Chris Wharfe takes a look at two classic Hammer Horror films – The Mummy’s Shroud and Rasputin The Mad Monk. Both have recently been released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK.
The Mummy’s Shroud
I’d be lying if I said The Mummy’s Shroud wasn’t a mostly typical curse-of-the-pharaoh tale. Deciding not to try too hard to separate itself from the pack, it instead rests comfortably on a formulaic plot of a group of archaeologists awakening a 4,000 year old spirit when excavating a tomb.
But while you’ve likely seen it before, even in films released before The Mummy’s Shroud (so pre-1967, for those keeping track at home), there’s something about the late John Gilling’s 35th directorial effort that makes it a much easier watch than it should be. The reason behind this is difficult to determine; certainly, it’s not likely to be the acting standards, which, following the studio name wonderfully, are more often than not dismally Hammy. (Sorry.)
It’s also not likely to be the crowbarred-in plot elements that run aside the usual Mummy formula, which ultimately end up superfluous; a fortune teller whose purpose I’m still not entirely sure of (other than to provide a predictable way to wrap things up, if you’ll forgive the pun), and a police chief whose motives completely backtrack by the film’s finale, making the character utterly redundant.
More likely it’s the directorial efforts of Gilling which help The Mummy’s Shroud to stick longer in the mind; the close-ups of the Mummy itself provide most of the horror, with the creature’s blank, inanimate features suitably creepy (and there’s something particularly unsettling about a Mummy with eyeballs). Similarly, the way the attacks are staged and shot works wonderfully; particularly in scenes involving the film’s only emotional sticking point, in the form of Hammer veteran Michael Ripper.
But perhaps the main flaw with The Mummy’s Shroud is that it is played so seriously. It refuses to come across as tongue-in-cheek, but doesn’t have the support of character development, a well thought-out script nor believable acting to help it stand on its own two feet as a serious picture. Only the efforts of Gilling make the film stand out in memory, but do they do enough to make it worth watching? Well, if you can get past the drearily long prologue, then yes. It is only a 90 minute film, after all.
Rasputin: The Mad Monk
While Christopher Lee has stated that Michael Ripper (see previous review) is the true face of Hammer, the casual viewer will still most likely associate Lee first and foremost with the studio. And it is not without good reason, for his role as Rasputin is surely the standout of this second recently released Hammer Blu-ray.
The film follows the appropriately mad habits of the titular monk, who is introduced to us as a drunkard who enjoys both healing women and forcing himself upon them. From there we witness the slow and further deterioration of Rasputin’s very mind; a simple enough premise, which is handled appropriately simply – as again, nothing here really feels like it’s trying to push any boundaries.
Instead, director Don Sharp imbues the film with not so much a rounded picture feel as instead a showcase for the talents of Lee; hoping that these will suffice to carry Rasputin through its 91 minute runtime. Luckily for Sharp, it’s a risky move that, to an extent, succeeds. We’re enthralled and appalled by the lengths to which Rasputin will go to get what he desires, a reaction surely resultant of Lee and Lee alone.
Even the oft-noted efforts of Barbara Shelley as the manipulated victim of Rasputin’s pursuits pale here in comparison to Lee, though perhaps that is through less fault of hers, and more Sharp’s eagerness to give the limelight so willingly to his titular character and so less eagerly to others. Still, the supporting cast do their best with what little room they’re given.
Further holding back the film are the clunky sets and even clunkier script; where the low budget was, to some extent, hidden in The Mummy’s Shroud (or otherwise accentuated to a positive end), here the drawbacks are painfully evident. I am loathe to use the ‘Hammy’ pun again, but it is inexorable where Rasputin is concerned. Not with the acting efforts, as previously noted; moreso with certain patches of dialogue and further still with the sets.
Indeed, Rasputin at times feels more like a pantomime than a horror film; an unfunny one at that, though Lee’s intimidating screen presence tends to provide the odd scare here and there. Mostly, though, Rasputin is bereft of being engaging; its titular character’s pursuits meandering and aimless, mad as the monk himself – and, just to add insult to injury, aren’t even entirely historically accurate.
Not that this is a documentary, but if it concerns itself not with the facts, nor, to an extent, making the fiction entertaining, then what exactly has Sharp attempted to deliver here? If anything, I suppose, then a platform for Christopher Lee – which, while perhaps unnecessary, is not unwelcome.
The Blu-ray transfers both prove fairly up-to-scratch, particularly considering the age of the prints; while the images often appear slightly grainy, especially in low-light situations, the visual side of things is, for the most part, impressive. Where the transfers drop most heavily is in audio quality, most noticeably any time the scores are amplified. Still, for Hammer fans these are both certainly worth the transfer from DVD.
Directed by: John Gilling
Written by: John Gilling, Anthony Hinds
Starring: André Morell, John Phillips, David Buck, Maggie Kimberly
Released: 2012 / Genre: Horror / Country: UK / IMDB
Directed by: Don Sharp
Written by: Anthony Hinds
Starring: Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Francis Matthews, Richard Pasco, Suzan Farmer