Egypt' The poster shows a screaming scantily-clad girl in the grip of a giant Mummy's fist, King Kong style. Needless to say, this never happens. The 'Hammer Collection' DVD box shows the predatory Mummy stooping to strangle the very decorous Maggie Kimberly, as she leans enticingly forward in order to gift the lens a generous expanse of cleavage. This also does not happen.

The first 'Mummy' was the decidedly creepy Boris Karloff as doomed Imhotep, mummified alive for his transgressive love way back in the 1932 Universal movie, and its subsequent series of diminishingly less inspired sequels. Down through those featuring Lon Chaney Jr, to 1955's misguided Abbott And Costello Meet The Mummy. Then fast-forward to Brendan Fraser's 1999 blockbuster reboot overshadowed by its spectacular Industrial Light & Magic visual effects, and its franchise follow-ups The Mummy Returns (2001), and The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor (2008), plus its profitable spin-offs, dubious merchandising and theme-park 'Revenge of the Mummy' roller-coaster. And let's leave the seriously deranged Time Walker (1982) - which boasts the first mummy from outer space, out of this - OK?

Anyway, located midway between the two Universal generations is a modestly likeable Hammer quartet of films, led off by The Mummy (1959), starring Christopher Lee as menacing Kharis, the undead high priest seeking vengeance beyond the tomb. It was followed by The Curse Of The Mummy's Tomb (1964) - 'half-bone, half-bandage: and all blood-curdling horror!', and then by this modest little contribution to the canon, The Mummy's Shroud (1967). Collectively, the films are all concerned with the same old dusty hocus-pocus of curses, ancient tomb-relics, mystic incantations muttered from papyrus scrolls, reanimations, and vendettas carried beyond death across thousands of years. And shambling decayed corpses wrapped in yards of musty bandages, with a serious strangling habit.

It begins "in the year 2000BC," and "dark clouds are already gathering," illustrated by an overlong pre-credit voiceover mix of temple wall-paintings and costume action sequences detailing murky Pharaonic power politics, exercising "the cold finger of death" in a palace coup, as dynastic rulers "flutter into oblivion." Only loyal slave Prem escapes into the "scorching desert sand" with young Pharaoh presumptive Kah-To-Bey...

Then it's July 1920, in a curious kind of colonial Egypt, generations before the Arab Spring, where blunt no-nonsense Stanley Preston (John Phillips), is a wealthy industrialist who believes that "money can buy even the devil himself." He correctly suspects that the Mummy stored back in the museum, supposedly Kah-To-Bey, is actually Prem. He arrives just in time for the expedition he's financed to reach the Rock of Death, where a convenient desert sandstorm has uncovered remarkably well-preserved hieroglyphics. Brilliant language expert Clair de Sangre (Maggie Kimberly) deciphers the clues so the unwary party - Daddy Preston, with Preston's idealistic son Paul (David Buck), and archaeologist Sir Basil Walden (André Morell) locate the lost tomb. There are continuity themes. Claire shares with the film's other female characters a tendency for mystical insight; she even saw the date of their embarkation - the 13th, as an ill-omen. And when they finally break into the sealed makeshift cave tomb and uncover the wizened 4000-year-old body preserved in sand, Claire wisely refuses to recite the words on the shroud. She knows the mystical power of this relic of ancient Egypt.

Obviously, the whole scam is intended to conjure elements of Howard Carter's real-world discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb which ignited the fad for all things Egyptological, and insinuated the idea of the pharaoh's curse firmly in the popular imagination. The film's Harry Newton (Tim Barrett) is based on that expedition's real-life photographer Harry Burton. But even though here, things have been Indiana Jones'd out of all recognition, the deep-rooted longevity of such myths indicates that they usually function - even on a trashy level, as some kind of metaphor. In a way, they attune to some kind of archetypal truth, like the beast-within-the-human equation of the werewolf, or the erotic addiction subtext of vampirism. Here, it must be the strength of will, of extreme emotional states to persist, even beyond the ultimate barrier of death. "At this stage," protests the hapless Harry, "I think we ought to remind ourselves we are living in the 20th century." Then, after a moments thought, he adds "on the other hand..."

There are touches of humour. The caretaker happily sings as he sweeps sand from the museum floor, to brush it under the carpet. Then, raiding the store to filch wine, he misses seeing the bloodied body suspended there. For, with Prem and the remains of Kah-To-Bey reunited in the museum, "an ancient curse comes to life." And it's Roger Delgado - who was very effective as the 'Master' to Jon Pertwee's Doctor Who, who now camps it up with gleeful delight as Hasmid Ali, the knife-wielding Keeper of the Tomb. But, unfortunately for the special effects efforts, as he reads the forbidden words from the shroud, and Prem's eyes open - to see his dead master, in a reanimation that should be the film's key peak-horror moment, it's makeshift tackiness, without even dramatic lighting to add emphasis, is sadly laugh-out-loud underwhelming. Compare and contrast it with the original 1932 film, The Mummy, and Karloff's gloomily sympathetic melancholy close-up of wrinkled skin and luminously compelling eyes. He knew how to invest a chilling mesmeric screen presence into the unlikely bandaged bone-crusher.

Hasmid has his own shrine to Horus, and conspires for evil deeds in cahoots with his clairvoyant mother, who has a mynah bird in a bamboo cage. Mother Haiti, who watches their victims in her crystal ball, is played by a cackling Catherine Lacey. So there are some fairly familiar faces, but no obvious star. No Christopher Lee. No Peter Cushing. It's more an ensemble film. A proto-slasher film in that each of the cast-members who desecrated the tomb, are killed off one by one. So, there's another strand of genre continuity. First to die is the unfortunate Sir Basil, bitten by a tomb-snake and confined to an asylum, before he glimpses Prem's menacing approach reflected in Haiti's crystal ball. Then Harry is developing photos and sees Prem reflected in his tray of chemicals. Poor obsequious Longbarrow (Michael Ripper) is next. He's broken his glasses, so he only sees the killer, who hurls him through the window, as a distorted blur.

Who killed them? Claire has dark forebodings. "You mean I'm going to die?" she queries. "In a few minutes from now!" cackles Haiti, maniacally. Egyptian police inspector Barrani (Richard Warner) suspiciously eyes the immobile Mummy. "As a police officer, I can answer only to logic," he rationalises, "but, as a man, I admit to many things which are beyond my comprehension."

"Supernatural things?" queries Paul. He shrugs, "perhaps, who can tell...?" The bombastic Stanley Preston goes from spinning events to gain credit for their discovery, to getting seriously spooked. He prepares to get out, to the extent of first trying to bribe the incorruptible inspector. Then it seems the props department has reduced the entire city of Masara (Cairo) down to the single "alley of the house of Mukhtar," where pretty much everything happens. Ditching his wife, Barbara (Elizabeth Sellars), the conniving Preston bolts, hoping to catch the next ship home, but he gets killed in the alley.

Now there are only two members of the expedition left: Paul and Claire. In the final confrontation, as Prem lumbers on cloth-wrapped feet, intent on murdering Claire, and Paul assails the Mummy with an axe - wedging it protruding like an extra limb from the walking corpse's shoulder, and the inspector blasts ineffective bullets into its torso, as Hasmid cackles his delight, she might be no tomb raider, but it's Claire who reads the 'words of death' symbols from the shroud, that causes Prem to dissolve to dust. Again, echoing Karloff crumbling away to nothing in the finale of the subgenre's progenitor film. Claire thoughtfully returns the shroud to fastidiously cover Kah-To-Bey's shrivelled corpse.

For Hammer Studios, this minor film proved to be something of a watershed. The last in director John Gilling's turbulent relationship with the studio, and the last to be filmed at Bray Studios. Not a major contender by any means. But an amusing and oddly entertaining minor curio.

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