That's a Wrap!

That's a Wrap!

That's a Wrap!

Arts has moved! You can find new stories here.
Reviews of the latest films.
May 8 1999 4:51 AM

That's a Wrap!

The Mummy sends the horror genre one step closer to its final resting place.

The Mummy

Directed by Stephen Sommers

Universal Pictures

Get Real

Directed by Simon Shore

Paramount Classics

27000_27753_the_mummy_redesign

If the rowdy and facetious new film The Mummy suggests anything, it's that we've come to what Francis Fukuyama might call "the end of horror movies." The horror genre lost its life's blood when filmmakers began to worry about being laughed at by teen-agers who'd seen it all before, and to incorporate kids' imagined responses into their pictures--so that you got the movie and the Mystery Science Theater 3000 burlesque of the movie at the same time. Forget about the vague fear of the nameless, otherwise known as "dread." Forget about awe, too, unless it's short for "Awesome, dude!" in response to some pricey special effect. Bring on the ironic one-liners and the slapstick ghoul-bashing kung fu--and let's party!

Advertisement

Postmodern jokiness can only undermine the mummy subgenre, which has at its heart the most ancient of scary ideas: If you presume to violate an alien culture and make off with its sacred objects, you're going to be visited by a monster that's beyond the power of your own culture to combat. There's a big dollop of xenophobia here--old mummy pictures are full of stilted English actors pretending to be icily vengeful Egyptians--but there's also a less chauvinistic implication: a rebuke to our Western-imperialist sense of entitlement. For all its nonsensical trappings, the mummy narrative is serious business, because when other peoples' passionately held taboos are casually flouted it is serious business. Just ask Salman Rushdie. The invasion of a mummy's tomb results in a fatwa made flesh--or, if not flesh, then bandages and bones rendered really really nasty by righteous wrath.

Some of these ideas can be found in the new The Mummy, but they have been stripped of their weight and cultural resonance. In their place is a lot of sub-Raiders of the Lost Ark swashbuckling, plus sight gags pilfered from Sam Raimi's 1993 Army of Darkness (the last of his The Evil Dead trilogy) and genre-deflating banter that's like an untalented sophomore's stab at Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). (The juvenile script is by the director, Stephen Sommers.) There isn't a mummy at the center of The Mummy, exactly, but a mutating Industrial Light and Magic Special Effect. Under it, supposedly, is Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo), an ancient priest discovered--in the movie's prologue--in a compromising position with the Pharaoh's mistress, who kills herself in an act of feminist defiance. ("My body is no longer his temple!")

When Imhotep goes to Hamunaptra--the City of the Dead--to revive her, he is stopped by the Pharoah's guards, shorn of his tongue, then wrapped in gauze and buried alive with a swarm of scabrous beetles. Legend has it that if he's ever revived, he'll visit the 10 plagues of Egypt upon the world. Legend has it right, as it turns out, but it's a long hour before roguish adventurer Brendan Fraser can transport dimwitted 1920s Pandora heroine Rachel Weisz to Hamunaptra so that she can open the Book of the Dead and start stupidly incanting. It takes another hour to search for the Book of the Dead's opposite number, which will theoretically send Imhotep back to the cosmic soup from which he sprang before he can transfer the heroine's soul to the embalmed remains of his lady love.

The Special Effect (a k a the mummy) reminded me of the Ghost of Christmas Future in the Bill Murray comedy Scrooged (1988). It's tall and mottled and has a wiggly mouth that can suddenly distend itself and emit a Jurassic Park-style roar. It has all manner of superpowers, turning itself into a puff of smoke, a hurricane, and a swarm of ravenous locusts. It can appropriate pieces of its victims' anatomies in an effort to reconstitute itself (an idea cribbed from Clive Barker's 1987 Hellraiser--but less gorily executed, for the sake of a kiddie-friendly PG-13). It can also revive its mummified fellow priests and send them into battle against our heroes. The Special Effect can do almost anything--except look scary. It's not solely the fault of Industrial Light and Magic: Slapstick and horror aren't an easy mix. Sam Raimi might be the only one who can pull it off--when his spastic, hyperkinetic ghouls come at you they seem genuinely invasive. The ghouls of lesser artists just bash into one another like Keystone Korpses.

Advertisement

The Mummy isn't as inept as last year's Godzilla--it more or less hits its marks, and some nonindustry people at the preview I attended claimed to have been entertained. The cast is certainly game. Fraser has a long, rangy body and a gee-whiz openness that makes him perfect for a comic-book hero, and the lovely Weisz--whose eyes are so far apart that they're almost in different time zones--brings a screwball aplomb to the dizzy distaff Egyptologist. As her brother, John Hannah (Gwyneth Paltrow's love-struck Scottish lapdog in last year's Sliding Doors) is too stridently the Comic Relief in a movie in which the hero and heroine are already busy comedically relieving themselves, but he's a hard chap to dislike. The villain is another kettle of leeches. I adored Vosloo as Lance Henriksen's black-garbed, femininely insinuating henchman in the John Woo-Jean Claude Van Damme action picture Hard Target (1993). But Vosloo doesn't have the physiognomy for a role incarnated variously by the gaunt Boris Karloff (1932) and the totemic Christopher Lee (1959). Bald and round-headed, he's about as imposing as Curly of the Three Stooges.

27000_27813_wwmicon

T he Mummy is a debauchery but not a true defilement: Mummy movies don't constitute an especially glorious cinematic legacy. Only the Karloff original, directed by Karl Freund, qualifies as a classic, with its sleek Egyptian-Deco décor and its matchlessly eerie scene of the mummy's awakening. (Bramwell Fletcher's hysterical laughter in the creature's wake--"He went for a little walk!"--echoes in the annals of horror film history.) Still, I have a soft spot for all those dreary Lon Chaney Jr. sequels that ended with the lurching, half-blind golem lugging a slack blonde through the swamps while George Zucco in a turban hisses something like, "Faster, Kharis! Before the torch-wielding infidels converge on the sacred tomb of Ananka!" I can't make a case for the dim Hammer Films remakes, either, although it's always fun to watch Peter Cushing get strangled by Christopher Lee. No, Sommers hasn't blasphemed. He doesn't deserve to have his eyes and tongue sucked out, his brain dashed against the side of a tomb, or to be consumed by scarab beetles or flayed by locusts. But he has put another nail in the horror genre's sarcophagus. He should at least lose a hand.

In some cultures, they cut off hands (and even more vital body parts) when they find out you're gay. Steven Carter (Ben Silverstone), the stringy English hero of Get Real, merely faces parental disapproval, social ostracization, and a dishy jock lover (Brad Gorton) who doesn't want to acknowledge him in the halls of their high school. Still, it's enough. The strength of this agreeable comedy, directed by Simon Shore from a screenplay by Patrick Wilde, is that it makes even the tiniest sexual encounters seem emotionally momentous. They would be anyway, at this age, but Steven has fewer avenues for self-expression than his heterosexual peers, and the pressure builds. Despite its gay subject matter, Get Real is rather wholesome and didactic: Steven writes an essay for the yearbook called "Get Real," and the film climaxes with a speech about wanting to be recognized and loved for who you really are. There's nothing glib about Silverstone's performance, though. At times, he's believably stricken, at others believably affectless--as if every emotion has been wrapped up so tightly for fear of discovery that there's no such thing as a "natural" response. He's in danger of becoming a true mummy.

David Edelstein is the chief film critic for New York magazine and a film critic for NPR’s Fresh Air.