It’s the End of Days As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

How a really terrible Arnold Schwarzenegger movie influenced my spirituality and art.

Previously I discussed the television series Millennium, a brilliant show that made a huge impression on me as a Setian teenager back in the 1990s. There was another apocalyptic-themed horror romp from that era which made a huge impression on me too, but it was not nearly so remarkable. In fact, it’s really a terrible production most any way you look at it. But in those crazy days just before January 1, 2000, when lots of people were kinda worried the world might actually fall apart on New Year’s Eve, there was one theatrical film that dared to exploit all that juicy endtime paranoia. And shitty as it was, I’d be remiss if I didn’t address some of the influence it has had on me.

That’s right, I’m talking about the one and only End of Days (1999), that magnificent shit show in which Arnold Schwarzenegger squares off against Satan himself, who’s prowling the streets of New York City in Gabriel Byrne’s body. Oh gods, where do I even START with this fucker?

Okay, so the story begins with a bunch of clergymen at the Vatican freaking out about a comet and some prophecy about a “satanic” child being born somewhere. Then, in New York City, Udo Kier kills a snake and baptizes a newborn baby girl with its blood. The girl just happens to be born with a birthmark that resembles some kind of glyph. Then, confusingly, we fast forward to December 1999, when a semi-invisible creature rises up from the sewers of NYC to possess some random business dude (Gabriel Byrne) so it can grab some poor lady by her bosom, then blow up a restaurant. Then we meet Jericho (Arnold Schwarzenegger), some kind of private security guy whose family was murdered and who is just one stone’s throw away from killing himself. Jericho is hired to protect the dude who’s possessed by Satan, which comes in handy when a crazy Catholic priest with no tongue tries to assassinate the guy.

Jericho does his job, but he doesn’t like the way things add up. So he decides to investigate the priest, which somehow leads him to track down Christine (Robin Tunney), the woman who was born and baptized at the beginning of the movie by Satanists. This is convenient too, because it turns out Satan is searching for her. Apparently, Christine was bred to be his bride at the End of Days. If the devil succeeds in raping Christine at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, it will somehow allow him to take over the world and burn the whole thing down to a crisp. This is all explained to us by another Catholic priest (played by Rod Steiger) who leads an underground movement to find Christine and keep her safe. But at the same time, a rival sect within the Church has sent an army of assassins to kill Christine before Satan can get to her. Any way you slice it, Arnold—er, I mean Jericho—feels compelled to get Christine the hell away from everyone. The whole thing leads to a midnight black mass in the sewers, a subway chase scene, and then a final confrontation in some random church. Satan possesses Jericho at the last minute before midnight, and all seems lost; but Jericho resists the devil’s will to rape Christine and commits suicide instead, thereby saving the poor lady and canceling the apocalypse.

(Are you keeping up with all of this? Fascinating how much plot they managed to cram into this movie, especially considering how shallow and empty the film actually is!)

End of Days clearly wasn’t made by dogmatic Christians; otherwise the writers would have adapted the book of Revelation much more faithfully (pun intended). It is the pinnacle of absurdity when Rod Steiger rants about how Jericho should “read the Bible” to understand what’s going on, given the absence of any real biblical content in this story. The fact that Steiger comes across as angry and scolding while he does this is definitely a turn-off, too. The film presents itself as trying to “scare audiences back into church,” but it doesn’t care enough to get any of its own bullshit right! Instead of actually adapting the book of Revelation or anything like that, this is basically just a Terminator movie that swaps the supernatural for science fiction.

Consider this film’s version of the devil, for instance. Other cinematic adversaries of the time were quite a bit more interesting, such as Al Pacino’s take on Lucifer in The Devil’s Advocate (1997) and Denzel Washington’s face-off against Azazel in Fallen (1998). Gabriel Byrne’s devil, however, is little more than a two-dimensional slasher movie villain who stalks and slashes people. This is quite a shame too, because Byrne is a magnificent actor and could have really owned this role if he had been allowed to do so. As it is, he just stands there, says a few cliches, and gets shot at. I suspect the director, Peter Hyams, is the real reason why Byrne’s performance in End of Days seems so forgettable. Maybe it’s just because I’m a Setian and I actually know the complex history of where “the devil” came from; but I personally prefer my satanic horror movies to be a little more innovative, thought-provoking, and weird. (Just wait for my NEXT sermon, in which I will give a most excellent example of what I mean!)

The magnificent Gabriel Byrne playing one of history’s most forgettable devils.

I also have two very serious objections to the plot. First, I don’t appreciate the fact that this entire story hinges on the threat of Christine being raped. And yes, I’m aware that she says, “I’m scared I might WANT to sleep with him” at some point; but I don’t care. Being hypnotized into having sex with someone STILL COUNTS AS RAPE. (In fact, there are other lady characters in the film who are raped in this manner.) And since there is no mention of the devil actually raping anybody in the book of Revelation, a decision was clearly made to capitalize on Satanic Panic hysteria here. I not only find this distasteful; I find it disgusting. They could have just as easily written it so that Satan has to eat a ham sandwich on New Year’s Eve to start the apocalypse (which would have been much more entertaining, actually!)

My second objection relates to the main character, Jericho. Let’s be honest here: Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t exactly the greatest actor who ever lived. But his acting ability isn’t a problem for me; I enjoy him in many of his films just for his charisma. No, the problem here is that Jericho is written as a suicidal person who eventually HAS to take his own life (and at the Christian god’s behest, in fact). He has no character arc to speak of; he never grows or learns anything, he just stays exactly the same all the way through. So when Jericho has to kill himself at the end, it’s not like he says, “But wait, I’m not suicidal anymore!” or anything like that. No, far be it from End of Days to offer us any sort of character development. It’s more like Jericho has been waiting to kill himself this whole time, and now he can finally get it over with. The message I take from this is incredibly ugly, toxic, and mean-spirited. It feels like End of Days is saying, “Suicidal feelings are GOOD because they make men MANLY, and they make us better suited to serve God’s will!” And that is not a message I can ever agree with.

Dude, I fuckin’ LOVE this music.

By now, you must be wondering how on earth End of Days could have influenced my spirituality or my art so much, given that I am so hyper-critical of this film. Well, the answer lies partly in my criticisms, which I will explain further in just a moment; but it also partly lies in the soundtrack. And no, I am not referring to the compilation album with the Rob Zombie and Guns N’ Roses songs. I’m talking about the instrumental movie score by John Debney, which features a lovely fusion of choral, orchestral, and electronic music. As soon as I heard this stuff while watching the film at the theater, I knew I had to purchase it on CD. I fucking hated End of Days as a movie, but the Debney score continues to be one of my all-time favorite records, even today. I listened to it every day for a while in high school, and it inspired me to try and come up with my own crazy apocalypse movie. I tried writing this as a script or a novel for years, but I could never quite hammer out the details in a way that satisfied me. All I knew was that I wanted it to be a Setian take on Armageddon, rather than a Christian (or quasi-Christian) one. And now, twenty full years later, I have finally actualized this dark dream in a form that others can enjoy: the album, His Nocturnal Majesty (2020).

But while I despised End of Days upon my initial viewing, something about the movie kept making me want to re-watch it over the years. I still think it is an egregiously stupid movie, and I would never recommend it to anyone. But at least now I can appreciate the film for a few reasons. I do rather enjoy the action sequences; Byrne’s devil is boring, but it is fun to watch Schwarzenegger launch grenades at the bastard. (I really enjoy the subway sequence in particular, for some reason.) I also enjoy the fact that whenever I watch End of Days, it takes me back to December 1999. I remember being skeptical of the Y2K bug and all that stuff; but there was still a tiny little part of my brain that wondered, “What if the world really does end tonight?” on New Year’s Eve that year. End of Days is not really a “religious” movie at all, for it has nothing of any real spiritual value to offer. It is instead an A-list, big budget exploitation movie. The real point was to exploit all that apocalyptic fear everyone was feeling, and to show us as much gore and sleaze in the process as possible. While I would much prefer the story to have been written without any rape or romanticization of suicide, I do have to admire the filmmakers for being so damn eager to deconstruct Christian apocalypticism in this manner.

One thing I absolutely adore about End of Days, however, is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s attitude toward Satan throughout the entire movie. I mean, he actually tells the devil “YOU’RE A FUCKING CHOIR BOY COMPARED TO ME!” at one point. And cheesy as it might sound, I love it! I think it perfectly exemplifies what Set probably thinks and feels whenever He locks eyes with Apep

“Fuckin’ CHOIR BOY!”
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Too Many Mummies!

Why I enjoy certain “killer mummy” movies, and why I usually roll my eyes at the rest of this subgenre.

 

If there’s one thing I’ve always enjoyed doing since birth, it’s watching monster movies. It all started with the old black-and-white ones with guys like Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Lon Chaney, Jr. When I was seven or eight years old, there was a local UHF TV station that used to broadcast many of these flicks on weekend afternoons or late at night. This is how I remember seeing things like King Kong (1933), Godzilla (1954), and Them! (1954) for the very first time. Most of these movies didn’t scare me that much (though I remember being absolutely traumatized by The Thing From Another World), but I loved them anyway, especially the Universal monster movies. And naturally, Karl Freund’s The Mummy (1932) is the one selection from that particular canon that made the greatest impression on me.

An ancient Egyptian priest named Imhotep (played by Boris Karloff) has a forbidden crush on the princess Ankh-es-en-Amon, who is a virgin priestess of the goddess Isis. When Ankh-es-en-Amon dies an untimely death, Imhotep steals the legendary Scroll of Thoth to resurrect her corpse. The Pharaoh’s guards apprehend him and rip out his tongue; then they bury him alive, all as punishment for his blasphemy. To add insult to injury, Imhotep’s fellow priests scratch out all the hieroglyphic spells inside his coffin that are meant to procure a safe journey to the Otherworld for its occupant, thereby condemning his soul. Thousands of years later, some European archaeologists dig up Imhotep’s tomb and accidentally resurrect him with the Scroll of Thoth. One of them sees the old boy walking around, and the poor dumbass goes stark raving mad. Then the mummy disappears, snatching the Scroll on its way out.

Years later, Sir Joseph Whemple (the European who hasn’t gone crackers) returns to Egypt with his son Frank to launch a new expedition. That’s when a guy calling himself “Ardath Bey” (an anagram of “Death by Ra”) shows up. Bey appears to be the oldest (and dustiest) Shriner walking the Middle East, and he walks around like he’s got a Louisville slugger rammed up between his ass cheeks. He also has an incredible knack for knowing exactly where the archaeologists should dig to find more treasure. Thanks to Bey, the archaeologists discover the tomb of Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon—and that’s when a European lady named Helen Grosvenor (played by Zita Johann) starts sleepwalking through traffic in the middle of Cairo. Thinking Helen might be the reincarnation of his old lady (literally), Imhotep—er, I mean Ardath Bey—decides to put the wammy on her so he can kill her, mummify her, and resurrect her corpse.

Of course, Helen doesn’t exactly relish the thought of becoming a drooling, undead trophy wife. So Imhotep does what any sensible star-crossed sorcerer would do; he kidnaps her, hypnotizes her with his magic, and forces her to go along with what he wants. But just before he’s able to claim his final victory, Helen feels a sudden inspiration to pray to Isis, whose statue springs to life and electrocutes Imhotep with magic lightning. At that point, the world’s oldest (and dustiest) Shriner reverts back to the walking, talking mummy he really is, and he promptly disintegrates into a pile of bones. Then Helen goes home and presumably marries her other suitor, the archaeologist’s son. (Actually, Helen simply exchanges one kind of “zombification” for another. Considering how Frank treats her while he’s keeping her safe from Imhotep, it seems like she’s doomed to become someone’s zombie trophy wife sooner or later.)

The Mummy was inspired by on the opening of Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922 by the archaeologist, Howard Carter. There was a lot of media hype back then about Carter and his colleagues bringing down a so-called “Curse of the Pharaohs” for committing this “sacrilege.” Everyone who had a hand in opening the tomb was supposed to die a strange and mysterious death. (Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the famous creator of Sherlock Holmes, believed there was some kind of truth to this curse.) But it actually would have been rude of Tutankhamen to unleash such a curse, given that Carter’s the one who gave the poor kid his biggest break. Tutankhamen was hardly an afterthought in Egyptian history during his woefully short life; it wasn’t until Carter found him that he became the most famous Pharaoh of all. Even people who’ve never read a single Egyptology book know who “King Tut” is, and it’s all thanks to Carter. I’ve always figured Tutankhamen would be mighty grateful to Carter for this.

And did you know there was actually a real, historical Imhotep? He wasn’t anything like Boris Karloff’s character; he is actually the oldest known physician in history. He wrote one of the earliest medical treatises that offered purely scientific (and not magical) treatments for illnesses (predating the Greek physician Hippocrates by over 2,000 years). He was also the master architect and engineer who designed the Pyramid of Djoser (otherwise known as “the Step Pyramid”). Far from being cursed for any blasphemy, Imhotep was something more like a saint who had achieved great enlightenment and holiness during his earthly life, and who could intercede as a spirit on behalf of the living. Such was the real Imhotep’s popularity that he eventually gained his own religious following and was worshiped as the “Son of Thoth” (the god of wisdom, who was Imhotep’s tutelary deity). My guess is, the makers of The Mummy wanted an authentically Egyptian-sounding name for their film’s antagonist, and they most likely chose “Imhotep” without knowing anything about the historical figure to whom it belongs.

The thing that really sets The Mummy apart from other films of the period is the way in which its titular monster is defeated. Most gothic horror movie monsters—vampires, werewolves, Frankenstein monsters—are easily defeated with Christian religious symbols, or with purely practical weapons like fire. Imhotep is impervious to all of these things, and it is neither Jesus Christ nor Professor Van Helsing (nor even The Mummy‘s own perpetually dumbstruck “hero”) who saves Helen at the end. Her savior is a goddess who’s assumed by the (male) archaeologists in the film to have been a mere superstition, but who’s shown to be real and benevolent enough to answer an innocent woman’s desperate plea. The Mummy is pro-Pagan in its insistence that the ancient Egyptian religion is true and continues to have power and currency today. The fact that most people no longer believe in the Egyptian gods has absolutely nothing to do with it, and all of the characters are forced to accept these facts by the end of the film.

There’s only one other character who understands these things from the start, and that’s Dr. Mueller (played by Edward Van Sloan). Mueller is Helen’s psychiatrist, but he’s also an esotericist who happens to put his faith in the Egyptian religion. He’s the one who insists that everyone should be wearing an amulet of Isis for protection (and he turns out to be right). He also warns the archaeologists that they shouldn’t be meddling around with the Scroll of Thoth, and that they should just torch it in a fireplace somewhere. Not only does he seem to know that using the Scroll is a bad idea, but he specifically uses the word “sacrilege.” I’m sure the filmmakers never put this much thought into it, but I bet Mueller is a member of something like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn or the Ordo Templi Orientis—some European occult initiatory order that claims to be older than it really is, and which is full of bored social elites who claim to know more about Egypt than they really do. Except in this case, Mueller happens to know just enough to help keep some of the other characters alive, which is curiously pro-Egyptian for a movie from this era.

Of course, the film isn’t without criticism. One complaint I often hear is that it’s basically the same movie as 1931’s Dracula, but with Egyptian rather than Transylvanian window dressings. This is definitely true; the idea of an undead immortal man lusting after a mortal woman also appears in Dracula, and Dr. Mueller and Frank Whemple are both played by actors who also appeared in nearly identical roles in the Lugosi film (as Professor Van Helsing and Jonathan Harker, respectively). The opening title sequence even uses the exact same music that was used for Dracula (the “Swan Theme” from the second act of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake). But despite all of this, I feel The Mummy is superior to Dracula in almost every way. It has the benefit of being made after Hollywood had a chance to learn from making “talkies” for a while. Dracula has always seemed very stilted and boring to me, and I think it’s because they were only just starting to film with sound when it was being made. It’s also more faithful to Hamilton Deane’s 1924 stage play than it is the original Bram Stoker novel, which means it’s a fucking terrible adaptation. At least The Mummy doesn’t claim to be based on a book and then do a fantastically shitty job of adapting it.

The Mummy was followed in the 1940s by a string of so-called “sequels” (starting with The Mummy’s Hand in 1940) that have nothing to do with the original film’s characters or plot. They’re also not nearly as intelligent and much more racist. They follow a mummy named Kharis, who’s less of a savvy sorcerer like Imhotep and more of a stumbling, demented death machine. He’s sent by the ancient priesthood of Karnak to kill some archaeologists for desecrating the tomb of a princess, and he’s controlled by the priests with (ahem) petrified tea leaves. While the 1932 original depicts Egyptian magic as a morally neutral power that can be used to help or hinder, the 1940s films treat it as a bizarre and degenerative cult that can only bring savage violence and death. (Most insultingly, the priests of Karnak always end up falling in lust with some white woman and trying to rape her, which always leads to the priest’s demise.)

Thankfully, the story of Kharis was revisited in more thought-provoking terms in the 1959 remake by Hammer Studios, called simply The Mummy and starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Thanks partly to a great script by Jimmy Sangster and a terrific performance by George Pastell as Mehemet Bey (the priest of Karnak in this version), Hammer’s The Mummy casts its Egyptian characters in a somewhat more sympathetic light. It still views its own subject matter through a racist and colonialist lens, but at least Mehemet Bey is given a chance to articulate his position to the white protagonists, and Pastell really sells it. I can totally see how the systemic exploitation of his culture and religion would radicalize him to kill in the name of Karnak, regardless of the fact that Karnak is actually a city in Egypt and not a god. (I actually enjoy this flaw in the film, because it means none of the violence is being committed in the name of any deity that’s worshiped in any real life religion.) It’s also nice to see a version of the story that doesn’t have the priest of Karnak getting all rapey with the heroine and sabotaging himself in the end.

The Hammer Mummy is a close contender for “Greatest Movie Called The Mummy Ever Made” in my Setian scriptural canon, but the Universal original wins this category for the following reasons:

  • The Universal original is pro-Egyptian and has the good guys getting their asses saved by an Egyptian goddess; the Hammer version, despite having a sympathetic villain, still has an uncomfortably xenophobic message of “Anything that isn’t White Anglo-Saxon Protestantism is evil black magic and devil worship.”
  • While Mehemet Bey keeps his cool right up until the end, the Hammer version still has someone getting rapey with the female lead and thereby foiling Mehemet’s plot; in this case, it’s his own damn mummy Kharis (played by Christopher Lee), who I guess just wants to prove you’re never too old to sow your oats.

There’s been a truckload of other “killer mummy” movies since the Hammer Mummy, but most of them just repeat the same old premise from the Karloff original: some dead guy from Egypt rises from the grave with the worst case of morning wood ever, and he stops at nothing to claim the current reincarnation of his ancient sweetheart. Considering the complexity of Egyptian mythology and its huge cast of characters, it’s never made sense to me why Hollywood keeps circling back to this particular trope. There are so many other ideas from Egypt that could be adapted into much more interesting stories, such as the belief in kas (invisible doppelgangers that are supposed to follow us around throughout our lives), or the story of the Destruction of Humankind (in which humans are almost completely wiped out by the lion goddess Sekhmet), or the idea that pictures and drawings are actually windows into alternate universes. There’s more than enough material in Egyptian literature to inform several long-lasting movie franchises, but audiences just want to see scantily-clad women being fondled by dudes wrapped in Charmin I guess.

Okay, so the 1999 version of The Mummy handles this trope a little differently. Yes, the evil mummy wants to bring back his dead lover; but at least here, the dead lover and the living heroine are two different characters. (The mummy still has to kill the heroine to bring back his ancient lover, though, so I guess it’s not that different after all. Also, the heroine turns out to be the reincarnation of another Egyptian princess in the 2001 sequel, The Mummy Returns. Doesn’t anyone ever get tired of writing this crap?) But one thing that does work to the 1999 film’s favor is the fact that it frames itself not as a gothic horror movie, but as an epic adventure yarn. It bears much greater resemblance to the Indiana Jones movies than to either of its own titular predecessors. The performances from Brendan Frasier, Rachel Weisz, and Arnold Vosloo are also quite enjoyable, and I like that the film has its heroes using Egyptian mysticism to defeat the villain. (Reading a spell from the Book of Amun-Ra is not quite as impressive as having a goddess show up to personally rescue you from the monster, but I digress.) If you can look past the horrible computer graphics that are in this movie (and mind you, this is a 1990s movie, so its digital effects are craptastic in that special way that only 1990s CG could give us), you could do a whole lot worse.

Which brings us to the latest Mummy reboot, the 2017 version starring Tom Cruise. Sweet Set O Mighty, I don’t even know where to begin with this one. Okay, so we have an Egyptian sorceress who’s mummified alive for trying to take the Pharaoh’s throne. We have Tom Cruise digging up her coffin in contemporary Iraq (?) after an airstrike. We have Tom’s pal getting killed and showing up as a ghost that only Tom can see (probably because he got confused and thought they were making An American Werewolf in London). And we have Russel Crowe showing up as Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde (yes, from the Robert Louis Stevenson novel), who has somehow become the leader of a secret society that knows everything there is to know about the mummy. I appreciate that they made this mummy a chick (and I won’t lie, Sofia Boutella looks fucking hot wrapped in Charmin like that), and I’m especially grateful that the “ancient lovers” theme was completely removed. Yet the film makes other unforgivable mistakes, and its absolute worst offense is the sheer number of aimless plot points that are clearly meant to be resolved in future movies. It’s one thing to do this when you have a clear vision of how everything’s going to tie together in the end; but the 2017 Mummy is not a finished product that can stand or be judged on its own merits. It amounts to little more than a 110-minute long preview of coming attractions (which we will never get to see).

But that isn’t what upsets me most about the 2017 Mummy. I can forgive movies for all kinds of cinematic sins, but I find it difficult to watch anything in which Set is used as a stand-in for the Christian devil. The mummy Ahmanet has acquired her supernatural powers as a result of making a “pact” with Set, and pretty much everything she does in the film is to serve Him. Naturally, this means Set is “evil” and wants to destroy the world. Would it kill Hollywood filmmakers to make a movie for once where Set isn’t written like He’s some two-dimensional cartoon villain? Even better, the film ends with Tom Cruise killing the mummy, inheriting her powers from her pact with Set, and becoming a superhero. If you don’t understand why I would be bothered by this, imagine for a moment that someone has made a film in which Jesus comes back to start a global holocaust, only to be defeated by Val Kilmer, who then promptly uses his new Jesus powers to become “Captain Nazareth.” Sounds pretty stupid, right?

Mummy

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