The Mummy’s Shroud
Different monsters mean different things in movies, and where Dracula warns that the rich and privileged will bleed you to death given half a chance, and the Wolfman points out that you evolved from something and that something didn’t just disappear, the Mummy has always carried a relatively simple message - to pay attention to warnings by people who’ve been around longer than you have. It’s a very parent friendly story; the monster of ‘I told you so’, of ‘didn’t I warn you?’, of ‘you’ll have someone’s eye out with that!’
So, the thing you really need to make that work is the cinematic equivalent of a snot-nosed brat badly in need of a clip round the ear. What The Mummy’s Shroud gets right more than the two Hammer Mummy movies that came before it is that they have one of the main characters, the financier of the expedition, be a proper swine, someone you could quite cheerfully see be torn limb from limb. And they’re not a moustache-twirling, two-dimensional villain whose only reason for being is to be evil and be killed, but a proper psychopathic rich bastard who makes everyone’s lives a misery just to feed his avaricious vanity. The sort of chap who, no matter what year you’re watching it in, you recognize the face of the man whose boot is on your neck.
Because, after all, the point of any Mummy movie is to watch the homicidal personification (mummification?) of comeuppance go stalking after the blindly and cruelly ambitious. And it’s so much better when its victims are exactly the sort of uppity sods who could use a hefty dose of ‘that’ll teach you, you bastard!’
One of the best things about The Shroud is that Hammer draws proper three dimensional characters to tell the story instead of the usual - leading man, leading lady, old mentor etc. So we have the financier (boo! hiss!), his son (who hates his father and everything he stands for), his wife (who can only bring herself to look at her husband with a wearily resigned contempt), his assistant (a brilliant Michael Ripper who somehow turns the character’s oily obsequiousness into a very relatable and sympathetic desperation to please the boss), and finally the archaeologist (who can barely believe the idiot he has to placate just so he can work). And the effect of all these proper characters is to come together to make the audience want, need, to see the financier squished by the Mummy. There’s something rather splendid about watching a rich, bullying blowhard who’s gotten his own way his whole life skittering around in panic and terror as he desperately searches for the way out he has so often denied to others.
But this, unfortunately, is where the movie falls down. Because when you see the photographer try to defend himself against the Mummy by throwing acid at it, which makes the Mummy think ‘Oh-ho! You thought that was going to hurt me did you? Well let’s see how you like it chum!’ - at which point the Mummy picks up the acid and pours it all over the photographer, which leads to some pretty gruesome screaming... Well, this is a Mummy we can all get behind, right? An improvising Mummy who’s happy to make use of things around it in order to kill people with a little more finesse than the old put-the-hands-around-the-neck-and-squeeze, eh? Count me in! And the audience settle back for a fun movie where the Mummy tramps around getting its revenge in new and imaginatively gory ways. Except, it never does. After the photographer’s sizzling end, it’s right back to the old strangling. And the total bastard, the one the audience has been waiting all movie to see die, gets his head bashed against a wall, and... that’s it! I felt pretty short-changed by that, I can tell you. Given all the horribly gruesome, and graphically symbolic ways the financier could get what’s coming to him, seeing his head bumped against a wall, leaving some red paint behind, was not very high on the list.
Ah well, it’s still a good Mummy movie, and probably my favourite so far. I know the first one is a classic, and I will never look down my nose at any movie with Cushing and Lee in it, but I just liked how well drawn the characters in The Shroud were. The atmosphere was just right too, you could feel the desert heat, and how alien this land was that they were trapped in. It’s nice that they didn’t take the Mummy back to London but had to deal with being stalked and murdered in what amounted to a sort of terrible exile where they were hot as hell and had no chance of escape. The first Mummy movie felt like a reverential telling of a well-told tale where everyone was an archetype instead of a person. This one felt like a bunch of poor bastards marooned in an ancient desert, unable to do anything but wait for its past to tear their throats out. Honestly, it makes me thirsty just thinking about it. Speaking of which…