Mummy movies made an unexpected comeback in the 1990s, including the god-awful Harry Allan Towers-produced The Mummy Lives (1993), Russell Mulcahy’s barely released Talos the Mummy (1999), and of course Stephen Sommers’ CGI-fest The Mummy (1999). Lost in the shuffle was this curiously old-fashioned, low-budget effort based on Bram Stoker’s already twice filmed novel, The Jewel of the Seven Stars.
It opens in Egypt, 1947 where young tomb robber John Corbeck sees his father killed by a booby trap. Jumping forward to the present day, Professor Abel Trelawney (Lloyd Bochner) reassembles an ancient stone tablet and is attacked by spectral forces. His daughter Margaret (Melrose Place star Amy Locane) summons her art historian ex-boyfriend Robert Wyatt (Eric Lutes) to their English estate after Abel falls into a coma and she is plagued by strange noises and wild hallucinations. Little does anybody suspect there is a mummy in the basement, living on a diet of bugs and rats. Robert in turn reaches out to the now-adult, and possibly insane, John Corbeck (Louis Gossett Jr), who reveals that long ago, he and Abel uncovered the tomb of the legendary Queen Tera (Rachel Naples), along with her mystical “jewel of the seven stars.” Having mummified herself centuries ago, Queen Tera has a plan to return from beyond the grave, which involves the unsuspecting Margaret.
Published in 1903, Stoker’s novel has proven a continual challenge for filmmakers to adapt for the screen. Hammer Films’ underrated Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971) was plagued with production problems and emerged as a flawed, but fascinating effort. Mike Newell made his directorial debut with The Awakening (1980) starring Charlton Heston and Stephanie Zimbalist, which wound up something of a camp embarrassment. Yet both those films carry a touch of gloss, something sorely lacking in writer-director Jeffrey Obrow’s movie. The credits roll over hypnotic shots of shimmering, sifting sands, yet his cramped compositions impart the claustrophobia of a TV movie.
Arguably, the two prior adaptations encapsulated the state of the horror genre at that time, whereas Legend of the Mummy feels like a film very much out of its time. Seemingly set in some weird Twilight Zone where San Francisco is but a stone’s throw away from the English countryside, this throws in cockney servants, superstitious villagers and Scotland Yard alongside Jamaican private eyes and trendy modern art galleries. It’s jarring to modern eyes but oddly befit’s the old fashioned plot. Obrow uses age-old scare tactics that hark back to the old mummy movies at Universal: floating objects, suspicious shadows, things going bump in the night, and one delightfully silly scene where the pretty maid (Laura Otis) reaches behind a curtain and - gasp! - grabs the mummy’s hand.
We even have comedy relief in the form of sitcom regular Richard Karn who gets fried inside a phone booth. Victoria Tennant also cameos pointlessly as an old friend of Corbeck’s, who remarks “he can be strong and violent.” What her precise relationship is with Corbeck, we never find out. Amidst a host of bland performances, Louis Gossett Jr stands out as the intense, driven Corbeck. An ambiguous figure, both an acolyte of Tera and genuinely concerned for Abel, he also pulls off a fair English accent.
While Hammer adapted the novel into a disjointed, but intriguingly dreamlike experience, and Newell used Stoker’s plot as a springboard for some sub-The Omen (1976) style novelty deaths, incoherent editing and slack storytelling leave events hard to follow. Upon publication, Stoker was heavily criticised for his “gruesome” climax and obligingly rewrote the last chapter into a happier ending. Yet this is an essentially downbeat story, low on thrills and Legend of the Mummy stubbornly remains in first gear right down to the trite and unimaginative ending.