Pulp Masterpieces, Part 6: The Mummy (1999)

One of the reasons pulps were so popular was how they could transport a reader to exotic lands without ever leaving their living room or subway train or wherever it was they were reading the magazine. People were inspired to use their minds to picture what (for the average American) were strange worlds; the lush, green jungles of Tarzan’s Africa for example, which were imperfectly captured with the studio-shot black and white films of the time.

While today we have multi-million dollar budgets and CGI that allow films to bring alien worlds to life, all one had back then to even have a prayer of capturing what the writer was attempting to describe were fertile imaginations. An author could transport the reader to tropical South Africa, the frigid Himalayas, or be taken to the Sargasso Sea and a fleet of abandoned ships. If a writer was skilled enough, a reader could almost taste the salty tang in the air and the rotting seaweed, hear rubber-soled shoes slap against wet metal decks, or feel the merciless sun beat down upon unprotected flesh, one’s throat growing parched breathing in bone-dry air, your feet sinking into the uncertain surface of fine hot sand.

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Egypt. Is there any land more mysterious to Western readers? Whereas so many artifacts and monuments around the world have rotted away over the millennia, remnants of Egypt’s ancient civilization have been preserved due to its dry, hot climate. There’s an element of the romantic about Egypt, which is why we see Hollywood returning to it again and again. And that’s also why we keep seeing different iterations of Mummy movies. And on the eve of the latest Hollywood entry into this genre, I thought it was an ideal time to look at a particular Pulp Masterpiece:

The plot (spoilers!): It’s 90 BC in Egypt, and King Seti the First rules. But unbeknownst to him, his faithless mistress Anck Su Namun is having an affair with his high priest, Imhotep:

The pair murder Seti and are almost captured by the Pharoh’s bodyguard, the Maji. But Imhotep escapes and Anck Su Namun kills herself. Imhotep and his priests steal her body and flee from Thebes, city of the living, to Hamunaptra, city of the dead, to attempt to resurrect her. Alas, the Maji stop him, and as punishment, the priests are mummified while alive and Imhotep is given the punishment of the hum-die, a living death, where if he’s brought back he will become a horrific being of vast power.

Centuries later, Rick O’Connell…

…last surviving Legionnaire of a battle among the ruins of Hamunaptra, is slated for execution. However, he’s given a last minute reprieve when librarian Evelyn “Evie” Carnahan…

…and ne’er-do-well brother Jonathan…

…who stole a special key from O’Connell, arrange to have him set free so he can lead them to the city of the dead. Unfortunately, none of them are aware they’re about to unleash an unspeakable evil upon the world.

I won’t deny it; I’m not a fan of the horror genre. Maybe it’s because I’m not into gore, maybe I’m just a wimp, I dunno. Whatever the reason, it’s not my go-to kind of film. I’ve got nothing against it, but I guess I’d rather watch guys like the Fear Fan, Count Jackula, or the Horror Guru talk about it and enjoy horror movies vicariously rather than see them first hand. With that being said, I’ve always been against PG-13 rated horror because it just feels like the director, producers, or studio don’t want to fully commit to the genre due mostly to greed, so artistic integrity goes out the window. I’m not saying all PG-13 horror movies are bad (Heck, Jaws was PG; then again, PG meant something back then), I’m just saying when you go PG-13, you’ve got an uphill battle ahead of you.

So you might be thinking that I must hate The Mummy because it’s a PG-13 horror movie. And yet… I don’t. Quite the opposite, in fact. Maybe it’s because The Mummy is one of those cross-genre films, combining horror with comedy and action, and when you slap those three together you have the ingredients for a hot mess of a movie. But like mixing chocolate with peanut butter, sometimes a combo works. And in this case, the PG-13 rating works to the movie’s advantage, allowing it to be a touch more lighthearted…

…Usually.

The movie’s only notable flaw is the special effects. The late ’90s was a time when CGI was starting to really come into its own, and it seemed like every producer wanted to play with this new toy. The problem is that while I think the CGI is used to good effect in some scenes, such as Imhotep’s mastery of sand…

…or by bringing ancient Thebes to life…

…other times, like the aforementioned beetles, look bad. It isn’t just a matter of a film not aging well in this one area; I remember seeing the movie back then and thinking how distractingly poor the effects looked to me. The scene where O’Connell is fighting the priests?

Perhaps some of what you see couldn’t have been done with stunt men in makeup and practical effects, but it still would have looked worlds better than what we got. It also doesn’t help with the way Imhotep is portrayed through much of the film:

Yeah, I know I sound like I hate this movie because I’m dumping all over the CGI, but to be honest, the positives far outweigh the negatives. Outside of the mediocre special effects, I love the film for a lot of reasons, among them the setting. Placing the film in 1926 was to me an inspired choice. By putting it in an earlier era, you avoid the baggage of modern societal issues and politics and give the film a more romantic quality. Is it bogarting some of Indiana Jones’ style? Yeah, maybe juuust a little bit, but if you’re gonna borrow, borrow from the best, right? Besides, by this point the Tomb Raider computer game franchise was in full swing, and much more in the consciousness of the average moviegoer at that time.

The film is beautiful. Director Stephen Sommers makes the most of the exotic setting, with great cinematic shots like this:

How much of this is matte paintings? How much of it is CGI? I don’t know, but when all the tools are used properly together, it looks stunning. Sommers does an effective job of juggling humor, horror, and action like live chainsaws. Unfortunately, the other two films of his I’ve seen, The Mummy Returns and Van Helsing, are crap. By the way, Hollywood, if you’re wondering what your Dark Universal franchise might wind up as, look no further than this ill-conceived Hugh Jackman vehicle.

True story: after seeing Van Helsing in the theater, I put myself back on antidepressants for another four years. Coincidence? You decide. Honestly, Lexapro is a wonderful drug; the only side effects are an irresistible urge to shave your head and kill Superman.

The movie’s real strength is its cast. Brendan Fraser is a remarkable actor who can portray an utter moron in the likes of Dudley Do-Right but then turn around and deliver a credible performance as an action hero.

Balancing humor and heroic, Fraser’s O’Connell is a terrific protagonist. He’s brave, not unintelligent, and he’s never silly enough to the point where you can’t take him seriously. If there’s a modern counterpart to Fraser, I would say it’s Chris Pratt, only Chris Pratt seems to have made smarter career choices.

Then there’s Rachel Weisz…

Weisz is one of the finest actors of my generation and one of the most beautiful women to have worked in the industry. She has an amazing range, be it in dramatic roles, or comedic ones like The Brothers Bloom or in this film (by the way, her latest film My Cousin Rachel is coming out this week, where she plays a woman suspected of poisoning a man. So add femme fatale to her list of roles). And yet, while she does appear in many scenes for laughs, all the principle characters get an opportunity to look foolish, and we never really lose sight of the fact that she’s both brave and intelligent. I also like how they display her courage and resourcefulness; she’s a damsel in distress at one point in the movie, but that doesn’t stop her from doing all she can to fight the bad guy, such as when she saves the boys by distracting Imhotep.

In a movie with Fraser and Weisz doing double-duty as comedic and romantic leads, being the comic relief is a tall order. However, John Hannah is more than equal to the challenge, playing a character who, while appearing at times to be a bumbling idiot, does have a sharp mind. The scene where he’s about to be overrun by Imhotep’s mind controlled hordes is utterly hilarious, as he thinks his way out of what appears to be an impossible situation.

I’ve liked Hannah in everything I’ve seen him in, from a repulsive Roman Batiatus who owns Spartacus, to LMD creator Holden Radcliffe in Agents of SHIELD, and especially as grim Edinburgh police detective John Rebus (in the 2000-2001 series, although the 2006-2007 series starring Ken Stott is good too.). Like Weisz, his range is remarkable.

Of course, I can’t forget Oded Fehr. As Ardeth Bey, leader of the Maji, he’s dark, brooding, and mysterious, and a great counterpoint to O’Connell’s brashness.

Honestly, I had expected some sort of love triangle to form between O’Connell, Ardeth, and Evie, but fortunately, the writers decided that cramming that into the story would have been a bit much. Fehr also acts as the narrator in the film’s prologue, setting up the movie’s plot. He has a tremendous voice, delivering that precise touch of tenderness when he speaks of Imhotep and Anck Su Namun to make you feel some measure of sympathy for the doomed lovers…

The doomed, murderous lovers.

…and then climaxing with all due drama to become the threat the heroes will ultimately face. In lesser hands (or voice) the movie could have gotten off to a very shaky start. I also like how (just like about everybody else in the film) Ardeth gets a chance to clown it up too.

And I’m also very grateful that the writers decided not to sacrifice Ardeth, killing off the non-white protagonist like we often see in movies like this. Now that I think about it, the movie is pretty progressive in how victims of many nationalities get slaughtered throughout the film; Imhotep doesn’t discriminate.

This brings us to Imhotep himself, Arnold Vosloo. Or I should say, half of Imhotep, as he appears largely in the film as a hot CGI mess.

Vosloo doesn’t have a whole lot of meat to dig into with his role. Imhotep is more a force of nature, like one of those tornadoes you see in Twister. I will say this, though: his motivation is different from most bad guys we’ve seen in these Pulp Masterpieces. Mostly the bad guys crave power, or outright world domination in some form or another, or are driven by base greed. But Imhotep’s primary motivation is love, and frankly, I think that’s cool. I’m not saying world domination wasn’t going to be on Imhotep’s to-do list, I’m just saying love was at the top.

As for the rest of the cast, it’s a pretty credible bunch we’ve got here. Kevin J. O’Connor is delightfully sleazy as Beni Gabor.

Erick Avari is always great, and his turn as the long suffering museum curator and secret Maji patriarch Dr. Terrence Bay is great.

He goes from academic to bad-ass with an awesome death scene, and let’s face it, many an actor wants an epic death scene.

And hey, we’ve got an Omid Djalili sighting!

For those of you who have been following my Pulp Masterpiece articles, you saw him last in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. He’s okay in this movie as pretty much a sacrificial lamb to showcase the terrors of Hamunaptra.

Hmm, there’s something I just noticed from looking at the above screencaps: there sure are a lot of fezzes in this movie. That’s probably because as we all know…

…fezzes are cool.

One thing that did bug me was Bernard Fox…

…who plays Captain Winston Havlock. He just… shows up in a scene and everybody acts like they’ve met him before. I like Fox, but I can’t help but feel there were one or two scenes with him that got left on the cutting room floor. If that is the case, I can see a film editor trying to pare the film down to a reasonable runtime of just over two hours, and I guess sacrifices do have to be made. It’s just a minor nit is all, mostly because I took such an instant liking to Winston and wanted to see more of him. It’s remarkable how Fox does so much with so little.

As to the soundtrack, it’s pretty good. Jerry Goldsmith delivers a decent score, although it feels a little repetitive. I’m not saying it’s bad or only merely competent; it’s good, and Goldsmith has produced worse music (for example, I find the score for Logan’s Run to be distracting. I give Goldsmith all the credit in the world for trying different things and thinking outside the box, but sometimes it doesn’t work), but better too, such as his outstanding work on The Shadow.

So how is Tom Cruise’ Mummy going to stack up against this one? Well, I don’t have any particular urge to see it in theaters. I think that in technical aspects, it will be a superior film; we’ve come a long way in the use of CGI and the movie looks pretty good, and with Russell Crowe that’s always a bonus. And hey, when Cruise is on his game, he’s pretty awesome. I saw Oblivion and Edge of Tomorrow and they’re both great. But this? I’m… just not feeling it. Maybe it’s because it’s the first part of a franchise of films nobody asked for, or maybe it’s because it takes place in modern day and for me the concept works best in a pulp period setting. Granted, I think Sophia Boutella is a great choice to play Ahmanet (she was awesome in Kingsmen and Star Trek: Beyond), and that’s almost enough to get me to see the movie. But I think I’m going to wait and see what some of my friends say, and chances are I’m going to Redbox it.

I hope everyone has enjoyed my Pulp Masterpiece articles so far, and that it’s inspired some of you to go see some of these films. Pulp Masterpieces will be going on hiatus for a few months as I tackle other subjects. For starters, later this month a special film has its 35th anniversary, and it’s deserving of an extended recap…

Tag: Pulp Masterpieces

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  • “The Mummy” is a great adventure movie. One of the best. Fit to sit along “Curse of the Black Pearl” or “Princess Bride” as a great movie for a night hanging out or for Dungeons and Dragons inspiration.

    Note: “Good Bad Flicks” just did a video on some of the behind the scenes and technical aspects of “The Mummy”

  • lonestarr357

    Good article. One debit, though: I thought Goldsmith’s score was superb. Exciting and memorable, all the more amazing when you learn that he didn’t much care for the film.

  • Jerry_Fritschle

    I am tolerant of unconvincing CGI if it still conveys a mood–let’s say “cooler than real”, and I think the effects are successful here. At my age, I grew up with and admired the work of Harryhausen, and “believing” the effects was never the point. 🙂

  • Grace Skerp

    Nitpick alert: Seti I lived in the 13th century BCE during the height of Egypt’s imperial power.

    Great review. The Mummy is some of the best fun you can have with a tub of popcorn in your lap.