The other day, after weeks of should I—should I not, I finally decided I should watch the 2017 The Mummy. I’ll admit I had low expectations, but The Mummy succeeded in showing me that even those expectations had been too high. This was a crazy mix-up of everything from an ancient mummy come alive to some medieval Crusaders, to Dr Jekyll, trying desperately to keep his evil alter-ego in check. There were crows, there were rats and spiders swarming all over the place, there was dust and sand and pools of mercury. There were gibbering skeletons racing madly about, pursuing our hero and his lady love left, right and centre.
About time, I thought, that I finally saw why a lot of film buffs rate these newer versions (I’m also referring to the 1999 Brendan Fraser-Rachel Weisz-Arnold Vosloo The Mummy) as pale copies of the original The Mummy.
The Mummy begins at an archaeological dig in Egypt in 1921: a British team is at work and has excavated some valuable objects. Of prime interest are a sarcophagus containing a mummified man, and a box with an ominous message on it. Occult expert Dr Muller (Edward Van Sloan) has a close look at the sarcophagus and its contents, and comes to an unsettling conclusion: that the man in it, whose name (inscribed on the sarcophagus) was Imhotep, a high priest at the temple of Karnak, was punished for some crime and doomed to eternal death.
This last bit Muller is able to decipher from the fact that the traditional words, ushering the soul on its way to the afterlife, that are inscribed on the inside of the sarcophagus, have been scratched out.
Muller’s words don’t really impress the two archaeologists here. Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron) and his assistant Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher) are more eager to get along and unwrap the mummy. Muller dissuades them—who knows what evil they will unleash? Sir Joseph agrees to put it off for the time being, but it’s obvious that he doesn’t believe any of this occult claptrap of Muller’s.
Muller has another warning in store for the two archaeologists: do not, in any event, open the box. The message on it is clear: the box contains a curse, which will let loose evil on the world. Muller does some more interpretation of the hieroglyphics (which Whemple and Norton too can read) and comes to the conclusion that the box contains the Scroll of Thoth, which Isis used to raise Osiris from the dead.
Again, Whemple and Norton don’t look at all convinced, but Whemple has other work to do anyway, and he and Muller go off, leaving Norton to continue his work by himself. Norton, after a few minutes, lets his curiosity get the better of him. He opens the box (which opens rather too easily for something that was supposed to contain something so vicious—all he does is prise off a seal and lift the lid). And there is the scroll!
Norton takes it out, puts it down on the table, and begins to spell out the words written on the scroll. Behind him, in the sarcophagus that’s standing, there is a barely perceptible movement. Then the mummy (Boris Karloff) opens its eyes. Even as Norton finishes reading out the incantation, all the while unaware of what’s happening behind his back, the mummy’s hands move.
The next thing we see is a bony hand, wrapped in dry old bandages, reaching out for the scroll. Then, another bandage trails on the floor in the wake of someone we never see, disappearing through the doorway, while Norton laughs hysterically. Where the scroll lay on the table is now nothing except a very dusty handprint. When Whemple comes rushing into the room, it is to find Norton still laughing madly.
And madness it is, as we discover next.
Eleven years later, another expedition, also British (organized by the British Museum) is in Egypt. Professor Pearson (Leonard Mudie) is heading this team, and his assistant is Frank Whemple (David Manners). Frank is the son of Sir Joseph Whemple, and through a conversation between Frank and Pearson, we are told that Norton went insane, though what drove him so suddenly insane could not be ascertained, because he died soon after that 1921 expedition. The scroll and the mummy of Imhotep are believed to have been stolen: at any rate, neither has been seen again.
Since then, Sir Joseph Whemple too has distanced himself from these archaeological digs in Egypt, despite being the prominent Egyptologist that he is.
This particular dig, anyway, is proving to be pretty disappointing. They’ve dug up next to nothing of any value. Frank and Pearson are now getting ready to move on; there seems little point in hanging around at this site any longer.
Just then, a stranger arrives. This man (Boris Karloff again, looking as impassive as in his brief appearance as the mummy, even though he’s now in modern Egyptian attire) tells them his name is Ardath Bey, and hands over an interesting little fragment of pottery. On it is inscribed the name of the Princess Ankh-es-en-amon of the 18th Dynasty. Both Frank and Pearson are intrigued by this, and even more so when this taciturn and mysterious visitor informs them that he is certain the tomb of Ankh-es-en-amon is somewhere in the vicinity.
In fact, Ardath Bey’s estimate of where the royal tomb is located is so precise that the expedition’s workers, digging, are soon able to reach it. This is a huge find for the expedition: an unplundered, intact tomb, and that too of a princess, no less. It makes news. Frank’s father, Sir Joseph Whemple, is also excited enough to come out of his self-imposed exile and return to Egypt.
Frank is a little miffed that though the expedition was organized by the British Museum, the Cairo Museum gets to keep all the artefacts. That, however, is part of the contract, so there’s nothing the Brits can do about it.
We now move on, to a party where we are introduced to an acquaintance of Dr Muller’s (who is also in Egypt). This is Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), daughter of a wealthy and prominent Englishman and his Egyptian wife. Helen’s lineage on the distaff side is a mile long, remarks Dr Muller.
While Helen is dancing at the party, an unexpected visitor arrives at the Cairo Museum: Ardath Bey comes into the room where the sarcophagus of Ankh-es-en-amon is displayed. The guard stops him, informing him that the museum is closing now. As it happens, Sir Joseph Whemple is passing by, and on seeing Ardath Bey, says that the treasures in this room would never have been found had it not been for Ardath Bey. He certainly has more right than anyone else to look around here for a few minutes even after closing hours.
Before leaving Ardath Bey, though, Sir Joseph takes the Egyptian into the office to meet Frank. An invitation from Whemple for Ardath Bey to come and visit their home is turned down brusquely—Ardath Bey says he has little time for such matters—and when Sir Joseph reaches out to touch the man on his sleeve, Bey draws back, saying he does not like being touched. “A strange man,” is Frank’s verdict, when Bey has gone off again to the chamber he wanted to visit.
… and strange he is. Because there, beside the sarcophagus of Princess Ankh-es-en-amon, Ardath Bey kneels with a lamp and a scroll. He murmurs an incantation, reading from the scroll. Even as he’s doing this, the guard, going about checking each room, enters. Ardath Bey looks up, surprised, and quickly extinguishes the lamp. But the guard has already seen too much; sometime later, other guards in the museum find him dead, next to the sarcophagus of Ankh-es-en-amon. Also left behind is the scroll, one which Whemple and Muller recognize as the dreaded Scroll of Thoth, stolen in 1921.
And across town, at the party, Helen Grosvenor suddenly feels disoriented and dizzy. She breaks away from her partner, and looking oddly disconnected from the party around her, makes her way to the cloak room, where she imperiously demands—just by gesture—her furs.
Then, just as imperiously (and looking as if she’s in a trance), she goes out, down the steps, and has the attendant summon a car. This she gets to drop her off at the Cairo Museum. The museum is closed, and Helen, arriving at the shut doors, suddenly seems to go all to pieces: she bangs on the doors, weeping hysterically and begging to be let in. Frank Whemple finds her here, and she faints right there on the doorstep.
… with the result that she is taken to where Whemple, father and son, are staying, to recover. Dr Muller, who is in attendance (he is a medical practitioner, besides his interest in the occult), is startled to hear the words Helen is muttering in a daze: “Imhotep! Imhotep!” There is something very disturbing here, he tells Sir Joseph Whemple. When Helen finally comes to, the two older men go off to discuss this, leaving Frank with Helen.
This set-up being very conducive to the two people quickly falling in love with each other. So quickly, in fact, that when Whemple and Muller enter the room shortly after, it’s to find Helen and Frank kissing each other. Quick work, but Muller comes to dampen their ardour. Ardath Bey, he is now certain, is none other than the resurrected mummy of Imhotep, and he is working some evil magic, using the Scroll of Thoth. But the scroll, accidentally left behind by Ardath Bey at the Cairo Museum, is now in the possession of Sir Joseph Whemple, which automatically puts the Whemples at risk. And what exactly is Ardath Bey’s interest in Helen?
I admit that I had high hopes of this, the original version of The Mummy. Just going by the number of reviews on IMDB, it’s easy to see that this is quite a cult classic. And in some ways, it does deserve the title of ‘cult classic’, because this (unless I’m very far off the mark) was the first film that used the motif of an evil, ancient mummy coming alive in the modern day and wreaking havoc. There is something inherently gruesome and grotesque about the idea, so it’s no wonder that it has survived so long—though later films have treated this concept very differently (and more graphically) than did director Karl Freund here.
Because what I liked and didn’t like about The Mummy (1932) has a good bit to do with why I liked (or didn’t like, at all, in the case of the latest The Mummy) the reboots, let me discuss this all in one go.
Comparisons, and what I liked and disliked about this film:
The 1999 The Mummy, with Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz, is the one I first watched. I have watched it several times since it was first released, and I confess that I love it. True, it has its cheesiness, its fairly predictable (by now) twists and turns, but it’s still thoroughly entertaining, and a good bit of that has to do with the humour of it. Brendan Fraser, always a good comic hero, strikes the perfect balance between being handsomely heroic and being laugh-out-loud-funny, and the story itself does have a passing resemblance to that of the 1932 The Mummy.
The 2017 The Mummy has much less in common with its earlier namesakes; this one is also about a resurrected mummy (that of an evil and ambitious princess), but in this case, the motive is different: instead of resurrecting an old lover, she wants to use a human body (that of the hero, played by Tom Cruise) as a vessel for the God of Death, Seth, who she thus hopes to get on her side.
I won’t even begin to compare the 1932 and 2017 films; they are too unlike each other to merit a comparison. But the 1932 and 1999 films, even if very different, do have some points of resemblance (the 1999 one was, after all, a loose remake of the 1932 one). The main difference is in the visuals and the pace: the 1999 film is frenetic, every little lapse into quiet and peace acting as a lull before a sudden fright. Plus, the CGI dominates: thousands of scuttling scarabs, burrowing deep into live bodies; mummies coming alive and walking the streets; winds forming howling mouths in the desert… it has the works.
The 1932 film has Boris Karloff.
And Boris Karloff, really, is miles ahead of Arnold Vosloo in the ‘scary mummy’ department. His gaze is disconcerting and creepy; the face, wrinkled and lantern-jawed, is far more unsettling than Vosloo’s (who’s actually pretty well-chiseled, and has to rely on CGI—or was it makeup? —to give him that sinew-visible-through-the-cheek look). Also, Karloff’s Imhotep doesn’t believe in loud shrieking and jumping about and frightening action (all of which Vosloo does): his menace comes from the fact that he pretends, and fairly convincingly, to be a 20th century human being. Taciturn, perhaps a little odd, but believably a man. He doesn’t scream, he doesn’t raise up demons (or demon creatures) from hell, he merely uses a little magic to show the past, and to try and resurrect his lost love.
That ‘lost love’ angle is also where the two films differ in treatment: Ardath Bey’s efforts to bring back Ankh-es-en-amon are somehow worthy of sympathy: you can feel for him, for his deep desire for her, even if his method of going about it—by using Helen Grosvenor, whom he’s convinced is a reincarnation—is wrong.
Arnold Vosloo’s Imhotep, even in his back story, is a character who’s guilty of something unethical, and his way of getting his lover back in this day and age means he stops at nothing: in fact, goes out of his way to recruit every possible force of evil to accomplish his goal.
(That his lover is perhaps even more evil than he is makes them, as a pair, also less an object of sympathy; I never wanted them to ‘win’, so to say. With Ardath Bey and Ankh-es-en-amon, there was a wee bit of understanding, which was perhaps heightened by the fact that Helen Grosvenor’s romance with Frank is so hurried and hard to believe that she may as well allow Ankh-es-en-amon ‘come to life’ through her).
Basically, the 1932 film is quietly unsettling, interesting but not outright frightening. I wouldn’t, really, call this a horror movie: not once did I feel really scared out of my wits, though there were moments (that bandage trailing out the door, Boris Karloff’s eyes boring into the camera) that induced a shiver. The 1999 is rather more a reflection of its times: action-packed, fast-paced, with a very in-your-face horror.
Which did I like better? I’ll be the iconoclast here: the 1999 one. It’s much more entertaining, and the combination of humour (completely missing from the original) and romance (too unbelievably hurried in the original) is delightful.