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Review: RUSSELL MULCAHY'S TALE OF THE MUMMY (1998), a cheap and cheesy take on the venerable monster

Sebastian Zavala
Review: RUSSELL MULCAHY'S TALE OF THE MUMMY (1998), a cheap and cheesy take on the venerable monster

I vaguely remember watching Tale of the Mummy with my parents in a movie theatre when I was a kid. This was back in 1998, when Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy, starring Brendan Fraser (one of my all-time guilty pleasures, by the way) was at the height of its popularity —films with similar themes and plots, such as Russell Mulcahy’s Tale, were taking advantage of the hype for Universal’s summer blockbuster. As a kid, I really didn’t know the difference between both pictures, and was only excited to see yet another Mummy movie on the big screen.


But while Sommers’ film is an entertaining action-adventure populated by memorable characters and featuring state-of-the-art digital effects (for its time), Tale… is a completely different kind of beast. As you might be guessing, Russell Mulcahy’s Tale of the Mummy (that’s the film’s actual title, by the way, because everybody knows Mulcahy and will be more compelled to see his movies if his name is in the titles) is a B-movie. It’s got a higher budget than the average monster flick, to be sure, but it’s not high enough for it to have believable special effects or gore. It tries to be scary and it tries to tell an interesting story, but it doesn’t really achieve any of these goals.


That’s not to say the film is completely worthless. Actually, I liked the fact that Mulcahy and company were trying to do something different to Sommers; while the more well-known picture is happy to be an Indiana Jones clone with modern special effects, Tale of the Mummy harkens back to the Hammer horror movies of old, telling a detective story set around an ancient legend and a bloodthirsty monster. While Arnold Vosloo’s Imhotep is a sad (but vengeful) character trying to revive his old love, Roger W. Morrissey’s Talos is the ultimate movie monster: he wants to regain his powers in order to conquer the world. No more, no less.


The film starts with a prologue set in the 1930s. We see Christopher Lee’s Sir Richard Turkel discovering the tomb of the titular mummy in Egypt; he and his crew go inside without any kind of protection, touch stuff they shouldn’t be touching, and they all get killed. What a waste of a perfectly capable Lee —even in his more thankless roles, he was quite the imposing presence. This time, though, he’s no match for Talos’ powers, and gets turned into breakable ceramic… for some reason.


The film then jumps to the 1990s, where we see a new team of archaeologists trying to unearth Talos from his ancient grave. We have Louise Lombard’s Samantha Turkel, Sean Pertwee’s craaaazy Bradley Cortese, and pre-fame Gerard Butler’s Burke. The latter doesn’t last very long, as he tries to retrieve some treasure from the tomb, and ends up falling (stupidly) to his death.


We then have yet another time jump (fortunately, it’s the last one). A few years have passed since the incident in Talos’ tomb —his sarcophagus is now resting in a museum in London, but Professor Marcus (Michael Lerner, a.k.a. Mayor Ebert from Roland Emmerich’s infamous Godzilla remake) is worried something is amiss. And whaddayaknow, something is amiss —the mummy’s “remains” (a couple of bandages, really) escape from the museum, a guard gets killed, and Talos starts searching for his missing organs in order to come back to life. Which anyone one who’s seen any other Mummy movie will tell you, means he’ll be going on a killing spree.


Enter Detective Riley (Jason Scott Lee, an interesting casting choice) and his partner, the always underrated Jack Daveport, from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies and the hilarious British sitcom Coupling. They’re in charge of the murder investigation, which leads them to both Sam, a potential victim, and Bradley, who’s now loonier than ever. Ridley, ever the professional, falls in love with Sam, which you just know will be taken advantage of by our supernaturally evil serial killer. Add some cheesy murders, awful CGI, and incoherent plotting, and you’ve got yourself a new mummy movie.


Funnily enough, Tale of the Mummy has a lot in common with the recent film starring Tom Cruise (and it's thankfully unconcerned with building some bogus “cinematic universe”). Both are set in present-day London, both are trying to be creepier than the Brendan Fraser pictures, and both have terrible special effects. Surprisingly, Russell Mulcahy’s efforts are more entertaining than Alex Kurtman’s, only because the Australian filmmaker has a better eye for visuals and for developing atmosphere, even when he’s working with a subpar script and thespians whose idea of “acting” is chewing the scenery as much as possible.


Because, even at its cheesiest, one does get the feeling that Mulcahy and company are trying to do something different, something mysterious and even scary. They don’t succeed at it, not at all, but they get an A for effort, that’s for sure. The cinematography is quite effective, for example, at creating atmosphere —almost every scene is set at night, and Mulcahy presents a London permanently shrouded in fog, where it rains almost every day, and most people mind their own business without interfering in our heroes’ supernatural adventures. Mulcahy also tries to give some dynamic sense of movement to his camera, injecting energy to sequences that would otherwise be quite mundane. His sets look drab and are featured too many times (I’m pretty sure there are at least four or five scenes set in Sam’s apartment), but are framed in such a way that it doesn’t become a hindrance to the movie.


Unfortunately, despite Mulcay’s best efforts, Tale of the Mummy doesn’t really overcome its status as a cheap B-movie. The special effects, for one, are atrocious, and may even cause unintentional laughter in some viewers. The titular mummy’s main mode of transportation is a flying ball of bandages —yes, really, and it looks as absurd as it sounds. And every time it transforms into its humanoid form, it looks like a wrestler covered in used toilet paper. Oh, and don’t get me started on his “final form” —suffice it to say he looks like a discount Engineer from Prometheus, a goofy looking mixture of make-up and animatronics that can’t even manage to move its lips right while talking.


Considering this is more of a slasher movie with a mummy replacing Freddy Kruger or Jason Vorhees, one could expect gory and memorably bloody killings. Sadly, that’s not the case. Most of the monster’s attacks take place off-screen (because it’s more suspenseful….?), and when they are indeed shown, they’re completely bloodless and laughable. Consider, for example, a scene in which he twists an innocent neighbors’ neck —it’s one of the funniest and most fake-looking death scenes I’ve ever seen in a major motion picture. Remember folks, this was released in theatres, and they couldn’t even get a goreless neck-breaking scene right!


But it’s all part of the fun. Tale of the Mummy might not work as a serious horror picture —it’s much too cheesy and lacking in suspense for that— or as a lighthearted adventure —it’s too self-serious—, but it’s certainly entertaining. Jason Scott Lee looks laughably out-of-place as a “tough” cop, Commodore Norrington is given little to do before he’s killed off, Louise Lombard plays a stereotypical damsel-in-distress (she’s still a more interesting and less offensive character than Annabelle Wallis’ Jenny in this year’s The Mummy, however) and Gotham’s Sean Pertwee clearly knows what kind of film he’s in, and thus overacts like there’s no tomorrow. Oh, and did I mention that Jon Polito and Shelley Duvall (as a psychic) also make appearances? It’s a surprisingly solid cast for an astoundingly dumb picture.


Tale of the Mummy is mercifully short —88 minutes long, credits included— which means it never overstays its welcome. It moves at a fast pace, it never tries to over explain its plot —it wouldn’t make any sense—, and it ends with a nonsensical but nevertheless surprising twist. The final shot, though, made me laugh out loud —it seems Mulcahy and company had hopes of releasing a sequel, and thus ended this picture with one of funniest, most ridiculous, wink-wink-nudge-nudge, forth-wall-breaking moments I’ve ever seen in a Hollywood production, bad CGI and all. Hey, maybe despite taking the rest of the movie “seriously”, he was in on the joke after all.

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1998analysisarticleB-movieChristopher LeehorrorJack DavenportJason Scott LeeMummyopinionreviewRussell MulcahyRussell Mulcahy's Tale of the MummySebastian ZavalaTale of the MummyThe Mummy

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