Written by: Kenneth J. Hall, T.L. Lankford
Directed by: Fred Olen Ray
Starring: Cameron Mitchell, John Carradine, Richard Hench
One of three movies he cranked out in 1986, this is probably the strangest of Ray's movies I've seen. I'm not talking about David Lynch strange, the movie's plot is pretty straightforward. I mean that absolutely nothing about this production seems to belong with any of the other pieces. It was distributed by MGM, looks like it cost considerably more than any of his other flicks I've seen (hell, even the credits look comparatively expensive), has some really solid cinematography to the point of looking like a major theatrical release picture, but it still has the awkward, wooden acting we've come to expect from these things (John Carradine, who is visibly reading his lines off a cue card on his desk, gives a better and more entertaining performance than everyone else in the cast combined, with maybe the exception of Cameron Mitchell), and the tone of the movie changes not just from scene to scene, but oftentimes within each individual scene itself. How many other movies can you think of that rip off two Universal monster movies, an Abbott and Costello routine, and have one of the main characters casually contemplate murder for profit and call an Egyptian a “towel-head” all in about three minutes?
After an odd little pre-credits sequence featuring a gratuitous Sybil Danning cameo that feels like it was filmed after the principal shoot and tacked on later, we catch up with our brave adventurer and tomb looter (I'm not going to say the “r” word, so just you shut up), John Banning, getting shitfaced and listening to possibly the most unlikely band you could possibly find in a seedy Egyptian bar. Unless seedy Egyptian bars are in the habit of hiring combination 80's synth-pop/Aretha Franklin impersonators – I really don't have much experience with seedy Egyptian bars so I guess that could be a thing. Anyway, his partner brings over a tomb guide named Youssef, who tells them he can get them into a tomb that no one has seen before. Once inside, they plot to kill their “towel-head” guide so they don't have to pay him (our hero, ladies and gentleman), but they are saved the trouble by Nefratis, an ancient blood-drinking demon. She emerges from her tomb and decapitates Youssef and kills Banning's partner as well, but Banning escapes with some of her treasures.
Back in the states, some of the artifacts end up in the hands of Dr. Howard Phillips (clever), and other end up in the possession of Dr. Stewart, rival archeologists. Phillips, however, knows what the items really are – sacred objects for the transference of souls – and who they belong to. He plans to use the golden scarab, the most powerful of the objects, to lure Nefratis to him and bargain with her for immortality. The soul-sucking hellbitch has other plans, however. She finds Banning (in another seedy bar, who'd have guessed?) and implants another scarab next to his heart to control him, forcing him to track the artifacts for her. When he fails to get the golden scarab, she kills Phillips herself and gets it back.
Stewart's assistant David and Phillips's niece, Helen, discover what's behind the killings one step ahead of the bumbling cop team on the case, by talking to Mr. Andoheb (John Carradine!), who fills them in on Nefratis. Seems that not only is she a blood drinking demon, but she keeps herself immortal by stealing the soul of a young woman each time she rises from her tomb, and wouldn't you know it, but Helen's exactly what she's been looking for...
And mixed all in there somewhere is a romantic comedy, a horror movie, an extremely tame skin flick, a slapstick wisecrackin' adventure comedy, and an ode to both the classic Universal monsters and some not-so-classic b-movies (the oafish detective chasing David and Helen and Dr. Stewart around quotes verbatim the, “there's been a murder...and someone's responsible” line from Plan 9 years before the pop culture cult following of the “worse movie ever made”). That makes me want to say that Ray and the screenwriters knew exactly who their audience was, but the schizophrenic quality of the movie with all its mixed genres and neck-breaking tonal changes gives the lie to that. I'm not sure they had a clue who their audience was, so they decided to go for broke and make everyone their audience. It's like Jesse Ventura in Predator, mowing down the guerillas with his ridiculous (yet thoroughly awesome) hand-held gatling gun. Aim? What aim? We just keep shooting til we hit everyone! Perhaps it was precisely because more money had been spent that they went that route – bigger dividends to pay back to more investors, meaning a riskier gamble so they'd better get some butts in seats any way they can.
In the end, I imagine that wound up hurting the movie more than helping it. Trying to have everyone as your audience in such a ham-fisted way would alienate most people, when the resulting movie is so damn strange. And yet, that's what endeared it to me. I am the audience for all those things (except the romantic comedy and being a mouth-breathing racist), and the insane cut-and-paste-everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach makes this such a unique flick that it's kinda hard not to love.
So that's it for Fred Olen Ray-diation Poisoning 2012. I started out to have some fun ragging on a guy whose movies used to infuriate me, and wound up unexpectedly becoming a fan instead. What a blissful backfire. Maybe I'll make this a regular thing. I'll at least be revisiting Mr. Olen Ray's catalog for future reviews whether it's a themed thing or not. So Fred, if you're out there reading this, thanks for the good times, and I'm sorry about all the mean things I said in the past. It was all meant in good fun, no hard feelings, ok?
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