Wham! Embalm! Thank you, ma’am.

I had to eventually see the 2017 MUMMY, not so much because two modern genre filmmakers I quite like, Christopher McQuarrie and David Koepp, helped write it, but because it’s not every film that can lay claim to destroying an entire cinematic universe.

Universal’s plans for an interconnected, MCU-type set of horror-action franchises involving various of the creatures/characters from their ’30s, ’40s and ’50s back catalogue didn’t strike me as very well-conceived to begin with, and THE MUMMY’S returns at the box office were ultimately insufficient to justify embarking on such a costly venture. Or put it this way, if you’ve found a way to make a Tom Cruise action movie that’s not financially successful, it’s unlikely a major studio is going to hand you the keys to their intellectual property.

(In fact, director/co-writer/co-producer Alex Kurtzman continues to exert control over Star Trek and its spin-offs.)

Hey, remember the trailer with the missing sound? Did any Universal employees turn up mysteriously murdered after that came out?

The reason for my lack of enthusiasm may have been my dissatisfaction with the 1999 MUMMY. To me, THE MUMMY will always be Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney and Tom Tyler and Christopher Lee, and he will be a monster movie character, not an action movie villain. The contortion that made that Stephen Sommers movie possible was that the INDIANA JONES movies were an action series with supernatural and icky moments and an archaeological framework. Sommers stole all that and called it THE MUMMY and made a fortune and some increasingly awful sequels.

With its plagues of bugs and sandstorms with faces, the Kurzman MUMMY explicitly references those earlier films, but sets the action in the here and now. For me, that’s enough to break the logical connection from the Karl Freund original (set in the then-contemporary 30s world) to RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK to the Sommers MUMMY. Without RAIDERS being evoked at the back of our minds, there doesn’t seem any excuse for a MUMMY movie to be an action adventure.

But that might not be the reason for the film’s lack of B.O. oomph. Maybe the audience rebelled against the idea of a female mummy — horror films are popular with girls but action films skew more to boys — the idea of Tom Cruise fighting a girl may not have seemed like a good premise, and indeed at the film’s climax it does seem unpleasant. Or maybe the fact that Crusie plays an asshole is the problem?

It’s an interesting and bold choice, I’ll grant that. When the Cruiser gets his pal Jake Johnson into a life-threatening situ at the film’s outset, I thought, “OK, he’s a jerk, but so long as he doesn’t get his pal killed he’s redeemable.”


But then he DOES get his pal killed, and is by extension responsible for ALL the deaths in the film (mostly nameless cops, paramedics and assorted redshirts). True, in the film’s coda he brings his buddy back to life, but that’s a little late for me to stop resenting his relentless ass-hattery, and has he reanimated everyone else slain as a secondary consequence of said ass-hattery, too? I take leave to doubt it.

Steals: QUATERMASS AND THE PIT: subway extension uncovers ancient menace; LIFEFORCE: sexy monster sucks life from and zombifies supporting players; AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON: hero’s slain pal returns from dead for expository purposes — leading to the secret assignation in a public toilet which seems to be an unofficial Tom Cruise movie trope (see also VALKYRIE and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT).

The film is quite poorly designed in places. Even in the high-octane chase/race/fight structure, there are some effectively creepy zombie scenes, but once Sophia Boutella has to start being sinister and sexy at the same time, everyone seems confused about what look they’re going for. Supernatural eyes, decay, KWAIDAN-style pictograms, crumbling gauzy coating — there’s too much going on for an effective creature design (Lon Chaney Sr. would reportedly subtract something whenever he thought he was finished with a makeup) and the little crinkly bit on the bridge of her nose is a fucking disgrace. The missing cheek is just there so they can spend money on CGI, because every monster has to have some CGI now.

(Maybe the worst thing about the Sommers film, apart from the jaw-dropping racism [Sommers, from his own audio commentaries, seems like a jerk], was the CGI beetles-under-the-skin effect. A visual that’s really creepy when done with bladder effects in SHIVERS and ALTERED STATES becomes pure garbage when handed over to the pixel-pushers.)

The main element of Dark Universe world-building is the inclusion of Russell Crowe as Henry Jekyll, head of an organisation assigned to fight supernatural evil. There’s one obvious reason why he might not be the ideal chairperson, can you guess what it is? Though I enjoyed the silliness of Crowe’s alter-ego talking with a cockney accent, I think Alan Moore might have a legal case (although, as a result of the terrible LEAGUE OF EXTRORDINARY GENTLEMEN movie, Moore was himself sued by Larry Cohen, who’d written something comparable called CAST OF CHARACTERS. I’d rather the Cohen film had been made that LOEG or this MUMMY, needless to say). Also, the fact that Hyde looks just like Jekyll is a pathetic shortchanging of the audience. I guess Crowe, like Jack Nicholson in WOLF and maybe Malkovich in MARY REILLY, didn’t want to be covered in prosthetics. Screw those guys! Don’t hire them to play monsters! What the hell, people?

Still, I sort of enjoyed this inept bunkum, but it really doesn’t work. At the end, Cruise is seen galloping off towards the pyramids as music pounds. TO DO WHAT? We are given absolutely no expectations. He’s just galloping for no reason.

“Why don’t we just trot?” his pal might have suggested. “I mean, since we have no particular goal, it can’t really be urgent, can it?”

I can see why they didn’t have him make that objection. Still, if a character CAN raise such a point at the end of your movie, you’re probably not launching a successful franchise.

14 Responses to “Wham! Embalm! Thank you, ma’am.”

  1. Simon Kane Says:

    Wow wow wow. Wow. I’d only ever seen a clip of the noiselessness. I’d no idea there was a whole trailer. Frankly I think these two minutes were worth the whole enterprise. I haven’t seen this film yet, I haven’t yet seen Hand, Tomb Ghost or Curse either but there’ll all to hand. The thing is though, since even the Karloff original – which I love – has only three or so minutes of actual mummy in it I’ve never really been curious about it as a franchisable monster. Its North Africanness seems its only distinguishing characteristic, problematic for a horror franchise, although it is also uniquely shambolic and easy to dress up as, so maybe a comedy franchise would suit it better.

  2. The first minute of the trailer proves that Soderbergh was right to protest that slam-bang trailers need to quieten down. It’s a great attention-getter, silence. Then the little grunts start and comedy gold ensues.

    The Universal 40s Mummy sequels are REALLY dull, as I recall. No acting is possible by the various luckless souls cast in the title role, and no decent characterisation given to the supporting players and they all play at the same shuffling pace.

  3. David Ehrenstein Says:

    My favorite appearance of The Mummy is to be found amidst the baroque detritus of Jack Smith’s “Normal Love” (1963)

  4. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Gore Vidal writes with admirable detail of how Karl Freund’s “The Mummy” scared the bejesus out of him in Screening History

  5. Yes, I love that account!

    The Mummy was the only one of the Universals that scared me as a kid, because of the whole wrapped-up alive bit. And the next horror film that did it was Isle of the Dead. And yes, I’m a touch claustrophobic.

  6. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Then I trust Joan Collins’ demise in “Land of the Pharoahs” left quite a mark on you.

  7. Actually, Fiona’s the one who was traumatized by that, I was probably wowed by the grandeur, identifying with the lunks who are just stoically standing there. Whereas Fiona related to the beauty freaking out…

  8. Aside from some of the 50s-60s Hammers, I haven’t seen any of the Universal monster reboots. Being a cowardly kid, I preferred stylized B&W fairy tales to gory and traumatizing horror. Still do.

    While Universal has been aggressive in maintaining and marketing the monsters as a brand, for decades they seemed reluctant to undertake any new films. The most visible project was “The Munsters”, a very family-friendly sitcom. They did, however, release several of the Hammer films, which unofficially covered much of the Universal line.

    In 1987 “Monster Squad” was, for all intents and purposes, a full-on revival of the Universal monsters — except it was made by another studio. Thus you got werewolf instead of Wolfman, creature from an unidentified lagoon, generic mummy, and non-Jack Pierce monster. Slick and occasionally impressive, but too genuinely dark for its intended kid audience.

    In 1997 there was a Universal miniseries titled “House of Frankenstein”. Modern-day Los Angeles police detective deals with a “master vampire” (who owns a nightclub called House of Frankenstein), a defrosted monster seeking revenge on the vampire for killing Dr. Frankenstein, and a girlfriend who turns into a werewolf. Recall the ads — smelled like a series pilot.

    1999 “Mummy” and “Van Hellsing” were meant to launch a reboot of the full line; a one-off animated “Van Hellsing” appeared to promise an eventual cartoon series. Failed.

    It’s likely they’re going to keep trying. Beyond the monsters’ enduring recognition value, Marvel and Harry Potter proved there can be big money in cinematic “universes”.

  9. La Faustin Says:

    Shambolic and easy to dress up as … this reminds me of SYLVIE ET LE FANTOME, where an ancestral ghost is impersonated by a hired actor, a suitor of the daughter of the house, a would-be burglar, and the ghost itself, all draped in sheets. The ghost keeps forgetting that, although it can pass through a closed door, its sheet cannot — so there’s a running gag of an exit, pause, and irritable tug at the sheet.

  10. Yes, in Normal Love, the mummy smoking a joint.

  11. Donald, you could watch the ’99 Mummy with scarcely a shudder of revulsion, and to a lesser extent this one too: violence kept to an action movie level, though both have crunchy zombie fights.

    They do keep trying revivals, but, strangely enough, never as horror films. My theory is that the brand recognition only works reliably if you offer the public that which they association the brand with. My God that’s a garbled sentence. My point is, Universal have tried everything with the characters except modestly-budgeted horror movies.

    Love Sylvie et le Fantome, glad to see it get a good release.

  12. One easy theory re Universal’s hesitance to commit to horror: Even in their heyday, the monsters receded from genuinely alarming As to matinee-safe Bs. Then came the “Shock Theater” television package which appealed to kids, spawning a steady wave of toys and merchandise for that demographic. Universal — and others, exploiting the public domain aspect of most of the characters — sought to create product that appealed to kids without upsetting them (or their parents). It was left to Hammer to create versions that were safely separate from the Universal franchise.

    Later, horror as a genre became more explicit and/or more deliberately unsettling, and theoretically more adult. See Roger Ebert’s 1969 commentary on a kiddie matinee of “Night of the Living Dead”. So the vintage monsters are almost purely merchandise icons, except in comedic contexts.

    An example of monster gear for kiddies. I actually had the monster and the Wolfman, but I coveted the Creature with his fish.

  13. I’d have loved those!

  14. Simon Kane Says:

    I think that’s one of things Universal got so wrong though. Their monsters are iconic, but they’ve done everything they can to avoid association with those icons. Acknowledging the kiddie fodder look of its “properties” is one of the things Marvel got right. It was also the least dumb thing about the recent BBC Dracula.

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