There’s a moment in director Stephen Sommers’ “The Mummy” (1999) in which Oscar-winning actor Brendan Fraser weaves his way through a horde of undead Egyptian soldiers, dispatching each foe with deadly finesse using a sword that, in another life, was an extra in “Land of the Pharaohs” (1955). Triumphant, Fraser turns to the camera, smirks and says, “Mummies.” Mummies, indeed.
It’s a campy scene in a movie so corny that it would make the great state of Iowa blush. But, wisely, “The Mummy” leans into it, resulting in one of the greatest B movies of all time and — given Brendan Fraser’s recent, well-deserved award-circuit success with his performance in “The Whale” (2022) — a timely film to retrospectively examine.
If it’s not already obvious, “The Mummy” is just about the furthest thing possible from Fraser’s most recent project. Whereas “The Whale” is slow and contemplative, “The Mummy” is high-octane and bombastic. “The Whale” confines itself to a claustrophobic apartment complex, and “The Mummy” abounds with sweeping panoramic views of Cairo and the Sahara. While “The Whale” is an art house machine built to win awards, “The Mummy” is the consummate action-horror flick, the sort of movie that makes for excellent repeated viewing on late-night television or burned-out VHS tapes.
As for the plot of “The Mummy,” it may as well have been plucked straight from a rejected draft of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981). Enter stage left: the bookish, British librarian Evelyn Carnahan (Rachel Weisz) and her kleptomaniac — yet endearingly jocular — brother, Jonathan (John Hannah). Enter stage right: Fraser’s roguish adventurer Rick O’Connell, filled with macho chutzpah and promises of lost, pharaonic riches sequestered somewhere in the Egyptian desert. Introduce a rival American expedition (that, predictably, loves guns and doesn’t take kindly to book learnin’) and you’ve already got a promising blockbuster.
What really kicks “The Mummy” into high gear, though, is its titular villain — a millennia-old high priest known as Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) who is inadvertently resurrected by our heroes and unshakably bent on (a) the destruction of the world and (b) reuniting with his ancient lover, Anck-su-namun (Patricia Velasquez). Without Imhotep, “The Mummy” risks being categorized alongside other “Indiana Jones”-like offerings of the late 1990s and early 2000s — think “Journey to the Center of the Earth” (2008) or “National Treasure” (2004) — but with Vosloo dishing out solid scares and iconic scenes willy-nilly, Sommers’ film separates itself from the pack.
Of course, Fraser also deserves plenty of credit for the success of “The Mummy.” Lest we forget, Fraser was the rising action star of ’90s Hollywood, and “The Mummy” provided him with the perfect stage to showcase his talent. Here, he is a heat mirage of smoldering charm, kissing “broads” through prison cell bars while backlit by dynamite blasts and radiating the effortless charisma of a leading man who only has one job: do cool stuff and look cool doing it.
However, for all of the fun that “The Mummy” squeezes out of schlock, it is not without its shortcomings. For instance, I will make no effort to defend the casual orientalism on display throughout the film, which gawks at “exotic” Egyptian customs and peddles more than a few harmful stereotypes regarding Egypt and Egyptian people.
Along similar lines, one would be forgiven for expressing confusion about the film’s perspective on British archaeology’s long history of tomb plundering and blasé regional subjugation. “The Mummy” certainly seems to have something to say on the matter — after all, Imhotep is only released because of foreign greed that leads to the characters delving too deeply into his tomb. Yet, the movie doesn’t go so far as to form a cogent point (or even halfway-discernable metaphor) about the pillaging of Egypt, outside of the niche situations in which foreign influence unleashes evil forces upon a “hapless” Egyptian populace.
Nevertheless, keeping in mind these very real issues, “The Mummy” deserves its position in the pantheon of horror classics. It is a love letter to adventure and a film that punches well above its weight by virtue of some terrific performances alongside an intriguing fusion of the action genre’s silliest, most enjoyable quirks with horror’s penchant for fear. It may not be taking home an Oscar any time soon, but “The Mummy” is still worth a watch.
William McCall is a sophomore in the College of Arts & Sciences. Hoya Horror will appear online and in print every three weeks.
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