Wednesday, 12 July 2017

WATCHING: The Mummy (1999)

Watching Universal's latest attempt at The Mummy was a painful experience. A fan of the original 1932 version, starring Boris Karloff and Zita Johann, I was particularly interested to see how they would portray Egypt: would they stay in the early '30s, or would they update it and deal with maybe some of the uncomfortable stigma of smuggling out a sarcophagus (the 1983 Egyptian Law on the Protection of Antiquities prohibits the removal of artefacts, basically to stop the likes of what the British did in the early 20th century). I thought maybe they would set the first film of a new franchise in the recent past, in order to establish some kind of history to this series. Instead, what we got was the US army taking antiquities out of Iraq (not that they don't have a similar aforementioned law) and Tom Cruise for the next nine movies.

For me, this was quite upsetting. Here we are, watching a film called The Mummy, and its not even set in Egypt. Plus, the reanimated corpse of Princess Ahmanet is a side character in her own film. In order to set up this grand and expansive world of "gods and monsters", any real story was put in the corner just to set up the next film. This years version of The Mummy was a shallow interpretation of the original, and if we wanted to see a more meaningful adaption, we have to dig out the old DVD copy of the somewhat campy 1999 version.

Directed by Stephen Sommers, this version of The Mummy is an unashamedly height-of-the-summer box office no-brainer. The hero is updated to an American adventurer, played perfectly by Brendan Fraser, so that we can indulge in fisty-cuffs and explosions, but the tragic romantic plot line that runs through the heart of the story remains. This is what makes the film cohesive, as the bad guy mummy Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) is somewhat understandable in his ambition to reunite with his murdered lover Anck-Su-Namun (Patricia Velásquez), and has to sacrifice Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) to do so. With this reasoning, the peril becomes real and our heroes actions become justifiable.

But truly, the 1999 version of The Mummy is so much more than that. This had been a passion project for Sommers, whose vision of a daredevil, wise-cracking hero in a horror movie had to wait five years before realisation, waiting in line after Clive Barker, Joe Dante and George A. Romero before he could even put his foot in the door. For something so cheesy and silly, there is a lot of sincerity to his vision. With a tight script, every character has meaning and is useful to the plot, and it raises genuine levels of suspense. Plus, it knows what it is, and that is an enjoyable piece of escapism, designed to transport you into a land of fantasy and adventure and then return you safely within a couple of hours.

Sommers version achieves something that the Dark Universe version couldn't even get a grasp on, and that is what makes the old Universal monster movies still relevant after nearly 100 years. The tragic love story of Imhotep is indicative of every other tragic monster in the original versions. We sympathise with these creatures because they have no control over their environment (well, except maybe Dracula) and are often penalised by a society that doesn't even try to understand them. These are themes that we as an audience can understand deeply, whether its times when we feel ostracised or our own tendencies to scape-goat people. If the executives behind the Dark Universe refuse to recognise this, then this new franchise with have no hope of reviving.


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