I wasn’t sure what to expect when I saw the previews for the most recently released version of The Mummy, starring Tom Cruise and Annabelle Wallis. Mummy movies are a genre staple, but all things considered, they’re not my favorite approach to horror. I mean, I appreciate them, I like them, I’m always willing to watch one, but as I indicated in an earlier post, I have yet to watch a mummy movie that truly scares me, that captivates me as much as I’d like it to. As it turns out, the most recently released version of the film, The Mummy, which came out about two weeks ago, is an intriguing approach to the horror subgenre, an approach which mashes up action and horror but has creepier overtones than the 1999 Brendan Frasier version of the film. The Mummy (2017) is the first installment in a series of darker films that fall under the bleak umbrella of Universal Studios’ Dark Universe. The film, and its broad appeal, is an apt indicator that Universal Studios has the potential to both combine horror and action, and make horror suitable for a wider age range of viewers – two challenges which, if approached rightly, have the potential to create an incredibly successful series of films.
First, a brief overview. Nick Morton and Sgt. Vail (Tom Cruise and Jake Johnson) are two soldiers assigned to deal with insurgents in Iraq but more focused on treasure hunting and less focused on their actual duties. They take it upon themselves to enter a war zone because they want to uncover Haram, the alleged location of valuable items from antiquity. While they’re dodging gun blasts and preparing for their demise, a plane drops a bomb on the insurgency; the insurgents who live flee immediately, and Nick and Sgt. Vail are left unscathed. But the bomb uncovers a gigantic underground Egyptian tomb, one that Nick and Sgt. Vail end up entering with archaeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis). When Nick shoots a rope that was holding a coffin underground, he inadvertently releases a curse that is thousands of years old, in the form of the evil, vengeful Egyptian princess, Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella). Ultimately, Ahmanet chooses Nick as her human vessel to unleash Set, the God of Death, and cloak the world in darkness. Nick’s challenge, then, is to escape Ahmanet and work with others to put an end to her killing and halt further destruction.
Among the greatest appeals of this film is its ability to honor the essence of the monsters in question – primarily, the infamous mummy, but also Mr. Hyde (Russell Crowe) – and make a film that has the spirit of horror, without being terrifying enough to scare away those who are averse to the genre because of its disturbing nature – including kids. Ahmanet is a brilliant monster – beautiful before her mummification (in life), grotesque when she’s initially brought back to life, and simultaneously disturbing and alluring when she regains general human form and looks like an unseemly combination of life and death. Cruise is, of course, a canonical action hero, and he makes playing the role of the selfish but ultimately good Nick Morton look easy, and his female co-star, Annabelle Wallis, is an incredibly believable character as Jenny Halsey. I wrote in my first piece (about the 1932 and 1999 The Mummy) that I loved Rachel Weisz’s character, Evelyn (Evey) Carnahan. Though she’s certainly funny and vivacious, I thought about her character a bit as I watched the most recent Mummy; in comparison to Annabelle Wallis’s character in this film, Evey Carnahan looks like a bit of a caricature – funny and lovable to be sure, but not quite as realistic and relatable as Jenny in the new film. Of course, there may be no real need to compare – the 1999 The Mummy had its own approach to the subgenre – but the 2017 Mummy provides, I would argue, a more relatable female lead.
One element of the film that I found appealing was Ahmanet’s psychological capabilities, and the overall vivid depiction of her character, a character grounded in a very human personality. Unlike the High Priest Imhotep, who is also mummified as punishment and inadvertently brought back to life by humans in the 1999 film, Ahmanet has the power to psychologically manipulate Nick Morton’s character. While this feature wasn’t present in the 1999 film, it was a feature of the 1932 version of the film. In the 1932 rendition of The Mummy, Imhotep, brought back to life in the form of Adath Bey, psychologically draws Helen Grosvenor toward him so that he can use her body to bring back Anck su namon, his long-dead lover. His mind control ability further subjugates Helen, putting her in an even more distressed situation than she would be if he were only physically preying on her. She is helpless not only because of Imhotep’s physical presence, but because of his ability to occupy her mind. His mind-control capabilities make him seem more insidious, powerful, and predatorial, but they also do something to reify stereotypical male-female relationships in the early 20th century, relationships that were often depicted as a weak female subsumed, from every angle, by the forces of evil.
On the contrary, Ahmanet becomes a sort of evil temptress through her psychological capabilities in the 2017 film. Her ability to control Nick’s mind leads to a lot of flashbacks of her in human form, and both the depiction of her back story and the actions in the movie combine with her psychological capabilities to make her a more rounded, intriguing character – and villain, and monster – than the 1999 Imhotep, whose personality is never flushed out. She is, on the one hand, a woman starved for power in life and death, a princess who was supposed to inherit the throne before her father’s wife gave birth to a baby boy, a princess who was denied her power and inheritance through primogenitary, and reclaimed power by delving into the “dark arts” and working with evil – specifically Set, the God of Death – to attain dominion. Her history points to the seemingly ancillary but perhaps very important fact that her evil is a direct byproduct of unequal Ancient Egyptian royalty-related gender laws. Ahmanet was the first born, and was set to inherit the throne, before a baby boy was born. As such, she reclaims the power she lost (because of her gender) through black magic. Don’t get me wrong: she wanted to gain the throne to be worshipped as a god incarnate, and her female social status is hardly a justification for her actions, but I think it’s worth noting that in the 2017 version of The Mummy a monster is born from a woman who lost power because of her gender and had no other way to re-claim it.
Significant spoiler in this paragraph: When I say Ahmanet is depicted as an “evil temptress” she’s oddly sexualized in a lot of the film, but in a sort of inverted way that makes you shudder at the thought of a living corpse sitting on top of you and caressing your chest the way Ahmanet caresses Nick’s chest in one of the film’s scenes. The tips of her fingers, painted blue in life, turn black and decrepit in death, and she rubs her black, bony fingers with her splintered fingernails all over him. If that weren’t bad enough, in another scene, she sticks out a long, black tongue and licks Nick’s face, clearly trying to provoke him sexually, even though her revived body still wreaks of death too much to be sexually attractive to him. Like the 1999 The Mummy, she sucks the life out of her victims via lip-to-lip contact, which seems oddly provocative, but the scene that I found the most unusual was when Nick, who kills himself with a magic sword to turn into the Egyptian Death God, kills her. As the God Set, Nick hovers over Ahmanet and slowly sucks the life out of her. As he’s doing so (and of course, it looks like he’s kissing her) her body is pinned down, and the camera zooms in on her helpless, kicking legs. Coupled with the fact that she’s half clothed in tattered, dirty gauze many thousands of years old, and half naked, this scene – in which a resurrected mummy who is pure evil is killed – oddly resembles a vicious instance of sexual assault.
A scene that mirrors sexual assault is important because Ahmanet is made to look physically victimized throughout the film. When an organization formed to combat evil in the world, led by Dr. Jekyll (Russel Crowe), captures Ahmanet to save the world from her machinations, they chain her up on a hard floor in the most uncomfortable position imaginable and attach tubes to her body so they can pump mercury through her veins. She looks paradoxically helpless for a sort of powerful, evil-demonic figure, and Nick notes his discomfort with the situation even before she begins controlling his mind (at which point she gains more sympathy from him). I’m not sure if it’s just me, but as a viewer, I saw this organization’s actions as oddly brutal, even though they were being directed toward a woman who is essentially an ancient evil curse embodied. After all, she is still a woman, although resurrected, and she looks really pathetic kneeling on the floor of a big laboratory in chains. Given that she more or less sacrificed her soul – because she was slighted by stronger powers – and joined the forces of evil to compensate for her rejection, she becomes, almost, a pitiful figure. And I think this is especially emphasized toward the film’s conclusion. After Nick, in the form of Set, kills Ahmanet, her body shrivels and curls into fetal position, and she becomes a mass of decayed bones on the floor with some random patches of hair on her scalp. In this way, her weakness, frailty, and ultimate lack of power are most underscored. This is not to say Ahmanet is a good character, but I think subtle features of the film make her both pathetic and sympathetic, even as she represents a sort of Bride of Satan (but, Egyptian-style).
Ahmanet’s insinuated frailty is, however, not a critique of the film, and to me there are no problematic feminist implications. I think the vileness of a lot of villains (in horror and other genres) is undercut by the dilemmas they faced to make them who they are and the frailty that lies at their core. I think of Darth Vader, who was Anakin Skywalker before he joined the dark side for the power to prevent Padme’s death. Love indirectly created Darth Vader, and a need for greater control over a situation. I would imagine if we examine a lot of horror and non-horror villains, an amplified need for control (whether it’s raw power, in the case of Ahmanet, or greater control of a situation, in the case of Anakin Skywalker) is a prevalent common denominator. After all, as human beings, we are all frail, to a degree, and our desire to control situations that lie far beyond our grasp can have painful – and, occasionally, devastating – consequences. Take Luis Creed in Pet Sematary, who can’t accept the death of his son Gage and tries to extend his locus of control over the situation by burying Gage in the Pet Sematary and bringing him back to life. His desire to gain control by undoing a situation’s outcome leads to devastating consequences. He is not villainous like Ahmanet, but like Ahmanet, he is desperate, and ultimately fragile. I think much horror – and many movies with so-called bad guys – exist to suggest that we are all at least a little fragile, all grasping for a level of control we can’t have.
And even as classic horror reminds us that the bulk of the universe is out of our control, with the exception, sometimes, of our own miniscule actions, it simultaneously functions to ameliorate our fear over losing this control, at least when it comes to death. On my last piece about mummies, I suggested that both pieces tap into our interest about the wavy, often indistinct boundary between life and death, in a society that often hides from death’s reality and shirks from that which resembles it. Indeed, our shirking from death may well be a reason horror is consistently popular in America – because of our fear of death, horror films are far greater “spectacles” than they might be in cultures more intimately familiar with death and more comfortable existing close to it. And while horror exploits that which our culture fears, and while it suggests our powerlessness over the end of our own lives, movies like The Mummy also let us live, I would argue, under the illusion of power. (Spoiler spoiler, spoiler…!!). The brutally killed Ahmanet is resurrected by Nick Morton’s sporadic act. Morton himself comes back to life after a devastating plane crash, under the powers of Ahmanet. Nick’s friend, Sgt. Valise, traipses around in ghost form making snide remarks before Nick turns himself into the God of Death and brings Valise back to life. Most notably, when Nick loses his love, Jenny, to Ahmanet’s wrath, he stabs himself – not to kill himself, but to turn himself into a god – so he can bring Jenny back. In The Mummy – as in some other horror – the malleable line between life and death is not one that we cross once, and the crossing is not always beyond our control. Rather, characters shift back and forth across the line easily and freely, letting the viewer revel in the illusory weakness and erasable nature of death even as it exploits that fear and subtly suggests that much of our life – and death – is out of our control. For two hours, we delight in seeing that which is final, that which is irrevocable, become completely reversible. Sprinkle a little comedic hijinks on that equation – which The Mummy does, sometimes seamlessly – and we are able to revel in our greatest fear, to downplay its importance and laugh in its face, even as its inevitability hangs above us in abeyance.
Which is to say, I like this film. Russell Crowe’s Dr. Jekyll is of note; he runs an organization intent on annihilating evil, but arguably sometimes attempts to do so cruelly, in a way that only tries to dissolve evil by committing it. The direction of his character will be interesting to track in future Dark Universe films, especially because even when he’s at his best as Dr. Jekyll, there’s something deeply unsettling about him. And he uses injections to maintain his Jekyll-persona when he starts to turn into Mr. Hyde. In the movie, when he injects himself, he vaguely mirrors a drug addict who uses needles, shaking as he grabs the needle to stave off withdrawal symptoms, or Hyde-like symptoms, which also result in changed eyes, sweat, and pale skin. In any case, Crowe’s character – and the bizarre anti-evil organization he’s created – makes a lot of interesting statements and assumptions about “evil” that are worth examining (and if you’ve read my blog, you know that’s kinda one of my things), including one puzzling statement contending that it lingers outside the world, trying to get in (while I would argue it’s made its way in already), and another hypothesis that evil is a pathogen, a disease that can be eradicated like smallpox. He also likens the Egyptian God of Death to Satan, an interesting turn that dates back to 16th century literature, when Edmund Spenser equated Morpheus, the God of Sleep, both with pure evil and the deceitful, malicious trickster Archmigo. Western culture loves life, wakefulness, vitality; just as this preference is prevalent in The Faerie Queen, written in 1590, so is it present in the 2017 The Mummy.
While there is much that can, and should, be examined in this film, I do not contend that it’s perfect. The racial dynamics, while of course not intentionally offensive, are problematic. The only representation that we get of Middle Eastern people – despite the fact that some of the film takes place in the Middle East – is a group of gun-toting insurgents shooting one another. The only Egyptian we meet is the evil Ahmanet, reincarnated to attack with vengeance. The “good guys” — the entire group of people banded together to defeat evil – are white. This is perhaps excusable when we look back at versions of the story written in the 1930’s, but by now we should be beyond this point; most characters in the film could have been any race, without creating plot conflicts or inconsistencies. And it’s probably worth noting that the female Ahmanet is, in her own way, scantily clad, with torn rags serving as poor coverage for her body; I didn’t find her outfit offensive or too revealing, but it is another example of putting less clothes on a female character than we would on a male version of that character (which is often done with superheroes). Imhotep’s body wasn’t displayed in the 1932 or 1999 version of The Mummy, because that’s something we tend to do with women.
Despite these critiques, I was intrigued by, and pleased with, this film. I think if Universal Studios maintained this general approach to its new Dark Universe – a film with broader appeal, creepy but not terrifying, action-packed, a little funny, and thought provoking – but started creating room for a more racially diverse group of actors, it could lay the groundwork for a really excellent cinematic universe, one that both rivals the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Warner Bros’ DC Expanded Universe (along with films like their Harry Potter Series) while offering its own macabre twist. While it’s hard to gain the sweeping appeal of a Harry Potter film or an Avengers sequel, the Universal Studios Dark Universe is off to a promising start with The Mummy. Indeed, I eagerly anticipate witnessing what they will do next.