The Mummy returns. Again and again. It was first created in 1932 by screenwriter John L. Balderston with Boris Karloff as the bandaged baddie; then reanimated in 1999 in a more blockbuster version directed by Stephen Sommers with his leads Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz; and now the tentpole has reached its highest point with precision-engineered movie star 3000 Tom Cruise leading another reboot. These remakes are all diverting enough, but perhaps the most interesting is one that never happened. Before Sommers & co. took charge of The Mummy in 1999 another version had passed through the hands of Joe Dante, Daniel Day-Lewis, Christopher Lee, George A. Romero and Wes Craven. Not bad for a 60-year-old franchise.
Much like the incoming “Monsterverse”, in 1992, two Universal producers decided the time was right to wake the Mummy for another film. Their initial aim was for a low-budget horror, true to the character’s roots, which they developed with writer/director Clive Barker. His version followed the head of an art museum who is obsessed with trying to reanimate a mummy, and in Barker’s own words, it “was precisely what the powers that were at Universal did not want.”
The Mummy provided straightforward horror, but one of the supporting characters had a more unusual arc. Introduced as a young boy in the first scene, they return later as “an uncommonly beautiful woman […] threaded into the action, a seducer and murderer of mysterious origin.” While these scarce details suggest Barker’s version might have fetishised this trans character, he at least had faith in the film. Universal saw it quite differently, and Barker wasn’t about to forget it. When The Crying Game and its trans protagonist became a huge success later that year, Barker “sent the receipts of The Crying Game over to the folks who’d rejected our perverted—their word—version of The Mummy every week.”
So you’ve got an iconic monster franchise burning a hole in your studio lot and a director’s chair sitting empty. Who you gonna call? That’s right, George A. Romero. The master of the zombie film seems like the obvious choice to guide The Mummy to glory, and together with Alan Ormsby and legendary indie auteur/sometime script doctor John Sayles he wrote a script that sounds a lot riskier than what ended up on screen, but also a lot more interesting.
Set in modern-day America, archaeologist Helen Grover discovers and accidentally awakes the mummy Imhotep, who, after regaining his youthful appearance, struggles to adapt to modern life. He starts a relationship with Helen, herself a priestess of Isis (not that one) in a previous life, and reincarnates another mummy, Karis, who goes on a rampage across the city. While the synopsis sounds almost like a rom-com in places, it was clearly not lacking in Romero’s trademark horror. He may have described it as “creepier and way more romantic” than the eventual Sommers version, but Universal simply thought it was too dark and violent.
Ongoing contract negotiations at MGM for Before I Wake didn’t help matters, and soon enough Romero was off the project, to be replaced by Joe Dante. He was a hot ticket at the time, coming off of Gremlins (1984), Innerspace (1987) and Gremlins 2 (1990), and his arrival inevitably brought with it a rise in the budget. That, and Daniel Day-Lewis.
Looking back now, with over 20 years of hindsight, it’s an insane combination. Dante was a pulpy blockbuster director with a strong taste for genre, and Day-Lewis was a hugely respected thespian known for serious roles in A Room With A View (1985), My Left Foot (1989) and The Age of Innocence (1993). Throwing those two approaches together would have either been a brave triumph or an embarrassing disaster. Sadly we never got to find out which.
Their partnership would have essentially produced a sanitised version of Romero’s film, retaining the reincarnation and the romance but perhaps toning down Romero’s darker instincts. According to Dante it would have also featured the legendary Sir Christopher Lee in an unspecified role, after the pair worked together on Gremlins 2. In the end this version of the film was killed by none other than Stephen Spielberg, Sid Sheinberg and Casper the friendly ghost.
After reading the script, Spielberg decided to help out his mate Dante with a personal visit to Sheinberg, his mentor and the head of Universal. They chatted while touring the set for Casper (the friendly ghost) and Sheinberg was dismissive of the script, suggesting that it should be a period film, “like the first one”.
As Dante has pointed out in every single interview on the subject since, “the first one was not a period picture […] It looks like a period picture now, because it’s made in 1933. And he obviously thought our picture should take place in 1933. And it didn’t. And ultimately, that’s the reason it didn’t get made.” No prizes for guessing what made Stephen Sommers’ version such a hit with the Universal bigwigs…
After Dante left the film it was passed around a few more directors: Mick Garris, Wes Craven, and eventually, in 1997, Stephen Sommers. He pitched his vision of The Mummy as an epic adventure tale in a similar vein to Indiana Jones or Jason and the Argonauts, and you can see the dollar signs in the producers’ eyes from here. Suddenly the purse strings were a lot looser, and Universal were more than willing to sign off an $80 million budget to realise this blockbuster version, though some elements like the scarab attack still made it from Dante’s version into the final film.
Even after all that it took one more bizarre intervention to make Sommers’ The Mummy possible, and it came from the last film you’d expect: George Miller’s Babe: Pig in the City. Its box-office failure led to a purging of Universal management and a desire for new ideas. In stepped Sommers to take full advantage.
We may have missed out on the epic possibilities of George A. Romero’s dark and twisted Mummy, and the chance to see Joe Dante and Daniel Day-Lewis teaming up for a mad genre film, but as Dante himself puts it, “on this one, they had a happy ending”. Sommers gave Universal the tentpole they were looking for and kick-started a brief early version of the Universal Monsterverse with his follow-ups The Mummy Returns (2001) and Van Helsing (2004). Now, nearly 20 years on, it’s over to Kurtzman, Cruise and Crowe.