Blood From The Mummy's Tomb Review

The early 1970s were a difficult time for Hammer films. Their lucrative distribution deal with Warner Brothers ended in 1969 and they were forced to look elsewhere for some kind of support. The necessary assistance was found from a variety of sources – AIP, Rank and EMI. The latter distributed a number of interesting films for Hammer, including the deranged Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde, the superb Demons of the Mind and Seth Holt’s Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb, a somewhat belated addition to their Egyptian Mythology horror cycle that began with Terence Fisher’s The Mummy in 1959. The ‘Mummy’ films which followed - Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb and The Mummy’s Shroud - were second-rate pulp at best and neither attracted much attention beyond off-hand derision at how formulaic they were. Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb, on the other hand, isn’t remotely formulaic, although exactly what it is remains a moot point. Some critics dismissed it as either excessively gory or muddled and incoherent (or both). Others praised it as one of the best films that Hammer ever made. Thirty years on, it’s looking more and more interesting and the things which perplexed critics in 1971 have become the things which have allowed it to last better than many of its contemporaries.

The film is derived, quite loosely, from Bram Stoker’s novel “Jewel of Seven Stars”. This decidedly muddled tale has been the inspiration for a very mediocre Charlton Heston horror movie The Awakening - otherwise known as “Chuck Finds Mummy” -
and a couple of TV dramas. This is probably the best version of a book which doesn’t entirely lend itself to adaptation. Andrew Keir, standing in for Peter Cushing (whose wife died during filming), plays Matthew Fuchs, an archaeologist who breaks into the tomb of the reviled and thoroughly evil Egyptian Queen Tera at the very moment his wife died while giving birth to their daughter. Tera was killed and buried in secret in an attempt to wipe her out of history, after her hand was cut off. Twenty-one years later, Fuchs’ daughter Margaret (Leon) is disturbed by mysterious dreams about Tera and falls under the influence of Corbeck (Villiers), one of her father’s former assistants who has become obsessed with the Queen. It gradually becomes apparent that Margaret is being lined up as the vessel through which Tera will be born again, once the other colleagues of Fuchs have been bloodily dispatched.

Although the plot isn’t overly complicated, it seems so because of the approach taken by screenwriter Christopher Wicking. Never a writer to make things unduly simple for the audience, Wicking’s habit of plotting simple stories into the realms of abstraction is either amusingly idiosyncratic or incredibly irritating depending on personal taste. This is one of his better films since the occasional confusions certainly add to the very odd, decidedly sinister atmosphere created by Seth Holt. Often considered the best director ever to work for Hammer, Holt’s career was affected by his alcoholism and he never achieved his full potential. But two of the films he made for Hammer – his third, Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb, was finished by Michael Carreras when Holt died of a heart attack – are little classics; Taste of Fear and The Nanny are both masterclasses in the building of tension and the latter contains one of the finest performances that Bette Davis ever gave. Before he died, before the last week of filming, Holt finished most of the shooting on Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb apart from the asylum sequences but, apparently, he had not shot any entrances or exits for the characters. Although Carreras did the best he could, the resulting film is weirdly dreamlike and some of the time appears to be taking place underwater. Holt stated, in one of the interviews given before his death, that he intended to create an atmosphere of mounting tension which would lead to a terrifying, shattering climax. The tension is certainly present, erupting occasionally in a series of baroque murder scenes which haven’t aged too well but are certainly very striking. But the climax is a little muted, leading to a final scene which is brilliantly ambiguous but not remotely apocalyptic.

There’s an odd, dislocated feel to the finished movie. It seems to take place at a slight remove from any time period. Although the characters talk and dress as if its 1970, some of the cars and interiors suggest a setting of forty years earlier and Corbeck is played by James Villiers as a slightly camp relic from the Golden Age of the mystery story. It should be said, however, that the drab suburban locations add a great deal to the effectiveness of the film, as was the case with Hammer’s 1959 The Mummy. The lure of Egyptian myth for the prosaic English mind has been well documented by Professor Christopher Frayling and the placing of the exotic against the slightly worn everyday is inspired. The eruption of the supernatural into the commonplace is a classic horror theme of course and the film is at its best when the exotically macabre is allowed to take over. This works particularly well in the aforementioned murder scenes in which three of Fuchs’ assistants are killed under the shadow of the artefacts from Tera’s tomb which they have hoarded. There’s something irresistibly chilling about a suburban terrace house containing the preserved body of an Egyptian Queen. However, the more thuddingly obvious blood and gore comes as something of a disappointment in the metaphysical context of Tera’s reincarnation and the best effect is a simple one – the sight of Tera’s stump bleeding when her spirit is avenged through murder. Some of the performances are equally troublesome – Aubrey Morris, never a subtle actor at the best of times, is wildly over the top as the family doctor and James Villiers is more effete than menacing, even though he gets the best line in the film; “The meek shan’t inherit the earth. They wouldn’t know what to do with it.” Some of the editing is decidedly poor as well although this can partly be put down to the circumstances in which the film was made.

However, the finished product emerges, despite its very troubled production history, as one of Hammer’s most imaginative and unusual films. In taking the Egyptian mythology horror movie beyond a lumbering actor wrapped in bandages, Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb suggested a promising new path for Hammer Horror, away from the stereotyped monsters and into the origins and cultural implications of the myths themselves. It also benefits hugely from good performances by the gorgeous Valerie Leon, the reliable Andrew Keir and interesting character actors like Hugh Burden, George Coulouris and Rosalie Crutchley. The confusions caused by Holt’s untimely death aren’t too jarring and it stands up considerably better than the more recent, and considerably less elegant attempts to revive the Mummy franchise.

The Disc

This release is identical to the disc of Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb contained in the Hammer Horror boxset released by Warners in 2002. Now it’s available on its own, without the rather nice art card included with the original release.

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. It’s not a very impressive transfer really. The colours are reasonable and it’s acceptably detailed. But there is a good deal of compression artefacting and the image has a softness which is unattractive. The soundtrack is a straight transfer of the original mono recording and is perfectly acceptable.

The only extra is the somewhat obscure theatrical trailer. There are 20 chapter stops. Unfortunately, no subtitles are included at all – this is sadly typical of the discs released by Warners in association with Studio Canal.

Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb doesn’t entirely work but it’s a lot more intriguing than Hammer’s two ‘Mummy’ films from the 1960s. Its elliptical narrative and striking set-pieces make it essential viewing for fans of Hammer's more eclectic 1970s movies. This disc has a rather disappointing transfer but might be worth a look if you can find it discounted. For fans of the film, the deleted Anchor Bay R1 would have been a better option - it might be worth waiting to see what Blue Underground make of it when (and if) they start their Hammer releases later this year.

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Last updated: 04/05/2018 07:14:43

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