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1999's The Mummy Is a Perfect Action-Horror Mashup
The Mummy manages to be a great action-adventure movie and a great horror movie — and a pretty funny comedy, too.
Not all genre mash-ups are created equal. Rom-coms might be tried and true, but things get a little bit trickier when you’re combining more disparate genres. Horror and comedy can go well together, but frequently they tend to lean too far in one direction or the other. Action movies and horror, perhaps surprisingly, have an even harder time successfully blending. One wants you to be on the edge of your seat in excitement, the other peering through your fingers in scared suspense. But, there is one movie — a masterpiece, really — that manages to fully be a great action-adventure movie, and a great horror movie, and a pretty funny comedy, too. It’s the 1999 motion picture The Mummy (now streaming on peacock), of course.
The late-’90s movie is a remake of the 1932 Universal Classic Monster flick, which was inspired by the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922 and the so-called Curse of the Pharaohs that (supposedly) ended the lives of many of the people who discovered ancient Egyptian tombs. Boris Karloff starred as Imhotep, an ancient Egyptian high priest who was buried alive and cursed. When his tomb is uncovered, he comes back from the dead and attempts to resurrect his lover in 1920s Cairo. Karloff’s Imhotep doesn’t actually spend much time wrapped in bandages in the original film, which might partially be why the ‘99 remake further borrows inspiration from another Universal Classic Monster movie, 1940’s The Mummy's Hand.
Why you should revisit 1999's The Mummy, now streaming on Peacock
Written and directed by Stephen Sommers, the ‘99 Mummy stars Brendan Fraser as Rick O'Connell, an American adventurer who may have come across the fabled City of the Dead while fighting with the French Foreign Legion. Aspiring archeologist Evelyn Carnahan (Rachel Weisz) and her brother Jonathan (John Hannah) enlist the down-on-his-luck Rick for help finding the City of the Dead, but in the process, they unwittingly revive Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo), a high priest who was cursed and wants to bring his lost love, Anck-su-namun, back to life.
Whereas a lot of horror remakes attempt to transpose the original into the current day (the Tom Cruise-led 2017 remake of The Mummy, for example), the ‘99 Mummy is a period piece. It’s set in 1926, during a time when explorers and adventurers still were viable professions — or at least it feels that way in pop-culture depictions of the era. Fraser, who it must be said is exceptionally hot in this movie (as is Weisz and pretty much every single member of the cast) is a true swashbuckling hero. He’s molded in the image of Indiana Jones without ever trying to be Harrison Ford. There are hoots and thrills as he rescues Evelyn (a capable if somewhat clumsy heroine in her own right) from attackers mundane and supernatural, and the entire movie has the warm sheen of a good old-fashioned adventure. It’s a breezy, fun romp in an exotic locale.
Except, of course, it’s not all breezy and fun. While the heroes, setting, and action setpieces are all straight out of a great pulp adventure, the titular Mummy is very much a horror monster. Stepping into a horror legend like Karloff’s shoes (err, wraps) is no small task, but Vosloo brings the right mixture of menace and oozy, threatening charisma to the role. The Industrial Light & Magic special effects used to create Imhotep in his more monstrous, decayed form largely hold up even two decades later, and the design is fittingly creepy and gross.
In scene after scene, The Mummy seamlessly transitions from suspense to horror to thrills. Take the swarms of scarab beetles, reimagined in this movie as piranha-like flesh-eaters who burrow under their victim’s skin as they devour down to the bone. It’s a great and relatively gory-without-being-too-graphic horror gimmick, and the scarabs work just as well as a body horror-inducing threat as they crawl inside poor Jonathan, and they’re an exciting setpiece as our heroes need to outrun a wave-like swarm of them. Rick also escapes a zombie-like horde of Cairo’s residents who have come under Imotep’s thrall, but he does so with pizazz in a car chase.
The Mummy’s two sequels, The Mummy Returns and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor have scares and adventure, too, but the balance was never quite as perfect as it was in the original film. (The Scorpion King spin-off series is pure action shlock, which to be clear is not a bad thing.) The Tom Cruise-led Mummy from 2017 also fails to fully balance the two genres, as despite some tense setpieces and horror aesthetic, it primarily feels like an action movie in the style of an old monster flick, rather than a perfect symbiosis of the two. The 1999 Mummy, then, is a movie treasure as valuable as any of the riches in Hamunaptra. Just as Imotep straddles the world of the living and the dead, so too does The Mummy straddle the line between horror and action.