‘Abject Failures’ – 2008 by Wendy McCredie
The first of three full length reviews written for Montage Film and published during August 2008.
Seth Holt’s final film Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb (1971) is better known for the disasters and traumas that befell its production than as a film in its own right. Possibly the only Mummy movie to lack an actual mummified corpse, though it does manage a creepily active dismembered hand to compensate for its ‘monster’s’ strange inertia, lush cinematography, strange sound design and clever lighting somehow disguising quite how small the budget really was. Unusually for a film of its type, the setting is roughly contemporary to its production and the issues that it touches upon are very much of their time. From feminist debates, to theories of abjection, to mistreatment of patients in asylums, to disillusion in the hippie dream, the film bears the, whether conscious or unconscious, marks of the time in which it was made.
Peter Hutchings suggests, in his notable history of the Hammer studio’s output, that Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb attempts to engage with elements of contemporary feminist debate although not very successfully. On first viewing the notion appears faintly ridiculous, much as the film makes an engaging and entertaining little romp, its views of gender are thoroughly unreconstructed. The central female character(s) spending the vast majority of the film half naked for no discernable reason, and being played by an actress better known for her roles as a Bond girl and in a variety of Carry On films than her acting abilities. Yet, if one turns down the distain and cynicism for a moment and looks closer there does appear to be something more complicated and interesting going on.
The two main female roles, excluding Tera as a symbolic law unto herself, within the film Helen Dickerson (Rosalie Crutchley) and Margaret Fuchs (Valerie Leon) perform both parts of the classic female double bind. Helen, as a former archaeologist and member of Fuchs’s original team, is drawn in a very masculinated role (right down to her exotic effeminate companion) fulfils the role of having identified with the father and ‘become’ him part of the, apparently eternal, patriarchal society which suppresses both Tera and her own self. Whereas Margaret identifies with Tera as the primal mother figure and is thus subsumed by both the patriarchal society of her father and his peers who manipulate her and on another level by Tera who seems intent on consuming her. The dualistic relationship between Margaret/Tera is best understood in terms of the, then new, notion of the abject. Tera embodies the abject in a variety of ways; she is a corpse of several thousand years, yet she maintains the appearance of life, her dismembered limb still bleeding. Margaret responds to the dream in which Tera’s hand is removed as though it was her own and throughout the film bears a scar on her own wrist that matches where Tera’s was severed. Not only does the hand serve as abject due to its dismembered state but for Margaret there is an extra significance as the hand belongs to someone who looks exactly like her, not only is it no longer part of a whole but part of a whole that is but isn’t her. The distinction between Margaret and Tera is slowly but steadily disintegrating, forming the horror that is central to the film’s premise. The audience learns that Margaret was born at the exact moment that Tera’s tomb was opened, both mother and daughter having died in childbirth and Margaret’s entire existence is wholly dependant on Tera having chosen her as a vessel for her own reincarnation. Tera has in a sense given her life, creating a pseudo maternal relationship between them, Margaret identifies Tera and the things which she loved, even at various points seeming to speak her thoughts. While Professor Fuchs’s (Andrew Kier) relationship with Tera has shades of the uncanny, he covetously worships her corpse, yet his daughter lives and breathes in her image, it only serves to reinforce the pseudo mother/daughter relationship. Margaret’s journey seems to follow a path of return to the primal mother whom she has never entirely abjected, regressing in order to finally free herself. Significantly it is rituals that are used to maintain the boundaries between nature and society, and it is during the ritual to resurrect Tera that Margaret is able to free herself from the various forces attempting to control her and re-establish her own identity.
Dreams play a central role in the film, binding Margaret and Tera together across the millennia. The film has a certain dreamlike quality to its very fabric. Not quite a nightmare, but more of a dream faded and tainted. An awareness of the way things should have been yet never truly were; it lives and breathes among the sort of dreams that can possess and obsess and steal the dreamer’s life away. Margaret speaks of Tera’s dreams, of another place, another time that she seeks, where she can be free of death and ritual and know peace. The focus on love as the be all and end all of the society which she seeks has obvious throwbacks to the sixties hippie movement with its focus on peace and love and equality. Tod’s dismissal of the likelihood of this society ever coming to be fits with the changes in society, with the counterculture movement being slowly absorbed into mainstream culture in some ways and soured in others. It could be argued that Margaret’s vision of the world that Tera has been seeking is correct and that her later bloody and merciless revenge is borne of frustration that after thousands of years at the fundamental level nothing has changed. Perhaps she truly wishes for an end to the cycle of death but seeks to punish humanity for its failure to realise a better society by wiping it clean. Similarly Margaret and her father take so long to break free of Tera’s spell because they desperately want to believe in that dream, to deny the nightmare unfolding in front of them until the world begins to, almost literally, fall down around them.
There’s something almost opulent about this film, despite its tiny budget. The cinematography is lush and somehow manages to turn the cheap set dressings into something seemingly glorious. In particular every shot of Margaret and Tera has a sense of being a loving – if doubtlessly firmly sexual – caress setting up both girls for their roles not only as objects of desire, but of fear and worship. Tera in particular maintains a position of ‘look, don’t touch’, for all that she spends almost the entire film in a comatose state the only actual physical contact she has with anyone, if we exclude the man-handling of her exiled hand, is with Margaret as they wrestle with the knife. For all that Tera is portrayed as ‘an evil Egyptian queen’, we see little to justify this, her apparent malevolence manifesting only to exact revenge upon those who first killed her, and later those who had disturbed her tomb. Notably Dr Fuchs, who had reconstructed her tomb in his basement, is only given a non fatal injury to begin with as a warning not to interfere with Tera’s plans only receiving a mortal wound when he fails to heed the warning and attempts to lay hands upon her. Tera’s only two other victims seem to meet their fates as much at Margaret’s behest as Tera’s. Both Tod and Dr Putnam having posed a threat to Margaret (Tod in slapping her to make her see sense, and Dr Putnam attempting to sedate her, albeit at her father’s request) by trying to, ostensibly, ‘save’ her.
For all that the film touches on the relevant issues of its time, it never quite succeeds in fully engaging with them. The loss of Tera’s hand may serve as an effective metaphor, using the destruction of female physical integrity as the foundation of an inherently weak and regressive patriarchal order, but for all the film’s apparent attempts to align itself with contemporary thought, it offers no solution or escape from the unjust situation its characters find themselves in. There is only a fascination and a longing to possess that ancient matriarchal power and glory. Pleasurable as the film may be there is a certain disappointment that it never fully exploits its themes to their full potential.
Although much of the film’s original shock and fear element have faded over time, Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb does retain some decidedly creepy moments, in particular the scenes with the benighted Professor Berrigan (George Coulouris. Clearly profoundly disturbed, he spends all his time in frenetic researching and writing, obsessed with finding a way to prevent either Tera from resurrecting or his former colleagues from resurrecting her, which of these is never clear but Berrigan appears equally unclear about the situation so this has little bearing on the plot. Completely fixated upon the snake idol that he took from Tera’s tomb, it seems to be the only thing that can calm him during psychotic episodes, something the nurses use to both calm and provoke him. Notably the version of the film originally seen by British cinema audiences was cut by the BBFC to remove the shot of Professor Berrigan being hit in the face by one of the male nurses. While this seems an unusual cut among the somewhat gruesome murders that pepper the film, even for the BBFC’s unusually snip-happy attitude to horror films, the apparent cause was an ongoing concern among the public regarding the mistreatment of mental health patients at the time. He serves the role of favourite plaything to the decidedly unsavoury male nurses who serve as his warders, their unsavoury glee at the ‘dawn chorus’ of their wards is truly horrible to observe. Man handled, beaten and taunted by turns for misbehaving and for failing to ‘perform’, Professor Berrigan’s condition only worsens with the appearance of Margaret whose invocation of Tera in her attempts to get the truth from him mark the beginning of her time as Tera’s pawn. However gruesome and unnecessary his death at the hand of the astral projecting Tera, it does seem almost merciful in releasing him from his various torments.
The Clash once argued that there’s a million reasons why hippies failed. Look closely at Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb and the main reason shows through with abundant clarity. Tera’s long wait among the stars for a world of peace and freedom and equality ends in an orgy of blood, vengeance and betrayal for the very same reason. Human Nature.