Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Storytelling Engines: Universal's "Mummy"

(or "Works In Theory")

The five movies that form Universal's original "Mummy" series--hang on. Let's break this down properly. There are actually three "Mummy" series from Universal, with similar but not contiguous continuity. First, there's the original film starring Boris Karloff, in which the reanimated Imhotep uses Egyptian magic to seek out his reincarnated lover, Ankh-es-en-amon, and to punish those who stand in his way. Then, there's a collection of four films ("The Mummy's Hand", "Tomb", "Ghost", and "Curse", respectively) which follow Kharis, who shares an identical backstory to Imhotep but was reanimated not by magic, but by a drug brewed by the priests of Karnak (or Arkam in the later films.) Kharis guards the tomb of Ankara, who is essentially Ankh-es-en-amon but who doesn't get reincarnated until about halfway through the series. He uses no Egyptian magic, simply physical strength and invulnerability to kill those who would defile the tombs of Egypt. Finally, there's the 1999-2008 version, which uses Imhotep and his love for Anck-su-namun, but gives him terrifying supernatural powers and turns the secret order of priests from the second franchise into his jailers, rather than his masters.

Got all that?

So, now we can talk about this properly. The first "Mummy" series that actually has a storytelling engine is the second franchise. (The Karloff film, while excellent, is entirely self-contained.) In the tradition established by Universal's other franchises, unfortunately, the studio spent less time and effort on them as the series went on. Monster movie fans, it was felt, would attend solely on the strength of the title and Lon Chaney's presence as Kharis--why work hard on a script, pay high-end actors, and establish good production values? With the exception of "Hand", these films are exercises in plodding boredom, barely even livened up by the frequent murders the slow-moving mummy commits, and the stories are lazy and disinterested.

But the storytelling engine is quite different. Egypt already has numerous tropes and a certain mystique that makes it a natural setting for a series. Then the idea of a secret order of priests that has infiltrated every level of Egyptian society, consumed with the idea of getting vengeance on a Western society that defiled their tombs and made off with their treasures--and an order that can re-animate the dead, no less? That's a rock-solid basis for at least one movie all on its own. The idea that their champion is kept alive as much by love for his long-dead Ankara as by the sacred tana leaves, and that he longs to drink enough of the heady brew to cast off the shackles of the priests' control and decide his own destiny? That's a tension that can build off of the priests of Arkam and come to a head in later stories. Then, adding to that all, we have Ankara herself, who's in a new body with a new life and who may or may not be willing to go back to the half-decomposed Kharis, and as the heroes--a two-fisted archaeologist, his street-wise Brooklyn buddy, their stage-magician business partner "The Great Solvini", and Solvini's daughter, a spunky trick-shot expert with a short fuse and a crush on the archaeologist. (The biggest mistake the series made was in getting rid of these characters in the last three movies.)

This is the engine behind the franchise, and it's a potentially great one. Arguably, Kharis would be a more compelling enemy if he could talk, and he might want to be a bit less, um...shambly...if he wants to be menacing, but those are minor changes. The point is, just because bad stories were told using this storytelling engine doesn't mean it's a bad engine.

The 1999 remake borrows liberally from all five previous films (with expert skill--the remake is almost a distillation of every good idea in the preceding movies)...but what's odd about it is that its sequels ("The Mummy Returns", "Tomb of the Dragon Emperor", two Scorpion King flicks, and a short-lived animated series) confuse the series' mythos with its storytelling engine. All of the later installments focused on Imhotep, Anck-su-namun, their ancient adversaries, the order of priests, other mummies that might happen to be in the vicinity...while the actual storytelling engine is simply, "two-fisted treasure hunter and spunky researcher seek out supernatural evils alongside her ne'er-do-well brother, all done in an 'action-comedy' tone." In the final iteration of the "Mummy" storytelling engine, the actual mummy, while brilliantly done, isn't necessary to the storytelling engine at all. Sometimes what you get on the screen isn't actually a representation of the potential of the series.


Daniel Peretti said...

What's the difference betweena mythos and a storytelling engine?

martin said...

Can I say that:

"while the actual storytelling engine is simply, "two-fisted treasure hunter and spunky researcher seek out supernatural evils alongside her ne'er-do-well brother, all done in an 'action-comedy' tone."

is so true. I loved the 1st Mummy, it's one of my favourite films, but I was so disappointed in the 2nd film, that I haven't yet managed to go and see the 3rd. A fantastic set of characters trampled by the studio's need to repeat every story element of the first film in the second film

John Seavey said...

A mythos is the backstory, the history of the setting and characters that provides a sense of realism to an otherwise fictional world.

A storytelling engine is the set of elements in the story, including but not limited to the mythos (it also includes the protagonists' personalities, relationships, and goals, ditto the antagonists, any current settings available to use, supporting cast members, et cetera) that assist the writer in coming up with future storytelling ideas.

In the case of the "Mummy" remake, the sequel felt compelled to explore the history of Imhotep, detailing vast amounts of backstory and trying to tie in the Scorpion King's history in with it all, when really Imhotep's story is done and his presence is unnecessary. Imhotep's background is interesting, but it doesn't suggest ideas for a sequel. In fact, the sequel has to work fairly hard to get him back into the story. Anything that makes the writer work harder ("How do I unkill this guy? He was pretty obviously dead...") isn't part of the storytelling engine, pretty much by definition.

Stace said...

John, I'm interested in bringing your Storytelling Engines series onto, as a regular column. Please email me at if you think you might be interested!

Anonymous said...

Technically, the Storytelling Engine John uses here is a morphology.

But almost no one outside of professors, scholars, and grad students in the field would know that.

And Engine sounds so much more internet-blog-reader-friendly than does morphology, does it not?

Anonymous said...


What do you think about the claim that the old Mummy films (excluding the excellent one with Karloff) are the key ancestors of the modern zombie film?