Mummy Dearest

A lot of horror movies require you to dig for subtext. Not so with mummy movies, however! In something like Hammer’s The Mummy (1959), the monster is a walking mass of anti-colonial rage, his significance lying right on the textual surface. This is a paranoid fantasy grown out of imperialist guilt—a “Return of the Oppressed,” to paraphrase Robin Wood. And the mummy here is an Egyptian variation on the golem, a weapon of revenge acting on behalf of an ethnic Other.

The plot of The Mummy is generated, beat for beat, by the same formula as Universal’s Karloff-starring Mummy, or miscellaneous creature features made between the two, or even slasher movies of the ’70s and on. A family of genteel archaeologists violates a tomb; a sinister Egyptian tracks them back to England; and then they’re murdered one by one. First the patriarch, who’s already mad from the sight of the reanimated, shuffling mummy. Then his brother, strangled to death at the family’s estate. And finally the son, played by Peter Cushing, who proves troublesome. He’s our “final boy,” you see.

I enjoy Cushing as a horror hero because he’s so unconventional. Hatchet-faced with a receding hairline, he always looks a little skeletal and cerebral; nothing red-blooded about him. In The Mummy, he even gets a limp as a result of his father’s tomb-violating zeal, compounding this impression of frailty. He’s mutilated by England’s decadence just as he represents its future. He’s a pale contrast to Mehemet Bay, the mummy’s fez-clad puppetmaster, with whom he argues archaeological ethics. The latter is played by George Pastell, who’s actually from Cyprus, but swarthy enough to be Egyptian by Hammer standards.

This “swarthy enough” mindset pervades The Mummy’s casting, which colonizes Egyptian identity on a metatextual level. The mummy himself is Christopher Lee, who’s British to the core but spends most of his screen time plastered with bandages. (Lee would go on to portray another ethnic villain, Fu Manchu, in the mid-’60s.) And Cushing’s wife is the white-as-snow Yvonne Furneaux, yet she turns out to be a dead ringer for Ananka, the ancient object of the mummy’s forbidden love. It’s racial sleight of hand, encompassing this “Egypt vs. England” tale entirely within the sphere of whiteness.

In the end, of course, Egypt is defeated. The wife is used as bait—a “beauty killed the beast” tactic familiar from King Kong and films of its ilk—resulting in Bey’s death at the mummy’s hands, then the mummy’s re-death via police ammunition. His battered body tumbles to the bottom of a rural bog, the ideal resting place for a monster that might need to be resurrected should a sequel roll around. This resolution morally validates Cushing, his family, and their actions. It insists on the legitimacy of their cultural theft, since 1) they’ve reaped knowledge and 2) Bey’s revenge has been so disproportionately violent. No need to dig: this is as semiotically explicit as horror gets. “Hail Britannia,” indeed.

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