Karnak is a nearly forgotten Egyptian deity, his murderous worshipper fueling the vengeful god’s wrath: a shambling and forlorn Priest relegated to undeath for a forbidden love. Hammer brings another Universal icon back from the dead, as Terence Fisher’s practical direction propels this adventurous tale into a suspenseful second act and explodes with a frightening denouement that is surprisingly compassionate.
The film begins in the scorching desert heat of Egypt amid the burning passion of obsession, as Stephen Banning and son John, sidelined with a broken leg, uncover that obscure object of archeological desire: the tomb of Princess Ananka. But a local mystic Mehemet Bey who still carries the torch for this anachronistic god warns them of their folly. Soon, science must accept and combat the paranormal, as a four thousand year old creature lurks from its secret doom to destroy those responsible for disturbing the sacred burial tomb of its lover.
The set designs and costumes are wonderful: the Princess’ tomb is aglow with green mood lighting, walls etched with meaningless but artful hieroglyphics, her sarcophagus a prop that is a work of art itself, and the colorful garments that may not be historically accurate but pop off the screen in urgent primary colors. Even John Banning’s folder is laden with beautiful sketches that capture the sculptured visage of leading lady Yvonne Ferneaux, whose physical duplicity transcends the centuries. Peter Cushing’s stoically intellectual persona imbues his character with scientific heroism, and George Pastell is gleefully evil as the Egyptian magician. But the real star is Christopher Lee, who is revisited through flashbacks but is able to impart a tortured compassion through those big brown eyes, swathed in mangled bandages, a human being now cursed by the god he once worshipped…a victim of love.
As the mummy sinks to its watery grave grasping the well preserved Scroll of Life, it’s the power of Lee’s mostly obscured performance that allows the audience to feel pity for its cruel fate.
Final grade: (B+)