The Resistance of Vision: Mr. Mulcahy and the Tale of the Mummy

Tale of the Mummy (1998)
Dir: Russell Mulcahy
TC4P Rating: 4/9


Not too long ago, there was a commercial for a Zack Snyder film where they proclaimed him as a "visionary" director. I took this to mean that he had the foresight to know he would get a chance to make at least another film (and, as it turns out, several films), and not as someone who had the ability to foresee incredible worlds and visions and have the drive and talent to make these worlds and visions come to life onscreen.

I have seen ads in recent years for other directors as well, where they use "visionary" as a come on to the public: Peter Jackson, Guillermo Del Toro, Terry Gilliam, Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and Robert Zemeckis. These guys are either fairly well established or incredibly so, and I don't want to argue who is or isn't here. I want to talk about applying such a term to a filmmaker too early in their career. If you had asked me back in the late 1980s for an example of a visionary filmmaker, after I finished raving about Sam Raimi, David Cronenberg, George Miller (the Mad Max one, not The Man from Snowy River one), George Romero, and David Lynch, I would have offered up this name: Russell Mulcahy.

I based the naming of Mulcahy at that time solely on two pieces of rather flimsy evidence: 1) Razorback, a wild hog horror film from 1984 that he made in his native Australia, and that I loved to pieces (saw it multiple times in a theatre in its brief run) even though all of my friends told me I was crazy (they tell me that about a lot of films, so I often wondered if they were the right friends for me); and 2) Highlander, that all of my friends that had previously told me I was crazy for loving Razorback also loved to pieces, as well as much of the Western world. Enough so that sequels were made, and a television show, and an animated series, and a spinoff of the television show, and even more sequels, and there continues to lurk the always rumored talk of a reboot movie. (I believe the most recent news is that Dave Bautista is set to play The Kurgan.)

Highlander hit me and my friends in a huge way, and I thought Russell Mulcahy was ah-ma-zing, even though a lot of the techniques he used -- super speedy cuts, blinding backlighting, tons of fog -- were things that I hated in music videos of that time, which is where he cut his teeth. More than cut his teeth, really; he made scores of some of the most famous music videos in MTV's heyday. Of course, an upbringing in a form where story is of little or no importance is often pretty apparent when you jump to the big screen, but with those first two films, I didn't care. Mulcahy was in my pantheon of godlike directors. 

And then, everything else on his resume happened. Yes, I have a small film-crush on a couple of his later films, namely Ricochet (1991) a goofy sci-fi thriller with Denzel in the lead, and The Shadow (with Alec Baldwin as that mind-clouding guy who knows what evil lurks, etc.), which they kind of screwed up but came so close to making a really fun movie. But he also directed The Real McCoyBlue Ice, and the appalling Highlander II: The Quickening, one of the worst sequels imaginable. Two things became apparent to me: that Mulcahy was really just a guy for hire flitting from job to job, studio to studio, and that he was nowhere near the "visionary" talent he had seemed to me a decade earlier. Also, looking up Tale of the Mummy on IMDb after watching it, I came to the realization that I had only seen one Russell Mulcahy helmer since The Shadow in 1994. That was 2007's Resident Evil: Extinction, the third in that series, which I only found moderately watchable. 

So, Mulcahy had really fallen off my radar, and in fact, I was surprised to see his name in the title of this film when I ran into it on Netflix while trying to track down any number of lesser films on my Christopher Lee watchlist. Yes, that's right... the late Christopher Lee appears for a few minutes in Tale of the Mummy, which in itself makes it a must see owing to his having played The Mummy early in his Hammer career (1959). You don't need to go very far to see the breadth of his role. He sets up the story at the tail end of the 1940s by finding the tomb of an ancient deviant/mummy named Talos, thereby releasing the moldy creep's curse, which results in the horrid death by surprisingly poor special effects of Lee's character and his compatriots. (The part where Lee crawls across the film with the lower half of his body missing is a true howler of a scene.)

Fifty years later, Lee's granddaughter, Samantha (played by cute Louise Lombard) endeavors to follow in his footsteps, except hopefully without that whole "dying due to a mummy's curse" thing. She comes out of the expedition unharmed, but a couple of other members are not so lucky. A baby-faced Gerard Butler plays a truly idiotic researcher who gets a little too greedy, and Sean Pertwee (currently Alfred on Gotham, and pretty fun in this flick) plays a team member who goes more than a little batty with visions brought on by his exposure to the tombs. (Pertwee's character is, I guess, the visionary that Mulcahy never was?) 

Months later, back in London, the death of a U.S. senator has Riley, an American detective (Jason Scott Lee) paired with Bartone, a British one (Jack Davenport), and their investigation revolves around a exhibit at the British Museum displaying the finds from the Talos dig. They eventually figure out the connection to Lombard and Pertwee, while more mysterious murders continue to occur in London (though the film was chiefly filmed in Luxembourg). 

The murders are not so mysterious to we viewers, because we get to see nearly every one of them in glorious, low-budget, hack-handed CGI. The film has the look and feel of a fairly decent Hammer-style tribute (think Curse of the Mummy's Tomb as an example), except for when the ludicrous effects kick into gear. The bulk of them involve flying (or crawling on the ceiling and walls) mummy wrappings that attack the victims and remove them of a single, particular body part (starting with the senator's eyeballs). It is clear Talos is building a new body so he can be resurrected and unite with his spirit to run amok in the world again. As his collection of parts grows, we get to see more and more of the wrappings begin to coalesce into a solid form with each attack. However, most of the time it looks like people being assaulted by dirty linens, and not very believable linens at that.

The film actually looks pretty nice, and has many of Mulcahy's standard lighting effects (especially in the gay nightclub and tomb sequences). Most alluring is a cast that has too many recognizable names to just be ignored. Apart from the several already mentioned above, Lysette Anthony, Michael Lerner, Honor Blackman, Jon Polito, and Shelley Duvall are also to be found mucking about in the plot, and I enjoyed their contributions to a film generally beneath their respective talents. (Old school punker Edward "Eddie Tenpole" Tudor-Pole shows up briefly as well.) I can forget that the plot makes little sense at all, if the actors commit to even the smallest roles and make the trip as enjoyable as possible for the viewer.

But despite how the film looks and how the cast acquits itself, the film is just overridden by those special effects sequences. Too prevalent to ignore, especially since the transitions from plot point to plot point hinge on them, they sincerely made me wish that Mulcahy would go back to the film, drop some new coin on some decent special effects work, and edit them into Tale of the Mummy. We would ask, "But why did you spend all of this money after so many years to redo your film?" All he would have to say is "I didn't have the budget at the time, but I knew -- twenty years later -- I would make things right and show the world my masterpiece! Myah-hah-hah!!" 

And then we would know he was a true visionary. A crackpot, yes... but a visionary all along.

Comments

I don't think I have ever called anyone a visionary, come to think of it. It does seem to get thrown around an awful lot, and I think I first noticed it with the aforementioned Zack Snyder, who people were calling a visionary in the press materials for his second film. It's a meaningless term, I guess used to state that the person in question is stylish, without really addressing what that style is.

I've never seen Razorback, though it's been on my list for years. Highlander I adore. I, too, have a fondness for The Shadow. There's a lot of fun stuff in there, and I like the look of that film(dated special effects notwithstanding). Highlander 2, though. Yeesh. His 'renegade cut' somehow manages to make that film worse, and give a crappier explanation for where the immortals came from than the original 'aliens' explanation for the theatrical cut.

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