Universal Pictures’ “Dark Universe” is an attempt to create a cohesive, shared cinematic universe made up of classic monsters brought to the screen by directors such as James Whale and F.W. Murnau in the 1930s. It begins with The Mummy in the guise of a tattooed Egyptian princess who looks to have stepped out of director Masaki Kobayashi’s 1964 ghost picture, Kwaidan.
In both the 1932 original and the 1999 reboot, the forsaken priest was mummified for his illicit, undying love; this time it’s a thirst for evil after Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) seeks to unleash Set, the Egyptian god of the dead.
With a list of TV credentials as producer on such shows as Sleepy Hollow and Fringe, film director Alex Kurtzman has been selected to spearhead this “Dark Universe” with this film and the soon-to-be-produced Bride of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man, so much of the layered, detailed exposition in The Mummy – from shots of mad scientists and technicians at the secret Prodigium research facility, where Ahmanet is taken once revived, to jars holding skulls of vampires and the webbed claw of the Creature from the Black Lagoon – act as foreshadowing of things to come.
This sort of thing isn’t unprecedented. Besides the aforementioned 1999 Mummy, Universal sought to resurrect its monsters in 2004’s Van Helsing (which is also to be revamped!), as well as in 2010’s The Wolfman with Benicio del Toro.
The controversy over this particular relaunch stems from the choice of actors Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe, both of whom have suffered as media whipping boys.
To dislike Tom Cruise for being a Scientologist is no different than not liking Steven Spielberg because he’s Jewish. And if Crowe is deemed undesirable due to his drinking or unruly demeanor, then that puts him in the same company as Robert Mitchum, Sean Penn and Mel Gibson.
After skipping from 12th century England to ancient Egypt until the discovery of an Egyptian tomb in modern day Iraq, the movie puts freebooter Nick Morton, played by Cruise, on a collision course with the ancient curse that threatens all mankind.
It’s a simple, effective setup for bringing forth the monster.
And Ahmanet isn’t the typical gauze-wrapped shuffling mummy, the kind which served as the inspiration for George Romero’s walking dead. Not only is she an elemental able to whip up a sandstorm, she communicates with insects while possessing the strength to hoist and heave a soldier across the room. But her most effective horror ability is she can literally suck the life out of the living, turning them into living corpses, i.e. mummies without a gauze!
So how does not-so-likeable, thickheaded, Hans Solo-esque Nick fight being the target of the curse? Seems he slept with an archeologist named Jenny Halsey, who knows a guy by the name of Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe), who as an immunologist believes there is a medical cure for the pestilence that is supernatural evil. And yeah, he’s that Dr. Jekyll.
So what these “Dark Universe” movies must take into account is that the classic Universal monster movies depended on the off-screen makeup skills of Jack Pierce to provide their continuity: human-sized actors surrounded by grotesque creatures whose look stemmed from German Expressionism and returning frontline war atrocities thrust into gothic romantic settings. First and foremost, the Universal monsters were sympathetic, a reminder that circumstance creates horror in us all.
In its favor, this “Dark Universe” began with the “oldest” of horror, the living dead from the Epic of Gilgamesh in the form of Ahmanet, who is pure evil brought forward into the modern day and pitted against modern science conducted by a guy fighting his own monstrous split personality!
Unlike the superhero cinematic universes, monsters lead from one to the next. There’s no need for a continuation of this story in a sequel! And it would appear, at least, that Russell Crowe’s Dr. Jekyll is predetermined to be the connecting thread that sews mummy to Frankenstein’s monster to mad scientists to vampiric counts.
As the initial entry, The Mummy can be somewhat excused for its sprawling excesses. What won’t be forgiven is if future monster entries rely on formulaic action scenes and big box office names to reel in prospective moviegoers at the expense of frights.
Monster movies are about the MONSTERS!
The Mummy is an acceptable start.