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Film
by David J. Skal

It's a Wrap

I believe it was the review warning me that the experience of watching this summer's much anticipated reboot of The Mummy, with Tom Cruise and directed by Alex Kurtzman, might feel like having my brains pulled out through my nose that really made me especially eager to write about the film myself. The reviews were so astonishingly alike in their unreserved disdain and crabbiness—not to mention bad mummy puns—that I wondered if the writers might be cribbing from one another instead of watching the film they were nominally assigned to cover.

First, let's agree The Mummy is no new landmark in horror/fantasy entertainment. Kurtzman, screenwriter for the Transformers, Spider-Man, and Star Trek franchises, has made a smooth transition to directing, if by smooth we mean a studious avoidance of risk-taking. This is not necessarily a criticism if a film succeeds on its own terms, which The Mummy does. True, some people may not like those terms. But since I don't subject myself to a steady diet of mindless summer popcorn movies, perhaps I'm not as cynical as reviewers forced to watch them all the time. It's perfectly okay to give an audience what it expects in order to make money. That's what pop culture is all about, and whatever intellectual pretentions I have about film arise from a strongly sympathetic pop culture perspective. You know pretty much what you're going to see from the start, and that's the whole point of the transaction. There are basically no socio-cultural epiphanies to be had here, except for the usual tired insights into Hollywood's sad devolution into a recycling plant for discarded dreams.

That said, on with the show. Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) is a rascally antiquities scavenger in Iraq, where he accidentally unearths the mercury-submerged sarcophagus of a throne-coveting Egyptian princess, Ahmanet, mummified alive for killing her family and dabbling with some seriously dark energy. Tom Cruise plays Tom Cruise, which is all you need to know, and probably the main reason most people are in the theatre. At age fifty-four, he still manages to come off convincingly, if indeterminately, younger. I suspect this effect is achieved in part by some of the same CGI methods the film uses to rejuvenate a 3000-year-old mummy, though utilized in much smaller digital doses. In longer shots, Cruise has discernable circles under his eyes that somehow disappear in those trademark cocky-smile close-ups.

The film is nice to look at, decently paced, the calculated laughs tend to work, and, despite what you may have heard, the plot is not all that difficult to follow. Several action sequences are handled quite expertly, especially a hair-raising cargo plane crash that unleashes a skeletonized Ahmanet to rejuvenate herself in a literally breathtaking manner—applying a powerful death kiss to suck the life force from a series of victims, who are reduced in return to shambling zombies. Maybe they should be called zumbies? Whatever the nomenclature, they are the one weak link in the film's effects arsenal, cartoonish animations better suited for video gaming than movie watching. In Morton, Ahmanet has found a pseudo-reincarnation of the Egyptian lover with whom she planned to rule the world as a queen of death, before badly overplaying her hand. Sofia Boutella plays Ahmanet, a genuinely scary addition to Universal's pantheon of female monsters, deploying a stare that would be unnerving enough even without amber irises that slither and replicate like amoebas.

Both Morton and the mummy end up imprisoned by Dr. Henry Jekyll (a plummy, hammy Russell Crowe, having great shameless fun), who is the head of a top secret international agency called Progidium, "prodigy" being an archaic term for monster, especially the freak show kind, as in "prodigy of nature." Progidium, it turns out, is mission control for monster management, as well as ground zero for Universal Studios' new Dark Universe franchise of interlocking classic horror reboots. Jekyll, of course, has a very personal monster to manage, and all this plays out excitingly in Progidium's vast implausible compound buried deep beneath London's Natural History Museum. All of Knightsbridge, apparently, was mind-wiped to hide any memory of the excavation, which would have been hard to miss and nearly as disruptive as the Blitz.

A steady complaint among the major reviews was that The Mummy didn't know whether it wanted to be a horror movie or an action picture, but I'd argue that this is a completely false distinction. The classic Universal horror pictures, like the studio's westerns, were always geared strongly to the matinee crowd. A high point of these films was almost always a chase sequence, and remember all those obligatory lab explosions? No self-respecting mad experiment would be complete without one. Were today's budgets and technologies available, can there be any doubt that Depression-era Hollywood would have pulled out every stop?

Although Universal's greatest monsters made their debut at the dawn of talkies, the studios didn't start merging the characters on a shared playing field until 1943's Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Three "monster rally" films followed: House of Frankenstein (1944) featured the eponymous man-made creature, plus Dracula and the Wolf Man (interesting enough, the Mummy was originally intended to join the festivities, but was unceremoniously dropped); House of Dracula (1945) reunited the whole gang, as did 1948's Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, which remains one of the best and most beloved horror comedies of all time.

Universal was shrewd to set up shop as Hollywood's resident house of horror, but it was a haphazard process at a time when corporate branding was barely a concept. No one at Universal thought about monster merchandizing, Halloween tie-ins, etc., until the 1960s. Ever since, despite periodic attempts, the studio has never achieved an effective vertical integration of its unruly monsters. To complicate matters, the major horror characters all happen to be in the public domain, subject to exploitation by other studios and rendering a tightly held Disney or Marvel-style franchise next to impossible. And even though Universal does legally control its own original monster makeups and stylings, decades of rancorous lawsuits with horror actor estates over rights of publicity and likeness have served to further dilute the delineation of an "official" Universal monster.

Unlike the universes of Marvel, Buffy, and Twilight, the fan base for the Universal monster-verse has been forever joined at the hip with aging boomers—this writer now sadly included—who fell in love with the iconic Karloff-Lugosi-Chaney films in the Cold War era under the loving curation and tutelage of Forrest J Ackerman's Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine and the attendant cheerleading of late-night horror movie hosts at television stations all across the country. The generational specificity of monster worship may be one reason attempts to redirect the Universal product to a younger demographic has tended to be bumpy. There have been several reincarnations of the critters, both by series and more generically. The most sustained effort included three Mummy films with Brendan Fraser between 1999 and 2008. (I smiled to see one reviewer call the new film a reboot of the Fraser series, with no acknowledgment, or even knowledge, of the studio's 85-year-long, intricately woven involvement with gauze bandages.)

Van Helsing (2004) put Hugh Jackman in the title role of Dracula's nemesis as an action hero backed by the Vatican, taking on not only the king vampire, but Frankenstein's monster, a werewolf, and Jekyll and Hyde to boot. Van Helsing was entertaining enough that I fully expected Van Helsing II, but it never materialized. Instead, there emerged constant buzz about a remake of Creature from the Black Lagoon, supposedly the first in a series of unholy resurrections. It, too, never happened. The Wolfman (2010) was another false start. Dracula Untold (2014) was likewise expected to usher in bigger and better horizons for monsters, but never delivered.

Ironically, the best Universal monster resurrection of them all didn't come from Universal at all, but, arguably, never would have happened without the studio's legacy. Showtime's addictive, three-season series Penny Dreadful, created by John Logan, did more than Universal has yet accomplished to creatively integrate and reinvigorate the familiar stories of the monsters we've known and loved. Penny Dreadful, alas, was cut down before its time.

So once more, it's Universal's game. And finally, despite the disappointing track record, there are indications the studio may at long last break the curse and bring its monsters permanently back from the dead. After all, in The Mummy, Russell Crowe's Dr. Jekyll tells us we are on the verge of "a new world of gods and monsters," the portentously famous line first intoned in 1935 by Ernest Thesiger in Bride of Frankenstein. Which is why I'm especially pleased to pass on the official announcement that the second installment of the Dark Universe, in 2019, will be Bride of Frankenstein, directed by none other than Bill Condon, the man responsible for the Oscar-winning James Whale biopic Gods and Monsters, two installments of the Twilight series, and Disney's live-action Beauty and the Beast. There couldn't be a more inspired or capable choice for a Universal monster czar to jolt the studio's mad dream back to life. As for the beauty who's a beast, Angelina Jolie is said to be in negotiations for the title role, with Javier Bardem already announced as her mate. To paraphrase Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein in 1931, the odds are good that monsterdom's most famous couple—not to mention their extended circle of friends—aren't really dead but only sleeping, waiting for a new life to come.

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