While Hammer Studios has been in business since 1934, it was between 1955 and 1979 that it towered as one of the premier sources of edgy, gothic horror. On top of ushering the famous monsters of Universals horror heyday back into the public eye, resurrecting the likes of Frankenstein, Dracula and the Mummy in vivid color, the studio invited performers like Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Ingrid Pitt and so many more to step into the genre limelight. Spanning a library housing over 300 films, Hammer Studios is a key part of horror history that until recently has been far too difficult to track down.
In late 2018, Shout Factorys Scream Factory line began to focus on bringing Hammers titles to disc in the US, finally making many of the studios underseen gems available in packages that offered great visuals as well as insightful accompanying features. Over the course of this column, I will focus on these releases, gauging the films in context of the Hammer Studio story as well as analyzing the merits of the release. Its time to highlight the power, impact and influence of Hammer Studios and ignite new conversation surrounding some forgotten classics.
Welcome to theHammer Factory. This month we dissect Blood From the Mummys Tomb (1971).
Lumbering and bandaged, the mummy and its iconic visage has haunted the corridors of horror cinema since the early 1930s. And, like Universal and its popularizing of so many frightening fiends into the public consciousness, Hammer was all too ready to reinterpret the wrapped monstrosity for its own gothic aims.
As with The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958), The Mummy (1959) was directed by Terence Fisher and again united stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Eerie, affecting and beautifully photographed, the film sparked several sequels. However, The Mummy ultimately failed to elicit the kind of fan response and box office returns that would lead to the franchise stability that Frankenstein and Dracula enjoyed over the coming decade.
By 1969, the mummy seemed all but irrelevant. Not even Hammer mainstays Anthony Hinds and Jimmy Sangster could convince Hammer head James Carreras that a fourth film featuring the Egyptian undead was a viable decision. It seemed the changing nature of the horror genre and the lack of overseas financial support for even some of the most recognizable silver screen terrors had finally lulled the wrapped husks back into their eternal slumber.
As the decade turned, Hammer saw many of its former stable of producers leave the studio behind, with James Carreras turning to independent sources for the pitches he was no longer generating in house. American producer Howard Brandy was one such source, bringing with him the rights to Bram Stokers 1903 novel The Jewel of Seven Stars. The story of an Egyptian curse, awakened in the tomb of an immortal sorceress, this would be a mummy movie without a mummy a beautiful, scantily clad woman standing in for the hulking figure typically obscured by its gauzy cast.
The titillating concept was enough to convince Carreras to bring the picture to his son Michael, who was taking over studio managing duties at the time. Altering the title from its stuffy origins by selecting the most tantalizing words Carreras could think to associate with mummy movie titles, Blood From the Mummys Tomb (1971) came to life. Christopher Wicking was brought on to adapt the book and, after some deliberation, Seth Holt signed on to direct. Both carried with them an impressive genre pedigree, with Wicking coming off of working with AIP writing films like The Oblong Box (1969) and Cry of the Banshee (1970), and Holt having worked with Hammer on Scream of Fear (1961) and The Nanny (1965).
Despite the filmmakers desire to cast Deborah Grant as the lead, James Carreras insisted on Valerie Leon, an actress he had been exposed to in a series of provocative Hai Karate aftershave commercials. With Peter Cushing brought in to play her father Fuchs, the production was poised and ready to be a successful one. Unfortunately, much like the curses such Egyptian lore often deals in, mining The Jewel of Seven Stars turned out to be far more complicated than initially anticipated.
Within days of the start of production, Peter Cushings wife Helen fell ill and shortly thereafter passed away. The devastating loss meant that Cushing would be unable to continue on with the picture and Hammer frequenter Andrew Keir was called in as his replacement. Requesting that Carreras leave the script at the gate, Keir arrived overnight and learned the part within a few days so that the production could continue as scheduled. Meanwhile, a rift formed between screenwriter Christopher Wicking and producer Howard Brandy that resulted in unauthorized rewrites and Wicking being banned from the set, further casting a shadow over the increasingly troubled production.
It was in the final week of the six week shoot that tragedy struck once more. Seth Holt, who had preexisting health concerns before signing onto the film, became stricken with a multi-day bout of hiccups that didnt relent until one evening after a dinner party his heart simply gave out. The directors death meant that James son Michael Carreras would have to step in, if the production were to stay on course and finish in the time required. Still, as Holt preferred to work without an editor assembling the footage as it was shot, Carreras had no roadmap to what had and had not been completed, being forced to sift through weeks of daily rushes and determine a plan for what still needed to be shot to finish the film.
After a tumultuous production and a progressively intensifying dourness pervading the set, Blood From the Mummys Tomb emerged as Hammers final foray into the mummy subgenre and one of their last direct adaptations of classic horror prose. Reversing the moral idiomatic constructs of the time, Wickings script subverts the traditional patriarchal authority that dominated even some of their recent films, like The Devil Rides Out (1968), and positions those that system oppresses as the protagonists. Following in line with the counterculture of the late 1960s, the film exacts its revenge on the elder generation for claiming moral superiority and ownership over those things they have no right to or understanding of like, for example, an ancient sorcerous resting peacefully in her hitherto unearthed tomb.
The films release was accompanied by an illustrious premiere, playing in the National Film Theater in London alongside a Hammer retrospective put together by the BFI (British Film Institute). James Carreras was thrilled, noting that Hammer had finally been embraced as a component of cinematic culture worthy of study and analysis and not simply the purveyor of lurid sleaze the studio had at one time been labeled. A bittersweet revelation, as the studios days were nearing their final number.
AIP picked up the distribution rights and released Blood From the Mummys Tomb as a double feature with Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971) in the US to general financial success. Carreras and Wicking continued to work with one another, desperately trying to connect to both the public zeitgeist and Hammers history of traditional gothic horror. Still, they were never able to recreate the success they had with their surprisingly fresh take on the bandaged foe.
Still, through their unmade miscalculations like Nessie or Kali, Devil Bride of Dracula, its their efforts surrounding the inevitability of the resurrection of mans past sins, the melding of the ancient and the modern, and the eternally classic monster known as the mummy that will stand as the preeminent accomplishment of their collaboration. While the following years would see Hammer falling ever further into disrepair, incongruous with the times and desperate to try anything cinematically if it meant regaining commercial traction, Blood From the Mummys Tomb suggests that sometimes the simplest answer is the correct one.
The mummy will always be an iconic component of Hammers devilish stable, a creepy curse that is sure to befall any one person foolish enough to disturb its slumber. Blood From the Mummys Tomb personifies that curse in new and exciting ways, evolving the bandaged beast into something far more alluring and, in some ways, meaningful. Hammer began their horror reign through the lens of reinterpretation, and one wonders what might have been had they more thoroughly embraced that ideology once more several decades on. They were never going to be the grindhouse. But, who knows, they mightve been a welcome foil to it.
The meek shall not inherit the earth. They cant be trusted with it.
A black, starry sky and an unnerving, otherworldly theme usher in the credits which fade in and out over Margaret Fuchs disquieted sleep. An ancient cave entrenched in fog appears in her dreams, housing a beautiful queen laid out unconscious on a slab. Shes surrounded by Egyptian priests in a room lined with hieroglyphics and peppered with disturbing antiquities. Wordlessly, one of the robed men raises a golden axe and severs her hand onto a silver plate.
Sinew hanging from its bloody stump, the appendage lands at the feet of a pack of wild dogs, waiting anxiously outside of the cave to feed. Margaret moans and turns in her sleep as she continues to dream of the incapacitated Queens fate. The priests seal Queen Tera in her sarcophagus as the hand crawls away from the now frightened dogs. The men leave and the firelights distinguish just as a sandstorm strikes, a mysterious force slicing the throats of the conniving priests. The hand continues its crawl into the desert night as Margaret wakes up centuries removed with a nightmarish scream.
Like The Plague of the Zombies (1966) before it, Blood From the Mummys Tomb opens with a more modern storytelling approach than many of Hammers classic gothic films, presenting pieces of the story out of context and creating something of a narrative mystery for the viewer to parse together. Juggling the events of the Bram Stoker novel The Jewel of Seven Stars upon which its based, Seth Holts direction and Christopher Wickings screenplay offers a more sensationalized, exciting and liberalized story than what appears on the page, transposing the events of 1903 to the 1970s and infusing it with relevance and bite in equal measure.
The story concerns the psychically attuned Margaret Fuchs and the ancient Egyptian Queen Tera, both played by Valerie Leon. In short order, the film reveals that Margarets father Julian, played by Andrew Keir, had led a team of archeologists some years prior in an effort to find and excavate Teras tomb. Having remained tight-lipped about his findings, Julian decides to gift Teras ring to his daughter for her upcoming birthday, sparking an investigation into the meaning of the object and what occurred on that expedition years before by Margaret and her boyfriend Tod (named for director Tod Browning), played by Mark Edwards.
Valerie Leon balances both of her roles with the proper degree of tension, malleability and raw strength. Her piercing gaze, statuesque appearance and ability to alternate between intimidating and demure allows for seamless character transitions and narrative believability regardless of which persona shes occupying.
While Julian Fuchs was written for Peter Cushing, Andrew Keir does an admirable job filling his shoes, carrying the pathos of a loving father with a terrible secret into every scene with subtlety and weight. Mark Edwards Tod rounds out the core trio in a fine, if not somewhat wooden turn, playing Margarets intellectual, truth-obsessed beau with the seriousness of a scientist and the libido of a lover.
Much of the plot revolves around collecting artifacts from the other archeologists that accompanied Julian on the original expedition. Deviating from the novel, which was set up as more of an occult detective story, the tension is created not from locating the items themselves, but from the interpersonal rivalries shared between the estranged colleagues. The performances of these friends turned adversaries range from quiet and reserved to borderline camp and serve to flesh out the uniquely modern tone this gothic employs.
The most villainous of these former comrades is the conniving Corbeck, played with deliciously dry knavery by James Villiers. Corbeck leads the charge in locating the relics, recruiting Margaret on his quest to reunite the ancient Queen Tera with her immortal soul. This invites a series of set-piece interactions with the various members of the original expedition, all irrevocably affected by their exposure to the tombs venerable sorcery. This provides a fun, narrative drive to the events onscreen while highlighting the runtimes quirkiest characters, like Rosalie Crutchleys archeologist turned fortune teller Helen and George Coulouris oddball Berrigan, who has been committed to an asylum following the events of their teams forsaken enterprise in Egypt.
Throughout the film, the characters continue to encounter the vision of seven aligning stars, whether it be reflected in a crystal ball or lights dancing upon a carpet, supplying a pervasively sweeping astrological consciousness to the action that signals the ever encroaching hand of fate at every turn. Arthur Grants subtle and effective cinematography captures these moments beautifully, visually engaging the audience with tricks of the eye and the periphery that invites the viewer to question the validity of such signs. Uncertainty and ambiguity are interwoven into the visual language as much as they are into the story, suggesting that director Seth Holt was far more interested in building tension than shock.
Seth Holt directs with the same degree of sureness and eloquence that the classic Hammer films were so well regarded for. This is perhaps best represented by an extended flashback sequence detailing the events of the ill-fated expedition of which the film revolves around. The shadowy, dusty air of the tomb is brought to life with a sinister ghostliness that adds supernatural presence to the space, allowing for the artifacts and still bleeding body contained there to be imbued with the appropriate amount of mystic power.
As the film reaches its conclusion, Margarets consciousness becomes ever more entwined with Teras as she subconsciously relinquishes control to the spirit which has been tied to her soul since the shared moment of Margarets birth and her fathers breaching of the forgotten tomb. In her fathers basement now containing the various artifacts and reunited with the Queens severed hand, the ethereal soul can be resurrected once more. Corbeck, Professor Fuchs and the transforming Margaret meet in a scene that is as much of a ritualistic endeavor as it is a purifying moment of clarity, seeking to amend the sins inherited from the transgressions of the past without repeating them for further future generations to be doomed to bear.
Blood From the Mummys Tomb opens with the deep, dark emptiness of space, the vast expanse that comprises the great unknowable fathoms beyond our world from which anything might be possible. Its a film that thrusts its mummified premise into new and uncharted territory for Hammer, offering a modernized look at the classic monster that falls perfectly in line with the studios proclivity toward reinvention in the name of genre relevance. Although marred by tragedy and interpersonal drama, the production amounted to one of Hammers last great monster films, leaning on its classic horror literary roots and crafting something entertaining, eerie and atmospherically effective.
In the end, Margaret finds herself in a hospital, alone and recovering after her efforts to spirit her immortal soul away from the encroaching clutches of her identical sorceress. Her eyes stare forward, as though peering into that immeasurable abyss that has haunted her dreams since the very beginning. Shes wrapped in gauze, confined in white cloth and unable to speak or to move, cursed with the kind of uniquely confining entrapment that so well represents the titular threat from the films title card.
Finally, as the credits roll, the mummy emerges. Who lies under the dressing is anyones guess. Ancient goddess or innocent mortal? The question reverberates in the womans unyielding stare, echoing through the events that have transpired over the films runtime and landing at the feet of the last remaining vestige of Queen Teras spiritual quest to regain autonomy.
In the end, the film subscribes to the terrifying truth of all great mummy movies: what lies beneath the binding cloth is a mysterious force, and one to be reckoned with.
The Special Features
This release comes equipped with the 2017 Studio Canal restoration of the film in both its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio and its 1.85:1 reformatting. The transfer across both aspect ratios boasts vibrant but naturalistic color with impressive contrast that never betrays the films cinematic look. Detail is sharp and grain is intact, making this transfer the ideal way to experience the film.
The DTS-HD Master Mono track matches the visuals with a crisp listening experience, presenting dialogue clearly and the films striking score with power and subtlety in equal measure. Overall, the A/V package is essentially the same as what was released in the UK, minus the 1.85:1 version, providing US audiences with a wonderful presentation of a classic Hammer outing.
Audio Commentary, by Steve Haberman
(New: 2019, produced by Shout Factory)
Author and Film historian Steve Haberman provides an in depth look at the film, its troubled production and the contextual intricacies of bringing a mummy movie to life in 1971.
Haberman begins by discussing Bram Stokers novel The Jewel of Seven Stars and how that came to be in Hammers hands, as well as the way the story was shifted into something more relevant for the decade they transposed the story to. He discusses Peter Cushings original involvement and leave following the death of his wife as well as the eventual death of director Seth Holt. He also walks through the narrative and how Hammer attempted to update the mummy mythology for modern times, attempting to make it sexier, more exciting and thematically resonant than its predecessors.
The track is informative and fascinating, offering wonderful insight into the genesis of the film and those who were part of its creation.
The Pharoahs Curse Inside Blood From the Mummys Tomb (18:03)
(2017, produced by StudioCanal)
A collection of Hammer historians offer their knowledge and insight regarding Blood From the Mummys Tomb in this brief but instructive segment ported over from the StudioCanal release.
Author Jonathan Rigby, Egyptologist John Johnson and historian Alan Barnes are some of the people to chime in, providing backstory on Bram Stokers novel and the manner in which the film came to be pitched at Hammer, despite their disinterest in making more mummy movies. Valerie Leon appears as well, speaking about the cursed production and how sad she was that she was unable to attend Seth Holts funeral. They discuss the films successful elements, prestigious premiere in London and how the film offered something altogether different from the typical gothic fare some had come to expect from a Hammer mummy movie. Its an enjoyable and informative watch for fans of the film.
Curse of Blood From the Mummys Tomb Interviews with Star Valerie Leon and Writer Christopher Wicking (9:30)
(2001, produced by Blue Underground)
Actress Valerie Leon and Writer Christopher Wicking discuss how they came to be involved in Blood From the Mummys Tomb as well as the infamous cursed production that it had in this brief interview segment produced by Blue Underground for the US DVD release.
Leon talks about the Hai Karate commercials she became famous for in Britain and how that landed her the job on the film. Wicking discusses his role in hiring Seth Holt, who he says was the most intelligent person of that generation that hed met, and talks about his struggles to agree upon a title with James Carreras. They discuss the events that transpired with Peter Cushing and Seth Holts tragedies in more detail as well as the legacy the film has had in the context of Hammers canon of films as well as their careers. Covers similar ground to the previous segment and the commentary, but given that it comes from actual creatives involved in the film, is valuable and enjoyable nonetheless.
Interview with Sound Recordist Tony Dawe (5:34)
(NEW: 2019, produced by Shout! Factory)
A brief, candid interview segment centering on sound recordist for the film, Tony Dawe. He waxes on fondly about director Seth Holt and the creative freedom he allowed him on set as well as the tragedy that happened toward the end of the shoot. He discusses what it was like coming up in the industry at the time and the importance of experimenting with ones art form as opposed to strictly abiding by the rules placed in ones way. Nothing revelatory, but an interesting perspective on the making of the film from a perspective rarely heard from.
Interview with Camera Operator Neil Binney (5:03)
(NEW: 2019, produced by Shout! Factory)
Similar to the interview with Tony Dawe, this short segment features Camera Operator Neil Binney reflecting on his time working on Blood From the Mummys Tomb. He reminisces about working with Valerie Leon and how beautiful she looked no matter how or where the camera was positioned. He also discusses Seth Holt and the pleasure it was to work for him, also commenting on the directors untimely demise and the circumstances surrounding it. Like the previous interview, this is a bite-sized look into the production of the film from a source not often given a voice and one worth checking out.
Theatrical Trailer #1 (0:54)
A tomb, marked with hieroglyphics and peppered with ancient priests presides over the frame as the narrator announces that Blood from the ever living, the ever evil has bled from the mummys tomb.
The announcer continues over these images, speaking of an evil too terrifying and too strange to be believed. A woman asks, you know who I am? And the announcer responds with the question, Who is she wearing the mummys face? Valerie Leon kisses her boyfriend and stalks down a hallway, while a hand crawls menacingly by a cut later. The red lettered title appears: Blood From the Mummys Tomb.
Theatrical Trailer #2 (2:29)
Explorers hold up a lamp, reading symbols on a wall and the announcer informs, For thousands upon thousands of years, she lay there, perfectly preserved in all her beauty and all her evil.
Images of the excavation of the mummys tomb pepper the frame as the announcer reminds, we do have her name: Tera. Professor Fuchs gives his daughter Margaret a ruby inlaid ring and the night sky fills the frame. The announcer continues, across the centuries to another time to another place she is back amongst the living to claim all that is hers. Margaret brandishes the ring. Tera lies in the tomb. Margaret pleads, I have no mind left, no will you have to help me! Finally, a sand storm blows by and the title card follows, the letters fragmenting on the screen.
TV Spot (0:23)
A commercial for the double feature of Blood From the Mummys Tomb and Night of the Blood Monster (1970), featuring Valerie Leon making her way slowly down a hallway provocatively set against women in chains being dragged away. The ad finishes as it proclaims that the two are the story of the other living and the terror of chained women.
Radio Spots (1:52)
Backed by a yellow, high contrast image of Queen Tera in her sarcophagus, the sound waves waver with the voice. Someone screams as a voice says, now, for the first chamber of torture. Describing what they claim to be the most terrifying double feature ever brought to the screen, eerie sound effects accompany the clip as a cacophony of hyperbolic claims from the narrator and silly sound effects flow across the two clips recorded here. These spots are all too brief examples of a bygone age, perfectly capturing the tone these movies campaigns were constantly striving to strike with their audience.
Still Gallery (9:21)
A gallery of photographs, lobby cards, production stills, Valerie Leon publicity and glamour shots both on location and off, cast member head shots, posters, artwork and newspaper advertisements comprise this slideshow that serves as a wonderful tribute to the production and its history.
As the doors to Universals collection of creatures slowly began to open for Hammer in the late 1950s, the studio was only too keen to adopt as many of the gruesome and the grotesque as they possibly could. And, toward the top of that gnarly list lay the decaying fabric of the mummys hanging threads. And while their initial foray into the Egyptian undead came packaged with all the prestige and gravitas of their greatest productions, as the series went on, there seemed to be a diminishing focus on crafting mummy outings that stood apart from the rest.
And yet, despite its creatively cynical origins, Blood From the Mummys Tomb is a film that melded the classic with the contemporary, marrying the gothic sensibilities that Hammer had become so well known for with the progressive moral ambiguities and overt sexuality that was pervading the horror genre in the early 1970s. The film honors the original novel while modernizing its themes, transplanting the events from the turn of the century to modern day. It challenges the aging moral authority that was so often presented as the irrefutable hero, questioning buried offenses and following the shadow of the elders past sins as it looms ominously over its proceeding generation.
Scream Factory presents the film with a beautiful transfer from StudioCanal in both available aspect ratios. Present too are accompanying special features ported over from several prior releases as well as new interviews and a fantastic, newly recorded commentary track that serves as a history lesson in all things Blood From the Mummys Tomb. Its no surprise that, once again, Scream has crafted a fantastic release that does the film and its enduring legacy the justice it deserves.
Despite an auspicious premiere overseen by the British Film Institute and a successful American run via AIP after being paired with Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, Blood From the Mummys Tomb would be Hammers final descent into the mummys dark vault. The following years would see the studio falter more than it would succeed, grasping at popular tropes and doing everything they could to meet the demands of a genre that was descending ever further into exploitation, a language Hammer just couldnt seem to master.
The monstrous and the macabre never truly disappear. They change, evolve and, yes, even go out of style from time to time but such dark creations always claw their way out of obscurity, seeking those in the light to terrorize once more. Hammer is synonymous with such things, the mummy among them, and Blood From the Mummys Tomb is a testament to what can be done with a timeless terror, a contemporary perspective and the will to marry the two. It is unclear whether or not Hammers uncanny ability to reinterpret might have led to some salvation, had they more thoroughly embraced it in the end as they did at the start. However, what is clear is that regardless of whether or not such an ideology is why they were initially forgotten, it is certainly the reason they will be eternally remembered.
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- Jamie Lee Curtis and Christopher Guest to appear on JLGB Virtual next week - Jewish News - January 30th, 2021
Reviewed and Recommended by Erik Baquero