Dawn of the Mummy (1981) – and let’s talk about Universal’s big old monster plan while we’re at it

In honor of all the monster movies that are scheduled to come out this year – The Mummy remake in June, King Kong tomorrow, Alien: Covenant in May, and several others I’ve doubtless forgotten – I decided to take a look at some older monster flicks that paved the way. This is also a way for me to shift into some thoughts about Universal’s planned series of shared-universe flicks, of which the upcoming Mummy remake is included, but I’ll get to that later.

 

Let’s talk about Dawn of the Mummy. It’s one of the lesser known mummy flicks, lacking the cult following of The Mummy (1991) or the balls-to-the-wall weirdness of Bubba Ho Tep (2003), but it exists and I saw it, so hey. Suffer with me.

I kid. Dawn of the Mummy is a campy ball of cheese, gleefully in love with the inherent sleaze of its own premise while still balking at anything too wild. It has the potential to slide into the world of grindhouse weirdness, with the world’s hammiest characters stuck in scenes with some of the world’s flattest, but never quite reaches that point. Despite the presence of models in-universe and several sex scenes, there’s a strange lack of nudity or indeed even the suggest of sexuality. It’s memorable more for how much potential it has and how little it delivers on its promises. Not that Dawn of the Mummy is awful on an objective level; it’s just boring. It wants to be a sleeze-fest but can’t commit to including enough gore or sex to actually do anything fun. The costumes are bland, the acting exactly what you’d expect from a low-budget 80s horror story, and the scenes are standard, though several suffer from poor lighting. It’s a by the numbers film in nearly every respect. You get what you pay for. In my case, it was an hour and change of my time spent clicking away pop-ups on YouTube.

So, basically nothing.

The story follows a group of models and an overly ambitious photographer bumbling around Cairo. Bored with the scenery, they decide to look for something “fresh” and decide that bothering the local tomb raiders, who have recently dynamited their way into the final resting place of an angry mummy, into sharing their space – and looted gold – with a group of beautiful models. Hilarity ensues. About the only memorable thing about Dawn of the Mummy is its odd instance that the mummies act like zombies – with an insatiable taste for human flesh. And decapitation, oddly. There are a lot of severed heads in this movie. I’m really not sure why.

 

Dawn of the Mummy is one of those films that, for better or worse, exists without being memorable on any level. Except for maybe the zombie-mummies. But hey, somebody thought it up, a lot of people worked hard to get it made, and it ought to be remembered. It’s part of a larger trend that’s been gaining traction in recent years as well, the revival of not only old horror films, but of mainstream filmmaking returning to old-school monster flicks. And pretty soon, we’re going to get our first taste of Universal’s Avengers-style collection of monster films.

So, let’s talk about that. Dracula Untold (2014) was originally supposed to the flagship film of the group, a fact that was apparently not revealed to the filmmakers until the shooting was nearly completed, but Universal has since backtracked and stated that nope, sorry, The Mummy will be the first after all. At the moment, the following monsters are slotted to get their own films: the Wolfman, the Bride of Frankenstein, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and something to do with Van Helsing. Will these films be any good? Honestly, it’s hard to tell. Dracula Untold was pretty but extremely uneven, and has since been cut from the lineup. Aside from the questionable decision to cast Tom Cruise, the trailers haven’t revealed a whole lot about The Mummy remake. And even if these films are passible on their own, how will they mesh as a group?

Again, it’s hard to tell. Marvel is the force to beat when it comes to the shared-universe experience and shows no signs of slowing down. What they’ve done is fairly unique as well, blending a multitude of characters, genres, tones, and styles under a single large – and very profitable – umbrella. DC has tried and failed to follow suit. And now Universal Studios is making a go at it.

Honestly, I’m a huge monster fan, so I’m pretty excited to see what comes out of this. If they stick to Marvel’s formula, that means Universal will be kicking out a bunch of monster films in a variety of styles with a few connecting threads and a whole shitload of money. Which is both a positive – more money means more risks can be taken for potentially greater payoff – but also a potential downfall. See, in my humble opinion, the best horror films – monsters or not – are subversive and touch on the darker sides of humanity. They go to the places that scare people and don’t bother making the experience pretty for the audience.

Mainstream films, especially those backed by large studios and even larger budgets, are trying to appeal to as many people as possible. And that, by definition, means they’re leery about taking risks.

Horror films that don’t take risks don’t tend to be all that interesting. For an example, follow The Mummy (1999) all the way down until The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Empire (2008). You start off with a cult classic that still holds its own more than a decade later and end with a film that’s an utter piece of shit, despite the valiant efforts of Michelle Yeon and Jet Li. Sometimes even great actors can’t save a shit movie from its own bad ideas and an overstuffed budget. In case anyone was wondering, The Mummy had a budget of $80,000,000 and Tomb of the Dragon Empire was packing a $145,000,000 wallop. Obviously the budget isn’t the only deciding factor in a film, but it’s worth noting in this case.

So, that’s a concern with Universal’s big old monster plan. Horror films are mean and nasty and to put it simply, I don’t see this series working unless they aim for the majority hitting an R-rating. Thus far, Dracula Untold is bringing it home at PG-13 and The Mummy hasn’t been given a rating. Could they follow Marvel’s lead again and have a bunch of different movies, some of which are kid friendly and some that decidedly aren’t? Sure! Anything is possible. But if these movies are going to be worthwhile, I do believe the majority of them are going to have to toe the line over what’s acceptable to mainstream audiences these days. And quite honestly, usually that involves an R-rating.

But I could be wrong. Who knows? Universal hasn’t revealed much about this project. Either way, I’m curious.

Bring it. I’ll be first in line buying tickets.

Indigenous (2014)

Every few years, some enterprising horror director decides that they’re going to tackle a story and do what no director has done before – manage to make the Chupacabra legend scary. Director Alastair Orr is the latest in a long line with Indigenous. To be fair, the film makes a solid attempt. The acting is decent, the locations well shot even if the editing gets chaotic towards the end, and the monster effects look good when shot from a distance or in silhouette – less so in the climatic battle, which featured too many close-up shots for its own good. The plot is your standard idiot tourists in peril story, where our group of intrepid and vaguely likable characters set off into the jungles of Panama while on vacation in search of a mythical waterfall – despite the warnings of the locals that the place is dangerous and off limits for a reason.

Up until the last twenty minutes, that is.

See, it turns out that one of our otherwise forgettable heroes is working on a social media app. And the SOS message he’s sent out has gone viral.

Now, this part had the potential to make Indigenous something special. For about twenty minutes, the film takes a good look at the power of the viral video – and the responses that the locals take to the events that have propelled them into accidental fame. The fact that the locals – including the police force – already knew about the monsters but didn’t do anything until a group of wealthy Americans go missing – with the entire world watching the situation – could have been an opportunity to discuss the role of privilege in disasters, as well as the politics behind public sympathy. Which tragedies get media attention and which are ignored? Might race and economics have something to do with that? Hmmm.

Unfortunately, this development comes too late in the film to really add anything to the story the conclusion feels as chaotic and forced as the editing. Indigenous has some interesting ideas, but sadly doesn’t spend the time to come to any conclusions about them. While I’m glad that these questions were posed in the first place, I do wish they’d been explored a bit as well.

In all honesty, Indigenous is a solid B offering. A decent film, but not quite creative enough to merit a second viewing.

 

 

12 Days of Terror (2004)

A shark terrorized a New Jersey shoreline for twelve days during the summer of 1916. These events eventually led Peter Benchley to write the novel that would, in time, inspire the first summer blockbuster – Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), and one of my all time favorite horror films. Standing up against the strange but inescapable truth of the historical record and the cult following of Jaws – loyal to this day – it would seem that 12 Days of Terror would be swamped by its competition. Especially for a made-for-TV movie, with the subsequent budget, actors, and special effects one can come to expect from such a project. And yet, despite all its competition, 12 Days of Terror puts forth a solid effort. The acting is a bit too melodramatic for my tastes, but the costumes are wonderful, the writing acceptable, and this movie really does work as a period piece. It’s clear that a great deal of research went into making this movie feel like it takes place in 1916. On that note, I cannot praise 12 Days of Terror enough. It manages to include a great deal of world-building and subtext in small but effective ways – a feat that many large budget films with similar topics simply fail to address in the first place.

Whether intentional or not, the cinematography and set design work as a homage to Spielberg’s earlier work – 12 Days of Terror and Jaws share a similar aesthetic and composition style. In other films it might come off as copying, but 12 Days of Terror makes the comparison feel like genuine tribute – attempting to expand the legend and feel of Jaws without creating an entirely new world.

On the other end of things, the acting in 12 Days of Terror isn’t great, the characters don’t have much in the way of story arcs, and what were likely intended as perfectly reasonable lines become soap-opera like clichés in the delivery. It’s not a great movie, but 12 Days of Terror packs a heavy bunch for a film created solely for TV. The costumes are great, the set design is some of the best I’ve seen, and the plot isn’t half bad. It’s no Jaws, but it’s a fun ride nonetheless.

Uncaged (2016)

Uncaged is what happens when you try to mix old school werewolves with modern technology and mix it with an overdose of misguided machismo. It has moments of humor and some decent cinematography on a shoestring budget, but its many faults eventually weigh it down. It’s not that the werewolf story is incapable of modernization – I can give you at least ten examples where it works just fine – but rather that the default themes have become sorely outdated and – much like the filmmaking technology itself – must be revised in order to fit with a changing society.

Let’s start with the base assumption. Traditionally, the werewolf transformation has been a metaphor for the primal, male sex drive that has been constrained by polite society and will eventually break free and run rampant. “Unleashing the beast”, and what not. Later films have changed the metaphor slightly – notably as a metaphor for puberty and female desire in the Ginger Snaps series – but the historical roots remain strong. The “beast” is primal, masculine sexual desire. It can only be contained by noble self-sacrifice – often promoted by a desire to protect a virtuous woman (a Madonna figure) – or by the love of a virtuous woman (again, the Madonna). The beast feeds on nameless strangers and loose women (the Whore), who are usually non-white, and is either aided or encouraged by other male characters. The beast can only come out at night and is weakened by silver. All your standard werewolf lore.

Uncaged makes the connection between sex and werewolves painfully clear – nearly every conversation the characters have revolves around men perusing sex with women. However, the desire is strictly heterosexual and male-focused. Of the few women who appear in the film, none have their own character arcs or agency. Their roles and stories are dependent entirely on the men in their lives. The three female characters each fall into stereotypical roles: the Mother (the mother of one character), the Madonna (Rose, a black woman in an abusive relationship who must be rescued by a white man – she is never sexualized), and the Whore (Crystal, the promiscuous, unintentionally sympathetic hookup of another character). Only one of them – Crystal, the Whore – has any desire or storyline unconnected to men and hers – the pursuit of the farm’s elusive, nonexistent cat – ends up being the thing that gets her horribly murdered. Rose’s entire storyline concerns the varied men in her life who are concerned with her purity – there’s an entire subplot, never fully resolved, about whether or not she was cheating on her husband with one of the werewolf victims. The film ends with Rose getting attacked and infected with the werewolf virus, which could be seen as a metaphor for sexual assault. Notably, it’s the only attack in the film that leaves a survivor – but her life is horribly changed against her will, by men – and she’s stuck at the mercy of a gun-toting man who very well might kill her for her perceived “impurity”.

The entire thing is so ham-fisted that it must have been on purpose, though for the life of me I really can’t imagine why. None of the male characters fit into these archetypes. No one gives a damn about their sexual purity – rather the opposite – and the fact that this sexual drive is apparently leading them to murder people is just…there. Without comment.

So. There’s that.

Aside from its curious views on women, Uncaged has some clunky dialog and unsympathetic character, who commit several murders without showing any particular concerned for the victims – the majority of which are women and black men.

There’s a pattern here. It’s a problem.

The movie has some interesting ideas mixed in along all the racial and gender issues, though there are a few too many plot holes for them to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, even without all the other issues, Uncaged suffers from a bounty of competition in the werewolf subgenre and doesn’t come up with anything creative enough to hold its head above the crowd. Skip this one. It made me feel gross.

 

 

 

The Hollow (2015)

Following a tragic car accident, three sisters move to a remote island to live with their aunt the night before Halloween – unaware than an ancient evil has come home as well. And it’s hungry.

Well, an attempt was made. That’s about the best I can say about The Hollow. There were moments in the beginning that I hoped would lead to a better story, but the themes of survivors guilt, family obligation, and upheaval were never actually dealt with. The dynamic between the three sisters was by far the most interesting of the movie and there were moments I though that their relationship might elevate The Hollow into something truly interesting. The Hollow doesn’t sugarcoat their relationship or shy away from portraying the various interactions as selfish or hurtful – many of the things the sisters do to each other are exactly that, even when done out of grief or a misguided attempt to help. Sadly, that storyline never actually went anywhere and those interesting story nuggets were swept out of the script before the end of the first act. The monster effects were decent but wore out their welcome – and creativity – long before the end, the story was packed with too many secondary characters who died without much of an impact, and the ending felt too contrived to have any emotional impact.

It’s a B movie. Unfortunately, it’s neither funny nor charming, despite it’s occasional moments of subtle character building. Skip it.

Howl (2015)

So, this one shall be short and sweet. Your basic late night b-movie with some added fun. A late night train gets derailed in a forest and find themselves on the dinner menu of the resident werewolf. Come for the werewolf effects, stay for the surprisingly nuanced character development, and try to ignore Howl’s strange obsession with masculinity. It’s fun if you don’t think too hard about the plot details (train security does not work like that), the monster effects are decent, camera work is excellent, and I like it more than I expected. Howl isn’t going to add anything memorable to the genre, but suspend you disbelief for a while and enjoy the ride.

Try to forgive the first third of Howl for its instance on exploring the protagonist’s adventures in failed masculinity and its decision to kill off all the interesting characters. It’s fun if you don’t think too hard. This one’s on my list for popcorn night. Bring the cheese. This one’s gloriously full of it.

Feed the Gods (2014)

Brothers Kris and Will – plus Kris’ fiancée – travel to a remote town looking for their birth parents only to discover a more literal kind of tourist trap. Feed The Gods has its moments of humor, mostly from older brother Will’s complete lack of tact or sensitivity, and his boyish enthusiasm over literally everything. His ongoing narration of the events, delivered in a great – and perhaps mildly offensive – Russian accent, elevate a lot of the quieter moments. The backstory and subsequent character development are slow in coming, but well worth the wait. There’s a great scene towards the end where the brothers are trying to escape the monsters and Kris is tearfully apologizing for all the bad things he’s ever done to Will – such as accidentally kicking him in the head during baseball camp when they were twelve. Later, Will asks the befuddled villain – an underutilized Aleks Paunovic – if there’s going to be a “bad guy speech”.

There is, eventually. It’s gloriously cheesy.

Unfortunately these are small moments of black humor in a largely humorless film. Feed the Gods works best when it sticks to the humor. Even the nasty, black humor scenes have more depth and feeling than the dramatic ones. Count the number of times that Will accidentally maims someone, or obliviously walks in on his brother and fiancé just as they’re about to get it on. Feed the Gods might have been an interesting film if it had let its string of black humor play out to its nasty and inevitable extreme. As it stands, the movie has some good moments, but remains unremarkable on the whole.

Technically speaking, Feed the Gods had a lot of issues. The first act was shot without regard to depth perception and no one got around to fixing the lighting issues that plague entire film. None of the nighttime scenes are legible, leaving the audience to spend long stretches of time listening to the characters speak while staring at a curiously black screen. This also removes the emotional impact of a scene where Will’s propensity for accidental maimings has real, tragic consequences. Filming at night takes a special skill set, one that was unfortunately not present here. A problem that obvious should have been seen and corrected during production, but sadly that was not the case.

On the whole, Feed the Gods is unremarkable. It has its moments, but not enough to warrant a second viewing.