It was late, I wanted to get ahead of schedule with one more movie for the day, and an interesting film flashed across my Netflix library: The Pyramid. Continuing the trend of nothing but modern horror being available to me via streaming services, 2014's The Pyramid seemed to be worth my time. After all, Ancient Egypt hasn't been really represented in the horror movie circles very much since 1999's The Mummy shifted the tone of the standard mummy movie away from horror and more towards Indiana Jones-ey action/adventure. An attempt at bringing back the scary side of archeology seemed like a solid plan for a movie, the trick lying in it's execution. Let's enter The Pyramid.
As our story begins with a helpful title crawl letting us know that this is an account of a few putzes who wandered into an ancient archeological dig, a cold pit of fear is welling up in my stomach. Shots from the perspective of a camera man as the standard unrestful mob of Egyptians beats against the windows continue to make me break out into a cold sweat. There's a shot of a documentary film maker, Sunni, checking her levels and smiling as her camera man adjusts the focus, and sheer terror enters my heart.
I've been tricked into watching a found footage movie.
This....documentary, is chronicling the works of the Holdens, a father-daughter archaeological team that are overseeing a dig site outside of Cairo. The group has found a pyramid buried beneath the sand, which is unique in that it has only threes sides. Holden Sr. is convinced that the pyramid may contain the body of an ancient pharaoh, Khinoktinokten (I am attempting to spell that phonetically by the way), while his daughter Nora is skeptical, claiming that the level of sand build up that buried the structure is too deep. The pyramid potentially predates pharaoh Knock-Knock Tenactin, and possibly even his tough actin', as well as Ancient Egypt itself.The format of this movie actually gets a little confusing as we continue, when we start to cut to obviously non-diagetic shots such as a depiction of an imaging satellite orbiting over Africa. Back from the cameraman's perspective, the family is having a minor dispute over the uses of satellite imaging in the archeological process, with Holden thinking that it is too disruptive and that it interferes with a scholars ability physically explore a location, while Nora thinks that the technology provides a much needed edge in the field and that her father is just finding modern innovation hard to grasp. There is next to no point to this whole scene, beyond showing us the image of the entire pyramid to confirm that, yup, it has three sides. There really isn't a wedge in the relationship between these two and no real tension to absolve before the film is over. Holden is just being obstinate and Nora is just being a shit to her father for no real reason, even throwing in the occasional cutting remark as he struggles with the computer and accidentally reveals a photo of herself getting close with one of the dig technicians. This is probably supposed to be our main protagonist. Also, that's a very lovely glamour photo. Who took it? One of the diggers?
That night, the aforementioned frisky technician pilots a spybot into Nora's tent, fulfilling our sideboob quota for the film and introducing Shorty; an ungodly expensive-looking drone intended to plumb the depths of the pyramid and record everything. The next day, they finally unearth an entrance to the pyramids upper level, by way of a sealed off tunnel. While breaking the seal on the entrance, one of the labourers who has clearly never seen The Mummy leans in a bit too close and gets a face full of crazy gas, which appears to melt his face a little and make him lose his mind, falling to the ground in a spasming fit. Back under a tent, the group discusses the possibility of some kind of toxic air that has been brewing inside the pyramid, a mixture of dust, carbon monoxide and fungus that erupted outwards when the pressure equalized. Maybe that was something you could have mentioned before one of your workers got his brain melted by a face full of Egyptian curse dust, jackass.
Any further chances to off any more nameless, disposable Egyptians is quickly put to bed when Holden gets a call from Professor Buzzkill at what I can only pray is Miskatonic University. He explains that the civil unrest in Cairo is reaching critical levels and that they have been commanded by the government to leave, for their own protection. The guy on the other side of the Skype call in this scene might actually BE a university professor of some sort, considering how poorly he reads his lines. They protest and the argument continues into the next morning as it seems the entire campground packed up and bailed when nobody was looking. Nora tries to find a compromise, eager to explore the tomb while they still have a chance and suggesting that they send in Shorty. Holden eventually agrees while Nazir, Shorty's operator and Nora's almost completely unacknowledged boyfriend, pilots that little bot down the passageway and into the tomb. They get a few hazy pictures of hieroglyph-covered walls and some carvings of Osiris, which Nora claims that the Egyptians worshipped as lord of the afterlife and the first pharaoh....I suppose that's, SORT OF correct. It might have just been due to an exploitation of my curiosity around the tomb, but the initial jump scare of something streaking past the camera actually got me. A few more things scurry around, which might have been scary if they all didn't look exactly like rats, and then Shorty gets eaten by something big. They argue about what to do next, with Nazir mentioning that the robot is indeed astronomically expensive and that they are going to have to go get it. He manages to negotiate with the soldier who had been brought there to escort them to the airport and buys the group two hours to venture inside the pyramid. Nazir is headed in alongside Holden and Nora, Sunni the documentary-maker is following them as per their contract, and her British cameraman Fitzy, who has been recording all of this, is following her. So our assembled group of putzes gears up and heads inside, Holden grabbing a few flares to scare away the dogs that he assumed turned over the camera-bot.
They head inside with enough foresight to strap on dust masks that do not serve to muffle their voices in the slightest. The inside of the pyramid is dark and carries a geometric, winding feel that just reaches out for possible mind-bending construction, but falls short as I can't really tell where the hell anything is. I keep on trying to project something eldritch or lovecraftian on to what is just an all-too bog-standard Creepy Ruins set, and manage to keep disappointing myself.
The gang finds the severed 'Head” of Shorty and Zahir freaks out, all while Fitzy comments that there is something seriously wrong with all this. Also, with the gas mask on, he really sounds like Rhys Darby from Flight of the Conchords. The group reaches a central crossroads of thoroughfares directly underneath the apex of the pyramid, which Nora is eager explore. Zahir boosts her up, while fitting in a quick butt grope, until the entire group has gathered in the tip. I wonder who had to support Fitzy's butt.
They poke around, discovering that the room contains a small arsenal of ceremonial weapons and armaments, some of which have apparently seen use. Nora pockets a small Ancient Egyptian hatchet, which to it's credit does not immediately crumble to dust after laying on the floor of a tomb for several thousand years, and they head back down into the main chamber, Holden noticing that his safety wire has snapped.They are well and truly lost now. An attempt to navigate their way back, led by Nora, just leads them in a full circle (Way to go) and so they follow a different branch down into a sizable antechamber. And I have to say, there is a LOT of ambient light in this room for a place that, until now, could be navigated solely by torchlight. They find a few more chunks of Shorty and Zahir solemnly notes that “NASA is gonna kill me” right before the floor beneath them starts to give way. Any attempt at tiptoeing out of there fails when the floor collapses and the group tumbles into the antechamber below. The fact that they all were miraculously unharmed is averted a second later, when a rock the size of a humvee's engine block lands squarely on Nazir, pinning his leg.
By this point, almost everyone has taken off their dust masks for some godforsaken reason, and never really mention them again. I can understand not wanting to have half of your actors faces obscured for the duration of the movie, but introducing the need for dust masks, and then immediately having the characters discard them ten minutes later just makes them all look like incompetent dinguses. Nazir clearly isn't going anywhere, and Sunni notices a shaft leading out of the otherwise closed off room, figuring that this might be their ticket out. She mentions a background in rock climbing that never came up before, and gets to shimmying. She makes it about twenty or so feet up before noticing what seems to be a completely pointless alcove and the creature that it contains. I have no idea why this film is so eager to keep us in suspense as to what this mystery monster is, showing it only from the back and all, when it is very obviously a cat. It's a cat, people. We have our monster, it's an ordinary sized house cat with mange.
It gives her face a little scratch and she goes tumbling back down the chute, landing ass-first on Fitzy's face. She mentions not getting a good look at what attacked her, even though it, again, was very obviously a cat. She isn't too eager to go crawling up the cat pipe again, which leads to the group finally turning to the large, blocked off door that they seemingly completely ignored up until now. Holden is actually reluctant to start bashing down walls inside of the archeological find of the century, but Fitzy rather handily points out that their only other option is to die underground. They bust a hole open in the braced door and head through, leaving Zahir behind with a flashlight and a promise to return.
As the slightly smaller group continues to just sort of wander, I'm starting to notice that this movie is abandoning any attempt at a cohesive found-footage aesthetic. The camera keeps jumping away from the viewpoints of Fitzy, Nora or Sunny, who all have some sort of recording device attached to them. Look, I hate found footage films as much as the next guy, I think that they're an excuse not to write compelling dialogue and scene structure when all you need to do to build some semblance of tension is whip the camera around and have your actors spew out 50 different variations of “What the hell was that?” But even worse than sloppy, this movie comes off as ungodly lazy, gradually forgetting the point of a found-footage film and just switching to an omniscient camera angle watching these putzes in their pyramid. And so far, this movie has a single trick: having something run by the camera really fast and going VWOOSH.
The group hears a voice calling out in Arabic, and believe that it is the soldier from before, Shadique. They deduce that he must have found a way down to get them and try to ascertain where exactly the voice is coming from, but also hear Zahir's screams from back the way they came. There is a brief burst of music out of nowhere as the group heroically and idiotically decides to split up. Holden and Nora run back to the antechamber to find that something or other took Zahir, but left his leg. Nora has a minor breakdown and Holden comforts her, while back on the staircase, Sunni and Fitzy just sort of stand there until the archaeologists come back. Tensions mount as Fitzy speaks my favourite line of the film:
“The robot guy just got devoured by something!”
and Sunni starts to go off the rail, blaming the two for trapping her down there and eventually just loudly grunting at them. Okay, easy lady. Fitzy is actually the one to calm her down, noticing that the scratch on her face is starting to look badly infected. Initially I started to believe that her infected scratch was starting to make her hostile and maybe even turn her crazy, but no. A lot of people get infected by whatever is wafting around the tomb over the course of the film, and Sunni is the only one who starts to act off kilter and nuts. I guess she's just an abrasive bitch.
The gang heads into yet another pointless room and crawls into a tight tunnel, making it about halfway through before something starts to chase them. They scramble the rest of the distance and Shadique appears on the other side, pulling them all out and firing his rifle into the hole. Any kind of point to all this kind of leaves us when what was chasing them finally pours out of the hole: Cats. It's still just cats. Slightly bald cats, but cats nonetheless. Then someone even goes so far as to ask what the hell that was. IT'S CATS. IT'S JUST CATS! Have you never seen a cat before? Then something bigger pops out of the hole, grabbing Shadique and dragging him away. Okay, that came out of nowhere, and not in a good way, much more Looney Tunesey than any meaningful scare..Holden and Nora seem to forget that whole “Something just folded our military escort's spine on itself like a salon magazine” thing and start to explore the increasingly well lit pyramid, giving everybody a crash course in mythology that is roughly 40% accurate. They discuss the study of embalming, of the Egyptian afterlife and the judging that every soul must face before entering possible immortality, presided over by Anubis. I'm not even gonna try to correct all of this as there's a lot to go over. Just read Stick Gods on Tumblr. http://inonibird.tumblr.com/stick-gods
Fitz expresses his confusion as to what any of this has to do with finding an escape route, understandably antsy, considering that with both Egyptians dead, he's the closest thing this group has to a minority now. They keep going, and nobody even attempts to grab the abandoned assault rifle in one corner of the room. Dude, even if it's out of ammo, it's still an AK-47. Those things are built for bludgeoning.
They enter a side hallway, and Holden almost immediately triggers some sort of weighted trap that starts to fill the room with sand. The group breaks out into a run as the falling sand starts to cloud their vision, and Nora actually manages to get lost in a straight hallway, getting stuck and buried up to her waist in sand. Sunni makes it out, stopping just short of tumbling into a pit on the other side. Then Fitzy cements himself as my favorite character by blundering in to her and knocking Sunni down into an honest to god pit of spikes. What a fiendish trap for people sprinting through this pyramid with their eyes closed.
Holden manages to dig his daughter out, and Fitzy screams for help as a few more cats start to chew on their skewered dinner. Somehow, Sunni is still alive through all of this, despite having three spikes through her the size of soda cans. If not blood loss, you'd think hypotonic shock would have killed her by now. Holden scares away the cats with a flare and they actually attempt to yank Sunni off of the spikes, only succeeding in wiggling her around a little bit before she dies. Terrific. They head through another passageway, and end up back in the afterlife room from before, the labyrinthine paths of the tomb baffling them.
It's around here that the characters shoot a few more ideas back and forth, such as the fact that Holden has become infected by the bacterial disease that's floating around down here from the wound on the back of his neck, that these cats (Which Nora has started to call sphinxes. Have you even seen what a sphinx is supposed to look like?) probably survived down here for thousands of years by eating each other (Yeah, no) and finally the discovery of a few more bits of Shorty, one of them being it's still functional antenna. Fitzy manages to wire it up to his camera and they record a brief message to broadcast up to the surface calling for help. No real point or payoff comes from any of this, and that little monologue that Holden gives in front of the camera serves no purpose other than looking cool in a hypothetical trailer for this film. Holden's infection doesn't really do anything other than make him look a little shitty, and nothing ever responds to their cry for help.
While planning out their next move, the Nora feels a slight draft coming from behind a statue of Osiris, flicking a switch and opening up a secret door. They figure one door is as good as another, plunging deeper past a creepy wall of stone faces and into a more natural-looking cavern. In spite of myself, I actually found myself wondering if this film was going to bring anything interesting to the table. Maybe these natural caves led somewhere deeper, down to the remains of what REALLY built this pyramid. Maybe I would get my cosmic horror after all!
But no. They follow the cave into the burial chamber at the very bottom of the pyramid, and I dammit, I WILL point out that every major pyramid had it's burial chamber in the dead centre, surrounded by stone on all sides to ward off graverobbers. They poke around this still-very-well-lit burial room and find the decayed corpse of what turns out to be a freemason. These guys were supposedly master grave diggers, and if he never made it out....
Holden apologizes for nothing in particular as he wanders into the center of the shot, and I can already see it coming when some clawed hand punches right through his rib cage, nabbing his heart. The last two run for it, finding the way back locked off. Fitz actually displays a surprising amount of balls and decides he might as well go and see what this thing is, completely exhausted from all this running around. As he sneaks in, we finally get a good look at our beastie. It straps a somehow still alive Holden to a giant set of scales and weighs his heart, finds it wanting and then devours it, causing Holden's corpse to rapidly decompose (?). It turns around and...
Anubis. It's some kind of Anubis monster that is never really explained or elaborated on. Well that came right the hell out of nowhere. Is it a god? A cursed monster? An alien? Hell if I know. Why does Anubis always get such a bad rap in modern pop culture? He was never a bad guy, he was just the guardian of the dead. He's a doggo! So yeah, this Anubis monster somehow kept Holden alive after punching out his heart like it's Temple of Doom rules and then ate it, wandering off right after. He completely bypasses a cowering Nora (For a dog monster, he isn't very perceptive) and Fitz reunites with her. They return to the burial chamber and gear up again, Nora grabbing the remaining flare from her father's corpse and Fitz finding the soldier's body, nabbing his pistol. Bet you wish you kept that rifle now.
Nora finds a bunch of carvings on the side of a seemingly pointless sarcophagus that explains what is going on. This pyramid was built as a prison for Anubis. I suppose they trapped him by propping it up with a stick and putting a steak underneath. Anubis in the meantime is trying to find a way of ascending into the afterlife by finding a pure heart that will open up the way to return to his father, Osiris. I'm not sure if this means actually transcending the physical world, or just opening the pyramid, but come on. This guy has been down here for thousands and thousands of year and he hasn't tried to jimmy anything open in all that time? It doesn't really matter, because like every other plot point in the whole film, absolutely nothing comes of it. They figure that Sadique must have gotten in somehow, and the inscriptions reveal that one of the five shafts in the room leads to freedom. They do some astrological mumbo-jumbo while Fitz asks what the hell all of this has to do with finding an escape route, and Nora deduces the proper shaft to climb.
Well, yeah, it's the one with the very visible rope ladder poking out of it. Jesus christ Nora, you are completely useless. You probably could have saved time if you ran around checking each shaft. They climb, but leave all of their lights on and make as much noise as possible, leaving it very obvious to an irate Anubis where all of his potential sacrifices have wandered off to. He scuttles up the shaft after them, with Fitz unloading his pistol at the thing with seemingly no effect before he gets grabbed. Nora briefly stuns the monster with a flare and climbs to safety, until Anubis just silently pops up “Oh no you don't” style and nabs her. This movie could have ended right here and I would have been fine with it.
Nora wakes up tied to the scales and i swear this movie isn't even trying with the lighting. The whole room is just bathed in red and white light for no reason. She manages to briefly inquire to an unconscious Fitz's well being before he gets his skull stomped. Goddamit, I actually liked that character. He was easily the best actor in the movie, and unlike our utterly worthless main character, he actually had a likeable personality and positively contributed to the plot and escape plan. This whole “Final Girl” horror movie trope really has to end, it's 2016 for god's sake. Always making the last person standing of any given horror movie the attractive, personality-less young woman is predictable and stale. The audience isn't shocked by the deaths of the other characters, they see them coming a mile off because we have to do everything we can to save our pretty, nonoffensive white girl for the final minutes. Fun fact about killing off all of the interesting people: It leaves the audience bored with how the movie will end because they don't care about the surviving characters.
So Anubis shows up and I have to at least the practical effects team for some pretty solid animatronics on that big dog head. He looks ready to go all Mola Ram on her heart too (What, you didn't even try with Fitzy? I guarantee you that his heart is purer than Nora's) and our plucky heroine manages to saw her way out of the ropes and attack the monster with the ancient hatchet at the beginning of the film. Oh good, that thing came back. How amazing would it be if that thing finally crumbled as soon as it was put under an ounce of duress? How the hell is the blade so sharp? And don't talk to me about the Preservative Power of Pyramids. This bitch only has three sides, and you need four for that to work. The cats show up and attack Anubis for some reason, and Nora flees, back up the ladder and out of the pyramid, collapsing in the tunnel mere feet from daylight.
She comes to a little while later to see that some kid has found her, completely ignoring the prone, injured woman begging for help in lieu of playing with her camera. She rolls over to reveal that, oh no! She's been infected with the random Crypt disease that was never really explained! Plot twist? What is up with that infection besides making your face a little gross? Why did it turn that one guy crazy and nobody else? Anyways, the kid dicks with the camera, Anubis lunges out of the shadows and movie over. Thank Ra.
The Pyramid strikes me as the kind of movie that I would think up while I was 12: A bunch of guys explore an ancient temple and are one by one picked off by booby traps and maybe a monster. There is no other purpose or greater meaning for this film to exist. It just sort of does. We don't get any exploration into Ancient Egyptian mythology or culture, there is no grand revelation about the nature of the pyramid beyond “This pyramid is a bad pyramid” and the movie just sort of fizzles out on us. Nothing was gained. Nothing was accomplished. Nothing was watched.