Written by: Daniel Meersand, Nick Simon
Directed by: Grégory Levasseur
Starring: Ashley Hinshaw, James Buckley, and Denis O'Hare
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
You only enter once.
Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way first: yes, it’s nice to see Alexandre Aja and cohort Gregory Levasseur attached to something that isn’t some sort of reimagining. And, yes, it’s equally disappointing that The Pyramid still feels pretty damn familiar, especially since it’s been less than a few months since the last time we watched a group of archeologists descend into a crypt to meet their doom. However, it’s not the overbearing déjà vu that ultimately sinks this one, especially once it separates itself with some cool Egyptology that the genre has underutilized recently; instead, it's the film film's ill-fitting tone that proves problematic. This is a big, dumb, loud monster movie that may have been better served by actually adhering to the found footage template it loosely skirts around. I know—I can’t believe I just wrote the last half of that sentence either.
This one isn’t completely found footage, as it arbitrarily appropriates the technique in bursts with handheld shots, GoPro attachments, and even a modified Mars rover working to form a pastiche with traditional camerawork. Set in the shadow of last year’s Egyptian protests (for no discernable reason, I might add), the film revolves around the recent discovery of an underground pyramid that attracts the attention of Miles and Nora Holden (Denis O’Hare &Ashley Hinshaw), a father-daughter archeology team. With a news crew in tow (complete with a reporter and cameraman), the two investigate the bizarre find despite some ominous events and stern warnings from the local government. Entering the pyramid is a predictably bad idea because the structure isn’t a tomb—it’s a prison housing an ancient evil looking to feast on the intruders’ souls.
I’ll spare the details out of respect for spoilers, but The Pyramid is commendable for its mining of some distinct mythology, even if the script is exhaustingly travelogue in nature. When the cast isn’t serving as obnoxious fodder, they’re essentially tour guides spouting off one factoid after the next in order to underscore the proceedings. Anyone tired of found footage movies that tease mysteries without paying them off will be relieved by The Pyramid, where you know exactly what you’re dealing with. Hell, one chunk of expository dialogue is repeated twice just in case you weren’t sure (not that it’s all that complicated—let’s just say it involves a monster that likes to eat hearts). It’s almost forgivable, though, because we’re dealing with the sort of creature you don’t find lurking around horror movies very often, and it’s kooky as hell (the main baddie is even joined by mutated sphinx cats).
It’s too bad The Pyramid blows it, though—usually, I’d be down for a mindless monster romp, but it never quite fits the confines established by the premise here. The close quarters and murky, foreboding trappings beg for something in a lower, creepier key; occasionally, Levasseur will find some subtle, fleeting moments of dread, but he orchestrates a parade of unpleasant jump scares and shrill monster encounters. As it careens towards its climax, The Pyramid feels more and more like an assault on the ears (the eyes, at least, are mostly spared of shaky-cam). Eschewing the existential and claustrophobic dread found in similar films, Levasseur (like his French companions) sees the premise as an excuse to indulge in hyper-violence. The utter hopelessness of being lost in a labyrinthine crypt is elided in favor of bone-crushing rocks, spike impalements, and heart-ripping, all of which are finely delivered via gruesome special effects. You expect that much from the Aja filmmaking tree at this point.
Less agreeable are the visual effects that bring the various creatures to life. The Pyramid is an old school monster movie in spirit only, as it opts for unsightly CGI in lieu of practical effects, a decision that’s especially detrimental once the monster is fully revealed. Its cartoonish presence is especially jarring compared to the otherwise tactile nature of the film: it often feels like audiences have been transported into a dingy, dusty deathtrap, and Levasseur’s camera drinks in the surroundings. Save for the dodgy CGI, the film is technically sound and polished (again, not a surprise given the Aja pedigree), and I really wish it were inhabited by anything worth a damn besides its gore sequences. Even the human characters might as well be played by digital cartoons, as they’re a robotic collection of clichés and dopes, with Hinshaw’s character emerging as the most insufferable of the bunch (make a drinking game out of every time she insists that they’ve “gotta get outta here” and immediately book yourself a room at a nearby hospital).
Even though Fox has unloaded this into theaters with little fanfare (an omen that gives us an early whiff of January dumping ground season), The Pyramid still qualifies as a disappointment. With Aja and Levasseur’s involvement, you expect more than anonymous, by-the-numbers junk like this. Even when Aja has retread material in the past, he’s managed to inject it with some sort of verve to set it apart; here, his involvement is practically non-existent, as it seems like he and Levasseur (making his directorial debut, by the way) are just hired guns for a slick product. What a shame—The Pyramid shows glimpses of potential in its premise, but it’s squandered by an approach that just never works. Sometimes, an Egyptian demon going Mola Ram on its victims just isn’t enough, and that's a bummer. Rent it!
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