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Saturday, 24 October 2015

THE PYRAMID (2014) // Hair of the half dog! A "girl's own" Ancient Egyptian creature feature that crackles with creeping terror . .



A father and daughter team of determined (read: crazy) American archaeologists explore (not entirely very officially) a recently uncovered, underground pyramid (with only three sides instead of the four that pyramids usually have; hey - I knew that!). As they dig away in deepest, brightest Egypt and the country breaks out in spontaneous rioting that threatens to end the fun (it's a sign I tell you - a sign!) an extremely unpleasant gaseous substance is emitted as they enter the tomb. You may think this is natural - others at the dig see it as a certain warning to GET THE HELL OUT!!
The father and daughter digging duo are joined in their (historically histrionic) Scooby Gang by a suitably anxious tech geek in charge of some hyper-expensive NASA equipment (that looks a bit like that Wall-E thing they sent to Mars). There's also a sleek female news reporter and her cameraman hot off some crappy TV channel that nobody ever watches - unless it's 2am and you've had a few.

This famous five of the desert dig soon encounter demented killer cats, and even a dog (thanks to a judgemental Anubis hiding out deep below the sandline). Anubis stalks every cavernous chamber and familiar shaft that it's possible to slide inside and fool around in (outside of a Ron Jeremy movie) and he's armed with a set of weighing scales and a heart-removing hand.
You can probably guess the rest . . .

It's easy to laugh at the plot of THE PYRAMID as it is pretty bonkers, but it's no less bonkers, or at least puzzling (to some - but personally I'm convinced!) than a lot of actual Ancient Egyptian scaremongering, and Anubis is my favourite. It's easy to be enthralled by that wild, benevolent, heart-ripping deity with the human body and a coyote/ wolf head stuck on its neck - it's the stuff of every nightmare! This is a chap who spends all his spare time weighing up human hearts on golden weighing scales before allowing them to head along to the afterlife (if their soul is light enough to travel that is - a bit like a scary version of a British Airways check-in rule). Now that's a religion!

There's every chance all that ancient history and hysterical hieroglyphic stuff is real and the soulful (if a bit hideous) Anubis himself (and the erect-eared god is also responsible for many horror and sci-fi films over the years) is actually buried deep under the sand waiting to return to judge you all (so be careful what you say about his lack of good looks!). Anubis, as seen in the blast of fun fright movie that THE PYRAMID always is, stays pretty freaky and certainly makes the odd hair on the back of your neck stand on end - or lots of hairs stand on end, if you too, like Anubis, have a dog's head on!

(Ed: That's the last of the dog's head gags.) 

The visual realisation of Anubis is done in an old-fashioned, Hammer horror-like way - the kind that would use bonkers (but still clearly brilliant) rubber monster costumes (or girls in skimpy 'Egyptian' gold bikinis) to convey the ketchup-drenched horror, as that's what realism in some horror movies can be like. (Although, in fairness, there are no actual Ancient Egyptian princess outfits in this movie . . but there is a tent strip by Wall-E light!)

"Walk like an Ancient Egyptian pussy!" Valerie Leon scares young children out at the shops on a break from Hammer's Blood From the Mummy's Tomb (1971)

There's some CGI used to help Anubis in The Pyramid come to life, but also the far more fun 'real man in a scaly-skin costume and dog mask' combo that perfectly matches the undeniable oddness and creepiness of the authentic deity with a dog's head on (and as seen in the Horrible History books!) or is that just me?


The last time I felt this freaked-out by an Ancient Egyptian alien (or possibly alien) with awesome angry power was in Tom Baker's classic Doctor Who adventure THE PYRAMIDS OF MARS. Then again, the last time I believed in an  alien Frankenstein, alien Fu Manchu, alien Loch Ness monster or giant rats under Victorian London was in Tom Baker-era Doctor Who, so I'm probably easily pleased.


When you think about it, symbolism of any kind is often ridiculous when taken out of context, but when seen as historical document and a real belief system, has every chance to not only be true, or have some basis in fact - but deserves respect (if only because, for a while, a huge number of people held such beliefs as angry deities with wild dog - or more likely wolf, as modern history teaches us - heads as absolute truth). And hieroglyphic symbols drawn by the Ancient Egyptians are both strangely reassuring and equally terrifying - it's as if elements of the ancient past and our supressed fears never fade and remain within us all, and why (even in a modern day horror popcorn movie) a decent representation of a malevolent Anubis (I say malevolent - he's really only doing his job) can be one scary thing to imagine running away from, especially underground and in the dark.

WHERE'S "WALL:E" . . ?
THE PYRAMID is a real crowd-pleaser and a brilliant big screen B-movie to sit back and enjoy. It has a good cast, especially Ashley Hinshaw (memorable from provocative 'teen does porn' flic - ABOUT CHERRY) as Nora the overly-eager archaeologist daughter of sceptical dad Holden (Denis O'Hare).

There's something ABOUT CHERRY!

Also engaging and less funny than you'd maybe expect (deliberately, and rightly so) is James Buckley from THE INBETWEENERS films/ TV series as languid cameraman Fitzie. Buckley shows real charisma and commands sympathy as the fish out of water stuck in an ancient pyramid with no clear means of escape - refreshingly down-to-earth and scared stiff (even with some flippant, hangdog attitude to help lighten the tone).

It feels good to have characters you really don't want to die too soon in a horror film, for once. Geeky tech guy Zahir (played by Amir K) is in a right state from the start - as a man armed with a fortune in NASA technology (the doomed to be scrap metal 'Wall-E' robot - who also displays some emphatic acting chops) and about to lose contract, job, robot and life, all in one day (if it all goes according to Anubis's plan). His character syringes enough sympathy when his life is at risk (isolated, trapped and alone in a chamber deep underground and at the mercy of killer cats) for you to hope he somehow finds a way out of the ancient litter tray he's stuck in. Bossy TV news reporter Sunni (a kind of 'Gail Weathers from Scream' character that you love to hate) played by Christa Nicola deserves all she gets (almost literally - a pain in the arse).

Directed by first-timer Gregory Levasseur, best known for his script collaborations on very respectable horror films directed and written alongside Alexandre Aja (HIGH TENSION, MIRRORS) who also produces this film, The Pyramid comes with a cracking script by another high profile collaborative duo - Nick Simon and Daniel Meersand (from indie hit REMOVAL).

Although the final act of the movie is a little hurried and loses some of the subtlety and creeping, claustrophobic tension of the first hour, The Pyramid satisfies as a proper horror treat and never feels cheap and uncaring in intent. Clearly a lot of thought has gone into making this movie, and while it's not ground-breaking - still manages to have fun with what it has been given. That includes a genuinely feisty script that cares about strong characterisation (without boring you senseless) and crackles with creeping terror and girl's own adventure (with a female Indiana Jones-type taking the lead).

This is also a film for horror fans with an awareness of genre history (of Karloff's Imhotep, Hammer's scarabs, the 'video nasty' Dawn of the Mummy - and beyond!). And a film for the young at heart too; for those of us who still love to get scared in the dark (while lost down ancient tunnels and being chased by imaginary monsters) - and there's no shame in that!

Characterisation throughout the film isn't overly-important, but a good relationship is still established between the pleasingly limited number of cast members (just the five - or six if you include the wannabe Wall-E) stuck inside that 3-sided pyramid. Especially effective is the interaction between feisty, scientific archaeologist Nora who relies on satellite imagery to complete her work and her old-fashioned digger dad still clinging to the old-school traditions of 'brush it and hope'. The relationship nicely portrays mutual respect and doesn't resort to overly familiar bickering or mawkish group hugs to establish the differences - there is no reconciliation as such; they get by on being different and searching for knowledge and adventure.


So yeah - you want these people stuck in that pyramid to live, and hope that the film doesn't follow the usual found footage routine of killing everyone off by the end and having a fixed camera on the ground filming away when everyone is (probably) dead.

Even the TV newswoman's bossy ways, soon get dropped in favour of ballsy determination and camaraderie that makes you root for her, even when she's really up to her neck in the excrement (a savage encounter in a tunnel with a killer cat is quite a shock to the system - for all of us!).

The CGI used for most of the special effects is perfectly ok, but it blurs a little on the skanky cats (protectors of the gods) running around in the dark and the expulsion of gaseous evil. But I paused the disc on one quick cat attack to have a little more time to focus on the effect, and the detail was actually pretty good, despite not having to be so at that point. And there's a magical expressionism to those creepy cats too that perhaps doesn't even need clear rendering on screen to work; they are ghost-like and supernatural by default.

The sets inside the pyramid are magnificent - from winding tunnels to collapsing floors and secret passageways; the ancient dust is billowing away throughout and the carved stone looks authentically crumbly. This is a classic horror film lover's Margate-like pleasure park of delights (a little bit retro, sure - but there's still no place better to let your hair down and have a jolly old knees up!).

The depiction of Anubis himself - our main man/ monster - is part CGI/ part creature costume and is imposing, grotesque and traumatising enough (in a slightly retro jerky movement way) to convince and scare; the ancient deity nicely realised with a hunched, staggering menace. There's a conjuring of evil down in the catacombs and in this frighteningly slender man's extensive domain that, added to the gratuitous determination of a deity's long day's work, quite chills the blood.

I have a feeling that the Ancient Egyptians would have loved this depiction of their god of the door to the underworld. It's scary stuff and a fair number of jump shocks work brilliantly. There's nothing especially gory here, but the film's pedigree is boosted by an authentic sense of panic, entrapment and dread. The ending is a little bit of a downer to be satisfying and it all pretty much ends as expected (albeit with a fun twist) but like any crazy road trip - who cares about where you get to in the end? It's what you did along the way that counts!

For all lovers of Hammer's ancient mummy movies and being trapped deep underground in tunnels (like in THE DESCENT) or fantastical Ancient Egyptian-action flics with a vengeful god as the baddy (like STARGATE, and err, ok - only like STARGATE!) or Saturday night Doctor Who when it had Tom Baker in it and got all weird and gothic - this is the horror film for you! I liked it a lot, and it made me jump (and I didn't see those scares coming). But then again - I'm severely allergic to cats, so the thought of being trapped inside a pyramid with lots of ugly felines on the rampage could have been a personal demon thing I had going on, and less of the Ancient Egyptian willies.

Words: Mark Gordon Palmer



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