Action-adventure and horror don’t usually go hand-in-hand, yet Stephen Sommer’s 1999 re-imagining of pre-code 1932 horror flick The Mummy defied critics to become a box office success and fan favourite, spawning two sequels and a spinoff with Dwayne Johnson at the helm, whilst also influencing numerous films down the line.
The Mummy (1999) still remains one of my favourite films to date. As a huge fan of action-adventure and horror flicks, this is a rare Blockbuster which manages to incorporate elements from both genres, with a mix of romance and ancient Egyptian mythology for good measure. It’s pure escapism and a huge amount of fun which never fails to immerse me in a thrilling adventure in Egypt, years before superhero flicks took over multiplexes across the world.
So how did Sommer pull off such an unexpected pairing of genres in a film which may have been a risky departure from the source material, to become one of the most fun (and definitely one my favourite) monster movies yet?
There’s something for everyone
In the mood for an action-adventure which harks back to the golden era of adventure blockbusters? The unforgettable magic and pure escapism of classic action-adventures have the power to whisk you away to exotic destinations across the world, as our heroes take us on exciting journeys and quests. There hasn’t been a film that’s captured the nostalgic spirit of adventure quite like the Indiana Jones franchise until The Mummy, complete with key elements such as; expeditions involving hidden tombs, trap doors, puzzles/booby traps to overcome and buried treasure/historical items to find. These films are fast-paced and packed full of action, often exploring historical myths and legends along the way.
But Sommer didn’t stop there, the director added elements of comedy and romance to the screenplay, resulting in a sweeping and hugely entertaining romp full of heart and humour. Stars Rachel Weisz and Brendan Fraser wonderfully capture the bickering nature of Michael Douglas’ Jack Colton and Kathleen Turner’s Joan Wilder pairing in 1984 action-adventure Romancing the Stone, whilst also fully embracing the more ridiculous and fantastical elements of the genre. The leading duo are charming and amusing, yet never take things too seriously, gleefully leaning into the tropes and plot holes for a hugely fun ride. The addition of John Hannah’s useless sidekick, Jonathan Carnahan, also bolstered the comedic elements – with the central trio clearly influencing the main characters in Disney’s Jungle Cruise.
Meanwhile there’s plenty of scares too, as Sommers sets a new precedent for the iconic monster in Arnold Vosloo’s Imhotep. Long gone are the bandages and slow, stomping walk, replaced with a faster, almost unstoppable force with supernatural powers – proving a formidable foe for the modern era.
It revitalised the monster movie with a fresh take on horror
Producers James Jacks and Sean Daniel originally pitched the idea of an updated Mummy flick back in the late 80s, with numerous directors and writers hired to draft a screenplay and direct the project for Universal, even with the legendary George A. Romero onboard at one point. Despite the behind-the-scenes production issues, Universal were still hoping for another hit monster movie which drew on the beloved Universal Classic Monsters – enter Sommer and his new vision for the classic character.
The director pitched a fresh and scarier take on the almost tragic villain, while the central narrative stayed true to the original 1932 Boris Karloff Mummy. In result, Arnold Vosloo’s newly resurrected Imhotep stepped out of the lumbering bandages of old to emerge as a faster, meaner and more thrilling ancient monster for our heroes to tackle.
Watching the film for the first time as a child, there were plenty of suspenseful moments and scares which creeped me out (and still do!) There’s the gouged out eyes of O’Connell’s competitors, the flesh eating scarab beetles which strip a man to bone, grim deaths shown in shadows on walls and bugs that burrow under your skin. But nothing tops the scares from the just come-to-life skeletal Imhotep, thanks to the still impressively terrifying CGI effects, particularly as he sucks the life force out of unsuspecting adventurers to rejuvenate himself. Thank goodness for cats!
The impressive visual effects and action sequences still hold up today
Effects house Industrial Lights and Magic (ILM) really brought the thrilling magic and terrifying horror set pieces to life with a number of impressive visual effects, which still look fantastic – adding to a real rewatchability of the film. John Berton Jr. (who previously worked on Terminator 2) was the visual effects supervisor, incorporating exciting new techniques in particle sims, motion capture and computer-generated imagery, reportedly costing $15 million of the budget alone.
Sommer and the ILM team brought a new twist on the iconic monster, combining a mix of live-action acting with prosthetics, make-up and digital effects, incorporating the use of digital tracking, for a more believable (and terrifying!) reincarnation. Imhotep has four distinct visual stages during his resurrection, with a varying mix of prosthetics and VFX used. But the most impressive shot has to be the one where a mostly reanimated Imhotep eats a scarab beetle which has just entered his mouth through a huge hole in his cheek – it’s a scene that still makes me shudder! Motion capture, a relatively new form of technology which was still being developed at the effects house, was utilised to bring the character to life in his more decayed state, complete with complex digital textures.
Along with bringing a reanimated corpse gradually to life with a surprising amount of believability, ILM also crafted a number of outstanding sequences which impressively blended with the more practical action scenes. One of the main highlights of the film is the sequence where Imhotep magically commands a sandstorm to transform into a giant version of his own face, with the aim of consuming O’Connell’s airplane whole. The battle sequences and fight choreography are impressively staged, while also entertaining and exciting. The scene in which O’Connell saves Evie from being sacrificed by battling Imhotep’s mummified priests is a brilliant throwback to the mummies of old, whilst also adding some comedic relief and showcasing Brendan Frasier’s fight skills.
The spectacle of the filming locations and production
While ILM did a phenomenal job of bringing the more fantastical elements to life using cutting edge digital techniques, Sommers paired this with plenty of on-location shoots and impressive sets, maintaining a level of realism and practicality which grounds the action.
Filming primarily took place in Marrakech, Morocco and the Sahara desert outside the town of Erfoud, which doubled as exteriors for the ancient lost city of Hamunaptra. This town was the home of another impressive action sequence – the Battle of Hamunaptra – which involved two hundred cast members as the Tuareg horseman who lead the charge towards O’Connell, Benny and eighty actors starring as officers of the French Foreign Legion.
There’s no denying that the film is visually striking thanks to the impressive sets, costumes, vehicles and props which transport you to 1920s Egypt. A number of the sets were painstakingly constructed, but none more impressively so than Hamunaptra, which was built in an old fort inside a dormant volcano crater! This part of the Sahara desert also appeared as the exterior of SPECTRE’s crater facility in the 2015 Bond movie.
Another standout set is the underground tunnels and passageways of the necropolis and the cavernous chamber which is absolutely packed full of historical statues, inscriptions, trap doors, archaeological artefacts, ancient treasures and mystical books. These sets and productions really did evoke the golden age action-adventure films, wonderfully capturing the exciting spirit Steven Spielberg rebirthed in the Indiana Jones franchise. I know I certainly wanted to be an archaeologist and explorer after watching this flick for the first time!
The cast had fantastic chemistry
You know that meme, my sexual orientation is the cast of The Mummy? Well I think we can all agree that perfectly sums up the eye candy of the central cast!
George of the Jungle lead Brendan Frasier, primarily known for his comedy roles, starred as the dashing treasure hunter Rick O’Connell, alongside Rachel Weisz as the endearingly clumsy but cute librarian/budding Egyptologist. The leading pair shared a sweet chemistry which brilliantly defied gender stereotypes in the genre (and let’s face it, they were both stunning!)
Rick is a gun-tooting, swashbuckling adventurer dressed head-to-toe in typical Indiana Jones garb, complete with a leather shoulder gun holster. He’s the typically brawny American who thinks shooting at a magical sandstorm in the shape of Imhotep’s face is a good plan. However there’s more than meets the eye to the charming O’Connell as, in some ways, he defies the traditional hero archetype. He isn’t your typical Bond-esque womaniser, as he does act a little nervous around Evie at times, and on numerous occasions Evie has to save him. The pair’s initial annoyance for each other slowly evolves into admiration, as their chemistry grows.
Arnold Vosloo’s Imhotep is a wholly formidable foe for our leading pair, and while he isn’t afforded as many lines, he commands fear and terror wherever he goes. Driven by his desire to resurrect his ancient lover Anck-su-namun, the character is motivated by his surprisingly tragic backstory. While the mysterious and charismatic horseback-riding Medjai warrior Ardeth Bay (Oded Fehr) aids O’Connell, Evie and Jonathan in their quest to return Imhotep to his grave. Intriguingly, the character was actually meant to be covered head-to-head in tattoos before Somers changed his mind!
The film champions female-driven stories
While females are finally leading tentpole action blockbusters such as Black Widow, Jungle Cruise and Wonder Woman, The Mummy was paving the way for female-driven stories 20 years prior. Rachel Weisz’ loveable librarian and aspiring academic Evelyn Carnahan (aka Evie) has long been an icon for me, as it was so refreshing to see an unapologetically nerdy but wholly endearing protagonist as the main heroine of the tale.
Evie is a rare leading lady who’s primary motivations are to progress her career, deepen her knowledge in archaeology and finally be accepted into the leading group of academics; the prestigious Bembridge Scholars. Bearing in mind that the film is set in 1920, this is a hugely progressive and ambitious depiction for a woman in that era. It’s her passion to improve her field experience and seek out the mysterious artifact (the Book of Amun-Ra) which leads to the formation of the merry band of adventurers. Therefore, her ambitions predominantly drive the narrative, subverting the typically male-led action adventures.
Despite initially resurrecting the villainous Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) and facing derogatory remarks from men throughout the mission, Evie never doubts her own abilities and intelligence. The character is self-assured and determined, loves adventure and is brilliantly funny, yet Sommers isn’t afraid to give her flaws – she’s also clumsy and naive but grows and learns throughout the film. In previous action-adventure films, it’s the strong male lead who swoops in to save the day, yet in The Mummy, it’s Evie’s intelligence and translating skills which come in most handy – saving the band in the most crucial moments.
And yes there’s even some romance – but it’s never forced or at the detriment of Evie’s character development – the quest always comes first, defying typical conventions of the time. She’s thankfully not the archetype damsel in distress for Rick O’Connell to save and sweep off her feet, the romance gradually evolves as a subplot throughout the runtime, with O’Connell seemingly being the one to fall for her passion and spirit.
Meanwhile, Patricia Velásquez’s Anck-Su-Namun is also an intriguing and tragic, yet somewhat underused, character who’s resurrection proves to be Imhotep’s main drive and motivation. Despite largely resigned to flashbacks, Anck-Su-Namun does get a larger role in the sequel, encapsulating more of the villainous role.
The film’s impact at the box office
Initially released on the 7th May in the US and 25th June in the UK, The Mummy kicked off the summer blockbuster season, hitting the No.1 slot for the first two weekends (until Star Wars: The Phantom Menace was released.) The reviews from critics weren’t overwhelmingly positive, but despite this audiences seemed to enjoy the entertaining flick, with the film grossing over $43 million in its opening weekend in the US and Canada, and eventually over $415 million worldwide. Considering the production budget for the film was around the $80 million mark, which is surprisingly cheap compared to today’s blockbuster, that was an impressive and hugely profitable return.
The film’s box office performance and commercial success, along with a generally positive response from filmgoers, lead to a franchise for Universal Studios. Director Sommers and the majority of the cast returned for the 2001 The Mummy Returns, which saw a more involved narrative (and fight sequences) for both leading females, Rachel Weisz and Patricia Velásquez. This sequel made even more of a profit, grossing $435 million worldwide, and even had the second highest opening weekend of all time behind The Lost World: Jurassic Park. A third instalment, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008), was launched, however without Sommer and Weisz.
The second instalment even led to prequel The Scorpion King (2002), which saw wrestler-turned-actor known as The Rock lead his own spinoff film, which marked the beginning of his own successful acting career. The franchise continued with spin offs including an animated series, Scorpion King sequels and even a popular ride – Revenge of the Mummy – which opened in Universal Studios Florida 2004.
The success of the beloved franchise resulted in Universal attempting to reboot the property and kickstart a new ‘Dark Universe’ in a Marvel-esque shared universe, which would connect the studio’s monster movie characters. However, the 2017 film, directed by Alex Kurtzman and starring Tom Cruise, failed to encapsulate any of the spirit of the 1999 original. In result, the ‘tentpole’ flick opened with an underwhelming $31 million, as it struggled to a domestic take of $80 million, clearly nowhere near returning the reported budget of $125 million(!)
It’s hard to imagine a film which has better encapsulated the fun spirit of previous action-adventures, whilst also interweaving terrifying horror moments and a sweet central romance. While Disney’s Jungle Cruise came close, with a brilliant dynamic between leads Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt and Jack Whitehall, I couldn’t help but feel like the film was a pastiche of better films that came before it – while lifting A LOT from The Mummy. Yes, there was even a ladder scene!
With Disney recently announcing an official sequel, along with a fourth Jumanji flick and an Uncharted adaptation in the works, it’ll be interesting to see whether this resurgence in action-adventure films will break any new ground in the genre. Will the upcoming movies perhaps delve into more of the fantasy/horror elements Sommers did so well?
As it’s Halloween season, I’ll certainly be scheduling in a Mummy franchise rewatch (albeit perhaps skipping the Tomb of the Dragon Emperor), along with Sommers subsequent monster flick Van Helsing (which is criminally underrated if you ask me). It’s clear to see the passion and enthusiasm the director had for monster movies, (along with elevating librarians!) has not quite been recaptured yet.