Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Dawn of the Mummy (1981)

In my personal opinion, mummies have not been well used in cinema, generally speaking.  I’m talking about the shambling, bandaged (like a masking-tape-and-shoe-polish-decorated bottle a kid made for a grade school art project) monstrosities here.  When it comes to these creatures, I prefer the kind that stalk over the kind who scheme.  Make no mistake, I adore the hell out of Karloff’s turn as Imhotep in 1932’s The Mummy, but let’s face facts, all of us would have liked to have seen much more of Jack Pierce’s withered and enwrapped makeup in action.  Yet, mummies always seem to get short shrift in the movies.  Rarely are they much more than unstoppable hulks (hypocritical as that may sound based on what I just said), pawns of a more malevolent human with no distinct personalities of their own (part of my problem with some of Universal’s sequels to the Karl Freund film).  Christopher Lee managed to imbue loads of character to his turn as Kharis in Terence Fisher’s 1959 The Mummy, and even here, using only his eyes and body movements, his onscreen rapport with Peter Cushing is evident.  I’m also a sucker for Paul Naschy’s gory portrayal of Amenhotep in 1973’s The Mummy’s Revenge (aka La Venganza de la Momia), though if I really think about it, a lot of that film’s charm on me comes from the divine Helga Line.  But in Fred Dekker’s otherwise fantastic The Monster Squad (a movie I’m always surprised never elicits conversations about the 1976 television series from which it takes its name), the mummy gets a great character makeup which is barely seen at all and then is dispatched almost offhandedly (this pisses me off to this day).  Stephen Sommers’ 1999 The Mummy did try to develop their Imhotep into a more well-rounded character, but the film also undercuts any of the menace of the monster by focusing more on action and spectacle and cramming two pounds of horrid, computer-generated effects into the proverbial one-pound bag (I’m not a fan of these films in the slightest, and don’t even get me started on the same director’s Van Helsing).  Thankfully, the mummy Safiraman in Frank Agrama’s Dawn of the Mummy stays wrapped up and desiccated for the film’s entirety, and he even gives off a fairly creepy, evil vibe.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of the film and its participants are so godawful, it detracts massively from the few (very few) good points it possesses.

In 3000 BC Egypt, the sadistic Pharaoh Safiraman is entombed with the curse that if his resting place is disturbed, both he and his army of slaves will rise up and kill.  Cut to the present where jerk/tomb raider Rick (George Peck) busts into said tomb, preparing to rob it of its riches.  What better time than now for a wandering band of fashion models and their photographer to show up and decide to use said tomb for a shooting location?  Needless to say, corpses are disturbed, and murder ensues.

This is one of those films (much like the previously-reviewed Maya) where the Ugly American characters are so insanely overblown, you can’t wait for them to die.  Gary (John Salvo) is a narcissistic pothead.  Bill (Barry Sattels) is a narcissistic slave driver/boss.  Melinda (Ellen Faison) is a narcissistic horndog.  June (Diane Beatty) is just a plain, old narcissist.  They push their way into the tomb and immediately set about desecrating every inch of the place in pursuit of their commercial interests.  Watching the photo shoots set against the musty crypt nails home the feeling of crassness these characters depict.  Their prioritizing of glamour and surface beauty only highlights their shallowness (especially considering how one-dimensional they all are), and this (more than Rick and his thieving cohorts) is what sets Safiraman off on his rampage, in my opinion.  The Americans bring with them nothing but abrasive self-involvement, and this deserves death in the film.  Worse, the Americans’ effect on the local community marks those innocents for death as well in a “guilt by association” way.

There are a couple of interesting things going on in the film aside from this aforementioned theme, but they are predominantly from a technical standpoint.  The shot where Safiraman rises is extremely effective, and, as stated, the makeup and performance for the monster create a mildly intimidating aura whenever he’s around.  Additionally, it’s somewhat refreshing to see a mummy film where the villain isn’t pining for some long lost love who just so happens to bear a striking resemblance to the female lead (yeah, it’s meant to give some depth to the character, but some on, the trope is way overused).  The scene of the undead army (let’s just call them zombies, since they behave like zombies of the Italian variety in every conceivable way, shape, and form) rising up is loaded with atmosphere.  There is a nicely edited sequence which intercuts zombies attacking and eating people and revelers dancing and partying at a wedding (the inconsequential character whose nuptials these are is given an inordinate amount of time in the story).  The gore is disgusting in the best possible way, and the score by Shuki Levy strikes a nice balance between traditional orchestration and funky pop.  

Nonetheless, there’s far, far more in the film to warrant passing on it (unless you truly savor garbage and can stay awake for the duration).  A lot of this comes from the thespian skills of the cast which vary from moribund (funny enough, this criticism doesn’t include the mummy and his army) to Renfield-ian (in purest Arte Johnson mode).  In fact, I would be hard-pressed to choose only one winner for the Robert Marius Award in this movie, because the entire cast is truly worthy.  Everyone seems to be mugging like Harpo Marx at almost every instant, and when they’re not doing that, they’re grinning inappropriately at each other like they’re wasted out of their minds (and hey, maybe they were).  It gives the film an unhinged quality, but it stinks more of incompetence rather than planned cinematic texturing.

And then there are the things which simply boggled my mind.  For instance, how do set lights make a mummy’s body melt and wake him from his eternal rest?  How did the models pack all of the shit they have with them on two horses and a jeep?  If Safiraman’s slaves were originally killed in his burial chamber, why are there no remains when the tomb is opened, and why are the zombies rising up out of the desert rather than from the sepulcher?  Why does some random Egyptian guy take to Gary and invite him to his wedding just because Gary shows up to smoke some weed at this guy’s café?  Why does Rick wake Melinda up in the middle of the night to get some after she’s fainted from stress a very short while ago (okay, this one I could kind of understand, but it’s placement in the film is just odd)?  Why does Rick allow Bill and the models to boss him around when he could merely kill them all and bury them in the desert (or let the scavengers pick them apart, which also brings up the question of how a Bedouin’s decapitated head managed to last as long as it did without being gnawed at or buried in the shifting sands)?  It’s not so much that the film raises questions like this in a viewer’s mind; it’s that these questions become more intriguing (and distracting) than the film itself.  If you can answer any of these questions, or if you’re okay with what they conjure in your mind, this might be the movie for you.  Everyone else can leave this one buried.

MVT:  The untethered property of the film certainly makes it stand out as an oddity, for sure.

Make or Break:  By about the second or third scene involving Rick and his gang, I realized that the way these people were acting was intentional.

Score:  3/10      

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