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A tale of two reboots: 'Mummy' '99 vs. 'Mummy' '17

Posted June 9

Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz prepare for trouble in "The Mummy Returns." (Deseret Photo)

It’s been 85 years since Boris Karloff’s bandage-wrapped Imhotep was first awakened from his tomb to terrify audiences in Universal’s “The Mummy.” Released just a year after both “Dracula” and “Frankenstein,” the 1932 Karl Freund-directed horror flick ranks as one of Universal’s classic monster movies.

Although not the first mummy movie ever made — that honor belongs to an 1899 silent film titled “Robbing Cleopatra’s Tomb” — the Universal “Mummy” is almost single-handedly responsible for the enduring popularity of mummies as go-to horror creatures all these decades later.

That includes, of course, Universal’s 1999 franchise reboot starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz and now, this weekend, a brand new reboot with Tom Cruise.

However, these two versions each put a distinct spin on the story, offering wildly different approaches to one of horror’s most iconic monsters and the mythos behind it. while and at the same time, charting the evolution of the Hollywood blockbuster.

With that in mind, here’s what you need to know about “The Mummy” (1999) and “The Mummy” (2017) — what’s different, what’s the same and how they relate to the original 1932 classic.

The tone

In case it wasn’t obvious from the trailer’s on-the-nose use of the Rolling Stones song “Paint It Black” or the almost black and white color palate that seems to permeate a lot of the movie, the new version of “The Mummy” is going for a much darker tone compared to the lighthearted, Indiana Jones-style action-adventure seen in the 1999 version directed by Stephen Sommers.

As writer Jon Spaihts told The Hollywood Reporter, “I think we're going to see the first Mummy film in the entire Universal canon with the true power to terrify. The earliest … Mummy movies were scary in a small way, perhaps a dated way. They were almost parlor movies. Subsequent movies have been more swashbuckling. This one is going to have all of that action and adventure, but a legitimate power to terrify.”

And, of course, it wouldn’t be a modern Hollywood blockbuster without it being described as “more grounded.” But according to director Alex Kurtzman, one thing that will be the same is some kind of underlying romance.

“Mummy movies are about romance,” Kurtzman told Entertainment Weekly. “They are. And they started that way, and if you look at the evolution of them it’s always about that. Imhotep, the original Karloff mummy, that was a love story. In fact, they borrowed from them and paid homage to it in the ’99 movie. It was about, ‘I’m in love with the pharaoh’s wife, we’re having a secret affair, I get found out, they take me away, they bury me alive, and now I’m the mummy.’”

Kurtzman continued, “And the thing that’s beautiful, I think, about a lot of these monsters is that there are these very central, basic, human emotions that you can talk about when you talk about these monsters. You can talk about Dracula’s longing for love, you can talk about the Mummy’s longing for love.

"So as messed up as they may be in terms of their behavior, and they are monsters, there always has to be a rooting and an understandable idea behind why they are who they are. And absolutely there will be a lot of romance in this movie but hopefully in a way that’s unexpected.”

The setting

In terms of setting, the 1999 movie kept it classic, returning to basically the same time and place as the original movie: 1920s Egypt. Fraser’s protagonist, Rick O’Connell, was a period-appropriate ex-soldier in the French Foreign Legion, and his love interest/co-lead, played by Weisz, was an English librarian and Egyptologist living in Cairo.

By contrast, this new version places the action in the modern day — and not exclusively in Egypt, either. At least part of the movie (if not most) is set in London where the Natural History Museum, particularly, factors into the story in an important way.

Likewise, Cruise’s protagonist this time around, Nick Morton, is being called an anti-hero, a soldier of fortune who Kurtzman describes as “an amoral, absolutely out-for-himself guy.”

The mummy

Probably the single-most immediately noticeable difference between this new version of “The Mummy” and the earlier reboot, though, is the titular monster.

In keeping with the 1932 original, the antagonist of the 1999 movie (played by Arnold Vosloo) was a high priest in Ancient Egypt named Imhotep who was buried alive as punishment for trying to resurrect his lover — Ankh-es-en-Amon in the original, Anck-su-namun in the remake.

The new movie, however, introduces a female mummy (played by Sofia Boutella) with her tragic backstory, according to sciencefiction.com. An Egyptian princess named Ahmanet, she was promised the throne by her father, the pharaoh, that is, until he sired a son and reneged on his promise. In retaliation, Ahmanet summons a god to take what was rightfully hers but is imprisoned before she can carry out her plan.

According to Kurtzman, the gender-swapped villain was more than just a gimmick. “For me, making the Mummy a woman was the reason to make the movie,” he told Entertainment Weekly.

And in fact, this is just one more in a long tradition of murderous female mummies in cinema that predate even Boris Karloff, including the very first mummy movie in 1899, “Robbing Cleopatra’s Tomb,” and a 1911 film also titled “The Mummy” as well as some of the Universal “Mummy” sequels like 1944's “The Mummy’s Curse.”

The Dark Universe

The 1999 reboot managed to take “The Mummy” and transform it into a modern CGI-driven Hollywood blockbuster. As Kurtzman describes it, it was the first time a studio put “real big dollars” into a movie like this, or a “monster movie writ large.” The 1999 “Mummy” proved a huge hit with audiences, spawning two lesser sequels in 2001 (“The Mummy Returns”) and 2008 (“The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor”), altogether earning more than $1.4 billion worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo.

But this latest version of “The Mummy” has even bigger plans.

Dubbed the Dark Universe, the new movie is set to kick off what might be described as a “monsters Avengers,” bringing together freshly reimagined versions of Universal’s classic lineup of horror movie characters in what a gravel-voiced Russell Crowe refers to in the “Mummy” trailers as a “new world of gods and monsters” — a direct quote from James Whale’s “The Bride of Frankenstein,” as it happens. This includes, of course, Crowe’s character, Dr. Henry Jekyll, and if rumors are to be believed, possibly Cruise’s mysterious Nick Morton, as well. (The actor had previously been rumored to star in a “Van Helsing” reboot before signing on instead for this.)

Of course, shared universes are all the rage these days, thanks to the MCU. Even the Transformers series is being spun off into its own universe, according to cinemablend.com. If it seems like Universal is jumping on the bandwagon, though, just remember, the 1930s Universal monster movies did the whole shared universe thing decades before Kevin Feige and Marvel ever thought of it, with movies like “Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman,” “The House of Frankenstein” and most notably of all, “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" finding different ways to bring together their famous monsters.

According to Kurtzman, who is helping to shepherd the Dark Universe into existence, audiences should expect about one movie per year under the new banner, according to metro.co.uk. And to show how serious Universal is taking this (this time, anyway), some of the monsters have already been found. Joining Boutella and Crowe will be Javier Bardem as Frankenstein’s monster, Johnny Depp as the Invisible Man and, if rumors are to be believed, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as the Wolf Man, according to birthmoviesdeath.com.

First up, though, is a Bill Condon-directed “The Bride of Frankenstein" slated for Feb. 14, 2019. How romantic.

Jeff Peterson is a native of Utah Valley and studied humanities and history at Brigham Young University. Along with the Deseret News, he also contributes to the film discussion website TheMovieScrutineer.com.

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