"It's strange and fantastic affair but its not entirely frightening."—Corbeck (James Villers)
Since purchasing my first DVD player in 1998, one of the regular joys has been the rediscovery of films that haunt my childhood memories. Quite a few of these films come from the place whose name meant horror for a generation: Hammer Studios. As part of Anchor Bay's continuing series of The Hammer Collection comes Blood from the Mummy's Tomb. The forth of Hammer's "Mummy" flicks, this movie is based on the Bram Stoker short story "Jewel of the Seven Stars" and is the only film in the series to not feature a cloth-encased creature lumbering about. Released in 1971 on a double bill with the equally odd Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, Blood from the Mummy's Tomb failed to light up the box office. A cursed film from its inception, has Blood from the Mummy's Tomb been justly forgotten or is it instead a minor, little suspense classic due for a critical reappraisal? Well, dear readers, turn down the lights, don't forget to check for creepy looking ceramic cats, and let's have at it.
Facts of the Case
Stop if you have heard this one before. Doomed priests in ancient Egypt have done away with evil in the form of a stunningly beautiful woman. This evil rests through the centuries, preserved and perfect until an earnest, if misguided archaeological expedition led by Professor Julian Fuchs (Andrew Keir—Rob Roy, The Royal Hunt of the Sun) discovers her tomb. At the precise moment this forgotten evil's name is uttered, Fuchs' wife dies in childbirth.
Years pass, secrets are kept hidden, and the members of the fated expedition go their separate ways. Fuchs' daughter Margaret (Valerie Leon—The Spy Who Loved Me, Carry On Camping) has grown into a beautiful woman who just happens to bear a startling resemblance to a certain well preserved Egyptian evil. Time swirls forward, Margaret's birthday looms near, stars begin to converge in a powerful position, and strange occurrences happen with deadly frequency. The combination of these strange happenings begs two very important questions: what is the link between Margaret Fuchs and She Who Would Remain Nameless, and can anything stop the onslaught of terror before it reaches its climax? The other question of equal importance—where the hell is Charlton Heston?
The time was the early 1970s and Hammer Studios was busy trying to catch up with the cinematic times they had helped invent. The Frankenstein franchise was given a youth transfusion with Jimmy Sangster's satire, Horror of Frankenstein; Dracula and Van Helsing would find themselves fighting in modern day London with 1971's Dracula A.D. 1972; graphic nudity and lesbian vampires would rule in The Vampire Lovers; Anne Rice would receive all kinds of inspiration with Vampire Circus; and the forth and final movie in the "Mummy" series would heave its bountiful cleavage with Blood from the Mummy's Tomb.
It was mentioned in the opening statement that this was a cursed production. This is hardly hyperbole on my part. The original actor cast as Professor Fuchs was the great Peter Cushing. One day of filming was completed when Cushing had to withdraw due to the sudden illness to his wife. It was an illness that would quickly claim her life. Fate struck once more when, with a week left to principal photography, at age 47 the director, Seth Holt, would also pass away. I relate this information for a couple of reasons. First, these are the kind of events that help make a film's reputation, especially a horror movie. It is also this kind of lore that gives resonance to a film and cause the perverse thrill seeker to seek it out. Secondly, there is a quality about Blood from the Mummy's Tomb that is hard to put a finger on. The film has a definite dreamlike aspect to it that grows more unnerving as things play out. Knowing that such terrible tragedy struck this movie so early and so late in its production cannot help but cloud the proceedings onscreen. There really is a shadow of death that hangs over this picture, and it's a feeling that is tough to shake.
While Blood from the Mummy's Tomb will never be placed in the upper tier of the Hammer film canon, it does have a lot going for it. To its credit, the footage that was shot by Michael Carreras after director Holt's death fits in seamlessly with the rest of the proceedings. Although one can never know exactly what Holt planned to do in the editing room, constructed as it is, Blood from the Mummy's Tomb moves along pretty rapidly. Still, when everything is said and done, it is the obvious charms of Valerie Leon that must carry the picture along. From a studio that made its bread and butter with a bevy of beautiful women to match its blood red chills, Leon is something special. Looking like a player in the ultimate Russ Meyer wet dream, Valerie Leon is stunning in that very '60s/'70s way. What she lacks in acting talent, Leon makes up with a presence and a look the camera adores. Taking the bull by the horns, she does a nice job of playing two roles. Granted, one of those roles spends the entire film in a century spanning slumber, but damn she looks good in those skimpy outfits! All right, testosterone pushed to the side for now. Sorry. Seriously though, Leon underplays pretty much the entire film and it's a choice that works in the movie's favor. Over-the-top histrionics would have done nothing more than draw attention to the melodramatic aspects of Christopher Wicking's otherwise intelligent, if moderately underwritten, screenplay. The final few scenes may suffer from this lack of emotion on Leon's part, but it is hardly a fatal flaw. Hammer was always a studio that made good on its limitations and in the lead role Valerie Leon is no exception. In fact, it is her underplaying that makes the final shot of the film so open ended and so fraught with creepy possibilities.
As her father, the distinguished actor Andrew Keir steps into the shoes originally meant for Peter Cushing. Keir does an excellent job of showing the fear, the panic, and the lust he bears for the sleeping goddess of evil—a goddess who also bears a striking resemblance to his daughter. The screenplay hardly pays notice to this tinge of incest, but it is gently foreshadowed in Kier's performance. Pity, because it does add an extra layer of creepiness to the proceedings. All in all, Keir delivers the goods in this odd little horror film.
Less successful is James Villiers as the human heavy of the piece, a man named Corbeck. Villiers really isn't bad; he is just written that way. My apologies to Roger Rabbit, but the problems with this character lie more in Wickering's screenplay than in Villiers' performance. There is hardly any menace in Corbeck and the film suffers for it. As an actor, Villers nobly goes through the motions given to him; it just fails to add any suspense or tension to the film.
Also in support is a rather bland Mark Edwards as the boyfriend, and in a rather odd turn is veteran character actor Aubrey Morris (Bordello of Blood, The Wicker Man) as Dr. Putnam. Besides turning in a truly quirky, mannered performance, Morris is outfitted with the most far-out set of eyewear this side of Elton John. These glasses just scream 1970s and it is a cry that is so loud that any thought of seriousness is torpedoed whenever he or his glasses are onscreen.
This being an Anchor Bay release of a Hammer title there are a nice selection of value added content. First up is a quick featurette featuring writer Christopher Wickering and star Valerie Leon. Wickering comes off as vaguely pretentious and Leon has aged quite gracefully into what older men call a handsome woman. Both have nice things to say about the film and their memories of it. It's a piece of fluff, but it's nice to have. Also included are television spots, radio ads, and a still gallery that feature a couple of pictures with Peter Cushing from his only day of work on this production. As an extra bonus, Blood from The Mummy's Tomb comes with an additional disc called The Hammer Trailer Collection. If you own many of the other Hammer discs, you already have most of these trailers. Still, as I said before, having is usually better than not having. It's a fun little disc and its amazing to see how little, yet how much has changed about the way movies are marketed.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen that maintains the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, Blood from the Mummy's Tomb features a good if not great transfer. The print used is of good grade with a minimum of nicks or scratches, and compared to the job Paramount did with The Godfather, it looks like it could have been produced yesterday. Sarcasm aside, it always seems like Anchor Bay does their homework in finding the best possible source material. Colors tend to be somewhat garish, but they are part of the period and the style of the film and the transfer does a good job of reproducing them. Blacks and shadows remain solid, showing little in the way of pixel distortion. There is also a definite lack of edge enhancement while the downside of the visuals is a distinct softness to much of the picture. This may well have been inherent to the source material but it is somewhat bothersome and bears mentioning.
Sound is Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono and it is certainly serviceable. Dialogue comes across clearly, with there being a good integration of sound effects and music cues. There is little to any background distortion or hiss to speak of, and while this is hardly a mix to write home about, it's simply not that kind of movie. While I like brand spanking new 5.1 remixes like the next movie geek, it's nice to hear a film in its original form with nothing in the way of bells or whistles. Sound design was never really a major factor in the Hammer way of doing things, and anything else would just have been artificial.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I know I have written this before in regard to Hammer movies, but it bears repeating. If you go in expecting a slashfest with a lot of dumb, doomed teenagers, then you are bound to walk away disappointed. To its credit, there is a higher gore quotient than in the usual Hammer horror flick—after all, it's not called Blood from the Mummy's Tomb for nothing. On the plus side, I ask: how many movies can you watch and see a severed limb that lactates blood every time someone dies? Not too damn many.
The movie is more of psychological thriller and is a definite departure from their previous "Mummy" features. As such, it may be a bit of a let down to those fond of their mummies bound in cloth and speechless. The film is full of such artistic departures and may well explain part of its failure to be popular.
It is also a pity that Seth Holt died so close to the end of this movie's
production. Based on his previous work, Holt was an interesting director with
the right material and I would have loved to see what he would have done with
the finished product.
As anyone who has read my work over the past year or so knows, I am a big fan of Hammer films. For 12 or 13 years they created well produced, intelligently written, and stylishly acted films that were a cut or two above the standard horror fare. Some of my fondest Saturday and Sunday morning memories are littered with the work of Hammer Studios. With Blood From the Mummy's Tomb I got the chance to see some Hammer horror that I may not have understood as a child, although seeing Valerie Leon and her prominent charms is a universal language any red-blooded man-child is bound to comprehend.
Blood from the Mummy's Tomb could best be thought of as a thinking person's horror film. It is certainly entertaining, but is really not that scary. Most fans of Hammer horror probably already own this disc, but if you are such a fan and have not run out yet to grab this disc yet, don't be afraid to go dig into this tomb. As always, Anchor Bay does more with less than any other DVD producer in the market today. On the buy it or rent it scale, casual horror fans are cautioned that this movie is best left to a rental the first time out. If you like what you see, welcome to the Hammer club. For their part, Anchor Bay certainly loads up a disc that most would not give a second thought to and does it all for a retail price under 20 bucks. So, if you do decide to buy there is a maximum bang for your buck.
To answer my own question posed in the Opening Statement. Charlton Heston can be found starring in the vastly inferior film based on the same source material. That 1980 movie is called The Awakening and caution should be shown whenever you pass it in the video store. Operative word: pass. Which of course rhymes with gas, which means it stinks. But I digress.
On the matter of 1971's Blood from the Mummy's Tomb, this court finds all connected with the film acquitted. Noble work equals a creepy little movie when expectations were so low. Not quite as low as Valerie Leon's neckline, mind you, but that is an entirely different discussion. Maybe, one of these days Anchor Bay will adopt a full time support for close captioning. Until that time, they will continue to give me something to complain about.
Court is dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Interviews with Star Valerie Leon and Writer Christopher Wicking
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