Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Dream Casting: "The Mummy"

Kindly indulge my fight of fancy for a few moments, will you?

One of my favorite "classic" horror films is 1932's The Mummy with Boris Karloff. It is also a pivotal film in some surprising ways, not least because it began the whole "lost love reincarnated" trope which has become almost ubiquitous in horror films ever since (probably done best in Bram Stoker's Dracula, but present many times elsewhere, usually involving vampires).

About a decade ago, after many years in development, Stephen Sommers directed his own version of The Mummy amid massive special effects--the result being a grotesque mess of a motion picture. Among other things, it is a perfect example of an "idiot plot." Quite simply, the story only makes sense once you realize every single character in it--including all of the ones off-screen--are idiots. The cast is good, but they are doing their best to rise above utterly wretched material designed for maximum cheap humor coupled with spectacular fight scenes.

No, I didn't like it. Not one little bit. And yet, it is Sommers' best movie. Don't get me started on the mess that is Van Helsing.

I do not mind special effects, not at all. Expanding the story makes plenty of sense to moi. But I simply don't buy that either one necessitates a terrible screenplay. The original has the essence of something great, something that so struck a cord it has been replayed again and again. Barnabas and Josette in Dark Shadows is an obvious example--the search by a supernatural being for his lost love, now reincarnated (or so he believes).

Let us start with the characters. At the heart of this story is Imhotep, the Egyptian priest buried alive and brought back to life by the careless recitation of words from a magical scroll by an archeologist who goes mad at the sight. I suggest Alexander Siddig in the title role, an actor best known in this country for his work on the t.v. show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. But he's always shown considerable more ability than that particular show allowed, even if it was my favorite Star Trek. Besides, with him as Imhotep (later masquerading as the egyptologist Ardath Bey) one can see the heroine actually tempted to join in living death. It helps methinks if at least some of the audience ends up on the Mummy's side!

Helen Grosvenor is the love interest, reincarnation of the Princess for whom Imhotep was sentenced to a horrifying death. My choice is an actress I've admired ever since she appeared in "Five Little Pigs" for Poirot. Her name is Sophie Winkleman and she's been increasingly busy. She even played a princess in the now-defunct series The Palace. One thing lost in the remake was the notion that Helen is half-Egyptian herself, but methinks that offers a marvelous source of drama. Racism rarely came under attack in 1930s films, it too-often being regarded as the status quo. But seems to me that the knee-jerk reaction of many Europeans (and natives) to a "half breed" would create greater tension. Were Helen a strong young woman living with a certain amount of loneliness, as a semi-pariah she is both more vulnerable yet also more likely to make surprising decisions. In other words, we might more easily believe she would choose Imhotep over her contemporary love interest.

That contemporary love interest is Frank Whemple, son of the man who discovered Imhotep and who now (with Ardeth Bay's help) uncovers the lost tomb of Princess Ankh-es-en-amon. Honestly, in my version it would be Whemple's father who went mad after seeing the Mummy come to life. Imagine if you will a young Englishman with something to prove, someone only too willing to buck social trends by falling for Helen. Methinks a good choice for this role is frankly Robert Pattinson. Methinks he is a very good, very intense actor and it would be a nice stretch for him to play an English gentleman struggling with defying social conventions, a rational view of the world now challenged by the supernatural, and haunted by the tragedy of his father's madness. Besides this triangle now makes plenty of sense in terms of chemistry!

Dr. Mueller is the "Van Helsing" character of the piece, the one who figures out what is going on. In the original, he was even played by Edward van Sloan (who was indeed Bela Lugosi's nemesis in the first Dracula). I'd cast Toby Stephens in the part. A fine actor who looks almost excessively Anglo-Saxon (all the more to highlight Helen's race), he has a sense of the sinister which is more believable in someone who sees an inexplicable events and considers "the living dead" as a possible solution! Recall this story is contemporary with Aleister Crowley and the rise of nationalist occultism in Germany.

Honestly, I also feel the story needs another female character, so I'd give Frank a sister--let us call her Anne. She can be a confidante of her brother, a voice of reason (dead people coming to life?) and of propriety (falling for a half-Arab girl?) and maybe even something of a not-quite-friend to Helen. An actress I very much admire is Kelly Reilly, best known in this country probably as Mary Morstan in the new film Sherlock Holmes. One can also imagine her taking some kind of terrible chance amidst the supernatural events, blithely not seeing the full scope of the danger.

Methinks expanding the "action" of the story makes perfect sense, but one needn't include armies of zombies to the mix. Let us keep, for example, the plot device that Imhotep learns that resurrecting his beloved won't work because she has been reborn. He then seeks out strange occult means of learning her identity, and in the process stirs Helen's memories of past lives. Thus her interest in him grows, part of her recognizing this strange man as someone important to her... But the choice of precisely what to do remains her own. (Parenthetically, I hated that this character in the remake ended up nothing more than a tool for Imhotep to use in bringing back his love--jeopardy replacing drama, an obstacle course of physical dangers replacing human conflict). Methinks the spectacle of such a story can be reflected in all sorts of things, not least the weather and reactions of official authorities as strange events mount (the theft of ancient treasures, for example--needed by Imhotep for his work). Ritual magic requires all kinds of specifics, including the exact positions of stars so that can provide the "ticking time bomb" aspect of the story. A sumptuous use of flashback imagery from Ancient Egypt could help the film even more visually exciting. But at its heart we need to care about the characters, and the story needs to be about that.

Okay, rant over. My delving into wish-fullfillment is done. Thanks for your patience.

1 comment:

Sarah from Scare Sarah said...

Ha! Great write up and nice place you got here.