Oh God, here we go again with another When I Was A Wee Lad memory. Sorry. But When I Was A Wee Lad, two of my favorite books were The Hammer Horror Film Omnibus, and The Second Hammer Horror Film Omnibus. Written by John Burke, each volume contained four novelizations of Hammer films, and for many a year, this was the only way I could experience the stories. It would be a long time before I saw the films in question. Still, most of those films I got under my belt some time ago, but one remained stubbornly out of reach, seen once on TV and then never again, VHS and then DVD releases apparently never on the horizon. That film was Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964), and the wait is finally over. It appears as one of four films on the Icons of Horror: Hammer Films 2-disc set. Accompanying it are The Gorgon (also novelized by Burke, and more about it another time), The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll, and Scream of Fear.
The plot sees the inevitable turn-of-the-century expedition to Egypt find a lost tomb (that of Ra-Antef in this instance), dig everything up, then suffer tragedy. The father of the heroine is killed in the opening scene, and hireling Michael Ripper (in an all-too-brief bit, though his presence is as welcome as ever) is also murdered when the expedition headquarters are ransacked. More trouble ensues when the principal backer of the work, American impresario Alexander King (Fred Clark) decides not to turn the findings over to a museum, but mount a road show instead. On the way back to England, hero John Bray (a rather bland Ronald Howard) and his callow fiancee Annette Dubois (Jeanne Roland) encounter the dashing playboy Adam Beauchamp (Terence Morgan), who turns out to know a surprising amount of Ancient Egyptian lore, and has his sights set on Annette. Back in England, the expected curse plays out, as one character after another is slaughtered by the mummy of Ra-Antef (Dickie Owen).
I’ll leave out the big reveal, but many of you can probably figure it out for yourselves. I’m not going to pretend this is the best of Hammer’s mummy movies. That honor would have to go to either the first – 1958’s The Mummy with Peter Cushing as the hero and Christopher Lee as the imposing creature – or the much later Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1972, which dispenses with bandages). There isn’t the atmosphere of the best films, and director Michael Carreras may have been quite the producer, but he was no Terence Fisher. There is also an unintentionally hilarious moment when Ra, having wreaked havoc in a house, reacts to a knock at the door as if he is about to be caught in an embarrassing situation.
Having said that, however, most of the attack scenes are quite good, and Owen, despite being deprived of all facial expression, manages to invest Ra with a real sense of dignity and pathos (Ra is, after all, a tragically wronged prince, as we discover in the obligatory flashbacks). His performance is, it seems a little odd to say, rather subtle, with a gesture here, a slight movement of the head there, that, in the context of what we know of the mummy, make him quite the sympathetic character. And this is one of the other little joys about the film. Where the Universal mummy saga (which the first Hammer film revisits) was essentially the doomed repetition of a tragic lover affair, there is no thwarted love for this mummy. Rather, he is the victim of treachery, and the film does see him finally find his justice. So it’s one of the few mummy films that, more or less, ends well for its creature.
So as nostalgia trips go, this one could be a hell of a lot worse.