Examining Hollywood Remakes: The Mummy

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It’s hard to really compare the original Universal Studios version of the Mummy (1932) to the more whimsical remake (1999) because the two are so immensely different. The new version takes the seed of the first film and transforms it into something almost unrecognizable. The 1999 version meets one of the two criteria of making a good remake…Keep the spirit of the original but make it into something new and special. Well, this remake does successfully make the concept of the Mummy into something quite different, but it totally loses the spirit of the 1932 original.

The original is one of the seminal horror classics, creating one of the most iconic movie monsters of all time. Boris Karloff—the King of horror film actors—takes on his second-most-famous role (after the Frankenstein Monster) and gives a chillingly creepy, memorable performance. The film has a 93% score on Rotten Tomatoes and inspired numerous sequels.

The plot of the original: The mummified body of an ancient Egyptian priest named Imhotep (Boris Karloff) is dug up by an archaeological expedition in 1921. Brilliant Egyptologist Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan) inspects the mummy and deduces that Imhotep was buried alive for sacrilege. They later learn that Imhotep had been mummified and buried alive for attempting to resurrect his lover, the princess Ankh-Es-Sen-Amon with a sacred scroll. Despite Muller’s warning, one of the expedition reads aloud from the ancient scroll (the Scroll of Thoth) and inadvertently resurrects Imhotep. The living Mummy takes the Scroll of Thoth and escapes into the desert, seeking the modern reincarnation of Ankh-Es-Sen-Amon.

Cut to10 years later; Imhotep has unwrapped himself and is masquerading as a modern Egyptian named Ardeth Bey. He visits the son of one of the acheologists, Frank Whemple (David Manners) and Prof. Pearson (Leonard Mudie). He shows them where to dig to find Ankh-Es-Sen-Amon’s tomb. They find her remains, then bring the mummy and the treasures to the Cairo Museum.

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Imhotep meets Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), a woman identical to his beloved Princess. He believes her to be Ankh-Es-Sen-Amon’s reincarnation. Dr. Muller knows something is amiss with Ardeth Bey and tries to warn people. Imhotep attempts to kill Helen, with the intention of mummifying her, so he can then resurrect her and make her his bride. Just in time, however, she remembers her past life and being unwilling to die again, she prays to the goddess Isis to save her. The statue of Isis raises its arm and emits a beam of light that destroys the Scroll of Thoth, and reduces Imhotep to dust.

The 1999 version is a Haggard-esque adventure that owes more to the Indiana Jones films than to the old Universal horror films. Its accurate to say that the remake is barely a horror film at all. It has some moments that evoke memories of the original but for the most part, this is a light-hearted action film, with a lot of comedy thrown in. The humor and frenetic pace of the remake is part of the problem because it tries too hard to be both simultaneously campy and scary. It succeeds in creating campy humor but fails to be scary.

The remake’s attempt to mix Indian Jones with the classic Universal horror movies is an odd merging but it just doesn’t quite work. The movie isn’t bad and it was profitable enough to lead to several sequels (including The Scorpion King which was the Rock’s first starring role) but it received mixed reviews. It has a 55% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 48% rating at Metacritic. One critic described the remake as “A  feast for the eyes while the brain starves”. Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly said, “The Mummy would like to make you shudder, but it tries to do so without ever letting go of its jocular inconsequentiality.”  

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The Plot of the Remake: In 1290 BC Egypt, high priest Imhotep is the lover of Anck-Su-Namun, the mistress of the Pharaoh. When the Pharaoh finds out, Imhotep and Anck-su-Namun kill him. His guards (The Medjai) arrive and Imhotep flees while Anck-su-Namun kills herself, hoping that the mystical Imhotep will resurrect her. Imhotep takes her corpse to Hamunaptra–the city of the dead–but the resurrection ritual is stopped by the Medjai. Imhotep is sentenced to eternal agony and sealed into a sarcophagus. He is buried alive with flesh eating scarab beetles.

Cut to1925 Cairo; Jonathan Carnahan (John Hannah) gives a map to his sister Evie (Rachel Weisz) who’s an amateur Egyptologist. The map leads to lost Hamunaptra. Jonathan stole it from American adventurer Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) of the French Foreign Legion. Finding Rick, Evie makes a deal with him to lead them to Hamunaptra. They are attacked by the Medjai, led by Ardeth Bay but reach the city anyway, where they encounter a rival expedition of treasure hunters. The Medjai arrive again. Despite Ardeth’s warnings, the two expeditions continue to excavate and Evie searches for the Book of the Living. They discover the black Book of the Dead, and canopic jars carrying Anck-su-Namun’s preserved organs. Evie takes the Book of the Dead and reads aloud, accidentally awakening Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo). The expeditions return to Cairo, but Imhotep follows them. Imhotep unleashes the 10 plagues on Egypt. He wants to resurrect his lover by sacrificing Evie. They guess that if the Book of the Dead brought Imhotep back to life, the Book of the Living can kill him. Imhotep corners the group with an army of slaves and Evie agrees to accompany him if he spares the lives of the others. He takes her back to Hamunaptra, pursued by Rick, Jonathan, and Ardeth. Imhotep prepares to sacrifice Evelyn, but she is rescued. Evie reads from the Book, making him mortal again so Rick can kill him. Evie and Johnathan ride off into the sunset on camels, with some treasure.

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The remake is directed by Stephen Sommers who did all the Mummy films; as well as The Scorpion King, Van Helsing and GI Joe: Rise of Cobra. He has a visual flair and a knack for lightweight action material. While many of the action sequences are fun and there are a few laughs, there are no real scares or any sufficient tone of suspense. The comedy is hit-and-miss and there are too many comedy relief characters involved. There is just too much winking at the audience.

The classic 1932 version has a consistently tense, atmospheric tone, with a wonderfully slow build-up. Karloff is at his best here, and he says more with that ice-cold stare than a page of dialogue ever could. Director Karl Freund (who also directed Mad Love) captures Karloff’s charismatic presence in a way few others have done. Also, since this was a pre-code film, there was a surprising amount of subtle eroticism. Additionally, a character being buried alive doesn’t seem very intense today but this was strong stuff for 1932.

Another classy aspect to the 1932 version is the way this film uses silence. It’s not afraid to have a scene play out with no dialogue or background music. Freund takes advantage of Karloff’s amazing physical presence as a replacement for sounds and words, and it’s very effective. The remake is much louder, with consistent shooting, shouting, fighting and constant background music.

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In the remake, there is no consistent tone. The comedy defuses the tension of the serious scenes. For instance, Imhotep’s scary roar is meant to be intimidating but it’s not so effective when Rick (Brendan Fraser) just roars mockingly back at him. Also, why make Evie such a klutz at the beginning, especially when it’s not utilized in the story again? There are just too many comical characters and not enough genuine scares. John Hannah is very annoying as Evie’s brother Jonathan Carnahan.

There’s a lot of action in the remake and some of it is good but maybe there’s a bit too much of it. The repetitive shoot-outs detract from the main story. As for the SFX, the resurrection effect is nice–with Imhotep re-forming a bit at a time—and so is the giant face in the sand trying to swallow the plane, but on the other hand, the scarab beetles don’t really work because they are clearly CGI, which dilutes any sense of menace they might induce. The attack of the multiple mummies near the end is very Harryhausen-like, evoking the skeleton fight in Jason and the Argonauts, but why are all the other resurrected Mummies such push-overs? And a villain whose scared of kitty cats seems less menacing.

Imhotep was handled better in the original. Karloff’s Imhotep is a multi-layered character because, in some sense, he was a victim. All he wanted was to be reunited with his lost love. Yes, the same could be said for the Imhotep of the remake, except that Arnold Vosloo doesn’t capture the shades-of-grey in the character, turning his Mummy into a roaring fiend, whereas Karloff’s interpretation hinted at the sadness he felt. His final scenes with Helen—who has regained her lost memories as the princess—show his vulnerable side. Universal films were notable for often making the monsters sympathetic, and no one could do that better than Karloff. We never see Vosloo’s tender side and the whole reincarnation aspect is not even utilized until the sequel.

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Was the 1932 film perfect? No, there were problems. Edward Van Sloan, who plays Dr. Muller also played the vampire-hunting Dr. Van Helsing in Dracula, (which came out a year before) and is essentially the same character. David Manners makes just as dull a love interest here as he did when he played Jonathan Harker in Dracula. Even the leading lady is underdeveloped. Still, despite these flaws, the 1932 film delivers a timeless horror yarn with a wonderful performance by Karloff.

So which is better? I’ll have to go with the original. Karloff is matchless in the title role, aided by the great iconic make-up designed by the legendary Jack Pierce, who did the monster make-up for Frankenstein. While the SFX of the transformation in the remake are interesting, the simpler make-up of the original is actually more effective. The main relationship between Imhotep and his lost love is pushed into the background in the sequel in favor of action, SFX, and a bloated plot, including books of the dead, rival expeditions, killer beetles, secret societies, a lost city, magic spells and 10 plagues. There’s just too much going on for a horror film. When it comes to horror, too many distractions are a drawback. In this case, simple is better. While the remake has its merit, stick with the original. It’s a classic.

That’s all for this week’s look at Hollywood remakes. We’ll be back next week to dissect to another cinematic re-do. In the meantime, check out our previous articles Examining Hollywood Remakes.