May 07, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

The Mummy (Movie - 1932)

Current Status
In Season
Boris Karloff, Zita Johann
Terence Fisher, Karl Freund
John L. Balderston
Horror, ActionAdventure
We gave it a B-

In ”The Mummy,” an aggressively eye-popping horror film, nothing remains in one shape for very long, least of all the face of evil. Back in the age when monster movies took the time to be suggestive about their terrors, the heroes tended to act brave and cocksure for, say, the first half hour or so. They may have been headed for Dracula’s castle or King Kong’s island, but since no one had a clue as to what unspeakable nightmare lay ahead, everyone could afford to beam, however briefly, with secular confidence. In the new version of ”The Mummy,” which replaces the famous 1932 original’s insidious, shadowed creepiness with the spiffiest of special effects, the characters start off with similar aplomb. When the monster begins to stalk, though, everyone stays chipper, even blasé, and so does the movie itself. There is much to look at — it’s like spending two hours in Michael Jackson’s Undead Neverland — but not a lot at stake.

In ”The Mummy,” armies of waxy-shelled scarabs scurry across the floors of ancient temples, attacking people in squirmy, frenzied clusters. Every so often, one of the pincered insects crawls ”beneath” the skin and races around like some sort of beastly hockey puck. The Mummy himself? He’s a genuine prince of goo, a glistening, spindly Terminator who emerges from his sarcophagus with rotten bits of sinew dripping off his skeleton. He needs flesh, lots of it, to regenerate himself, and he gets it by sucking the very substance out of his human victims.

Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser), a junior Indiana Jones in khakis and a puffy desert shirt, doesn’t seem particularly fazed by any of this. Lantern jaw raised, he confronts the Mummy — and, at one point, a roomful of gray-skinned zombie priests — with shotgun blazing and sword flashing. The rambunctious physicality of Rick’s derring-do is meant to be a throwaway, a lighthearted joke. How scary, after all, could these metaphysical terrors be? They’re ”old,” and Egyptian. Written and directed by Stephen Sommers (”Deep Rising”), ”The Mummy” would like to make you shudder, but it tries to do so without ever letting go of its jocular inconsequentiality. Brendan Fraser, his boyishness swathed in a mane of floppy 1920s-adventurer hair, is the essence of likability, but he lacks Harrison Ford’s spark of angry gravity. Fraser’s facile machismo, his swashbuckling detachment from the very monsters he’s fighting, seems to have emerged from the ”stop-and-look-at-this” nature of the movie’s special effects.

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