Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Reviewing The Mummy, The Mummy, The Mummy, and The Mummy

My first memories of The Mummy are parody. It feels like every syndicated cartoon had an episode with a pyramid and an angry zombie in bandages shambling after the heroes. It's one of the aesthetics up there with Dracula's fangs and cape, or Jason's machete and hockey mask, that you know some store will try to sell you every October.

But I'd never actually seen the movies that popularized the concept. To end my Halloween List this year, I visited the four big Mummy movies: the 1932 original, Christopher Lee's 1959 remake, the Branden Fraser 1999 action film, and Tom Cruise's most recent mistake.

Friends, there were surprises.

The Mummy (1932)

Everybody knows The Mummy, right? A big dude covered in bandages who walks like he needs a hip replacement, yet somehow chases down adventurers beneath pyramids and crushes them? An indestructible, thoughtless force of revenge?

Yeah, none of that is in this movie.

It turns out the original Mummy movie was a white peril narrative. Imhotep is technically a mummy, although even in the sarcophagus he barely has an bandages and clearly hasn’t had his eyes or brain stirred and yanked out. Instead he is basically a wizard who gazes into an enchanted pool and uses a hypnotic ring to prowl the globe for the reincarnation of his lost love.

Who plays this great Egyptian wizard?

Boris Karloff. You know, the most famous actor to ever play Frankenstein’s Monster, except this time he’s got make-up to look darker skinned than the rest of the cast. Black-and-white can’t cover up that Universal just didn’t want to cast a person of color when they had a creepy white guy who was already under contract.

His Imhotep finds the reincarnation of his lost love, and seeks to transform her into what he wants. Karloff’s Imhotep is particularly sadistic, taking pleasure in manipulating the explorers and gradually brainwashing a white woman into dressing like he wants and leaving her boyfriend. Everything about this Imhotep plays to gross stereotypes of foreigners and people of color that were used by Jim Crow in the 30’s to murder them.

So honestly even if Tom Cruise’s new Mummy actively disrespected the original? Good for it.

The most interesting part of the movie is its unexamined colonialism. It’s set back when the British were eagerly exploiting Egypt of resources, including precious treasures that could circulate through their museums. It’s their disregard for Egyptian history that wakes up Imhotep, and he disguises himself as a modern Egyptian to encourage them to keep digging. He specifically mentions that Egyptians cannot dig up their own holy sites, without clarifying whether European imperialists have legally barred them from it, or if it’s out of a superstitious fear. Not clarifying helps the movie hold up a little better today, because both the dread of supernatural violence and the rampant cultural theft hang over the movie. These are rich outsiders who seek glory in the name of “science.” It’s a science that doesn’t include anyone native to the country or cultures they’re mining.

If you want a real classic, try The Haunting or Kwaidan instead.

The Mummy (1959)

If you thought passing Boris Karloff off as an Egyptian wizard was weird in black-and-white, wait until you see Christopher Lee spray-painted brown in Technicolor. While Lee spends most of the movie in wrappings, the flashbacks to him as an Egyptian priest are even more uncomfortable than the 1930’s film. It’s something people have definitely paved over as they remember Lee.

In typical Hammer Films stunt casting, Lee and Peter Cushing played the monster and hero in another take on the same story. It’s still about a mummified monster who is fascinated by the reincarnated vision of his lost love, although this time the mummy’s name is Kharis. Allegedly this is a remake of a later Mummy sequel, which is funny in itself because it has almost every original plot element. It speaks to how formulaic Universal Pictures got in their monster craze.

This one features Lee as the the iconic mummy, covered in bandages and shambling after people. To director Karl Freund’s credit, the attacks are always on people trapped in small rooms, sometimes deliberately staged by a mastermind for when they’ll be cornered and vulnerable. This time the mummy is enslaved to Mehemet Bey, a vengeful worshipper of an ancient god, who keeps dispatching the mummy to kill off the people who defiled the tomb.

In 1959 Bey (played by George Pastell, a Cyprian actor) was definitely supposed to be a detestable villain. But the movie has aged hard. Now it’s actually cutting when Bey talks down to Peter Cushing about the British ignoring the sanctity of tombs and the culture of Egypt. Is having these people murdered going too far? Sure, but it’s a Horror movie. You signed up for that, and the exploitation of British colonialism is far bloodier than Bey’s ambitions. Since none of the explorers is exceedingly likable, it’s easy to root against them.  

What the movie amounts to is everything from the original and more. Between the mummy and Bey, you have two kinds of antagonists pursuing confused and superstitious researchers. There’s revenge and lost romance, with the addition of a monster smashing up posh houses. The mummy even becomes sympathetic because of how conflicted he is with harming Isobel – Peter Cushing’s girlfriend, and the possible reincarnation of the mummy’s lost love. If you’re going to watch mummy movies, you’re always on the look-out for who boinked who in a past life.

The Mummy (1999)

Well this is a damned delight. If you enjoyed this in the 90’s, then it probably holds up for cheesy, character-driven fun today. It deviates wildly from the classics, creating an action movie out of familiar items. Imhotep is still obsessed with resurrecting his wrongfully murdered girlfriend, white interlopers can’t help themselves from waking up curses in Egypt, and there’s even a pet white cat like in the 1922 original.

Everyone got mad that the 2017 reboot was an action movie, conveniently forgetting that the 1999 Mummy is an absolute action movie. Most deaths are off-screen to keep us in PG-13  land, and even though it’s a fight against a wizard who will probably slaughter all of Egypt if he wins, the movie is freaking cute.

Rachel Weisz as Hapless Librarian and Brendan Fraser as Indiana Jones Lite are perfect together and deserve a long life of smooching as soon as they shower off the corpse dust. Weisz is stranded in the role of the woman who’ll be sacrificed to resurrect Imhotep’s girlfriend, but unlike the classic films, she actually gets to drive some of the plot and unlock mysteries before the peril. The old Hammer Film definitely wouldn’t have let her get drunk and practice throwing punches with Fraser.

The two of them are supported by an adorably greedy, adorably cowardly, and adorably bull-headed cast. If they’re going to steal a bag of treasure, then they’re going to try to steal two. If they’re going to help you get to the lost city, then they’re going to fly their by-plane right through a cursed sand storm until they die delivering you safely. Every character is shamelessly loud. It doesn’t gel with the classic movies at all and it doesn’t have to. It is a blast.

You just can’t take the perils as seriously as you would in the original films. Now when a hypnotized crowd chants “Imhotep,” one of our heroes might do the same and try to blend in so he isn’t torn apart. More normal mummy monsters show up and get whacked to pieces in something only a little more serious than a Three Stooges sketch. Thanks to keen direction from Stephen Sommers, it never strays too far from cheese. Even when it’s clever, it’s not too proud of it, and never snide that it’s doing way better than comparable titles. At its best, watching this Mummy is like hanging out with a good friend.

My favorite twist was the internalized Eurocentrism taking another turn: now Americans are part of the invasion equation, and everyone views them as “the worst.” We’re cowboys, loud oafs who jump too quickly to violence. The British have become part of the intellectual establishment, still unaware of their own colonialism, but it’s funny to see them look down on Americans.

Simultaneously Egyptians actually get to join the good guys for once, played by actors of color who will fight to the death to stop the mummy’s curse. Rather than warning foolish outsiders, they’ll take up arms to stop them. Especially for a movie with so many fight scenes, this seriously helps.

The Mummy (2017)

I loved Frankenstein Vs. The Wolfman. I loved Freddy Vs. Jason. I loved Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan teaming up to fight King Ghidorah. If you want to make a cinematic universe based around monsters, then of course I’ll check it out. And this failed attempt at creating one had a good core premise.

It was supposed to be universe of action movies with quirky characters running from and fighting classic Horror baddies. The action could get more intense whenever you liked by leaning on the Horror-end of things – the vulnerability of death being more meaningful than in standard action movies. That could have been great.

More than any other factor, what killed this movie was its tone. This time out the mummy is a lady out to sort of resurrect her dead boyfriend and sort of find a host for a demon she made a pact with thousands of years ago, and the host she’s picked for both projects is Tom Cruise. Given the shape he’s in at 57, I don’t blame her. And in their first significant scene, this mummy lady corners the terrified man, then creepily mounts him, and then sensually fondles him like she thinks it’s a romance while he thinks it’s awkward, and during this foreplay she winds up accidentally tickling him and he giggles.

Tom Cruise giggled because a mummy was sexually assaulting him. And three seconds later, they tried to make the scene scary.

Shockingly, this movie bombed.

The 2017 Mummy has no idea when to be scary, when to fight for its life, and when to do comic relief. It frequently pivots between three or four emotions in ten seconds. That doesn’t even work in slapstick comedy, let alone a blockbuster action piece.

You can tell the movie is proud of its big subversion of making the mummy a lady this time. Pointing out another problem with the entire series, since the mummy targets a man to brainwash into being her lover this time, this becomes the first time that victim is the POV in the series. The “Dark Universe” hinged on Tom Cruise bravely standing up to and killing off a woman half his size, and you will not believe how they wrap up that conflict. I won’t spoil it. I can’t do this mistake of cinema justice.

It actually tries to be more politically disgusting than the classics. Cruise and his buddy are in the U.S. military but only seem to have signed on so they can loot the Middle East for treasure. They’re not even British museum goons dedicated to recording history. They just want to cash in on the war in Iraq. They quip at each other, treat putting civilians and soldiers in harm’s way as a gag, and we’re supposed to love them for it. Add to this Cruise getting a one night stand who hates his guts until, literally after ten minutes, she becomes the love of his life willing to die for him, and you have a cast that is ready to dwindle in the $5 bin at Wal-Mart.

What it really squanders is Sofia Boutella’s performance. She chews scenery and is often a creepy and affecting mummy. The back story of her being a ruthless warrior is less convincing than her demeanor. You can see the earnest desire for her to fulfill her pact and believe in certain people, while also never straying too far from being intimidating as Hell itself. She’s like a more intimidating Hela from Thor: Ragnarok stranded in a much worse movie. Her role as this monster sorceress deserved to be plugged into a more competent movie. It would’ve been fun to see her rip Dracula’s minions apart.

Fortunately Boutella stayed in Horror, and is starring in a much better-reviewed movie with A24 Films next year. Climax looks pretty wild.

This wraps up The Halloween List for 2018! I averaged more than a movie a day for the entire month and had time for two miniseries. What did you wind up watching? What looked most interesting?

1 comment:

  1. If you swaddled me in bandages I would probably shamble after you too.
    Thanks for your thoughtful (and fascinating) takes on movies I will not see.


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