1999 was a good year for moviegoers. The highly anticipated and equally disappointing Star Wars: The Phantom Menace finally landed, Cyberpunk fans discovered The Matrix for the first time, The Sixth Sense crowned M. Night Shyamalan the King of Unexpected Twists, Disney gave their take on the Tarzan story, and Woody and Buzz returned in Toy Story 2. Hot on their heels though was an action-horror that although it did not especially wow the critics cemented itself as an enduring pulp classic.
The Mummy, starring Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz and Arnold Vosloo as the titular monster, turns twenty this week. At the time of its release, it received mixed reviews from critics and it sits at a rating of 58% on Rotten Tomatoes. Critic Roger Ebert described the film with these words: “There is hardly a thing I can say in its favour, except that I was cheered by nearly every minute of it.” That said, it earned more than five times its budget and went on to spawn two sequels and a spin-off set of films. Had these sequels been of the same quality as the first there then perhaps they would have gone on to rival the Indiana Jones films, but this was not meant to be.
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The first of the trilogy remains the best, utilising a perfect blend of horror, comedy and action, but the film nearly ended up being very different. Originally it was planned to be an updated remake of the 1932 Boris Karloff film, focusing more on the horror genre. Clive Barker was on board to direct a low budget, darkly sexual story filled with mysticism, until he and Universal decided to part ways. Joe Dante was up next, with Daniel Day-Lewis set to play the Mummy, but his vision of a contemporary times story about reincarnation did not fit with the budget Universal had in mind. After Dante, George A Romero took the reins but his plans were apparently darker than Barker’s and more like his classic Night of the Living Dead.
Mike Garris and Wes Craven were also linked briefly to the project before the job finally went to Stephen Sommers. He had watched the original as a child and wanted to recreate the parts he best remembered on a grander scale, and his blend of Indiana Jones and Jason and the Argonauts was exactly what Universal wanted.
As casting goes, Brendan Fraser was the perfect choice for the hero, Rick O’Connell. He proved he had the looks and charisma in George of the Jungle, and played leading man Rick in a way that did not seem to take himself too seriously, allowing the audience to empathise with him more. The role of Rick was offered to a number of actors before Fraser, but it is hard to imagine anyone else playing the character. Tom Cruise (do not mention the reboot!), Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, and Ben Affleck were all approached for the role, and Leonardo DiCaprio was so keen to take it on that he hoped filming of The Beach would be delayed so he could do so. Although The Beach was indeed delayed it was too late for Leo, and Fraser had already been cast. Perhaps for the best, as a contributing factor to what made the film was Fraser and his natural chemistry with his leading lady, Rachel Weisz.
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As the reserved librarian, Evelyn Carnahan starts out as an unlikely heroine but goes on to be a strong character in her own right. Yes, she does need to be rescued from the Mummy by Rick and her brother Jonathan (John Hannah) but only because it was her decision to be kidnapped in the first place. She also assists with her own rescue, even when tied to a sacrificial slab, by utilising her own knowledge and intelligence. Too often in films the strong leading lady ends up simpering and in need of big strong men to help her; Evie does not go down that route and it was welcome to see. Fraser, Weisz and Hannah all complemented each other, and their character interaction was believable. One of the big failings of the third film was the decision to have someone else play Evie when Weisz decided to not return: Maria Bello just did not have the same on-screen presence and it showed.
In addition to John Hannah’s bumbling con-man Jonathan, the rest of the supporting cast is equally strong. Oded Fehr, in his first major film, was cast as Ardeth Bay the Medjai, comedian Omid Djalili as the warden of the prison where Evie first meets Rick, and perhaps most outstandingly is Kevin J. O’Connor as Beni, Rick’s cowardly former compatriot who serves as both foil and comic relief when he ends up working for the Mummy. Vosloo, although he doesn’t have much to say, commands the scenes he’s in by being very intimidating and by playing the role in a very straightforward way. There is no comedy to his monster, just malice and singlemindedness to achieve his goal, the resurrection of his dead lover, lover Anck-Su-Namun (Patricia Velásquez).
The Mummy remains a thoroughly entertaining film to watch, even twenty years after its release, full of scares and laughs in equal measure.