The Mummy (UK, 1959)

'Mise en scene' as lurid as the subject matter

‘Mise en scene’ as lurid as the subject matter

I’m planning to watch both the Universal-Boris Karloff The Mummy as well as the recent remake, directed by Stephen Sommers in 1999, alongside this Hammer classic. I’m interested in how visual style (particularly camera movement and editing) has changed. The most impressive aspect of this British version is the gorgeous sets created for Terence Fisher’s direction; certainly studio bound but hysterically Gothic in a melodramatic sense.

The most striking aspect was Peter Cushing’s performance as the protagonist. Cushing was a fine actor so I’m sure the lack of emotion he displayed was exactly what was required. This absence of feeling is striking because the mummy kills his dad (sorry, ‘father’), uncle and then mortally threatens his wife. After his dad has pegged it uncle opines, ‘You were close to your father weren’t you?’ Despite the affirmative reply not only was not a tear shed but not an iota of  grief was displayed! It’s as if it’s all in a day’s work (not that he does any work). After he is almost strangled, he wears a scarf.

The setting, late 19th century upper class England, probably contributed to this overdose of the ‘stiff upper lip’ but the tropes of late 1950s would no doubt also be influential. Did the stoic portrayal of war heroes, so popular in the 1950s, mean that even men in horror films could, also, display no emotion? From the 21st century, Cushing’s performance is undoubtedly distancing; Christopher Lee’s eyes, (it’s all we can see of him as the mummy beneath the bandages) convey more feeling.

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