Thursday, 2 July 2015

Legend of the Mummy (1998)

'Beware the beat of bandaged feet!' And so on, and so forth. Ever since Napoleon took a boatload of scholarly chaps to Egypt to document his rather ephemeral conquest, Europeans have been fascinated by the fact that a bunch of non-Europeans created a civilization that was more enduring, more grandiose, and just more all-round spiffing than that of ancient Greece or Rome.

The result was a mixture of fear and fascination. After all, those ancient Egyptians weren't white, and therefore - to many Victorians - they must have been a bit dodgy. Or, as some more radical thinkers argued, they must have been a truly superior civilization with advanced cosmic knowledge, and probably came from Atlantis or something. For every academic tome on the subject of Egypt there must be at least three stories of ancient curses, ambulatory mummies, and reincarnation. But it was Bram Stoker, who gave us the modern vampire genre, who also created the Mummy movie franchise with his novel The Jewel of Seven Stars.

I read the book recently, and found that - like much of Stoker's work - it's a clunkily-written story imbued with a great central idea. All movie and TV adaptations of the novel must begin with a scriptwriter who, faced with too many characters, enormous chunks of tedious exposition, and a badly-constructed plot, must first decide what to jettison. The result can be a fun film, such as Blood from the Mummy's Tomb. Or it can be a mish-mash of old cobblers, like the film I watched last night.

Legend of the Mummy is all over the place. IMDb does not mince words: 'A pretty sorry looking mummy with seven fingers could be the cause of several weird murders and the daughter of an Egyptologist sets out to solve the mystery.' The reviewer might have added that the jewel in the film looks like an over-sized novelty from a Christmas cracker. Oh, and there is no mention of the Seven Stars at all. This is so absurd it deserves an award for narrative incompetence. But it's just one of the things that makes Legend a modern genre turkey that's so bad it's quite entertaining for much of its ninety-odd minutes.

If you don't know Stoker's story, here comes a spoiler. In ancient Egypt the beautiful and brilliant Queen Tera succeeded her father, much to the disgust of the priestly caste. (Apparently those old-time clergyman were really sexist - who could have guessed?) Anyway, Tera developed some magical powers and, knowing that when she died the priests would expunge her from official history, took steps to ensure that she could return in person to maybe take over the world. Or something.

The Seven Stars bit is the one clever thing Stoker achieves. The eponymous jewel that's mystically linked with Tera's spirit (ka, whatever) contains what sounds rather like a holographic image of the Plough, that familiar pattern in the night sky. Technical aside - such an eye-catching arrangement is properly called an asterism, not a constellation. The latter term includes all the stars in a given area of the sky, bright or otherwise.

The Seven Stars Today
The point is, Stoker reveals with much fanfare, is that when the jewel was crafted for Tera (or by her, magically?) those stars were in a different configuration. The stars all move over the centuries, and at different speeds. The jewel represents the Plough (or Great Bear, or Big Dipper) not as it was in the skies Tera knew but as it is now - a pattern Tera could not have known, unless she really was mystically endowed. Oo-er.

This diagram below shows the change in the shape of the Plough/Big Dipper asterism over 10,000 years, while Tera was, fictionally-speaking, around about 4,000-5,000 years ago. But it's clear enough that the early Egyptians saw different patterns in the old heavenly firmament.

So Stoker's use of stellar drift, called proper motion by astronomers, is a clever idea - so clever that it was used as in the 1994 movie Stargate, in fact. But why am I banging on about it? Well, because in Legend of the Mummy they don't use it. The fact that the jewel is all about the asterism, the fact that Tera's seven-fingered right hand somehow link her mystically to the stars - we get none of that. So, what do we get?

Louis Gossett Jnr as a dodgy relic hunter is arguably the best actor in the film, but only because Aubrey Woods (who appeared in the Hammer adaptation all those years ago) gets far too little screen time. The rest of the cast are forgettable or irritating by turns. The story pivots on the idea that Tera returns thanks to the fact that Brit archaeologist Abel Trelawney opens her tomb at the very moment his wife gives birth to a daughter, Margaret, who becomes psychically linked to the sorceress-queen. Then follow decades of tedious malarkey that have to covered in assorted flashbacks, whereby Trelawney collects all the magical paraphernalia needed to bring Tera back. 

Why does he do this? Well, she's sort of hypnotised him or something, and in the film her mummy wanders about knocking off people who hinder the grand design. There are great chunks of expository dialogue, but they are poorly-written tripe and instantly forgettable. Suffice to say that as the lovely Margaret attains womanhood Tera sets her plan in motion via her mortal pawns, and wackiness ensues.

It all starts so well, with a vista of restless desert sands, a decently mystical bit of music, and two young African lads indulging in some innocent tomb-raiding fun. One of them gets his face melted when he finds the jewel, and it turns out that the one who witnesses this becomes Lou Gossett and is sort of possessed by the killer queen, maybe. Much, much later there's the Big Ritual Scene. In between is a lot of processed turkey. Like a tetchy cobra fixed down at head and tail, the narrative thrashes about chaotically in the middle. Stoker is ultimately to blame, true. But every change, every addition, every attempt to modernise and 'horrorize' the story just makes it more unfocused and dumb. 

Not the silliest moment, by any means

So people die in various ways, Margaret's mystical link to Tera is stressed with all the subtlety of a breeze-block dropped onto a busy ring-road, and the bad actors tend to get a lot more lines than the decent ones. Among the latter we find Aubrey Woods, playing the family doctor - a role not unlike the one that he took in Blood from the Mummy's Tomb. Though set in San Francisco, this is a Brit-heavy film, but this does not confer a touch of class. One sign you're watching a bad film is that supporting roles and cameos are botched. Thus Woods is criminally under-used while Guy Ritchie rejects stink up the place with RADA Cockney bullshit. It's good to see them killed off one by one, but it takes far too bleedin' long, dunnit? Gorblimey.

Not that the Americans are much better. Margaret's boyfriend is a drip who spends much of his time being knocked out, and when he's conscious he's generally baffled. Supportive, yes, but baffled. His friend, an Egyptologist, is one of those bearded eccentric pals heroes have in bad movies. The actress playing Margaret Trelawney is far too insipid to be convincing as the reincarnation of anything more exotic than forty-watt bulb. There's also a West Indian character who has a Jamaican accent that might well be genuine, yet in the context inevitably sounds fake.

Oh, and the legendary mystic jewel itself? It is truly an awful prop and stands out like a sore thumb amid dozens of authentic-looking Egyptian relics. Like the film in which it is embedded, it is tacky and unconvincing, but good for a laugh. After all, this is a film in which an entire Egyptian tomb can be dismantled, transported to California, and then reassembled in some rich bloke's garden, yet still be rendered inaccessible because the key was mislaid. Really. Best watched with friends and alcohol, if at all. 

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