Thursday, October 15, 2009

Sands of Oblivion: Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Some crappy made-for-cable horror movies are born with crappiness, some achieve their crappiness, and some have their crappiness thrust upon them.

Despite the fact that it premiered on the Sci-Fi Channel (or as it's now known, SyFy--please explain, someone) in 2007, I'd argue that Sands of Oblivion was not born crappy. It's got the kernel of an interesting idea, some likeable actors, and a monster--three fine starting points for a night of Horrorpalooza entertainment.

Sands of Oblivion's neural crappiness pathway runs twofold. On one hand the script works hard to achieve a pretty consistent level of crappy; on the other mitt, this little thriller's sphincter-cinchingly low budget thrusts the crappy onto it as well. As anyone who's visited these hallowed electronic halls knows, however, crappy in the convergent conventional sense often portends at least a few yocks with your schlock.

I'm a sucker for speculative fiction that uses real-life events as a springboard for wiggy stuff, and therein lies the interesting conceit here. It's 1923, and Cecil B. DeMille's epic The Ten Commandments is shooting in the California desert. Historic accounts indicate that DeMille had the movie's lavish sets abruptly demolished immediately after filming (an act of indulgence almost unheard of in 1920's Hollywood), but nothing exists to explain why.

Jeff Coatney and Kevin van Hook, screenwriters of Sands, theorize that a real, cursed Egyptian artifact somehow made its way onto the set amongst the Tinseltown fakes. That relic caused the deaths of a couple of crew members, and a freaked-out DeMille--unsure which prop was the cursed culprit--razed the whole kit and caboodle to save the world from evil.

The movie proper begins in modern times, with a team of archaeologists unearthing the Commandments set while an old man (George Kennedy), who was just a small boy when the 1923 epic was filming, looks on. Right on cue, curse-y things start happening. Members of the dig team die via mysterious (and on occasion, ridiculous) coincidences, and it gets really sandy and windy and spooky at night and stuff. The soon-to-be-divorced heads of the team (Firefly's Morena Baccarin and Adam Baldwin) bicker away as they attempt to solve the mystery.

At first, Sands of Oblivion moves like a single Nubian slave pushing a two-ton pyramid block uphill...solo. Once you slog through the exposition, though, some low-rent jollies emerge. Old coot Kennedy uncovers the cursed amulet, and all heck breaks loose. Anubis, demon god of the ancient pharaohs, starts picking off the hapless archaeologists with curses and frontal attacks, and Baldwin gets possessed by the evil Egyptian mojo. There's some jibber-jabber about a portal to Egyptian demon-y goodness too.

Is it scary? Um, no. Is it fun? Well, yeah, pretty much. Anubis, a really grouchy mummy with a dog head, represents one of the more creative monsters I've seen in a rinky-dink Sci-Fi Channel presentation. Baldwin actually has some fun with his irresponsible-genius role. The plagues of locusts and snakes visited on the set look patently ridiculous, and therefore very entertaining (ah, bad CGI: the zipper-backed monster of the new millenium...).

You gotta love the strange-bedfellows nature of the casting. DeMille is played in flashbacks by none other than the voice of Homer Simpson himself, Dan Castellaneta, with the overarching broadness of a cartoon (of course). John Aniston (Jennifer's dad) busts out an English accent and dodders. Baccarin and Baldwin are likeable (though the former gives a really stiff performance here), and I'd watch Oscar-winner Kennedy--one of Hollywood's great robust character actors--in pretty much anything.

The star of Cool Hand Luke and the Airport movies just about earns a second statuette for keeping a straight face while hanging upside down getting terrorized by a stuntman in a  cobwebbed dog mask. Oh, and I almost forgot the nifty icky supposedly-accidental decapitation straight outta The Omen or one of those Final Destination movies. Thank God (or Anubis) for the little things in life.

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