Someone must have gotten the memo and said, “Jesus, another mummy movie?” After three Hammer mummy movies, which in turn had followed some nine thousand or so Universal mummy movies featuring the vengeful bag o’ rags known as Kharsis, the general consensus was that the world pretty much had all the movies it needed in which some expedition disturbs a tomb, gets yelled at by a guy in a fez, and then gets stalked by the mummy looking to avenge the desecration of the tomb. Even in as few as three films, Hammer Studio seemed to be flogging a dead…I don’t know…Pharaoh or something. Though their first film, The Mummy starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee was spectacular, subsequent Hammer mummy movies bore essentially the same plot, and I do mean “bore.”
Which brings us to 1971, and Hammer is in a bad state. There had been a rocky string of films, and it seemed obvious that the studio was losing its way, or had lost its way and was already flailing blindly in the darkness. Despite the dire straights in which Hammer found itself, they managed in the early 1970s to shoot a number of surprisingly good films that saw the company trying to break new ground in much the same way they had decades previous. Two of the three “Karnstein” vampire films — Vampire Lovers and Twins of Evil are quite good films, even if their middle piece, Lust for a Vampire is somewhere more on the dodgy end of things. Vampire Circus was highly enjoyable and unique. Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell wasn’t the best in the series by any stretch of the imagination, but it was a serviceable film that would have been greatly improved if only the monster hadn’t been so silly looking. And then there was Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb.
For their forth Egyptian adventure, someone at Hammer realized that no one wanted to see the same film a fourth time, especially since each subsequent mummy movie had declined considerably in quality. So certain changes were to be made. First and most obvious there was no mummy, at least not the shambling cloth-wrapped mummy one would expect. Second, the script, based on a story by Bram Stoker, did contain a curse, the violation of a tomb, and the deaths of all who entered said tomb, but there was no vengeance for the desecration. In fact, the expedition, it turns, out, was guided there purposely by the entombed princess within. And rather than being set in the usual 1860-1910 range of dates that encompass most of Hammer’s Gothic horrors, Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb sports a modern setting. This was disastrous (if entertaining) for the Dracula films, but it worked well for the mummy since there was no real effort to beat people over the head with funky music and bell-bottoms and guys using crazy hep cat lingo. It just meant that someone drove a car and wore a turtleneck sweater. Perhaps the most striking difference between Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb and the previous two films though was that it was good. Quite good, in fact. Not The Mummy good, but still plenty enjoyable.
That Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb is such a unique and enjoyable film is all the more impressive given the fact that it became known as one of those “cursed” films. It’s too bad they’d already used up the “curse” title for the second film. The trouble started with Peter Cushing, who in an attempt to return some degree of prestige to the flagging mummy movies had been cast as one of the archaeologists who finds himself pitted against an ancient Egyptian princess’ desire to be reincarnated using the body of his own daughter. With only a day or so of filming under his belt however, Cushing’s wife grew extremely ill and he dropped out of the production to be by her side. She died shortly thereafter, and Cushing was in no mood to be making mummy movies about dead women trying to return from the tomb. Hammer was more than willing to let their main man grieve, and so he was replaced by Andrew Keir, a fine and distinguished actor who had worked with the company on such productions as Dracula, Prince of Darkness and Viking Women, and was probably best known for playing the title character in Quatermass and the Pit. He’d also worked alongside Cushing in one of the Dr. Who movies, Dalek’s Invasion Earth: 2150 AD. So even though losing Cushing was a blow, Keir was a top notch replacement who, if not possessed of as much recognition as Cushing, was still a familiar and well-respected face.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the last tragedy to befall the film. Director Seth Holt, an imaginative director with a unique style, died during filming. He’d been in a state of increasingly poor health attributed largely to his weight and drinking, and it finally caught up with him. He was replaced by Michael Carreras, the son of Hammer founder James Carreras. Michael’s directorial role call is not what one might call impressive. Impressively bad, perhaps, although entertaining in spots. But suffice it to say he wasn’t exactly the studio’s star director unless you’re idea of Hammer at their best was Lost Continent and Prehistoric Women. Nepotisim? Perhaps, but I guess they figured with Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb under his belt, they might as well call him in and let him direct the bits of Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb that remained unfinished upon Holt’s death. To Carreras’ credit, his work blends seamlessly with Holt’s, and there is no obvious point where the two directors’ styles diverge.
The story revolves around the ancient Egyptian princess Tara (hypnotic Valerie Leon), who is sort of put to death in a half-assed fashion for just being kind of all-around wicked. The method of execution seems to be to put some BBQ sauce in her nose, then cut off her hand, the reasoning being that if her body remains incomplete, then she can never rise from the tomb to inflict her evilness on society again. You’d think that rather than just chopping off a hand and throwing it to the jackals, you’d also do the head, maybe a leg. You know, make a thorough job of things. As it is, not only do they only chop off her hand, that same hand manages to kill a jackal, then go on to summon a sandstorm and rip out the throats of all the murderous priests. This movie will feature a lot of gory blood-gushing neck wounds, by the way.
In terms of gore, it’s quite extreme for Hammer, which I guess is an odd statement that deserves some quick clarification. In the 1950s and early 1960s Hammer was notorious for pushing the limits of what constituted acceptable onscreen gore. However, the revolution they began eventually passed them by, and by the time of Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, Hammer films seemed quaint and somewhat reserved compared to what was being pulled in other films. Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb isn’t a gorefest, but the gushing neck wounds are pretty extreme, and the finale of the film features a really juicy stabbing. Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb was also one of the first Hammer films (Vampire Lovers, I believe, was the first) to feature nudity even though the earlier films had often been criticized for being too sexual. The nudity here is very quick, a flash of breast and rear, and apparently a body double stood in for Valerie Leon (I think it was Peter Cushing).
Visions of the execution plague young Margaret (also Valerie Leon) thousands of years later. Her father was part of an expedition that unearthed the bizarre tomb of Tara, who stuns the archaeologist by being perfectly preserved and looking no older than the day she was killed. Things get weirder when they discover her corpse and severed hand still bleed, but they’re not able to get too freaked out since she also seems to be working some mojo from beyond the grave that puts the archaeologists under her spell. Each of them takes one of her sacred items, and when the items are united on her birthday, her spirit will return to earth and possess Margaret. Unfortunately, Margaret is already falling under the spell of the ghostly princess. See, her father gave her this big, ugly, unsightly red ring that allows Tara to dominate the mind of Margaret. The initial indication that Margaret is being possessed comes when she enthuses as to the beauty of the ring, a piece of jewelry so unspeakably ugly that not even Sammy Davis Jr. would wear it. Other characters exalt the aesthetic virtues of the ring as well, until eventually you get the idea that the script is trying desperately to make us believe in the beauty of the ring despite the obvious evidence to the contrary on screen. Although most of the members of the expedition resist Tara’s demands, that just results in Valerie summoning up ghastly forces to inflict more neck wounds. Don’t know what it is with this movie and neck wounds. Every death scene seems to end in a neck wound with blood a-pumping and the person clutching their throat and making the bug-eyed, “I have a neck wound!” dying face.
I don’t know what would have been riskier — to make another mummy movie with another mummy seeking more vengeance, or to make a mummy movie in which there is no mummy, and the story is more about possession and ghosts and psychological horror. Whatever the case, Hammer took the more original risk, and it paid off. Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb is a slower paced film, as most of the mummy movies were, but because it relied more on mood and psychological tension, the movie never feels as draggy as the previous two films. And if nothing else, watching Valerie Leon stalk around in tight-fitting skimpy nightgowns is more fun than watching more cloth-wrapped lumberers lumbering about.
What makes the film work, aside from it being different than any of the mummy movies that came before it, is the quality of the cast. Chris Wicking’s script certainly helps, but it’s the dedication of the players that makes it work. Of course, that’s the case for just about all the Hammer films, and more than a few hammy scripts were saved by the fact that the cast commits to it entirely and makes you believe. Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb isn’t a hammy script, but the fact that the cast is into it makes it even better. It keeps the pace feeling fast during the slower dialogue scenes. Keir was the biggest name in it. Valerie Leon had small parts in a lot of those Carry On films the British seemed to love so much, but this was one of her first starring roles. The rest of the cast is comprised of character actor stalwarts and a few attempts at injecting some new blood into Hammer. Everyone works quite well.
Hammer also handles the modern setting well – certainly better, as I said in the beginning, than in their other attempt to update a series property, Dracula AD 1972. The present-day setting never intrudes on the gothic-style horror. The art direction for the Egyptian scenes is better here than it was in previous films as well, with things looking more authentic and less like brand new props.
Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb isn’t a scary film really. It doesn’t instill in the viewer a sense of dread the way Hammer films at their best do. Instead, it achieves a very dreamy/nightmarish atmosphere, disturbing but never shocking save for the parts where blood spurts out of something. It has a very Continental feel to it, if you dig my meaning. And if you don’t — it lacks the clinical precision of Hammer and other British horror films and instead sports that more ephemeral Italian feel. The offbeat atmosphere foretells the even more Continental approach of Hammer’s final horror film, To the Devil…A Daughter, with the chief difference between this film and that one is that Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb is odd and enjoyable while To the Devil…A Daughter is odd and wretched.