Tuesday, June 14, 2011

THE MUMMY (1999)

Stephen Sommers, 1999
Starring: Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, John Hannah, Arnold Vosloo, Kevin J. O'Connor

I know this is ridiculous before I write it, but I'm sort of thankful for Stephen Sommers. He doesn't make especially good films, but he has helped to get all the original Universal horror films remastered, in their own box-sets, with special features and sequels: Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolfman, The Invisible Man, Creature from the Black Lagoon. I am absolutely grateful for this, though I'm sure they would have been released eventually.

With that said, he makes shitty action films, but for some reason, I love most of them. I can't help myself. After getting started on children's classic novel adaptations like Jungle Book and The Adventures of Huck Finn, he made his way to Hollywood blockbuster actions films strongly influenced by classic American horror: The Mummy, The Mummy Returns, and Van Helsing, the latter of which is an utterly joyless piece of shit. He also wrote and produced The Scorpion King and produced the third Mummy film. His last work, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, was a movie I went to see in the theater twice by myself. Sommers has a great way of making movies that are basically comic books. Not comic book adaptations, but actual comic books on screen.

The Mummy was one of my first I-can't-believe-I'm-watching-and-loving-this movies. 1999 was mid-high school for me and right around the time I really began to develop a discerning taste in cinema. I guess this one slid in under the door, but I don't care, because it's a shitload of fun. It counts as a wholesome action-adventure film with elements of horror.

In ancient Egypt, Imhotep (Vosloo), Seti I's high priest, has an affair with the Pharaoh's mistress, Anck-su-Namun. Obviously that's frowned upon. They are discovered by the Pharaoh and murder him in a moment of panic. Imhotep escapes the palace guards and Anck-su-Namun kills herself, so that she can be resurrected by the powerful Imhotep. He steals her dead body and takes it to Hamunaptra, the city of the dead, and begins the ritual. The Pharaoh's guards interrupt them, killing Anck-su-Namun again and burying Imhotep alive with the worst curse of all of ancient Egypt. The Pharaoh's guards, who are apparently also in a secret society that will last thousands of years, remain and keep watch over his sarcophagus.

Fast forward to the 1920s. Clumsy librarian and Egyptologist Evy (Weisz) takes a map and puzzle box from her brother, thief and playboy Jonathan (Hannah). They are determined to follow it to Hamunaptra, now lost and only rumored to exist. They need the help of Rick O'Connell (Fraser), a dangerous ex-soldier with a heart of gold, who claims to have been there. On the way they run into a band of American explorers led by Rick's old nemesis. They reach the fabled city, but are immediately attacked by the descendants of the Pharaoh's guards and warned to leave. They ignore this and begin to excavate the city, discovering the Book of the Dead and the mummified remains of Imhotep, among other fun things. Evy accidentally awakens the centuries-old mummy by reading from the book and he systematically kills the American explorers who opened his treasure, seeking to regain his physical and supernatural strength.

They return to Cairo, where the mummy kills the Americans and kidnaps Evy, who bears a close resemblance to Anck-su-Namun. Imhotep plans to sacrifice her to aid in the resurrection of his old love, taking her through the desert back to Hamunaptra to complete the ritual. Rick, who has fallen in love with Evy, teams up with Jonathan and they pursue the mummy across the desert. Can they make it in time?

You're either going to love this movie or you're going to hate it. It's a fun action flick with Egyptian history and dialogue in ancient Egyptian assisted by a professional Egyptologist on set and aims for an Indian Jones feel, though it lacks a central charismatic hero. Don't get me wrong, Brendon Fraser is great, he just isn't the driving force of the film. On the other hand, the fact that one of the main characters is a hot librarian nerd does a lot to bolster my enthusiasm.

It's really only a loose remake of the original The Mummy (1932) and doesn't pretend to be otherwise. It was intended to be a horror film, but was turned into a major action franchise, continuing on with The Mummy Returns, an animated series, The Scorpion King, and its sequel, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperpr, and its own roller coaster at Universal Studios. You probably won't believe this, but Clive Barker, George Romero, Joe Dante, Mick Garris, and Wes Craven were all seriously courted to write and direct the film before it was handed over to Sommers, who agreed to make it more mainstream, less scary, and on a smaller budget. When he introduced the action/adventure element, the studio was sold. Can you imagine what those five other versions would have been like? Sigh.

The critical reception was mixed to bad. It's not a perfect film by any means, but it's an action movie about a killer mummy. Expecting a solid script seems unreasonable somehow. Brendan Fraser picks up a chair and throws it at a guy, which is one of the best scenes. There's a mummy. A lot of mummies, actually. A hot librarian. Adventure. Disembowelment and eyeball removal. Flesh eating scarabs. Here's the DVD.

Trivia of interest: Apparently filming in Morocco was just as much fun as the absurd violence in the film. The cast and crew had to deal with sandstorms, dehydration, poisonous snake/scorpion/spider bites, and Brendan Fraser almost died. They had the support of the national army to protect against possible kidnapping and crew members were regularly air-lifted out for health reasons. Extreme filmmaking. Also, for those of you into German experimental electronic/industrial music, the wonderful Blixa Bargeld of Einstuerzende Neubauten and the Bad Seeds does a lot of the special effects vocals for the mummy himself.

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