"The Mummy" (1999) and "The Mummy" (1932)

Stephen Sommers' 1999 remake uses special effects to dazzle and delight; the 1932 original creeps into your dreams.

Published July 18, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

"The Mummy" (1999)
Directed by Stephen Sommers
Starring Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, John Hannah
Universal; widescreen (2:35.1)
Extras: Theatrical trailer, making-of featurette, commentary with director and editor, deleted scenes, more

"The Mummy" (1932)
Directed by Karl Freund
Starring Boris Karloff and Zita Johann
Universal; full frame (1:33.1)
Extras: Theatrical trailer, making-of featurette, scene selection, feature commentary, production stills, more

For a big-budget special-effects extravaganza, Stephen Sommers' 1999 "The Mummy" is pleasingly casual. It's one of the few recent mainstream hits that doesn't wear out either you or its welcome. But it's a completely different creature from the 1932 original, released by Universal in a beautifully remastered version, which is the most dreamlike and creepily erotic of horror films. Made by the great German cinematographer Karl Freund in one of his few outings as director, the original "The Mummy" is an unnervingly calm fright film. And it features a masterful performance by Boris Karloff as ancient Egyptian priest Imhotep, brought back to life and looking for the reincarnation of his long-dead love. It turns the movie clichi of eternal love on its head. With skin dried to look like parchment, Karloff's Imhotep is a nightmare vision of sexual desire that persists even as the body decays. Delicately and masterfully lighted, the film is a languorous classic of perverse romanticism. It gets under your skin and into your dreams.

Sommers' remake has none of that delicacy. It uses the original story as the basis for an Indiana Jones-style adventure in which a trio of brash adventurers -- an American tough guy (always likable Brendan Fraser), a British Egyptologist (plucky, big-eyed Rachel Weisz) and her drunken brother (John Hannah doing a sozzled second-banana routine that has a lot of charm) -- set out to discover a lost Egyptian city and wind up conjuring up a long-dead evil priest and the holy man's specialty, the 10 -- count 'em -- plagues of Egypt. The movie is like a supernatural desert western, and if the script doesn't provide the level of wit the filmmakers are trying for, it does get the self-mockery that was essential to Hollywood swashbucklers.

"The Mummy" ambles along agreeably, never treating itself as any big deal, and never allowing the effects to overwhelm the story. They're out to tickle us rather than wow us. Frequently, they do both: There's a sandstorm that bears the face of evil priest Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo); in another effect his body reassembles itself, with bones and layers of muscle added bit by bit. Troops of mummified priests stage a sword fight with Fraser. Best of all are the poisonous hordes of skittering scarabs that bubble up from the sand like Jed Clampett's oil strike and swarm out to gobble up their victims like piranhas at a barbecue.

The DVD has been elegantly designed: The main menu echoes the movie's credits, in which bits of Egyptian hieroglyphics assemble themselves into English. On the menu, the hieroglyphics become English when you highlight an item to see what it is.

The documentary that's included, "Building a Better Mummy," describes in exhausting detail how the effects were done. And Universal has stuffed "The Mummy" with goodies like "Egyptology 101," a neat little glossary of historical terms. But the real fun of the movie has nothing to do with history. Its vision of 1920s Egypt bears as much resemblance to the real thing as Tarzan's Africa does. It's delightfully un-p.c., strictly "exotic" in the grand manner of Hollywood back-lot tourism. The time spent watching the 1999 "The Mummy" passes quite enjoyably. But the time spent watching the 1932 original seems to be suspended as the movie works its way into your bones. The new version is a lively toy; the original, an eerie dream of eternal love.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

MORE FROM Charles Taylor

Related Topics ------------------------------------------