The 1932 The Mummy is, by most metrics, the weakest of the iconic Universal pantheon of monster movies. There are certainly other Universal monster movies that are worse, but of The Big Ones – Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolf-Man, The Creature from the Black Lagoon – it’s The Mummy that struggles the most. The structure is in many ways derivative of Dracula, the monster’s memorable appearance gets barely any screen time, and the movie’s strengths aren’t enough to outshine its problematic weaknesses.
In other words, of the core Universal canon, it’s the one most suited to a remake.
Here I should take a moment to credit screenwriter, novelist, podcast co-host, and lieutenant in Megaforce, C. Robert Cargill. It’s in his podcast co-host role with Junkfood Cinema that I heard him discuss his theory of remakes. His argument is that it’s not the best movies of the past that should be remade, but rather those with an interesting idea but a faulty execution. (One prominent example: The Crazies, whose modern remake is superior in most respects to the original George Romero movie.)
Because good movies of the past are already good, a remake is likely to suffer by comparison. It’s likely to either be an inadequate imitation of the original or deviate so far from the original that it’s essentially a different film. 1998 and 1999 alone brought unnecessary-to-bad remakes of Psycho, Godzilla, and The Haunting, among others.
1999 also, however, included a remake of The Mummy which holds (and will likely continue to hold for the foreseeable future) the record for best remake of a classic Universal monster movie. By repackaging the movie as an Indiana-Jones-esque action adventure, retaining the original movie’s mythology, and adding more horror elements than the original contained, The Mummy (1999) improves upon The Mummy (1932) in a way that may genuinely not be possible for any other remake of a Universal monster icon.
The 1999 movie retains many of the elements from 1932. Imhotep was still a priest whose love affair with the princess angered the pharaoh. His punishment was still cursed mummification while living. Once returned to life (of a sort), his primary motivation is bringing his lost love back from the dead. He attempts to use the movie’s heroine as the vessel for this, but he is ultimately foiled.
The movie thankfully strips the mummy of his Dracula-ish mind control powers, gives the male protagonist and heroine more agency, and adopts a faster pace with more touches of action, comedy, and horror.
It’s aided in this endeavor by a great cast, including Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz as the two leads, with supporting work from John Hannah, Oded Fehr, Kevin J. O’Connor, and Arnold Vosloo. We get signs of competence from most of our characters, which is a marked improvement over the original. The main characters all have defined personalities, diverse skillsets, differing perspectives, and foibles that come into play in believable ways. This, too, improves upon the original, where few characters are able to accomplish much of anything with the exception of the eponymous monster and, in the last few minutes, the heroine.
One place where the movies share alignment is in their production work relative to their times. As noted in the initial post about it, the 1932 movie includes some interesting cinematographic choices and an expanded use of music compared to 1931’s Dracula or Frankenstein (with the lamentable exception of the reuse of elements of Swan Lake for the title credits of both Dracula and The Mummy). The 1999 equivalent would be the use of computer-generated images, which the remake deploys routinely to generally good effect. Yes, most elements appear a little dated now, nearly 20 years later, but they are still notable for their effective use.
A more problematic point of commonality is in the whitewashing of key roles. Vosloo, who plays Imhotep, is technically from Africa, but as a South African of Afrikaaner (i.e. European) descent, he’s about as far from Egyptian as it’s possible to be while still being from the same continent. Kevin J. O’Connor is a white guy from Chicago, which is a very different origin than his character of Beni Gabor. Other Egyptian characters are played for laughs or portrayed as corrupt, doing the movie no favors.
While the 1999 movie may match the 1932 version in some of its less admirable choices, it’s rarely actually worse than its predecessor. The character of Imhotep in particular is a better monster in the 1999 movie. He wields more power, is generally more threatening, and attains a level of creepiness not granted the 1932 iteration (for all its mind control ookiness). Vosloo’s performance might not match Karloff’s, line for line, but the character itself is more impactful.
A discussion of Universal remakes these days cannot help but acknowledge the faltering start to Universal’s attempted Dark Universe. Having no stable of superheroes upon which to call, Universal is attempting to resurrect its monsters into a shared cinematic universe. The first attempt was the lamented Dracula Untold, which left little impact and has since been discarded as the entrypoint to the new universe. Instead, Universal delivered another remake of The Mummy in 2017 as the official start of the Dark Universe story. Although I have not yet seen it, by most accounts it is terrible.
Cargill’s remake theory may explain why Universal is likely doomed to struggle with this. Where the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s predecessors were largely forgettable dreck, the Universal monster movies are, for the most part, well-regarded on their merits. Of them all, The Mummy was the least effective, but its 1999 remake was a smashing success and still remembered fondly by many of the prospective audience members for the 2017 version. In other words, Universal’s most recognizable monsters all already have good-to-great movies for which they are known; shallow attempts to remake them are unlikely to succeed.
This is not to say that good movies can’t be made drawing on similar ideas, images, or themes (we’ll be getting to The Shape of Water in a few weeks). When it comes to straight-up remakes of the iconic monsters, however, Universal would be well-served to let the glorious dead stay that way.