With last summer’s smash hit “The Conjuring,” the horror genre seemed ready to veer away from the cheapo model of found footage movies and torture porn sequels and instead take a turn towards more classically defined horror, of the old dark house variety. But here we are, at the end of 2014, and this reviewer has seen a handful of found footage horror movies in this calendar year (among them: “Devil’s Due” and “As Above, So Below“). It’s unclear if these projects were developed before the bubble burst, or if the studios still have faith in the low-cost, high-yield business model associated with the subgenre. Whatever the reason, a certain amount of fatigue has set in, to the point that when a horror movie opens and it becomes clear that it’s appropriating this aesthetic, you can almost hear the audience (if there is one) sigh exasperatedly. This was certainly the attitude that met “The Pyramid,” the latest (and, to be sure, one of the worst) entries in the found footage horror movement. The mummified corpses in this movie have more freshness and vitality than the film they find themselves in.
At first, it seems like “The Pyramid” might be somewhat different, since the premise has a certain amount of built-in intrigue. It’s set during the Arab Spring, when widespread riots, protests, and random acts of violence defined life in the Middle East. In Cairo, things are in total disarray. but 250 miles to the south, a profound, potentially history-shaking discovery has been made: a three-sided pyramid, buried underneath the sand for eons. An intrepid team, led by a father/daughter archeologist duo (played by Denis O’Hare and Ashley Hinshaw), a technological wizard who controls a small, NASA-style rover named Shorty (Amir K), and a small documentary crew (Christa Nicola and James Buckley), embark on a brief exploratory mission on a tight schedule (since the Egyptian government and their scientific higher-ups want them out of the region ASAP). Of course, nothing goes as planned, and the pyramid is filled with more than just dusty antiquities.
To be sure, a technologically updated riff on Universal‘s black-and-white classic “The Mummy,” which is really what “The Pyramid” is, has potential. The setting is undeniably spooky, with ancient warnings scrawled along every wall, an ever-constricting sensation of claustrophobia, and booby traps straight out of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Just the idea of a pyramid being the most luxurious burial mound you could ever imagine, is creepy and unsettling. But the trick is to update the dusty old clichés and make them relevant and timely. The Egyptian riot material at the beginning was misleading. Instead of “The Pyramid” actually playing into those anxieties, on any kind of metaphoric or thematic level, it’s used simply as a framing device. Political commentary is pushed to the wayside almost immediately, in favor of a slew of things-jumping-out-of-dark-corner scares and gory gags where people are impaled on large spikes and gnawed on by mutant cats (yes, that actually happens).
For their part, the cast attempts to gamely connect with the material (the screenplay was credited to Daniel Meersand and Nick Simon), but ultimately comes up short. The best of the bunch is obviously O’Hare, a talented stage actor who has reinvented himself as something of a horror icon in recent years thanks to his participation in Ryan Murphy‘s ongoing “American Horror Story” television series (as well as earlier-this-year’s “Town That Dreaded Sundown” remake, produced by Murphy). O’Hare’s character is an old school archeologist, unsure of the new technologies that are a key component to their expedition (including satellite imaging and that WALL-E-like robot). In a way, he could be the voice of many horror fans, wary of found footage endeavors and longing for the days of good old-fashioned scares. Hinshaw makes a great foil, in that she’s all about the technologically advanced approach (and having a barely-concealed affair with the robot technician). But as the movie progresses, O’Hare’s character becomes less and less interested in finding out what happened and more concerned with just scrambling around like a dummy, and while Hinshaw comes across as brainy and forceful, she’s often times distractingly gorgeous, looking like she could easily break-up the monotony of tireless research with runway shows in Milan.
“The Pyramid” was directed by Gregory Levasseur, making his filmmaking debut after spending many years as the creative confederate of celebrated French director Alexandre Aja (the two worked on “High Tension,” “The Hills Have Eyes,” and “Piranha 3D” together, as well as “P2” and the blood-soaked “Maniac” remake). All of the movies that Levasseur and Aja made together benefited from a heightened stylishness that has been robbed, in this movie, by the found footage format. Levasseur constantly bumps up against the constraints of the subgenre, and halfway through the movie just gives up on having the conceit make any sense—camera angles appear where no character with a camera could ever have been, and a genric horror movie score appears in an attempt to raise the movie’s heart rate (it doesn’t work).
Virtually every scary Egyptian trope associated with this kind of movie (and then some) is thrown into “The Pyramid” bouillabaisse by the time the movie reaches its third act—ancient plagues, theories about UFOs, Masonic imagery, a jackal-headed monster (unconvincingly rendered via dicey computer graphics), human sacrifices, and the aforementioned mutant feral cats. But none of these angles has any real weight, nothing sticks. Levasseur tries to pull something interesting out of the premise, but can’t figure out how to make it work. Had the movie taken on a more straightforward approach to the material, ditching the found footage angle and going just for the kind of scares that might have been drummed up in the original ‘Mummy,’ then “The Pyramid” could have been a pleasant enough throwback. Instead, it’s a found footage movie that feels instantly dated, even with its supposed political undertones. It’s creaky, laborious, and not, in the least bit, scary. Given that the studio cut back on its release and didn’t schedule press screenings, it’s pretty clear that “The Pyramid” is cursed. Only, instead of an ancient evil, it’s just plagued by inept filmmaking. [D]