The Mummy is one of the classic Universal Horror monsters, and the only one that did not have preexisting source material for writers to draw from in crafting the original film back in 1932. This particular film was an opportunity for Boris Karloff to inhabit another character for Universal, although this time he was directed by Karl Freund rather than James Whale. The Mummy is also a 1999 film starring a budding Rachel Weisz, Brendan Fraser, and John Hannah. The 1999 film, also released by Universal, was directed by Popcorn King Stephen Sommers. This review will be a tale of two films.
The Mummy is a film that seems to want to be several different things at once. In some ways it wants to be Frankenstein in utilizing Karloff to great effect at the beginning of the film, although the tension certainly does not pay off with a strange ending to the initial scene where Karloff’s Imhotep comes to life. The film progresses slowly, with tension that could best be described as tedious and a nonsensical plot involving Karloff portraying (poorly) a mummy impersonating a rich person/guide/something to sacrifice a woman to bring back his long lost love. There is little to no chemistry between anyone in this film, Zita Johann is more a piece of scenery than in actress in most scenes, and David Manners seems like a hyperactive puppy who has found one person in particular he is fond of and constantly demands attention. The venerable Edward van Sloan provides the only performance of note, showing him to be a consistent character actor that provides the only shining light in an otherwise dull film.
In contrast to The Mummy, The Mummy 1999 happens to be great fun as an adventure movie and popcorn flick that works as long as you don’t think about it too much. Brendan Fraser at the height of his powers plays the quick, if sometimes dim, Rick O’Connell. O’Connell is a French Foreign Legion trooper who winds up in a rout to local tribesmen at the beginning of the film, only to eventually find himself in an Egyptian jail to be released by Rachel Weisz’s Evelyn Carnahan. Along for the ride is her brother Jonathan, played for some fun comedic relief by John Hannah. The actors all share some great chemistry, and each actor’s choices allow them to play it straight in some scenes while practically winking at the screen in others.
The Mummy 1932 does not provide very many riveting sets or locales, much of the film takes place indoors and on soundstages although the deserts of southern California make an appearance as a stand-in for Egypt. While Freund does attempt some interesting effects with lighting to make Karloff more menacing, the film seems to simply be a series of scenes with people talking along with the odd strange look and foggy pool at Karloff’s house. The only real, and mediocre, action comes at the end of the film in its climax at a stand-in for the British Museum that is far too small to really be what it wants to be. Simply put, the sets do not sell the picture.
The Mummy 1999 has some pretty good practical sets, although everything inside a tomb or ruin is far too well-lit to be believable but well-lit because no one wants to watch dimly lit
actors running around with a torch for 90 minutes or so. If you can keep up your suspension of disbelief, the film showcases some nice eye for detail as the sets are eye catching and fun. With that being said, this film is inflicted with the cinematic equivalent of herpes known as CGI. It seems that many directors and producers in the late 1990s and early 2000s thought that CGI could solve all their issues with special effects, making them cheaper and therefore films would be cheaper, not realizing that the technology would continue to progress and that the human eye is not so easily fooled. The great work with practical effects and makeup in this film underscore how primitive the CGI was at the time, and again will challenge your suspension of disbelief.
When examining these films it came to the attention of this reviewer that Alex Kurtzman attempted create an imposter Mummy back in 1917. Just like Anakin Skywalker, you should avoid it at all costs because it’s rough, it’s coarse, and it has gotten everywhere.
The Mummy 1932 began a legacy, for those who find it’s odd fascination with Egyptian culture and can deal with the obvious whitewashing the film does (it was 1932 after all), then it might be worth a watch or getting it as a part of DVD box set of Universal Horror Films. In an 88-year-old hot take, this reviewer cannot recommend the 1932 version of The Mummy. It’s slow and plodding, with an anticlimax so uneventful it feels like a night with a bowl of oatmeal. The Mummy 1999, on the other hand, is a fun action adventure with some horror elements that surpasses the original if you can get past some campy dialogue and a bad case of the CGI. Pair The Mummy 1932 with a glass of water and some saltines, while you can pair The Mummy 1999 with a can of jolt cola, some popcorn with extra butter and salt, and stale jujubes to flick at unsuspecting members of your family. The less said about The Mummy 2017 the better. It knows what it did.
Certain films, in my mind, are more so a reflection of their times than a cinematic masterpiece meant to last in the public’s mind for years to come. The Mummy (1932) is one of those films. Without societal context, I feel the film falls flat on its face, which may be why my colleague feels like the film is a dredge.
In the 1920s and early 30s, Egyptology became a fad, with some people eventually dedicating their lives to it. Take, for example, Natacha Rambova. Yes, she’s most well-known today for her tumultuous marriage to Rudolph Valentino, potential dalliance with Alla Nazimova and her work as a cutting edge designer, but most of her life was actually dedicated to the study of Egyptology. In fact, she ended up receiving two Mellon Grants, edited three volumes of Alexandre Plankoff’s Egyptian Religious Texts and Representations and was working on a manuscript about the Pyramid of Unas when she passed away from a heart attack in 1966. When did Rambova discover her love for Egypt? 1932.
I tend to look at the film as the pinnacle of the era. Egyptology’s losing favor needed a grand kiss goodbye, and The Mummy was the cinematic equivalent to a long make-out session you have when you’ve decided to leave your significant other (don’t ask me how I know what that’s like). It’s bittersweet, you relive the memories, but you know it’s time to go. Is it the best movie revolving around a mummy? No, it’s not; however, I think when contextualized, the movie becomes more palatable for those who don’t have a cut off date of 1967 when watching films for enjoyment.
One thing about the Universal Monster films is their lack of focus on anyone but the monster. Without sounding redundant, I do agree with my cohort that everyone is kind of lost in the background, but it really fits the film. We want to see the monster, not everyone around them. Yes, locations are around the Los Angeles area and on sound stages, but 1932 audiences would have felt like they were transported to a different era.
As far as the 1999 film, I absolutely loved it when I was 9. As an adult? I still really love it. It’s cheesy, over the top Brendan Fraser goodness (and if he ever reads this, my dms are always open). Rachel Weitz became my style icon as a prepubescent girl. I remember I went to see the film after receiving a filling in my tooth and got Del Taco afterwards. The film is just ingrained in my soul, even if it’s far removed from what I would watch today.
With a stellar supporting cast, including John Hannah who excels at these roles, the film really does take you back to 1926 when Egyptology was what all the “cool” kids were doing. Poor treatment of local Egyptians hired to work is briefly touched upon, although I can’t say the movie is really historically accurate (minus the whole reanimated mummy thing). There are definitely some white-savior vibes radiating from the film.
Overall, I think both films are enjoyable. I can definitely see where someone might have a harder time getting immersed in the 1932 version, but I think it has its merits. For both films, I’m recommending koshari because we all need some onion rings in our lives.