FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, psychological, sociological*
Someone has said that artists are like sorcerers who can be bound by their own spells. Certainly this is true of those creators who become so enraptured by certain themes that they repeat them obsessively. That said, obviously there are also creators to whom spell-casting is just a job, and they use magic after the fashion of Mickey Mouse’s junior magician in FANTASIA.
This line of thought comes to me as I grapple with the fact that the film under review seems to reproduce the esoteric aspects of an archaic Egyptian story, “The Tale of the Two Brothers.” Yet the career of the movie’s primary architect Michael Carreras does not seem to follow any thematic pattern in the various films that he wrote and/or directed for Hammer Studios. In contrast, some of the films that Carreras simply produced, such as HORROR OF DRACULA and CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, qualify as two of the most mythic films in the Hammer oeuvre. Based purely on the works that Carreras did write or direct, then, I tend to think that Carreras merely flirted with the esoteric content of the Egyptian myth—that of a sibling rivalry expressed through ancient magic—in order to sell a new mummy-movie. Carreras deserves some credit for finding a novel approach to this subgenre of monster-films, since it would have been the easiest thing in the world for Hammer to grind out a simple pastiche of Universal’s mediocre Kharis-flicks. But Carreras’s use of the fresh material is still executed with the style of the journeyman filmmaker.
Certainly CURSE starts out with one standard trope of most mummy-movies. Circa 1900, the tomb of an ancient Egyptian royal, Ra-Antef, is unearthed by a team of European archeologists, consisting of French professor Dubos, his daughter Annette, her British fiancée John and another scholar, Sir Giles. When the archeologists clash with a representative of the Egyptian government, the possibility of a mystic curse comes up. In addition, ill fortune, not explicitly mystical in nature, befalls Dubos, who is captured by Bedouins who kill him and cut off one of his hands. These raiders, whose antipathy for the expedition remains mysterious for much of the film, also arrange a surprise for Annette, leaving the severed hand in her bedding to shock her.
But even though these developments disturb the Europeans, the man financing the expedition, a money-minded promoter named King, won’t allow anything to interfere with his plans to exploit the unearthed mummy. Much to the displeasure of both Sir Giles and the Egyptian emissary Hashmi, King plans to take Ra-Antef on tour, charging yokels a quarter to view the remains of the mummified prince. Giles breaks off relations with King, but John and Annette continue to work for the exploitative American financier, helping him plan his traveling sideshow. It’s possible that the two of them stay with King in order to build up their monetary reserves in preparation for their planned marriage, though neither character makes this justification.
The members of the expedition depart Egypt for England, and two incidents take place on the ship. A knife-wielding assassin assaults Giles, and when John interferes, the young man throws the killer overboard to his presumed death. As a result of this scuffle, John, Giles and Annette make the acquaintance of another traveler from England, a well-to-do nobleman named Adam Beauchamp. No one can explain the assassin’s attack, nor does anyone connect the incident with the murder of Professor Dubos by Egyptian fanatics. Beauchamp for his part professes a great interest in Egyptology and once the group reaches England, the nobleman invites John and Annette to have dinner with him. In the ensuing days, it becomes evident that Beauchamp is putting the moves on Annette whenever John is too busy to accompany her, due to his work on King’s exhibit. At one point, someone breaks into said exhibit, stealing a list of the Egyptian artifacts, but at this point nothing has transpired that might not be the relatively mundane activities of a murderous cult.
Annette relates to the fascinated Beauchamp the history of the mummy. In Pharaonic Egypt Ra was a great scholar fascinated with the occult preservation of life. Ra’s jealous brother Be, reputed to have been a self-indulgent sensualist, poisons the minds of the people against Ra, forcing Ra’s father to exile the sinless prince. Ironically, it’s in this exile that Ra stumbles across a nomadic tribe that possesses knowledge of the secrets of life and death, embodied in a sacred medallion—which also happens to be one of the items recovered from Ra’s tomb in the present era. However, the archaic tale ends with Be taking preventive action against Ra’s return to the throne, by sending assassins who slay Ra, cutting off one of the prince’s hands as proof of the kill. There the ancient tale ends, or seems to end.
In her conversations with Beauchamp, Annette discloses a bit of a father-complex, mentioning that she followed in her father’s archeological footsteps to catch her negligent parent’s attention, and Beauchamp responds by flattering her for her intellect. John, apparently not knowing how to regain his fiancee’s wandering affections, busies himself investigating the medallion in the possession of Sir Giles, but someone breaks into John’s house, knocking him out and stealing the artifact. Immediately thereafter, the mummified corpse of Ra-Antef goes missing from the exhibit, presumably stolen by the same person(s) who attacked John.
But the mummy wasn’t stolen; rather it was revived with the use of the mystic medallion. The bandaged behemoth begins stalking all those who violated his tomb, killing both King and Sir Giles. And at last Annette learns Adam Beauchamp’s true reason for following the members of the expedition: he’s not only responsible for reviving the mummy, he wants Ra-Antef to kill him. It seems that Beauchamp is none other than Ra’s evil brother Be, rendered immortal by the curse of his Pharaoh-father so that his life can only end at Ra’s hands. For some reason—antipathy toward the modern world, perhaps? —Be wants Ra to slay Annette as well. However, the mummy still possesses some of the good prince’s better nature, and spares Annette while destroying Be (after significantly crushing one of Be’s hands). Then Ra brings down the roof on his own head, so that he will be once more entombed and removed from the living world. There’s no guarantee that John and the straying Annette will be united once more, and the film’s final spoken words consist of an unexplained phrase: “Rest, my father, rest.”
In a script less concerned with piling up mysterious occurrences to be solved by the Big Reveal, some of Carreras’ motifs—particularly the quasi-Freudian emphasis on severed hands—might have sustained a deeper symbolic discourse. Yet CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB is mostly concerned with just solving a mystery rather than delving into psychological or metaphysical mysteries, so its mythicity can only be judged as “fair.”