Silver Screen: The Pyramid **1/2
Speaking of indecisive movies with religious overtones set in Egypt, at the other end of the budgetary scale is The Pyramid, a cheapo horror movie that isn’t sure whether or not it’s a found-footage flick. Unlike Exodus, it finds some success within the limited scope of its ambitions. But they key word here is limited.
In The Blair Mummy Project, er, I mean, The Pyramid, archaeologist Holden (the great character actor Denis O’Hare) and his dutiful daughter Nora (Ashley Hinshaw) lead an expedition into a pyramid recently found buried in the North African sand. They are just about to start exploring the newly discovered structure when civil unrest in Cairo forces them to pull the plug on the eve of their first day inside. With only a few hours to spare before their extraction, the team convinces grad student and robotics expert Zahir (Amir K) to send a little Mars rover prototype named Shorty into the pyramid to gather some video footage. (Shorty looks conspicuously like Johnny Five from Short Circuit, which probably qualifies as the movie’s lone joke.)
Of course, the robot is mysteriously damaged once it enters the pyramid, and our team can’t resist venturing inside to retrieve it. The first half-hour of this quick-and-dirty throwaway is spent concocting excuses to get the crew where they need to be. Once inside, though, the fairly generic action kicks off properly. First-time director and Alexandre Aja collaborator Grégory Levasseur dutifully checks off a list of everything you might expect them to find: Mysterious writing on the walls? Check. Creepy noises and lurking shadows? Check. Booby traps? Check. A labyrinth that lures our heroes deeper into the maze? Check.
The Pyramid is most compelling when it grounds itself in Egyptian mythology. Mostly it just wraps vague details of Egyptology around familiar horror tropes to give them local flavor, but in the final act Levasseur and screenwriters Daniel Meersand and Nick Simon do get more specific. The big reveal isn’t entirely successful, but it’s interesting, more memorable than your average movie monster and, refreshingly, not exactly the mummy the promotional campaign cajoles you to expect.
If Exodus: Gods and Kings is to some degree living in the shadow of the year’s earlier Old Testament adaptation, Darren Aronofsky’s loopy Noah, The Pyramid is entirely eclipsed by this summer’s As Above, so Below, which turns out to be essentially the exact same movie with a slightly different setting. The catacombs beneath Paris aren’t inherently a more intriguing locale than an Egyptian pyramid, but As Above is both more atmospheric and more committed to both its premise and execution.
The most distinctive element of The Pyramid is its weird shift from found-footage horror movie to regular horror movie way late in the game. Almost every shot in the first hour of the movie comes from Shorty’s video recorder or small cameras the characters (including documentarians played by Christa Nicola and James Buckley) mount on their heads. This allows Levasseur to shoot on the cheap, documentary-style, without fussing as much over composition and lighting. Of course, the gimmick transforms from a convenient excuse to a challenge all its own when enough characters have been picked off that crafting scenes with the survivors becomes more difficult. As Above, so Below strained for a reason why its doomed characters would continue filming. Levasseur simply abandons the notion altogether and starts slipping in shots from a third-person perspective, then gives way to them entirely in the final act. It’s not too noticeable at first, but at some point it becomes oddly jarring. It doesn’t ruin the movie as a bit of mildly enjoyable entertainment, but the laziness is grating, which pretty much sums up the entire experience of The Pyramid.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.