Jun 12, 2017

Light vs. Dark: #1. "The Mummy" (1932) vs. "The Mummy" (2017)

Boris Karloff in The Mummy (1932)

Welcome to the column Light vs. Dark, which will set out to compare every movie in Universal Studio's Dark Universe to their origins in the Universal Horror era of the 1930's and 40's. Considering that they were the studio to originate the reboot, it only makes sense to compare what they updated, and what does and doesn't work in bringing the monsters into the 21st century. Come back the week after every new theatrical release to discover what the new films got right, what they share with the originals, and what could've been done better. These monsters may be ancient, but they have the power to scare as well as entertain. They may not all be hits, but they share a common desire to get as many monsters on screen as possible (and who doesn't want that?). 
Sofia Boutella in The Mummy (2017)
*NOTE: Spoilers for both The Mummy (1932) and The Mummy (2017)

Director Alex Kurtzman has a simple proposition: bring the Universal Horror icons into one shared cinematic universe in the 21st century. It's a novel idea, and one that would be backing on similar studios movies with Marvel Cinematic Universe, D.C. Extended Universe, and the Monsterverse. To say the least, everyone is joining together to tell fantastic stories featuring some of history's greatest icons from screen and page. With the desire to make a reverent take on director Karl Freund's 1932 film The Mummy, Kurtzman updated the film by taking it out of the exotic Egypt and placing it in England, where among other things there are traces of blatant world building and references to the 1999 remake, which shares more with the horror action adventure mold that Kurtzman nevertheless decided to take the film, and thus introduced the franchise as being a scary place full of scary creatures.
To an extent, it makes sense why Kurtzman began with The Mummy. By some banal luck, that franchise spawned a popular remake in 1999 that itself inspired a spin-off series with The Scorpion King. Trouble in the desert is a foolproof genre that could make for a fun romp. However, it would be difficult to suggest that there's much else in the way of connectivity to the Freund vehicle that started everything. The 1932 film doesn't have a single scene of riveting thrills. At most, it has Boris Karloff's ancient Imhotep decaying before the camera after losing a battle to resurrect his deceased and beloved wife. More than any other film in the Universal Horror camp, The Mummy was as drama first and foremost. Even if Karloff was theoretically an ancient mummy who stayed alive through voodoo methods, he was a sympathetic, brooding character who spent the entire film contemplating what it would take to save his true love and break the curse of loneliness.
What's extremely bizarre about Universal Horror was that those films were, at their core, studies of loneliness caused by personal defects. Karloff's other, and more popular, icon Frankenstein's Monster epitomizes the tragedy of being misunderstood and the longing to connect to anyone. Imhotep is more deliberately the case, and it creates a deeper emotional core. For a monster movie, there aren't a lot of scares. Karloff is essentially a dramatic actor here who doesn't play up any hokey trope of bandaged bandits putting curses on people. In fact, the stereotype of corpses wrapped in white bandages doesn't even come from this movie, at least not in a walking, mumbling sense. Had it not been for the excellent work of the make-up that shows the vague decay of Imhotep, nobody would suspect Karloff as a character who's lived for over three millennia.
By comparison, Kurtzman's vision doesn't have anything on par with the emotional complexity of Imhotep. What he chooses to focus on is the action, such as an early scene where Nick (Tom Cruise) is being chased by an unseen shooting mass, which forces him to call in a bomb strike. The early scenes are explosive and only build to feature central resurrected mummy Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) causing sandstorms and elaborate curses that put Nick in trouble. Whereas Imhotep sacrifices himself for personal and emotional gain, Nick eventually kills himself with Ahmanet's mystical blade in order to break a curse - and thus become a modern mummy. This would be fine if Nick had built up any character throughout the film. However, his main struggle fits within the realms of a basic action premise: stop the curse. He doesn't have much of a purpose other than to be the wisecracking archaeologist who somehow survives everything and gets his friend (Jake Johnson) cursed in the process. 

David Manners in The Mummy (1932)
Comparatively, The Mummy (1932) doesn't have a memorable protagonist either. Its film relies heavily on Karloff's creepy performance. He is lingering and stoic in a way that perfectly captures discomfort. Meanwhile, David Manners' Frank Whemple is an archaeologist drawn to Egypt to discover the mysteries of a recently uncovered tomb. He exists almost as an exposition device that connects us to Imhotep's personal struggles. His arc is less defined or interesting than even Nick's in the 2017 version. The one disadvantage is that The Mummy (1932) lacks a great supporting cast, or even a character as memorable as the "monster." Even then, it's because of Karloff's ability to control the screen that the movie works. Theoretically, the presence of Cruise in the 2017 version should be enough to get the action adventure going. It does, but Ahmanet is a mixed bag of an antagonist as a result.
This could be in part because there is an added subplot featuring a character not present in any of Universal Horror's original line-up: Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde (both played by Russell Crowe). This Robert Louis Stevenson-based character runs an agency that captures "gods and monsters" (a line actually from The Bride of Frankenstein). He is predictably unstable when he doesn't take his medication, and thus turning the refined Dr. Jekyll into a Cockney-accented Mr. Hyde. He is a live-wire, but someone who exists to set up the future films, which may or may not include Nick as a mummy. Still, it's unclear if he is a devious force that wants to destroy monsters, or if he has a sympathetic need to rehabilitate them. From the way that he treats Ahmanet following her brief capture, it still doesn't make sense - let alone because he doesn't seem to be too professional in his captivity of an unbearable force.
The modern Mummy has more of an espionage and world building around it that is meant to show the connection to other monster movies. It also has a less personable central antagonist, which features Ahmanet serving largely as an aggressive enemy who can spark chaos onto the world with powers beyond understanding. She makes Nick see hallucinations as well as die through terrible run-ins with the elements. She is more powerful than Imhotep, and is thus a more literal monster. Besides a back story that is given at the start of the film, there isn't much reason to root for her. She isn't the monster that the film wants the audience to care about. Instead, it tries to humanize Nick enough so that he would become the sympathetic entry point into the Dark Universe in subsequent sequels. 
Besides the fact that Imhotep never interacted with the other Universal Horror icons, there's not a lot even emotionally that connects both versions. Freund's take is to make the monster sympathetic and almost human: a tactic that makes him far more scary than any hand waving gesture. Meanwhile, Kurtzman wants to make Ahmanet scary and unintelligible to modern audiences. She is out for revenge, and thus kind of negates what the Dark Universe could possibly become. Along with Dr. Jekyll seeming to be disinterested in his job, the film seems to have a negative interest in the monsters that so many people love. Kurtzman's logic is to scare through making these characters impersonal, and it makes one assume that everything that follows will merely be the equivalent of walking down the street and discovering that The Invisible Man is throwing over carts again.

Russell Crowe in The Mummy (2017)

Another difference is arguably the origin for why the films were made. In 1932, the film was made due to a trend that was only a decade old at the time. Archaeologists uncovered the first tomb that raised people's interests regarding mummies. It was also the first original film in Universal Horror's troupe. Nobody could've predicted how influential the film would be, as it spawned several Universal Horror sequels, a take by Hammer, and now two reboots from Universal (among many others). It was an original story based largely on a man whose story is vaguely similar to Imhotep's in the film. 
Meanwhile, the 2017 version exists almost cynically and has many thinking that it's a cash grab, earning negative press leading up to its release. Kurtzman claims that the Dark Universe was created as a reverent update of the Universal Horror icons, and he is not wrong. There's some smart innovations on display, such as making Universal Horror more, ahem, universal. However, the film still feels too insecure to let its shared universe develop naturally. The first character seen is Dr. Jekyll as he explains Ahmanet's back story (which is then explored in more detail later). Unlike the 1932 version, there are more superfluous elements and less empathetic characters. Considering that Freund's film only had one worth any empathy, that's a pretty big problem to have.
To some extent, it's strange that the Dark Universe began with a largely second-tier character. The Mummy has gained a critical appreciation in later decades, but received negative reviews in 1932. This was in part because the film was slow and vastly different from the prior films Dracula and Frankenstein. Many have suggested that revisiting it and understanding its intent makes it a richer experience, especially when one is not expecting a drama between two decaying lovers. The Mummy (1932) is the most romantic of Universal Horror's line-up. Meanwhile, The Mummy (2017) shares the negative reviews of its original, but likely won't get a reappraisal with subsequent sequels and spin-offs. It's unclear, but its aggressive and familiar tone doesn't exactly help it stand out. Maybe its shared universe elements will be less confusing as the franchise builds, but for now it is a notable weak spot. 
In the contest between the original and the remake, it's tough to call either a genuine masterpiece, or exemplar of their franchise (in part because there's nothing to compare the 2017 version to just yet). Still, there is one thing that is apparent: The Dark Universe will be more action oriented and feature monsters that are impersonal and scary. Universal Horror thrived on fears, but it was in large part because audiences understood the humanity within the terror. Ahmanet may have a fun bad guy persona that would work in a better movie, but it gets buried underneath a superfluous subplot with Dr. Jekyll that makes one hope that Crowe is secretly recast the same way that Terrence Howard was replaced by Don Cheadle in the Iron Man series. Until then, one can only hope that Kurtzman's belief that the franchise will be more experimental than most of the modern strict coded cinematic universes is actually a promise. It's one of the few things that the Dark Universe has going for it so far. 

Light vs. Dark: Light

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