Wednesday, June 26, 2013

SyFy vs The Mynd: Sands of Oblivion (2007)

Professor of archaeology Alice Carter (Morena Baccarin) is attempting to dig out and rescue the Egyptian sets for Cecil B. DeMille's (Dan Castellaneta) The Ten Commandments at the Guadalupe Dunes, before they will be washed away in an oil industry related high tide.

Alice finds the sets only thanks to John Tevis (George Kennedy in what amounts to a very fun cameo role) and his ex-soldier son Mark (Victor Webster) who are looking for a time capsule John buried when he was at the set as the child of one of DeMille's more adventurous location scouts, for she and her students have been digging at the wrong place all the time. Alas, John and Mark also awaken a powerful jackal mummy thing (whose identity is for no good reason at all explained in an absolutely useless and ugly pre-credits sequence by a different director) that kills John. That's the sort of thing that happens when you use real Egyptian artefacts in your movie sets.

Mark - who has been exchanging flirty looks with Alice all this time - hires on to the dig as logistics expert. Alice's ex-husband Jesse (Adam Baldwin), also an archaeologist, comes in too - to help, massage his own ego, and to have a preening competition with Mark.

Of course, now that it has been awakened, the Anubis-shaped creature starts terrorizing the dig, killing people in various creative ways. It's up to Alice, Mark and Jesse to get rid of the monster they freed.

Now, if you've made a movie whose basic idea is as wonderful as Sands of Oblivion's - seriously, a jackal mummy thing and biblical-style phenomena haunting the set of DeMille's Ten Commandments!? - that also happens to feature two Firefly alumni in form of the always charming Morena Baccarin and the always charming in a somewhat different way Adam Baldwin, you really have to take incredibly large missteps to get on my bad side; you have after all just produced R'lyeh-nip. The whole haunted movie set idea, and the cleverness to use Guadalupe as Egypt stand-in for a mummy curse movie alone are enough to keep David Flores's movie from being a standard SyFy (well, at that point in time still Sci-Fi, but hey) monster bash, particularly since the film's first acts actually get quite a bit of mileage out of these ideas.

Unless you expect the film to be a deeper study of old Hollywood as a place that made myths of its own just as durable and magical as that of old Egyptian culture; as it stands, Sands of Oblivion is not that kind of film, but rather one that uses haunted Hollywood as a way to develop a more personal and individual feel than is typical of TV monster mashes. I'm perfectly alright with this - not every movie needs to dig deep (sorry), and the way the film treats its core concept as a way to charm its audience for most of its running time is more than enough for me.

Much more problematic is that the film - up until that point not exactly subtle but clearly sane - devolves into a very typical SyFy cheese fest for its final act, with a dune buggy chase, Adam Baldwin doing a pizza-faced Renfield, a comic relief gun nut redneck, and Mark fighting living wall paintings. The change from the bloodier version of classic horror the film's earlier stages indulge in to that sort of thing is a bit grating. I would certainly have preferred if the film had kept to that earlier style. On the other hand, the cheese at hand is very tasty, so it's not as if Sand of Oblivion's final act weren't entertaining.

The other surprise beside the film's curious change in tone is that our chief monster isn't a digital concoction, but - in its jackal mummy form - rather what looks like a mix of suitmation and mechanical puppetry to me. It's a pretty great monster design, even though fans of naturalistic special effects will be just as unhappy with it as if it were a digital creature, for realism - whatever the word means when describing jackal headed mummies - does live elsewhere. The digital effects for their part are really rather good, and are, like the sets of the remnants of the old movie sets, made with an eye for the moody detail, something that's generally much more important to me than the effects looking believable.

So, despite my misgivings about Sands of Oblivion's final act, and that unnecessary pre-credit sequence taking place in Ancient Egypt I can really recommend fast-forwarding through, it turned out to be a particular favourite of mine among SyFy/Sci-Fi Original movies. The power of Cecil B. DeMille compels me.

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