Universal Studios has a long and rich legacy in cinema history. One of the defining eras of its history was during the peak of Hollywood’s “Golden Age” during the 1930s and early 1940s. At this time, Universal made cinematic history with their highly successful and culture-defining horror films. Although they made horror films of a wide variety of subject matters, their most memorable were the monster movies.
Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, and The Wolf Man are all regaled and remembered because of Universal’s contributions. Some of these films are among Universal’s best, but after a while, their popularity faded and the quality dropped. Universal would put the monsters to rest for a long period of time. However, every once in a while they would brush off the coffin and attempt to revive their classic monsters.
None were more successful than The Mummy.
No, I’m not talking about the “Dark Universe,” the 2017 corporate-driven and shameless cash grab that attempted to merge the dark and cynical world view of post-Dark Knight filmmaking with the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
This is the 1999 Stephen Sommers-directed Mummy remake. A box office success, The Mummy spawned two direct sequels and a spin-off franchise, The Scorpion King, and made stars out of Brendan Fraser & Rachel Weisz. Oh, the Scorpion King was a newcomer to film, this “Rock” guy. Maybe you’ve heard of him.
This is a film that probably doesn’t need some grand defense, but to my shock and awe, The Mummy drew mixed reviews and currently sits at a meager 59% on Rotten Tomatoes with the Critics Consensus reading:
It’s difficult to make a persuasive argument for The Mummy as any kind of meaningful cinematic achievement, but it’s undeniably fun to watch.
Well, I’m here to say that I can write a persuasive argument for The Mummy as a meaningful cinematic achievement. The Mummy is not only a fun movie, but one made with heart and passion. Sommers gave us well-crafted action and horror filmmaking that pays homage to its celebrated past. In the process of giving us a look to the past, The Mummy also manages to carve out its own identity for the future.
To put it very simply: The Mummy is sorely underrated. Here’s why…
The Horror Creeps
The Mummy is a loose remake of the 1932 Boris Karloff classic. The original serves as a jumping off point for the remake, which was more a mood piece than the action/adventure and horror piece the remake is. Normally, I would say turning a traditional horror film into a more action movie is a cynical play (like Alex Kurtzman’s admittedly painful version was), but Sommers’ film never strays from its roots.
The movie takes a remarkable amount of time before bringing the Mummy back from the dead. The anticipation of the Mummy’s appearance is wrought with tension. This might be bigger and more grand than the Boris Karloff film but still feels like a natural extension of it.
The Mummy himself (played by Arnold Vosloo) is a wonderful creation of visual effects. Sommers and his VFX wizards at ILM is able to make a new version of a mummy that isn’t just a person in bandages, but a version of the character feels powerful and deadly.
He creeps in the shadows of Egyptian tunnels and overpowesr Brendan Fraser in a physical confrontation. This Mummy is the sympathetic backstory of the classic Universal monsters but has the power of a Terminator. Defeating him feels like an accomplishment for the heroes.
The Screenplay & Actors
As mentioned earlier, the movie takes a surprising amount of time to show the Mummy rise from the dead. The film has a remarkable amount of restraint knowing there will be plenty of the Mummy to come. The screenplay takes every opportunity to inject personality, build tension, and build the characters and their dynamics.
The movie isn’t filled with characters we don’t care about or have vague ideas of who they are supposed to be (like the 2017 version). We know who Rick O’Connell and Evelyn Carnahan are and why we want them to succeed. In nearly every proceeding film, Sommers seemed to forget how important having characters worth rooting for is (especially in an adventure movie like this). By the end of the film, we reach satisfying arcs and conclusions for all the principal characters.
Along the way, we are treated to a well-paced and well-defined story. We know exactly what the villain is capable of doing because we understand his motivations. The film establishes this while balancing action, comedy, horror, and delivering the information in a concise and efficient manner. The script is much better than the critics gave credit.
The actors are perfectly cast for their roles. It is an absolute crime what has happened to Brendan Fraser’s career because after watching this film again, it is clear that he should have been one of the biggest stars in the world.
Fraser has that classic Errol Flynn screen presence and charm — you believe he is an action star but isn’t so powerful that he isn’t vulnerable in a fight. He can lean into his dramatic chops or his great comedic timing. Fraser owns every second of screen time in this movie and should be commended for that.
His co-star, Rachel Weisz, is equally phenomenal. There is a reason every fan of The Mummy screamed bloody murder when she was recast in the third adventure, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. Weisz is an incredible actress and proves it in this franchise. She is the right amount of goofy to be endearing, but still believable as a knowledgeable librarian. John Hannah is also fantastic as her brother, Jonathon, who serves as the film main source of comedic relief.
Of course, what sets this movie apart from the original film is a large number of gun battles and action/adventure sequences. The same influences on the Indiana Jones films are present here, as are treasure hunting, impossible locations, and several riddles to be solved or face dire consequences.
The ship attack, the campground battle, the sandstorm sequence…these are all memorable and “Spielbergian” action scenes. Stephen Sommers uses the visual language of horror films in the proper moments and mixes that with the big bombastic sequences that adventure movies can bring.
Putting A Nail In It
This mix isn’t something that, on paper, should work. Horror and action don’t exactly mix together, but Stephen Sommers’ reverent aesthetic for the past combined with his enthusiasm for modern visual effects (that hadn’t gone overboard yet) makes for a bizarre movie that mixes several different tones and inspirations for something unique and special.
This was my personal introduction to the type of horror I would come to expect from the classic Universal monster movies (a favorite series of films of mine) but was also so entertaining to watch over and over again.
The movie has wonderful characters and a well-written screenplay. This isn’t a type of film that is made very often. This is a horror, swashbuckling-fantasy adventure. Honestly, how many films have been able to successfully blend complete opposite genres successfully like The Mummy?
Not many, which is why this is so underrated and worth much more of your time.