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This Week in Genre History: The Mummy wrapped comedy, action, and horror in one for Hollywood gold

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May 12, 2021, 9:00 AM EDT

Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world's greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.

In theory, blockbusters are supposed to be fun. We go to the theater to see big-budget spectacles full of action and adventure — we watch characters do amazing things that you and I simply can't. That all sounds pretty exciting and thrilling! But what's odd is that, as event movies have gotten more epic and serious, the idea of them simply being a blast has largely fallen by the wayside. With every franchise embracing life-or-death stakes — the planet, maybe even the whole universe, is always in danger of being destroyed — it can be hard to remember that these movies can sometimes just be a giddy night out at the multiplex.

The Mummy — the good one, not the Tom Cruise one — hit theaters on May 7, 1999, planting a flag for summer blockbusters that simply want to be a hoot. Sure, our heroes have to deal with an all-powerful resurrected being — not to mention a lot of nasty plagues — but everybody involved with this smash gave it a breezy sunniness. Intentionally hokey and earnest, The Mummy was all-ages entertainment that also managed to be pretty scary — albeit in a PG-13 kind of way. As a result, it can be easy to dismiss the movie, taking its cheerful pleasantness for granted. But writer-director Stephen Sommers sure knew how to show you a good time.

Set mostly in the 1920s, the film starred Brendan Fraser as Rick O'Connell, a square-jawed adventurer who teams up with Evelyn Carnahan (Rachel Weisz), a nerdy librarian, in search of the mythical Egyptian city of Hamunaptra, where great artifacts (and possibly endless riches) might be found. Bringing along Evelyn's brother Jonathan (John Hannah), whose job seems to be "awkward comic relief," they journey to Cairo, with Rick guiding them to Hamunaptra, which he'd stumbled across a few years earlier. Unfortunately, Evelyn reads from the wrong mystical book, bringing the long-dead Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) back to life, and everything goes haywire.

"I've always wanted to do a version of The Mummy," Sommers said a couple years ago. "When I was 8 years old, I saw the old Boris Karloff one. It took me to ancient Egypt, and Cairo of the '20s and '30s, and scared the crap out of me." He was referring to 1932's The Mummy, which was part of a string of popular Universal pictures of the time based around legendary monsters such as Dracula and Frankenstein. Close to 70 years later, Sommers made a Mummy movie that was comparable in terms of its popcorn escapism. In the decades since, Hollywood has struggled to come up with something this effortlessly lighthearted.

Why was it a big deal at the time? Danny Boyle, who worked with Fraser on the 2018 series Trust, said of his star, "I always notice with comic actors, when they can do that stuff really well, you don't notice this great integrity in the way they're doing it. Because obviously you notice the cartoon effect of what they're doing, and it's very pleasurable. But in order for it to work, it actually has to have integrity. It is in some way based on truth and honesty."

In the 1990s, Fraser made his name as a comedian, often playing the lovable goofball in films like Encino Man and George of the Jungle. Conveying a self-effacing sweetness in interviews, he didn't seem that different from his characters, which made it tempting to assume he didn't have any depth. But his work in the Oscar-winning biopic Gods and Monsters — ironically, about James Whale (Ian McKellen), the director of several Universal monster movies — showed he possessed dramatic heft. So when he signed on for The Mummy, even though he wasn't thought of as an action star, he had the light touch (and the gravity) necessary to play Rick.

"I don't take myself too seriously," Fraser once said. "I think if you can treat comedy as normal then inevitably you will get more laughs. Even in adventure hokum, you have to stick to the rules and parameters — then give the character a heart." That he did, playing Rick as brash but not a jerk — he delivers quips but he's also believable enough as a hunky leading man that you can understand why Evelyn would fall for him.

Speaking of Evelyn, this was still very early in Weisz's career, years before her Oscar for The Constant Gardener and her ascension to being one of the most respected actors of her generation. She played the quintessential beautiful/brainy love interest, but she brought elegance to the role so that it didn't feel so cliched or degrading. She and Fraser had a cute, chaste rapport. As her co-star put it, "Rachel is just a heck of a lot of fun to work with and easily someone you can have a platonic movie-star crush on for all the right reasons — to translate that to a chemistry that plays on screen."

The '90s had already seen a handful of infamous monsters returning to the big screen in Bram Stoker's Dracula and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Universal had been kicking around the idea of doing a new Mummy for several years before Sommers — who had made a live-action Jungle Book (not to be confused with Jon Favreau's smash 2016 version) — was brought onto the project, writing a script in only six weeks. The trick was balancing the laughs and scares.

"The comedy has to come out of the characters and the situations," Sommers told the Los Angeles Times before the film's release, "because the minute it becomes tongue-in-cheek or campy, you risk destroying the horror element."

While The Mummy harked back to the 1932 film, it also felt like an Indiana Jones movie, even though there hadn't been one of those in 10 years. But there was some uncertainty about whether a period adventure film starring a guy mostly known for goofy comedies could be a hit. Plus, the Mummy wasn't exactly a major pop-culture fixture in the late '90s — and the film was going to be opening less than two weeks before the heavily anticipated Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. In that same L.A. Times piece, the producers were asked if The Mummy was the start of a franchise. You can understand their reluctance to be too optimistic. "May this movie be successful enough to make that a subject for discussion," producer Sean Daniel replied.

What was the impact? Kicking off 1999's summer movie season, The Mummy was No. 1 its first two weekends before The Phantom Menace devoured the box office. By blockbuster standards, the film was actually relatively inexpensive — it only cost about $80 million — and grossed around $415 million worldwide. The reviews weren't very good, but audiences clearly enjoyed this silly/scary lark.

It's not hard to see why. Fraser and Weisz made for an enjoyably contentious couple — a bit Sam and Diane, with more than a touch of Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner from Romancing the Stone thrown in as well. And the CG effects for the come-to-life Imhotep, especially when he's just a skeleton, were impressive and creepy. (The film got a BAFTA nomination for its visual effects.) The Mummy was designed to make you shriek — Ugh, crawling bugs! Yikes, zombie-fied locals! — but in a jolly, Halloween maze kind of way. While it certainly wouldn't appeal to hardcore horror fans — it's not nearly that bloody or gnarly — the film catered to date-night crowds and action buffs in equal measure.

The Mummy's huge box office set in motion a franchise, with Sommers and most of the cast returning for 2001's The Mummy Returns. (That film made even more money.) And perhaps just as importantly, the sequel introduced us to a wrestler-turned-actor known as The Rock. Eventually, he'd go by his actual name, Dwayne Johnson, but his role as the Scorpion King in The Mummy Returns inspired the studio to give him his own spinoff film, The Scorpion King, which came out the following year. (In fact, Johnson was making The Scorpion King as The Mummy Returns was in theaters, its success bolstering his hopes that his own film might be a hit, which it was.) There was one more Mummy sequel — 2008's The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, which was directed by Rob Cohen and didn't feature Weisz — but by that point, the series was already responsible for one of Universal Studios' most popular rides, Revenge of the Mummy, which debuted in 2004.

In the mid-2010s, when Universal decided to launch its own cinematic universe, dubbed the Dark Universe, the studio hoped to craft an Avengers-style series of movies featuring all its iconic monsters. Central to Universal's plan was 2017's The Mummy, which starred Tom Cruise as the wisecracking adventurer who eventually meets Russell Crowe's Dr. Jekyll and the concept of Prodigium, whose "mission is to track, study and — when necessary — destroy evil embodied in the form of monsters in our world. Working outside the aegis of any government, and with practices concealed by millennia of secrecy, Prodigium protects the public from knowledge of the evil that exists just beyond the thin membrane of civilized society… and will go to any length to contain it."

Sounds fun! Except this Mummy reboot underperformed and the Dark Universe was put on mothballs. Turns out, it isn't so easy to make a fun Mummy movie that's also scary and romantic.

Has it held up? Twenty-two years later, The Mummy's effects remain… pretty solid, actually. Granted, the humor is often pretty dopey — it's mostly people yelling things at each other while running away from something terrifying — but the thing still holds together rather nicely. There are certainly aspects of The Mummy that are now incredibly cringey (for instance, the depiction of its Middle Eastern characters tends toward the cliched, simplistic, and cartoonish), but for the most part, its rollicking spirit and commitment to being legitimately frightening at certain moments are still a kick.

It's not easy to think of many recent films that have managed to be this fun-loving while also delivering the action-flick goods. (Maybe Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle?) The Mummy seems to be lit up by Fraser's goofy-grin persona while Sommers taps into the swashbuckling tone of old serials — which, of course, were also a huge part of Raiders of the Lost Ark's DNA. To pull that off, you really need to buy into the earnestness, and that's what Sommers managed to do.

After the success of the Mummy movies, though, the filmmaker struggled. His take on another piece of classic monster lore, Van Helsing, failed to launch a film franchise. And G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra did OK commercially but felt a little impersonal. As much as Fraser is associated with The Mummy, it might be Sommers who's most responsible for giving the film its spark and giddy disposition, even though it can be a funhouse terror at times. Sommers loved the original Mummy, and he put that enthusiasm into his version. That boyish glee was never quite recaptured with subsequent projects — but, in a sense, that glee has left Hollywood blockbusters in general. Some things can't be brought back from the dead.

Tim Grierson is the co-host of The Grierson & Leitch Podcast, where he and Will Leitch review films old and new. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site. His new book, This Is How You Make a Movie, is out now.