The Mummy (1999)

*. I really like The Mummy. I liked it when it came out and I still enjoyed it on my most recent re-watch.
*. It may be my favourite mummy movie. That’s an opinion I don’t think many people would share but the thing is, I don’t think there have been many good mummy movies. In large part this has been due to low budgets and substandard talent. Was this the first mummy movie that a studio actually spent some money on? It’s certainly the first that looked this good.
*. In 1999 audiences were blown away by the opening shots of ancient Egypt. We weren’t bored by CGI yet and I remember everyone in the theatre (including myself) going “ooh!” and “ahh!” And truth be told, I think the effects work has held up pretty well. Imhotep, in all of his various forms, looks swell. The plagues are adequate. The mummy soldiers actually have a bit of a Ray Harryhausen look to them, which was intentional. I’m not as thrilled by the scarabs as I was at the time, but you can’t have everything.
*. The mummy himself has always been, in the words of Kim Newman, “the poorest of poor relations among classic monsters.” He doesn’t talk, staggers around like a zombie (which is, in a sense, what he is), behaves in a mostly preprogrammed way (wreaking vengeance on those who have desecrated his tomb), and then crumbles to dust.

*. The mummy we get here, however, is a lot more fun. The first thing he does when he’s brought back to life is he grabs himself a tongue to stick in his unhinged jaw. Now he can speak (at least in subtitles). Also, he doesn’t just shuffle around strangling people but exercises all sorts of super powers.
*. I think it was also a great idea to show Imhotep slowly reconstituting himself, sort of like the thing in the attic in Hellraiser. (Side note: Clive Barker had been attached to this project at one point but his vision had been too dark.) When he’s fully back in human form, Arnold Vosloo has a great presence, communicating someone both cunning and damned in a way that recalls Christopher Lee’s performance in the 1959 Hammer film.

*. Things start on a high note and the pace never lets up. The clear model was Raiders of the Lost Ark, right down to the period dressing. This undercuts its status as a horror film somewhat, but there’s no need for criticism to be that rigid about respecting genre rules. Neither writer-director Stephen Sommers or the studio wanted a horror film. This is a movie that was meant to be fun and it is. Rachel Weisz didn’t even consider it to be horror but pure “hokum” and a “comic book.”
*. The Raiders and Harryhausen connections are obvious. Less obvious is Sommers’s love of Michael Curtiz’s Captain Blood, which he mentions on the DVD commentary track as having been a model for the love story. I hadn’t thought of that, but it’s a nice influence to have in mind.
*. The cowardly character is a stock type but Kevin J. O’Connor’s Beni I find to be both original and very funny. He’s such a sleazy worm, and I like that he can even be sadistic at times. He’s the kind of heel you genuinely love to hate.

*. In some previous mummy movies the princess and her modern day incarnation were played by the same actress. Here Imhotep immediately takes Rachel Weisz for Patricia Velasquez, who she doesn’t remotely resemble. The character Evelyn Carnahan doesn’t even have Egyptian ancestry (originally she was to be the daughter of the guy who discovered Tutankhamen’s tomb, something that is only hinted at in the film).
*. So it’s a loveable movie. Surprisingly, critics weren’t all that kind. 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.” This seems like backhanded praise to me. Why not praise the direction, the writing, the acting, or the mummy? They all seem fine to me.
*. Ebert adds “Look, art this isn’t. Great trash, it isn’t. Good trash, it is. It’s not quite up there with Anaconda, but it’s as much fun as Congo and The Relic, and it’s better than Species.” I would rate it well above all of these other pictures (and I’m not sure what made him think of Species). I wonder why Ebert was so reluctant to say something good about it.

*. Kim Newman is more negative in Nightmare Movies. In large part this is because he thinks the story strays too far from its roots, but as I’ve said I don’t think that’s a strike against it. Here’s his summary: “The Mummy is an entertaining series of theme park rides, but sorely misses magic, with cardboard villains, fundamentally unlikable heroes, non-stop pig-ignorant blunders and endlessly irritating comic bits. It also offers offensive Egyptian stereotypes — smelly, corrupt, venal, lecherous, whining, cowardly, boil-ridden, murderous, sadistic, ugly – unacceptable in the dignified 1932 movie.”
*. Some of this comes down to taste, but I’m surprised he got so upset at the portrayal of Egyptians. Actually, there are a number of heroic local figures, headlines by Oded Fehr’s Ardeth Bey, who turned out to be such a likeable hero Sommers had to change the ending to let him live. Otherwise, most of the negative descriptors Newman gives apply only to Beni, who is not Egyptian. I believe he’s supposed to be Hungarian (the character’s full name is Beni Gabor).
*. So maybe it’s not a great mummy movie but it’s still one of the better entertainments of its period with quite a lot to be said in its favour and not much to be said against it except frustrated expectations. I wasn’t that picky twenty years ago and I’m glad I’m still relaxed enough to enjoy it.

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