Tale of the Mummy (1998)
"The curse is legend. The terror is real."
In 1948, Sir Richard Turkel leads an excavation team which discovers an unopened tomb in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt where the mummy of black sorcerer Talos lies. The tomb is cursed and the expedition are all killed, with the tomb being sealed as a result. Fifty years later and Turkel’s granddaughter uses his journal to find the tomb and brings the mummy of Talos to England for display in the British museum. However, the mummy vanishes, and it isn’t long before people all over London are being killed, with specific organs removed from their bodies.
Russell Mulcahy’s Tale of the Mummy had a tough time in production and distribution, eventually being overshadowed by the bigger budgeted, infinitely more famous and more entertaining The Mummy, with the Sommers’ flick getting the cinematic release a week before this was relegated straight-to-video in the UK. It’s a bit of a shame as this one isn’t as bad as its reputation precedes it, though the better film won out in the end.
The film opens strongly, almost with a Hammer Horror-like vibe featuring horror icon Christopher Lee, potentially throw some nods back to his role of Kharis in Hammer’s 1959 version of The Mummy. There’s a decent set-up, brisk and brutal, which promises that this updated take on the legend will be no holds barred. However, after a decent opening twenty minutes, Tale of the Mummy shifts into a generic police procedural drama, with sporadic mummy appearances scattered around. You would think that a story about a reanimated mummy would be fairly easy to pen but the script goes all over the place with ideas about planetary alignments, reincarnation, psychic mediums, black magic and throws in a red herring with a member of the expedition going all crazy and giving the police the run-around. Depending on which version you watch, there may be up to thirty minutes extra or cut out so the fact it was butchered in the editing room really leaves a lot of the ideas hanging and the ties between them incoherent. It would be tolerable though if the characters were likeable enough, but the script makes them so miserable and depressed that it’s really hard to eat into the narrative. Everyone takes this way too seriously and whilst I’m not advocating for someone to be throwing quips and one-liners around, there’s far too much solemn-faced pondering and not enough energy and excitement being conveyed across to the audience.
Whenever the mummy does make its presence felt (I can’t say ‘appear’ as the first few attacks are just bandages), the film picks up intensity quite nicely. Most of the attacks are well-staged, in particular one inside an apartment complex around the half-way point where the mummy stalks the leading lady through the building, smashing his way into different apartments with residents not too happy that their peaceful evenings in front of the television are being disturbed. The high concept approach to the depiction of the mummy ensures that this isn’t just a lumbering guy in bandages but the actual bandages are the things that come to life, wrapping themselves around victims and dragging them through gaps in the floor or, rather disgustingly, through a nightclub toilet. As the victims pile up, so does Talos begin to take more traditional human form. Talos looks like a real threat at this point, a throwback to the bandage-wrapped monsters of the past, which is a shame as the ‘final form’ version of the mummy during the finale looks ridiculous.
Tale of the Mummy does get the balance between CGI and real effects almost spot-on. In the late 90s, CGI was still not at that stage where it was completely believable (and you only have to look at the bigger budgeted The Mummy to see why, for all of its great visual effects, it still doesn’t look very real) and so the bulk of the CGI involves animating the bandages, sometimes in human form, sometimes just in unrolled form. Arguably the film’s best effects come right at the beginning as the group of explorers are calcified by the curse of the open tomb, their faces and limbs shattering upon contact with anything hard. For 90s animation, it’s decent, if nothing else.
There’s a solid cast of recognisable names signed on here – Jason Scott Lee, Louise Lombard, Sean Pertwee, Lysette Anthony, Shelley Duvall, Christopher Lee, Honor Blackman, Michael Lerner, Gerard Butler and Jack Davenport. I mean that’s a lot of people to cram into such a genre piece, so it’s obvious that most of them will be tantamount to bit part players. Lee’s appearance is little more than a cameo during the prologue to add his obligatory touch of class and. It’s fitting, and sad, that Lee manages to infuse his character and these opening scenes with more intrigue and interest than the rest of the cast do in the rest of the film. As I’ve already said, they’re such a dour bunch that’s its difficult to care for them. Only Pertwee and, later in the film, Anthony, manage to convey some degree of life to their roles and that’s only because the script has them going a little bit mental and breaking out of the script straightjackets that everyone else has been placed into. Leads Scott Lee and Lombard are so wooden you’d think they’d been dragged out of a tomb in Egypt alongside Talos.
Tale of the Mummy is competently made, if largely uninspiring and too disjointed for its own good. When it’s focus is laser sharp on delivering some thrills, it’s a fine low budget shocker. But these moments are too few and far between, and its fair share of problems with script and characters soon come back to haunt it.
Tale of the Mummy
Also Known As: Talos the Mummy
Director(s): Russell Mulcahy
Writer(s): Keith Williams (story), Russell Mulcahy (story), John Esposito (screenplay)
Actor(s): Jason Scott Lee, Louise Lombard, Sean Pertwee, Lysette Anthony, Michael Lerner, Jack Davenport, Honor Blackman, Christopher Lee, Shelley Duvall, Gerard Butler
Duration: 119 mins