Frankenstein. Dracula. The Wolfman. The Mummy. Whenever great movie monsters are discussed, those four are always mentioned, always together and The Mummy is always, always, always last on the list. He doesn’t even get his own iconic star as Boris Karloff does double duty as both Victor Frankenstein’s monster and the resurrected Imhotep. And there’s no Mummy equivalent of Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee. Yet of those four classic figures of cinema horror, the most successful modern remake of them all belongs to The Mummy. Why is that? I think it’s a simple as it being hard to remake a good movie but easy to remake a bad movie everyone thinks is good.
Coming just a year after the original film adaptations of Mary Shelley’s and Bram Stoker’s novels and nine years before the lollygagging Wolfman made it to the screen, The Mummy (1932) is easily recognizable to modern eyes as an attempt to cash in on the great popularity and public fascination with ancient Egypt after the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922. Yeah, 10 years seems a little late to be cashing in on a fad but popular culture moved a lot more slowly back then. Without a full-fledged story to draw upon, The Mummy is basically one great idea and a whole lot of filler.
"Sorry. I just came back for my keys."
In 1921, a British Museum expedition to Egypt led by archeologist Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron) has uncovered some unusual mummified remains and a casket which threatens death to any who open it. As Whemple discusses what to do about this discovery with Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan), his friend and an expert in the occult, Whemple’s assistant opens the casket, reads from the scroll inside and brings The Mummy (Boris Karloff) back to life. Rather than go on a killing spree or do...well, anything really, The Mummy grabs the scroll and shuffles off into the desert, leaving Whemple’s assistant behind in hysterical madness.
11 years later, Whemple’s rather underwhelming son Frank (David Manners) has returned to Egypt as part of his own archeological expedition. Since Frank is about a sharp as a kitten made out of Jello, he’s found next to nothing until a gaunt and wrinkled old Egyptian who calls himself Ardeth Bay (Boris Karloff) leads Frank by the nose to the tomb of the Princess Anck-es-en-Amon. Her mummy and the contents of her tomb wind up in a Cairo museum.
That’s where Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann) comes in. A half-Egyptian beauty of a wealthy family and a delicate constitution, she’s returned to Cairo under the care of Dr. Muller, who appears to have abandoned his study of mysticism to become a caretaker of debutants. When Ardeth Bay kneels besides the glass-encased mummy of Anck-es-en-Amon and reads from the ancient scroll, Bay being The Mummy for those of you who skip over the names in parenthesis, Helen is hypnotically drawn to him.
Frank is just as mesmerized by Helen and, with Dr. Muller and a returned-to-Egypt Sir Joseph, tries to stop Helen from falling under Bay’s spell. 3,700 years ago, Bay was a priest named Imhotep who loved the pharaoh’s daughter so much that when she died, he tried to revive her by reading from a sacred scroll. For that blasphemy, though it’s never explained why bringing people back from the dead would be a bad thing if you could do it, Imhotep is mummified alive and buried with the scroll.
Imhotep's real crime? Trying to steal the Colonel's secret recipe of herbs and spices.
At first, Imhotep thought to revive the mummy of his lost love as he was brought back to life. But her soul was reincarnated as Helen and Imhotep will stop at nothing to be reunited with her. When she learns that reunion will require her to die and be brought back as a living mummy like Imhotep, Helen/Anck-es-en-Amon decides it would be best if her and Imhotep starting seeing other people. A quick prayer to Isis as Frank and Dr. Muller futz around and are as generally useless as teats on a bull and Imhotep is zapped to death so Frank and Helen can live happily ever after, even though they combine to have as much personality as a Chia Pet and are about as believably in love as my foot and Patrick Duffy’s face.
To put in plainly, The Mummy is not good. Karloff, Byron and Van Sloan are the only ones whose acting doesn’t look embarrassing. There are a handful of striking images and one genuinely brilliant idea as a flashback to ancient Egypt is presented as though it were a silent film. The concept of Imhotep as being completely motivated by love, only to find that love ultimately unreturned, has become a staple of tragic monsters ever since. And at only 72 minutes long, The Mummy flies by too quickly to be boring.
But most OF this movie looks and sounds exactly as dated as you would expect from a film made before the tampon was invented. The staging is rudimentary. The editing is surprisingly poor in spots. The script is filled with coincidences and plot devices and moments that were never thought through. For example, when Helen is first entranced and summoned to Imhotep, you know what she does on her way? She stops by the coat check to pick up her stole. Nothing says “irresistible power of magic” quite like remembering not to leave your mink behind. And why doesn’t anyone try to punch or stab or shoot the emaciated Imhotep, who looks like he would collapse if someone breathed too hard on him? Because magic, as the kids would say nowadays.
The Mummy (1932) has historical significance but that’s about it and even that is largely due to the more lasting quality of the other members of Universal Films’ Four Horsemen of Horror.
"Is that Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson on the horizon?"
67 years later, though, a remake similarly inspired by a fad of its day would bring Imhotep back in far more entertaining fashion. The Mummy (1999) takes the same basic story but replaces an interest with Egyptian history and myth with a fixation on computer generated images, or CGI. While the technology had been around in its modern form since at least The Abyss (1989) and even though there are many better examples of CGI filmmaking from the same era, I can’t imagine anyone would have ever bothered with a remake of The Mummy if CGI hadn’t opened the door to remaking it as a completely different sort of film.
This one begins with a prologue that tells the doomed love story of High Priest Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) and pharaoh’s mistress Anck Su Namum (Patricia Velazquez). In this version, their forbidden love lead to the murder of the pharaoh, her death and then Imhotep’s living death punishment when he tries to revive her with The Book of the Dead. Jump forward 3,000 years and adventurer Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) is leading a band of soldiers in battle against desert raiders over the ruins of Imhotep’s burial site. Barely surviving, no thanks to his cowardly and conniving sidekick Beni (Kevin J. O’Connor), Rick walks into the desert under the watchful eye of Ardeth Bay (Oded Fehr), leader of the cult descended from pharaoh’s bodyguards and sworn to prevent Imhotep from ever rising from his grave.
"We're in luck! The prophecy says we'll have two progressively worse sequels but then another even-more-atrocious remake with Tom Cruise will make everyone forget all about them!!"
Three years later, librarian Evy Carnaham (Rachel Weisz) and her nere’do well brother Jonathan (John Hannah) free Rick from prison so he can lead them to the forgotten city of Hamunaptra, repository of the wealth of Egypt’s dynastic past…and home of the cursed Imhotep’s tomb. A group of Americans and a British Egyptologist have similarly recruited Beni as their guide and the two bands race to find what riches and forgotten knowledge await them.
As you can probably guess, Imhotep is revived. This time as a desiccated CGI monstrosity and not a dermatologically-challenged British thespian. Imhotep must first regenerate his form and then chooses Evy as the host-body for his long dead lover. Rick and Jonathan rush to stop that, with a great deal more running, driving, flying, punching and shooting than the original. Then again, watching paint dry on a day with 90% humidity would be more action than in 1932’s The Mummy.
The 1999 remake is a good example of the kind of filmmaking that would dominate Hollywood in the years to come. It’s a roller coaster ride of special effects, action scenes and comic relief where neither the folks who made it nor the folks who watch it care about anything, you know, making sense. It’s not a particularly elevated form of filmmaking but when it works, and it does here, it’s a lot of fun. The key, I think, is in keeping the fight scenes and the comedy flowing, but not so fast as to become a self-parody, while slowing down just enough to let a relationship blossom between the male and female leads. While the original had Frank and Helen go from strangers to Romeo and Juliet in nothing flat, the remake has a series of scenes that follow Rick and Evy from indifference to intrigued to infatuated before finally falling in love, all while various people and things are trying to kill them. As I mentioned, it’s not all that complex or ambitious a form of storytelling but considering how many wannabe blockbusters suck at it, it’s got to be a lot harder than it looks.
Every wonder where all the guns went in most horror films? They ended up here.
As cinema or an entertainment, The Mummy (1999) crosses the finish line a good many paces ahead of The Mummy (1932) to win this Weekend Remake Throwdown. The late 90’s CGI is a little weak at times but, looking back, it’s rather astonishing how little the technology has improved since then. Images appear a bit more realistic now but with a flipside that the ease and power of CGI has led to an overall cartoonification of movies. Back then, there were limits to what you could do with computers and that kept everything without the bounds of believability. Now, literally anything is possible with CGI and the result is scenes that don’t just break the laws of physics but chew them up, swallow them, digest them and then defecate the laws of physics behind a small bush. In today’s films, we get scenes that perfectly replicate reality except nothing resembles anything that actually exists in reality. There’s too much speed and force and too little inertia and mass.
And it’s not only the filmmaking that’s better in the remake. These two movies are a good reminder that, all nostalgia to the contrary, some things about our modern culture are better than they used to be. 1932’s The Mummy reflects of world where male supremacy and white supremacy is unquestioned, and I use the word supremacy in a semantic and not ideological sense. The original has only one female character and she flips back and forth from prop to plot device. Helen is just there to be pretty and to be fought over. Evy is far more self-possessed and assertive, though without being too anachronistic for the time period, and Anck Su Namun is portrayed as Imhotep’s equal in love instead of an empty object of desire. And, I hope to no one’s shock, when the female characters are stronger, the story and cinema are better.
"You want a desiccated corpse? You got it, baby!"
The original is also entirely oblivious to the racial and colonial realities of 1930s Egypt with foreign Brits exercising enormous control over a theoretically independent country. That the only native character in the story is performed by a white man and played without any distinguishable racial or ethnic dimensions is merely more fuel for the fire. The 1999 remake is somewhat hamstrung because it is a story about white people in 1930s Egypt but making the hero and a good chunk of the supporting cast American defuses the colonial vibe and the second version of The Mummy offers up two significant Egyptian characters played by actors who, at least on the surface, appear ethnically appropriate. One, a museum curator, is Evy’s boss and has surprising depth and courage. The other is Ardeth Bay and he is presented to the audience at every moment as Rick’s equal, if not better. Oded Fehr became something of a minor sensation after The Mummy (1999) and turned that into a better than average career in film and television.
The Mummy (1932) isn’t venomous or hateful in its presumptions but it very much represents an age when white men ran everything and that’s the way it was supposed to be. Its remake represents an age when…okay, white men still pretty much run everything but the assumption is maybe that’s not the way things should be. You can dismiss that as political correctness but you can’t deny that these two motion pictures, which were never meant to do anything but sell tickets and popcorn, illustrate changing societal mindsets.
The original Mummy is a classic in the same way a lot of pro athletes make it into the hall of fame. They’re not really that great but were in the right place at the right time with the right team. If you haven’t seen it, don’t worry about it. The remake is enjoyable but if you’ve seen it, there’s no need to bother with either of its sequels.
"Wait...if men run the world, why do women get all the best hats?"
The Mummy (1932)
Written by John L. Balderson.
Directed by Karl Freund.
Starring Boris Karloff, Zita Joahann, David Manners, Arthur Byron, Edward Van Sloan, Bramwell Fletcher, Noble Johnson, Leonard Mudie, Kathryn Byron and James Crane.
The Mummy (1999)
Written and directed by Stephen Sommers.
Starring Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, John Hannah, Arnold Vosloo, Kevin J. O’Connor, Jonathan Hyde, Oded Fehr, Erick Avari, Stephen Dunham, Corey Johnson, Tuc Watkins, Omid Djalili, Aharon Impale and Patricia Velasquez.