The nature of the classic monsters is that they wax and wane in popularity at the box office. Some, like Dracula, are so beyond legendary that you can get anywhere from one to five different Dracula films each and every year, to say nothing of vampire films that have nothing to do with Dracula himself. Frankenstein or The Phantom of the Opera seems to be a generational thing. The Mummy had to wait a bit longer for its resurrection, but it made an impact. Two sequels, an animated series, a series of film spin-offs based on the character of The Scorpion King, two video game releases, a Universal theme park ride, merchandising out the wahzoo… this gives you an idea of the power of Universal’s 1999 remake of its 1932 classic. It may not have been a financial juggernaut, but it was most certainly successful.
The plot: the priest Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) has an affair with Anck-su-Namun (Patricia Velásquez), the concubine of Pharaoh Seti I. The lovers assassinate Seti when he discovers them. Anck-su-Namun kills herself to prevent capture, awaiting resurrection at Imhotep’s hands. At Hamunaptra, City of the Dead, Imhotep performs the rites to raise his love from the beyond, but the ritual is incomplete when the Medjai, Pharaoh’s bodyguards, track him down. Imhotep and his priests are condemned to horrors only rumored in legend.
In 1926, librarian and would-be Egyptologist Evelyn Carnahan (Rachel Weisz) is given an ancient puzzle box with a map inside by her brother Jonathan, whom he stole from adventurer Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser). The siblings rescue O’Connell from a hanging death in exchange for leading them to Hamunaptra, where he acquired the puzzle box three years earlier while in service to the French Foreign Legion.
En route to Hamunaptra, they encounter a rival group of American treasure hunters being guided to the same spot by Beni Gabor (Kevin J. O’Connor), a former colleague of O’Connell. In addition to competitive rivalry, the two groups must also face Medjai attacks, ancient booby traps, flesh-eating scarabs, and ultimately the armies of the undead led by Imhotep himself.
As you can see by this description, 67 years isn’t the only thing that’s changed between this and Universal’s original incarnation. The entire tone of the film’s story has changed from a simple, twisted take on Romeo and Juliet with overtones of Dracula to an action-adventure / horror / comedy in the same vein as Indiana Jones, with effects that both honor and improve upon Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion work on Jason and the Argonauts. As remakes go, this one was certainly one of Universal’s finest hours. But then, I’m biased. I have an unreasoning love of this film. In addition to being a great Indy-style adventure, a rebirthed Universal monster, and all around amazing film, The Mummy hit at a very specific time in my life that made it even more relevant. At that point, I’d switched majors and schools in college, jumping from traditional fine arts to computer animation. Between this film and its competition, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, which opened a couple of weeks later and ultimately killed further box office receipts for The Mummy, the movie theater became something of an extended classroom for me. I got my paws on everything I could relating to motion capture and the advanced character rendering techniques this film showcased. To its credit, The Mummy has aged very well indeed, in large part due to the texture mapping and care that went into the animation. The practical effects are almost seamless, with any flaws between the two easily dismissed due to the overall quality of the film and how effortlessly it sucks you in. Combine all of that with my love of ancient Egyptian mythology and art design… this is a movie that just never gets old for me. Let’s face it, this is the stuff of legendary pulp novels writ large for the big screen.
As amazing as it holds up, it’s equally amazing to think that it almost didn’t happen at all. At various points in development, this film had names attached such as Clive Barker, George A. Romero, Wes Craven, Joe Dante, Daniel Day-Lewis, Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, and Ben Affleck before Stephen Sommers was brought on board and gave the starring role to Brendan Fraser for his Errol Flynn swashbuckling quality. It still blows the minds of many people I talk to that, for a New York minute, Fraser was the #1 action star in Hollywood. Personally, I think he was perfect for the role. Indeed, I wouldn’t change any of the casting choices. It just worked. Special kudos go to Arnold Vosloo for the unenviable task of rising to the high watermark by Boris Karloff. Or if you want to heap on even more baggage, he’s also following in the shambling footsteps of Christopher Lee from his days at Hammer. Comparisons may be inevitable, largely because there are few Mummy films by comparison and two high-powered legends dominating them, but Vosloo was both believable and a believable threat. As far as I’m concerned, he’s earned his place in the pantheon of great monster character actors.
As a pulp story, the film is certainly not free from criticism. Those looking for high art have accused it of being a cheap video game plot. Some deride the film for racial stereotyping, which sooner or later you just have to acknowledge that there’s never going to be a happy medium for these things, especially in a period piece. Roger Ebert said, “There is hardly a thing I can say in its favor, except that I was cheered by nearly every minute of it. I cannot argue for the script, the direction, the acting or even the mummy, but I can say that I was not bored and sometimes I was unreasonably pleased.” See what I mean? Even when a movie like this wins, it loses. Case in point, even the film’s score was negatively critiqued. Composed and conducted by the great Jerry Goldsmith, with orchestrations by the equally legendary Alexander Courage, the soundtrack was accused of being some of Goldsmith’s best and most mediocre work at the same time, by some of the same sources. But it won a BMI Film Award for Best Music, not that such things matter to me. All I can say for myself is that I have five favorite film score composers. Goldsmith is one of those five, and The Mummy gets regular play.
For those of us who love the nods to the classic 1932 film, there are some to be found. For example, in the original, Karloff’s mummy (also named Imhotep) takes the pseudonym Ardeth Bey, the name given to Oded Fehr’s Medjai character in this version.
But the best easter egg of all for me is a mask used on screen by Karloff, appearing in this film to be worn by Arnold Vosloo’s Imhotep. The mask is signed by Karloff himself on the inside.
Say what you will of anything in the franchise that followed this film, The Mummy holds up for all the right reasons. More than that, as I say, I have an unreasoning love for this film for hitting all of my fanboy buttons. As far as I’m concerned, they don’t make nearly enough movies like this, and rarely of this level of fun. I defy the upcoming 2017 remake to do better.