Throughout a cinephiles lifetime there are movie moments that change the course of an individual’s life path. It’s that cinematic moment where you look to the silver screen with popcorn in hand, wondering how such magic came to life. That moment, whether it be a particular scene or an entire film, etches permanently in the mind of the beholder.
As Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy (1999) turns 20 years old today, it’s safe to say that Brendan Fraser-starring swashbuckling summer surprise hit is one of those masterpieces that lives in the eyes and heart of the beholder.
The Mummy is a rousing, suspenseful and horrifying epic about an expedition of treasure-seeking explorers in the Sahara Desert in 1925. Stumbling upon an ancient tomb, the hunters unwittingly set loose a 3,000-year-old legacy of terror, which is embodied in the vengeful reincarnation of an Egyptian priest who had been sentenced to an eternity as one of the living dead.
Writing this as a 38-year-old husband and father of two, I can’t believe that twenty years has so quickly passed since the spring of 1999. For movie buffs my age, you will remember that April 1999 gave use the surprise of The Matrix as we were awaiting The Phantom Menace with near death anticipation. In between all of this was The Encino Man (Brendan Fraser) jumping into a b-level horror-action film that screamed Indiana Jones wannabe. I never thought that twenty years later, I would readily watch the film with my own children or make it a staple of my family’s summer cottage movie season.
I remember The Mummy’s opening day and the shock of seeing so many people in the auditorium. A big fan of the Universal Monster Classics, I wasn’t anticipating a thirst for what looked like an adventurous cheese fest. Granted, I entered the late show of The Mummy on opening night with a bit a snobbery. In my last year of high school, I was on my way to film school the following September and thus felt I was an absolute authority on all things movie.
Unlike the Tom Cruise 2017 remake that yearned to be the Citizen Kane of shared – universe start-ups, The Mummy written and directed by Stephen Sommers (who would later write and direct another guilty pleasure with Van Hesling), was completely self-aware and wore its B-movie badge with pride. It wasn’t pretending to be anything but a monster-swashbuckling hybrid. Regardless of all the elements that made critics dismantle the film upon its release, it was an unapologetic audience romp that leaned heavily into the movie territory of “its so bad, its good”. It immediately became an instant classic of the soon to be obsolete VHS era.
I wasn’t the only one that thought The Mummy was a hidden gem upon its release. As if the movie instantly became a cult favourite, my friends and I found ourselves cheering, laughing and wanting more. We weren’t alone. The Mummy surprisingly opened to the Number One spot at the box office with nearly $45 million from its three-day weekend. This was without D-Box, 3D, AVX or IMAX tickets. Also, this was when the average ticket price was $5.00. Nonetheless, a hit was born. The Mummy was an old fashion summer movie that regardless of its critical acclaim, was so incredibly good and damn fun. Because it was fun, the film played incredibly well over the summer and grossed nearly $160 million at the North American box-office and also spawned a trilogy: The Mummy Returns (2001) and The Mummy: The Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008) and a spin-off The Scorpion King (2002).
Looking to The Mummy (2017) with Tom Cruise, which yearned to be the Mission Impossible of a pending Universal Dark Universe, Brendan Fraser and company, knew how to make their version fun and light-hearted. This was reinforced in the success of the sequels and prequel. When Cruise’s The Mummy remake was released in May of 2017, the Twitteverse responded with fever and defiance. The hashtag #thisisnotmymummy was born in a direct response to the new film and in respect for the 1999 original. The new Mummy couldn’t compare; it wasn’t fun, slapstick or remotely self-aware. The trailer didn’t have one image as remotely cool as a sandstorm coming to life with the human-like face as The Mummy had from 1999. My generation of movie-goer had spoken, and consequentially cemented the film’s legacy as a title not to be messed with. No re-boot or re-imaging was needed.
So, as The Mummy celebrates its 20th anniversary, let’s rejoice in the pure joy of Brendan Fraser getting his Indiana Jones on as Richard O’Connell, Rachel Weisz stealing our hearts as the book smart and adventurous Evelyn, John Hannah as red-handed brother Johnathan, and Kevin O’Connor as the doomed, hilarious traitor Beni.
It doesn’t matter if the CGI was slightly hammed or the slapstick was cornball to the extreme. On May 7th, 1999 The Mummy became an instant classic; a movie you can’t turn off when it’s on TV or avoid in an old stack of VHS tapes.