Friday, 16 June 2017

Narrative Rebellion: Dark Universe - The Mummy

You know, I think Universal are doing this whole Universal Monsters Shared Universe Reboot backwards: we're thinking of the classical Universal monsters (Frankenstein's Monster, Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolfman, Gillman), when there are a wealth of characters in classic Universal films that could be introduced too.

My thinking is that everyone is perfectly familiar with the major characters and the original stories, and we've seen them fighting each other all the time. So, rather than build up to something we've already scene dozens of times, why not start with that, and build up to something else? I keep going back to Kong: Skull Island's wonderfully cosmically-horrific quote:
You heard of the U.S.S. Lautmann? Neither did the public. Out of a thousand young men on that ship I was the only survivor. They told my family she was sunk in battle but I know what I saw. It had no conscience. No reasoning. Just destroy. I spent the last 30 year trying to prove the truth of what I learned that day. This planet doesn't belong to us. Ancient species owned this Earth long before mankind, and if we keep our heads buried in the sand they will take it back.
 - Bill Randa, Kong: Skull Island

Howard fans may find that quote tantalisingly familiar:
A Key! Aye, it is a Key, symbol of a forgotten horror. That horror has faded into the limbo from which it crawled, loathsomely, in the black dawn of the earth. But what of the other fiendish possibilities hinted at by Von Junzt--what of the monstrous hand which strangled out his life? Since reading what Selim Bahadur wrote, I can no longer doubt anything in the Black Book. Man was not always master of the earth - and is he now?

And the thought recurs to me - if such a monstrous entity as the Master of the Monolith somehow survived its own unspeakably distant epoch so long - what nameless shapes may even now lurk in the dark places of the world?
 - The Narrator, "The Black Stone," Robert E. Howard
And on the concept of a Universe of Monsters? Well, there's another Howard quote that comes to mind:

“Through the dim corridors of memory those words lurk... For that phrase has come secretly down the grim and bloody eons, since when, uncounted centuries ago, those words were watch-words for the race of men who battled with the grisly beings of the Elder Universe...”
... for an instant he seemed to gaze back through the vastness that spanned life and life; seeing through the vague and ghostly fogs dim shapes reliving dead centuries — men in combat with hideous monsters, vanquishing a planet of frightful terrors. Against a gray, ever-shifting background moved strange nightmare forms, fantasies of lunacy and fear; and man, the jest of the gods, the blind, wisdom-less striver from dust to dust, following the long bloody trail of his destiny, knowing not why, bestial, blundering, like a great murderous child, yet feeling somewhere a spark of divine fire... 
“They are gone,” said Brule, as if scanning his secret mind; “the bird-women, the harpies, the bat-men, the flying fiends, the wolf-people, the demons, the goblins — all save such as this being that lies at our feet, and a few of the wolf-men. Long and terrible was the war, lasting through the bloody centuries, since first the first men, risen from the mire of apedom, turned upon those who then ruled the world.”

“And at last mankind conquered, so long ago that naught but dim legends come to us through the ages. The snake-people were the last to go, yet at last men conquered even them and drove them forth into the waste lands of the world, there to mate with true snakes until some day, say the sages, the horrid breed shall vanish utterly. Yet the Things returned in crafty guise as men grew soft and degenerate, forgetting ancient wars. Ah, that was a grim and secret war! Among the men of the Younger Earth stole the frightful monsters of the Elder Planet, safeguarded by their horrid wisdom and mysticisms, taking all forms and shapes, doing deeds of horror secretly. No man knew who was true man and who false. No man could trust any man. Yet by means of their own craft they formed ways by which the false might be known from the true... So mankind triumphed. Yet again the fiends came after the years of forgetfulness had gone by — for man is still an ape in that he forgets what is not ever before his eyes...

 - Robert E. Howard, "The Shadow Kingdom"

Now, I am by no means an expert on the Universal Monsters canon: I have watched many of them and enjoyed them a great deal, but I hope folk will forgive me for not having the exhaustive knowledge of this wide subject such a project really deserves. Nonetheless, inspired by my fellow Brad Ellison, I knew I had to write something. So, for the purposes of fun, I had some musings over what I would do were I the creative director of a prospective Dark Universe, taking elements from Robert E. Howard, Arthur Conan Doyle, and other classic adventure authors...

The Mummy

The story begins, as always, in Ancient Egypt. A young priest, Kharis, is learning the ways of the priesthood with his long-suffering teacher, the High Priest of Karnak. Kharis is fascinated with early Egyptian history, much of which remains mysterious and unknown to the advanced, modern people of the 18th Dynasty. He is tasked to work with Princess Ananka, a similarly precocious and intelligent scholar, with whom he falls in love. Alas, the pious and strict Pharaoh Amenhotep discovers Ananka's relationship: when she refuses to disclose the identity of her lover, she is executed.

Distraught, Kharis buries himself in research. He begins to search through Forbidden Knowledge, which hints at dark forces and beings beyond the ken of man. He finds tantalising hints to resurrection in those texts - hints and references to curses and elementals, the star-crossed love of Sosra and Atma and curious occurrences of the number 249, tales of Cheops, Ra-Antef, Kah-To-Bey, Queen Tera, Ma-Mee, Tahoser, Most intriguing of all was the ancient High Priest, Imhotep, who was renowned for his research into longevity and resurrection - though records of his existence have been systematically erased from the kingdom's public records, save for a single clue - the incomplete Scroll of Thoth, which mentions the Hill of the Seven Jackals. Kharis, wracked with grief, is determined to resurrect Ananka in secret, fly from Egypt, and live in peace together.

Kharis travels to the Hill alone, armed with all the magical artefacts he can find. On his journey, he encounters supernatural horrors which seem set on preventing him from reaching his destination - his boat attacked by unseen aquatic horrors, harassed by a swarm of great "bats," strange tremors underfoot accompanying glimpses of terrible eyes in caves and chasms. The further up the Nile he goes, the further into Egypt's past he seems to travel, haunted by the nameless creatures which stalked the sands of Egypt before the coming of the Pharoahs. He arrives at the Hills at night, under an inauspicious full moon. After foiling ancient traps and battling the ferocious jackal-men for which the hills are named, he enters Imhotep's tomb.

Piecing together the last remaining fragments of Imhotep's research, Kharis completes the magic formula for resurrection - completing the life-giving Scroll of Thoth. He uses this in conjunction with Tanna leaves to resurrect Imhotep, hoping to learn his secrets. But Imhotep does not act as expected: he attacks Kharis in a rage, grasps the Scroll of Thoth, and escapes. Kharis returns and confesses all (save his love to Ananka) to the High Priest, who realises the terrible danger Egypt is in. It is then Kharis is told the full story - that Imhotep was executed not just for sacrilege, but for his forbidden relationship with the ancient princess, Ankh-es-en-Amon. Kharis and the High Priest set out to stop Imhotep, who is searching for he reincarnation of his beloved.

As per the usual Mummy lore, Kharis knows that the only way for Imhotep to bring Ankh-es-en-Amon back is to conjure her ka into her present reincarnation, and then perform the living mummification which was done to him - but since Ananka was just executed, Imhotep must alter the ritual to resurrect Ananka's body physically, and also draw Ananka/Ankh-es-en-Amon's ka from the bleak Realm of the Dead. Several horrific encounters ensue, as Imhotep terrorises the people of Karnak while gathering thralls. The final confrontation takes place at the Temple of Karnak. Just at the moment when Kharis could stop Imhotep, however, he stalls - his desire to see Ananka live again prevents him from cancelling the ritual. The ritual is complete - but just like Imhotep, Ananka has come back wrong. Ananka - or the thing occupying her body - pounces on one of the thralls, rending the poor fool limb-from-limb, drinking the gushing blood.

Eventually, through magic, guile, and bravery, the monsters are defeated - the now limp, dying body of Ananka crouched over the crumbling remains of Imhotep. Kharis rushes to her, desperate for any sign of his love: seeing only a listless gaze behind her eyes, he breaks down and embraces her - exposing his relationship to the Pharoah, who of course arrives with the Royal Guard long after the battle. 

Kharis is mummified alive, just as Imhotep was, despite both his and the Priests' warnings of what would happen were he revived. It transpires that this phenomenon was far from accidental - this cycle of star-crossed love, execution, and reincarnation was orchestrated by forces the Priests of Karnak are fighting an eons-long feud against - one of several powers vying for control over the earth.

Kharis - or rather, his ka - opens his eyes. He is in the bleak, dim world that comes after life. There he meets Ananka, who is also Ankh-es-en-Amon, who greets him... as Imhotep. Then, Kharis realises the truth: he never reincarnated Imhotep at all, but brought something into the world with Imhotep's body as a conduit. The being was not Imhotep trying to resurrect his love at all - it was simply seeking to bring more of its kind into the earth. Kharis-Imhotep and Ananka-Ankh-es-en-Amon know that they will be reincarnated some day, in some new bodies, in some new time, their memories of all that has transpired lost - but so, too, will the things they fought.

The Priest of Karnak knows - and in the final scene of the film, we see him bind the Scroll of Thoth into a familiar book: the book is then placed in a vault, alongside several other mysterious artefacts - artefacts whose importance will only come to light in future adventures...

So there you have it: a Monster Universe films that contains versions of, or allusions to, many of the other franchise staples, in a rarely-visited setting (Ancient Egypt), which sets the stage for future films. The central concept - that monster archetypes which can be found across multiple cultures and continents are, in fact, humanity's limited perception of a great shadowy world beyond the ken of man - means we can go to just about any time period or part of the world, and include those archetypes.

But it is not as simple as a five-way war between the Mummy, Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, the Wolfman, & Gillman across time and space a la "The Shadow Kingdom": indeed, one could argue that the Mummy and Frankenstein's Monster are variations on the same "man's attempt to cross the boundary of Death." I would say there are roughly three competing "factions" in this "war":
  • Humanity's Hubris, the result of Man's attempt to conquer Death/Nature which inevitably goes horrifically wrong (Mummy, Frankenstein's Monster, Mr. Hyde, the Leech Woman, anything else which is a result of science or magic).
  • The Elder Folk, the original rulers of the earth which seek to reclaim it from humanity (Gill-Man, the Mole People, Paula the Ape-Woman, other sapient creatures of the ancient world)
  • The Outsiders, horrors from beyond this world - or perhaps cast out in the distant past by the likes of Solomon -  constantly attempting to invade and usurp the planet (Vampires, Werewolves, Cobra Woman, other sapient horrors which manifest in humanity through infection or possession)
There is scope for interplay and intermixing, as well as inter-factional conflicts. The key thing is no side are necessarily the heroes: man's inhumanity is as dangerous an evil as the otherworldly horrors beyond the veil, and the Elder Folk are no more pure and innocent. Man is fighting a constant battle to stop them, but that doesn't mean Happily Ever After by any means.

Thus, when we get to the inevitable Monster Squad All-Star Super Smash Brothers Melee Brawl Wrestlemania, it can be set in the time period we all know and love, with the recognisable, iconic versions of the monsters we love to fear, but with a certain lyrical resonance of the expanded mythology.

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