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Holy Hell: The Mummy Turns 20

Holy Hell: The Mummy Turns 20

The Mummy was a throwback even in its own time.

Has it really been 20 years since Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy shambled across our screens? Less a remake of Karl Freund’s 1932 Universal Monsters classic and more a dumbed-down, unauthorized spin on an Indiana Jones movie, The Mummy was nevertheless an unexpected delight. The film toes the line of horror and adventure very well, and while doing so gives us a charming lead performance by Brendan Fraser and introduces the audaciously talented Rachel Weisz to the mainstream.

The Mummy’s leading man is Rick O’Connell, a part famously offered to Tom Cruise (who would later play a different version of the role in 2017’s lesser remake) and Matt Damon before finding its way to the sturdy, wide-eyed Fraser. O’Connell is roped in by bumbling but brilliant librarian Evelyn Carnahan (Weisz) to help excavate the ancient city of Hamunaptra, where the pair accidentally unleash the curse of High Priest Imhotep (South African actor Arnold Vosloo, fantastically ominous in a nearly-silent role). Mayhem, scarabs, double-crossing, romance, turbulence, plagues and treasure-hunting ensue.

Though The Mummy’s technical merits have faded in the 20 years since its release, it is remarkable how well the film’s special effects and Oscar-nominated sound hold up. When a sand storm whips up over the Sahara, it actually looks and sounds as if it is happening. And the scuttling of flesh-eating scarabs will still cause even the bravest of viewers to lift her feet up off the floor in horror. Better still, the film’s charismatic leads are just as compelling as they were 20 years ago. Perhaps even more so, as now we know that Fraser’s career would fade relatively quickly while Weisz’s goofy, relatable charm would be ignored in favor of more prestigious dramatic roles.

Also great is John Hannah as Evelyn’s ne’er-do-well brother Jonathan, who provides much of the comic relief while also contributing to one of the film’s undersung qualities, which is its celebration of sibling loyalty. Evelyn and Jonathan are continually there for one another despite their flaws, and this is something that many of today’s mainstream Hollywood features forget to include.

The Mummy spawned two sequels (both of which are pretty good, though 2008’s The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor suffered because of Weisz’s absence) and entire spin-off series based on Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s Scorpion King character from the first sequel (his film debut!). And this despite a weak script, uneven direction and a sand-face-monster-gimmick that can only go so far. But the key to The Mummy’s success is that it is fun, plain and simple. Even more fun, at times, than its forebears, the first three Indiana Jones films. Much of this fun comes from the jokes and the zany action, but the other key ingredient here is the chemistry between Fraser and Weisz, who is a true co-lead despite being less famous than Fraser at the time.

The years since The Mummy have given us a number of action classics of varying size and scope. Those years have even given us a number of mummy movies of varying size and scope! But, in our troubled times, even the lightest blockbuster has a heavy edge. The Mummy, with its horror roots but commitment to laughs and romance, is missed. Katniss, Iron Man, Rey and Kylo are all superior to Rick and Evelyn in a number of ways, but what they lack is the goal to provoke smiles before gasps. The Mummy was a throwback even in its own time, but it was forward-thinking in that we really do need films that make us grin from ear-to-ear while they thrill us.

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