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Mummy's the Word

[whitespace] The Mummy
A Tomb of One's Own: Brendan Fraser and friends go searching for trouble in 'The Mummy.'

David Templeton goes to the source--the Rosicrucian Museum in San Jose--for some straight talk about 'The Mummy'

By David Templeton


Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This column is not a film review; rather, its a freewheeling, tangential forum on life, alternative ideas, and popular culture.

'BEFORE WE TALK about The Mummy, I want you to meet the real thing," exclaims an exuberant Lisa Schwappach, turning to lead the way down a flight of steps toward the Mummy Room. Glancing back over her shoulder, she grins, proudly boasting, "We have the most mummies of any museum west of the Mississippi."

Schwappach is the energetic curator and resident Egyptologist at the world-renowned Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose, where we've met this afternoon to compare notes on the ultracampy new action-film The Mummy, a high-spirited remake of the much spookier 1932 Boris Karloff classic, of which Schwappach is a devoted fan.

The new film stars Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz as unfortunate tomb-raiders who accidentally resurrect the demonic soul and body of Imhotep, a murderous 3000-year-old Egyptian priest, long ago buried alive in a coffin full of ravenous, flesh-eating beetles.

"Don't get me started on the beetles," Schwappach says, rolling her eyes. She's come to a stop before a large case containing two ornate mummy cases, in front of which lies the mummified remains of one Usermontu, a priest of the 26th Egyptian dynasty, around 600 B.C. That would make our well-preserved friend around 2,600 years old.

In other cases around the gallery there are numerous mummy cases and various artifacts--and plenty of mummies, including a handsomely mummified fellow named Nesimin, Ankher (the son of Hori and Nebuja), an unidentified woman with excellent teeth, and many others whose names have long been forgotten.

"These are them. These are the real Egyptians," Schwappach says reverently. "They don't walk, they don't talk, but these are the people who used all this stuff we now call 'artifacts.'"

"This gentlemen," she adds, gazing down at Usermontu, "is our most popular resident. Actually, we only think he's Usermontu, since he came in Usermontu's mummy case. He didn't have a toe tag on him though, obviously, so there's a chance he might turn out to be someone else. He's one of the best-preserved mummies I've ever seen. Look closely," Schwappach encourages. "He still has his tongue."

He certainly does. It's the color of a Ghirardelli chocolate bar.

As I examine Usermontu's intact tongue, I recall The Mummy's opening scene, in which a defiant Imhotep--guilty of conspiring to murder the Pharaoh--is about to be wrapped up and stored away. But first, as a going-away present, they slice his tongue off and put a curse on his tomb.

"The Egyptians tended to only write down good things," Schwappach says. "So we know very little about the punishments that existed, but cutting out the tongue was one of them."

"So if my tongue were cut out by Egyptian priests," I wonder, "what effect would that have on my conversational activities in the afterlife?"

"A very serious one," she replies. "The Egyptians believed that whatever condition you enter the afterlife in--in terms of your physical body--that's the way you spend eternity. So you, unfortunately, would be eternally tongueless."

Schwappach--who was converted to Egyptology in the sixth grade, after attending a traveling exhibit of King Tut artifacts in San Francisco--now stops to answer a few questions posed by a group of visiting schoolchildren.

"We get six or eight groups of schoolkids in here every day," she says after they've moved on. "We're already getting some really wacky questions because of the movie. I loved The Mummy, just like I love the Indiana Jones movies, but these films do give people some weird ideas about mummies and curses and all that."

Among the things Schwappach liked about the film was a grisly description of the mummification process. Especially the way the organs are removed from a freshly deceased body.

"I especially enjoyed the description of how they took out the brain. Darn accurate," she grins. "They'd take a long wire, ram it up the nose, scramble the brains and let them run out. That's exactly how they got rid of the brain.

"All the organs of the body were seen as being special, holy. But not that brain. The Egyptians saw the brain as the organ that produces mucous, because your nose runs. They figured that snot had to come from the brain. So you can imagine. Why would you want your brain in the afterlife? There's enough mucous in this life."

Among Schwappach's quibbles about the movie:

"The 'flesh-eating beetles,' " she explains, "were actually huge Amazonian beetles, not scarabs, which would never attack a living person, and they certainly wouldn't burrow under the flesh and eat his brain." In the movie, such brain-munching does occur, while the beetles swarm about like piranhas, turning tourists to skeletons in seconds. Then there's the matter of cats, used in the film to frighten the Mummy away on numerous occasions.

"The tombs weren't guarded by cats," Schwappach says. "The tombs were guarded by jackals. The Jackal-Headed God was the guardian of the tombs. So when faced with an angry mummy, do not attempt to defend yourself with a cat. It won't work, I guarantee it."

And what about the g-string outfit worn by the Pharaoh's slinky concubine, the woman that captures Imhotep's heart and inspires his violent treachery?

"That dress!" Schwappach exclaims. "That would never have been worn in ancient Egypt. The outrage! She looked like a stripper. She looked like Cher at the Oscars."

She's saved the worst offense for last. Stopping before a large display case, Schwappach points out a scale model of an enormous network of tombs--featuring a number of pyramids.

"Imhotep, the name they used for the Mummy, was actually a real person," she says. "He's the first known architect in history, and he designed this, the entire funerary complex for a king called Doser. He's credited with designing the first pyramids ever built. Later on he became a God.

"So you can see," Schwappach smiles, "that in The Mummy, poor Imhotep gets a bad rap." Her point is well made, and the pun, I'm sure, is quite intended.

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From the May 20-26, 1999 issue of Metro.

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