It’s interesting to think, as a culture, what we deem scary. We have a diverse collection of nightmarish creatures with which we’re fascinated. They star in our favorite horror movies, and gentler versions of their faces get stuck to the windows of suburban houses the entire month of October in celebration of Halloween. Plucking these beings – ghosts, vampires, werewolves and the like – from various cultures and myths, we embrace them and re-invent them as our own, simultaneously fearing and worshipping horror creations that may be remarkably different from the original version of the entity in question. It’s a bizarre practice, if you think about it, and one that may not be as prominent in other cultures. It might make us wonder: What is horror? What can we learn about ourselves through the monsters we create?
I mention this, I suppose, because the concept of a “mummy,” –a treasured member of our cultural horror lore – is rather fascinating in this context. At some point, while learning about mummification burial processes in Ancient Egypt, someone asked, “what if this creature wrapped in white fabric came to life with ill intentions?” We find the burial practices of another culture so unsettling that we turn the mummified body – in our American horror stories – into an evil deity. I’m not critiquing this practice, but thinking about the process that creates our mythic monsters is rather intriguing. I started thinking about this after watching two mummy movies set 77 years apart: The Mummy, from 1932, and the more contemporary (but not uber-contemporary) 1999 version of the film with Brendan Fraser. I enjoyed both films, and what they did with the concept of a “mummy,” but am still eagerly awaiting a mummy movie that truly scares me.
I will credit Michael with the idea of writing about mummies, which is actually a new area of focus for this blog. I try to write about horror fairly broadly, but it occurs to me as I write this post, I’ve never written about a mummy movie. However, the newest version of the film (also titled The Mummy) comes out of Friday, so it’s an apropos time to celebrate this ghoulish constituent of the American horror-imagination. As I intimated before, I find neither the 1932 nor the 1999 The Mummy particularly scary, but one is a genre-defining classic that sets the stage for a diverse rendition of spin-off interpretations, and the other is a fun, funny, action-packed late 90’s adventure worth watching for its ability to depict what we usually consider grotesque in an otherwise lighthearted film.
The original The Mummy opens, not surprisingly, with a bunch of old white guys sitting around a room in Egypt. (I mean, it’s 1932. Women aren’t allowed to learn things yet). To their credit, while some want to profit off their discoveries, others are purely interested in expanding European culture’s knowledge of other countries. In their shared office, they open a newly discovered coffin and reveal the wrinkled corpse of a mummy who looks like an uncomfortable depiction of decay and death. They open the coffin despite an engraving that warns “eternal punishment for anyone who opens this casket.” (A subtle suggestion that we’re quick to disregard the religious beliefs of another culture). While two men, Dr. Muller and Dr. Joseph, step outside to debate whether to read a scroll enclosed inside the casket, a younger (more naïve, more impulsive) scientist reads the scroll, watches the mummy come to life, and goes insane. His incessant, maniacal laughter is arguably one of the most unsettling elements of the film and an intriguing reminder that retro-horror often does insanity as well or better than newer horror films do (think, for example, Dr. Renfield in Nosferatu, or in the 1930’s version of Braham Stoker’s Dracula).
I appreciate old horror films, but I’m not an avid viewer of them; if anything, I veer toward the contemporary and relatively modern classics. But the thing to love about old horror, in my mind, is how creatively it depicts the supposedly evil creature in question, without the help of the technology we have now. The 1930’s Braham Stoker’s Dracula dropped the ball when they gave us a relatively cliché, human-like Count Dracula, but the 1922 silent film Nosferatu more or less set the standard for CGI-free genius when it contrived the monstrous Nosferatu with his dark, hallow eyes, bald head, and gnarled, sinewy claws. The Mummy (1932), though it didn’t truly scare me, followed in the tradition of Nosferatu by making the risen mummy (Imhotep) incredibly unsettling, even when he’s brought to life and takes human form. He wears clothes and a hat, but he moves robotically, with shady eyes and a stoic face. He is, in fact, the quintessential amalgam of life and death – a living, moving, unsmiling being whose skin looks so wrinkled and rubbery that it’s as if he’s just stepped out of the grave. This transgression of the boundary between life and death, the subtle but effective attempt to convey a dead man walking, is one of the most striking features, in my opinion, of this 1932 classic.
Archetypally, the 1932 version of The Mummy is also very similar to many of the Dracula movies in that a veritable gaggle of men huddle around one damsel and distress, trying to save her from the imminent peril of the evil creature featured in the film. In various versions of Braham Stoker’s Dracula, Lucy, and then Mina, are hunted down by the Count; Mina looks like his lost love and is his ultimate target. Mina is depicted as an incredibly strong, smart, capable female character in Stoker’s late 19th century text, but this characterization didn’t necessarily translate to every cinematic adaptation of the book. Helen Grosvenor, played by Zita Johann, in the 1932 The Mummy tries, at various points in the film, to exercise her independence, but usually when she’s under the influence of Adeth-Bai, the dead Imhotep in life, played by Boris Karloff. You know what they say: “Only a woman under the influence of an insidious Egyptian spirit wouldn’t want to be told what to do by a group of overbearing men.” Of course, when it comes to Helen’s role in the movie, the film is probably largely a product of its time and the norms of gender depictions in early Hollywood. I think, looking retrospectively at films like this, I’m hesitant to critique sexism in and of itself in a 1932 film, but the gender norms of the film industry at that time do create sometimes limiting roles for women. I found Helen to be kind of a cliché, unexciting character, and that’s not because of Zita Johann’s acting; it’s because of the way she’s written in the script.
This is probably a good time to transition to the 1999 version of The Mummy, which shares some plot points with the 1932 version and even borrows a few lines (the main villain here, too, is Imhotep, and like the Imhotep of the 1932 version, he doesn’t like to be touched, because “it’s an Eastern prejudice”), but in many ways, is incredibly different from the original. Unlike Zita Johann, who’s kind of pigeon-holed into a one-note role, I think Evy Carnahan, played by Rachel Weisz, practically carries the 1999 film. Her quirky, goofy, intellectual role is layered and entertaining. She not only adequately compliments her male lead, Brendan Fraser (who plays American adventurer Rick O’Connell); she might add even more to the film than Fraser’s cynical, understated humor. I hadn’t seen this movie for years, and I was really struck by how much I appreciated Evy Carnahan’s character. She’s no Wonder Woman, but she’s a force to be reckoned with. And while Imhotep seeks to bring his lover (in this film called Anck-su-namun) back in Evy’s body, similar to his attempt to revive his lover in Helen’s body in the original, the dynamics of the film are much different. At one point (perhaps as a nod to cultural norms) Rick calls Evy a “damsel in distress,” but she’s hardly a passive bystander who listens to the dictates of the men around her; to an extent, his quip sounds ironic. Indeed, probably an entire blog post could be written on what her character says about feminism and the cultural conception of women at the end of the 20th century, but suffice it to say she’s an excellent female character.
Of course, in the 1999 version of The Mummy, there’s a lot more action and adventure, a lot more fighting and rivalry. It takes place in the 1920’s, and intentionally stereotyped depictions of gun-toting, tobacco-chewing, gold hungry, cocky Americans dressed as cowboys are particularly entertaining juxtaposed alongside British and Egyptian characters. Meanwhile, Benny, Rick’s cowardly sidekick, is another character worth considering. He’s a stellar example of our culture’s contempt of complete cowardice – at least, contempt of a level of selfish cowardice that willingly sacrifices others to save one’s own skin. Benny is always out for himself, and he eventually helps Imhotep with his killing to avoid being one of his victims. Benny, one will note, is not necessarily evil by the Terry Eagleton definition I often play with on this blog (doing harm for harm’s sake, with no ultimate end). Benny doesn’t commit evil for the sake of committing it; he wants gold, and he wants to save himself. But for that, he seems more vile, loathsome, and unlikable then the risen Imhotep who, in death, may just be the embodiment of pure evil. While, as a culture, we may have a place in our hearts for the likes of the cowardly lion, when the cowardly lion sacrifices the well-being of his friends and other innocent people to save himself, we despise him more than we despise the official “bad guy,” who’s usually wreaking havoc for the hell of it. To that end, it might be safe to say that we have a weird sort of respect for a level of unbridled evil that boldly proclaims what it is (see The Joker or Hannibal Lecter).
As for the “bad guy,” Imhotep, I found the 1999 CGI version of him interesting, if not altogether appealing. I love when they initially open his coffin and describe him as “juicy,” marveling that he’s hardly the dried, fully decayed, 3,000+ year old corpse they expected. But when he becomes a walking entity, it looks like the filmmakers were trying too hard, and he’s not incredibly scary. What is interesting is how Imhotep’s risen corpse evolves as he roams around, sucking the life out of other people. His face slowly starts to fill in as he gains living, human form. But again, like the 1932 original, this process leaves him very obviously situated, uncomfortably, between life and death, at least as far as his body is concerned. In one particularly alarming scene, while he looks almost human, a big, flesh-eating scarab crawls out of a decayed part of his face. In another scene, he bends down to kiss Evy, and when his lips lock with hers, his mouth turns from the mouth of a human to the mouth of a corpse. In that way, the filmmakers really capitalize on our fascination with the tenuous boundary between life and death and our discomfort with characters who seem to sit on both sides of the dividing line.
Which, ultimately, is one of the things I liked best about the remake. As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, it managed to weave a lot of grotesque scenes into a film that otherwise wasn’t overly somber, and was actually, in a cheesy way, very funny (I was surprised, after not having seen it for so many years, how many times I laughed out loud). Bugs invade peoples’ bodies and living people get the life sucked out of them by Imhotep, only to turn into dried up, green-gray corpses. To procure eyes and a tongue, Imhotep helps himself to the eyes and tongue of a hubristic American, in one of many uncomfortable scenes. And yet, instead of walking away from the film feeling unnerved, you might actually think (as I did): “That was kind of cute.”
In the end, I probably prefer the more contemporary rendition of The Mummy to its 1932 original. I enjoy older films, but when it comes to old horror films, I think I sometimes have high expectations. The original The Mummy was among the first films to explore what it is about the mummified body that scares us and how to magnify that fear through creative cinema. While it’s definitely an oldie worth watching, the 1999 The Mummy has richer characters, and it’s also just downright fun. I liked watching the two films in a sequence – one yesterday, one today – and might actually recommend doing so, because it’s cool to draw comparisons and contrasts.
Ultimately, what both of these movies do exceptionally is exploit the boundary between life and death; we see how imaginative minds depict a dead man walking and how that dead man acts, and interacts, with others, what his goals are, and what the consequences are of breaking the perhaps hazy life-death divide, at least in our Western minds. Which, I think, is what this particular monster—the risen mummy—teaches us about ourselves. While some cultures embrace sickness and death, I’d argue American culture is considerably uncomfortable with such things, and we like to kind of hide death in a corner and deny its existence in our day to day lives. This belief was brilliantly summed up in a profound quote by Princeton anthropologist Ganananth Obeyesekere, who studies how other cultures deal with mortality and decay. I can’t find the quote online, and I heard it long ago, so you’ll have to take my word for it; basically, he contends that not all cultures sweep death under the rug the way we do. These two films, I would argue, brazenly reflect our discomfort with death and force us imagine life and death not as vastly distinct entities, but as realities woven together. They highlight death’s presence in daily life and ask us to consider how unclear our arbitrarily created boundaries might be, after all. That said, here’s hoping that The Mummy 2017 is as interesting and more scary than its predecessors – review to come!