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Fantastical monsters have lived in our stories and fables since time immemorial, making for some of the best, or at least, most entertaining movies ever made, from classic Golden Age films such as Frankenstein and Dracula to modern retellings of vampires and werewolves. In 1932, the first Mummy movie was a huge success and became a cult classic, centered on Boris Karloff‘s haunting performance. The first official remake of that movie came in 1999, starring Brendan Fraser, and Rachel Weisz, and while it was critically mixed in reviews, it was a huge box office hit, spawning a number of sequels and spinoffs. With another reboot coming, it’s time to look back at what made the 1999 reboot so memorable. What’s so great about: The Mummy.
The first time you watch The Mummy, even for the time it was made, you can’t help but be taken by the cool visual effects. They’re pretty good. And the one that is still the best is this great sequence in the desert. See, there’s this ancient High Priest named Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) who, after betraying the Pharaoh, is cursed and killed but brought back to life 3,000 years later and is a little out of sorts, naturally. Wanting to resurrect his old lover, and seeing a vessel to do so in the body of the lovely Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), he takes to pursuing her and at one point takes her to his City of the Dead in the desert in the form of, well … a sandstorm. That’ll make sense if you watch it.
Thing is, he being chased by the movie’s hero, Richard O’Connell (Brendan Fraser), riding in a bi-plane flown by a former World War I flying ace. To stop them, Imhotep conjures an even larger sandstorm and uses it to chase the small, slower aircraft, which is also carrying two men on the wings. It’s complicated. To further make his point, Imhotep molds the sand into his own face, a gigantic menace with huge open maw looking to swallow them whole. It’s a fantastic adventure moment that perfectly captures the tone of the movie with thrills, chills, and humor. Evelyn’s solution for saving her friends is, yeah, smart. And a little sexy.
The thing about The Mummy that works so well is its balance. Think of Jurassic Park (1993), a film that deftly introduced some truly terrifying moments with good humor and adventuresome action. Certainly, these two movies aren’t quite the same in terms of influence or even quality, but The Mummy does follow well in Jurassic Park‘s footsteps, combining fun and fear with great excitement. The fear part is probably best made clear with this sensational bit of CGI that sees the titular mummy rise anew, and he’s not exactly in the best of shape. Gruesome is more like it.
It begins with Evelyn, who after she and the others discover the legendary Book of the Dead, can’t resist temptation and decides, in the middle of the night while camped in the sands outside the cursed city, to read a bit of the book. It’s an unbelievably terrible idea. It awakens Imhotep, and his horribly decomposed body is already a ghastly site, but when he jerks to life, and screeches into the camera, well, it’s pretty much pee-inducing. This scene is pure movie magic.
Speaking of terrifying moments. Remember Beni? He’s played by Kevin J. O’Connor as a former Foreign Legion soldier who is all about getting rich, and the vast wealth at his fingertips on this adventure has him thinking the he’s got it made, but when he makes a deal with Imhotep, he betrays his friends and well, let’s say, gets his comeuppance. And then some.
As the gang are trying to rid the world of the scourge Imhotep has unleashed, Beni takes to looting the pyramid where a huge cache of gold and treasure is hidden underground, yet, being Beni, he accidentally sets off a booby trap and triggers a mechanism that seals him within the catacombs where he is eventually … let’s leave it at that. It’s bad. But oh so good. Saying bye to Beni is a theme in the story, and this one is the best.
Before The Mummy was released, Weisz had been working steadily for seven years in television and a few small parts in movies, however, she became a huge star after this hit theaters. Aside from her exotic good looks, Weisz brought incredible comedic timing and disarming charm to the role, melting hearts and earning big laughs as the clumsy yet highly intelligent Egyptologist. More than a love interest, she carries the film, the fulcrum between the two male leads, perfectly playing off the hero and the villain. She’s really good.
Watch her in a scene on boat as she and the others head to the fabled City of the Dead. As male ego and over-posturing surround her, the bookworm, more interested in the contents of a journal than the fact it is bound in gold, is a little distracted by her attraction to the gruff Richard, letting an awkward kiss between them frazzle her. Sure, she’s in a skimpy gown and thinking about a man, but she’s also smart and funny while doing it. As goons attack the boat and try to harm her, Richard bursts into save her, but she handles things pretty well on her own, and while we expect the hero to be debonair and level-headed, Evelyn steals the scene with a great mix of comedy and physical acting. It’s only one of many.
Okay, there’s a string of problems with The Mummy, including lapses in logic, a sometimes incoherent story, almost no character development, a predictable ending, and well, a long list of more, and yet, it’s nearly impossible to find fault with it that really matters simply because it’s just so darned fun to watch. Fraser is a wonder as the adventurer, who you might suspect would be a riff on Indiana Jones types, a mistake many films in the genre do too often, yet no, he takes O’Connell in a different direction. As handsome and filled with potential for iron-jawed heroism as the character is, Fraser instead steers him toward more good-natured humor with a carefree sensibility that makes him all his own. It harkens back to the masters of the old-timey serials of the 30s and 40s while giving him a modern edginess that layers him in a bit of danger.
He’s effortlessly watchable and even as he seems utterly without a plan, we gleefully follow him with all our trust and we laugh and cheer at everything he does. The sheer energy the movie puts into entertaining its audience without weighing it down with such dark seriousness–something surely the new remake will employ–makes the fantastical themes resonant well after it’s over and is reason why people made it such a success. It’s a hundred percent escapism. And that makes it great.