10 we LIST 10—24 May 2001
Forget about shock value. The most frightening thing about monster movies is their conservatism. We look back at a legacy of ravishing beauties, racist stereotypes and weird political parallels. Over the page Rachel Weisz talks about The Mummy Returns.
r :v Steve Cramer
hy has popular film chosen to portray the woman who caused an ancient war between Caesar and Mark Antony as a ravishing beauty? Contrary to the Hollywood spin. experts examining Cleopatra‘s mummy say the real queen was a short. ill-favoured woman with weight problems and bad skin: the face that gobbed a thousand chips. We like to think of Cleopatra — like her on-screen counterparts. Claudette Colbert. Elizabeth Taylor or. more sexy still. Amanda Barry in Carry On Cleo — causing all the trouble with her feminine wiles and allure. More likely. the lady was simply smarter than the two military gentlemen she was dealing with. And that‘s a big challenge to a patriarchal storyteller.
So as the ligyptologists rewrite the history
books. it’s a timely moment for the release of
The Mummy Returns. the follow-up to Stephen Sommers‘ tongue—in—cheek box-office smash from l99‘). As Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz prepare to indulge in more spooky pyramid-related swashbuckling action. it‘s worth taking a closer look at the sexual and social politics that lie behind the monster movie. For all is not as it seems.
First the politics. And they are well dodgy.
At a time when the Middle liast was a powder keg. The Mummy showed the Western attitude to Arabic religion at its very worst. As soon as we set a movie overseas. we drop our liberal sensibilities and become the knowledgeable Westerners. upholding democracy (the ligyptians in The Mummy are specifically anti- democratic) and showing Johnny Foreigner a better way. There‘s even a sequence in the l99‘) movie where an ligyptian is implied to smell bad. Now. it‘s not that I‘m being Mr McPC. but that’sjust plain racism.
The mummy movie has ever been this way. Post-colonialists might take offence at Karl lireund‘s l‘)32 version with Boris Karloff. for example. but at least the locals are not treated as badly as they are in The Mummy. being seen only as unusually daft. That. at least. is the only way to explain how this particular mummy can have lived undetected in the middle of Cairo for ten years before being discovered by astute Westerners. Presumably. until then. his neighbours thought the mighty bandaged one was the accident-prone man who lives at number eight. They go on to destroy him. and the intolerant mid-liastern religion he defends.
But monsters are always political analogies. Just as The Mummy is a metaphor for our ill-informed fears of the blood-crazed mid-liastern mob. backed up by news coverage of every other demonstration in Iran. Iraq or Palestine. so l‘5rankenstein‘s monster creates fear closer to home. In the James Whale l93l version. Karloff is decked out in industrial smock and heavy boots. with neck bolts symbolising his association with heavy industry. It‘s no coincidence that at this time the establishment most feared the rising union movement in America. to the point of using G-men to machine gun striking workers from secondary industries. So too. the I‘M-1 version by Kenneth Branagh emphasised our unease around the homeless. with Robert De Niro’s