Tuesday, August 12, 2008


As I've recently watched a couple of movies from Warner Home Video's Camp Classics DVD sets, it may be time to make a stab at explaining the camp experience. It's a difficult concept to pin down. In general, people usually mean some work of art is camp if it feels like a "guilty pleasure"; for example, if they like it even though it seems like bad art (PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE), or if they like it for the wrong reasons (for example, my friends and I enjoying the outrageous acting in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS). Sometimes, something seems campy if minor issues or emotions are heightened all out of proportion, as when Edie Beale calls a court order to clean up her property "the most atrocious thing ever to happen in America" in GREY GARDENS. Some works of art are campy on purpose, though it's easier to wind up with just a bad movie (HOWARD THE DUCK, the WICKER MAN remake) than with a good piece of camp (ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, most of John Waters' films, Adam West as Batman). I think most of the movies in the Warner sets are truly only marginally campy, but I'll delve into them anyway over the next few days, starting with this would-be historical epic.

In ancient Egypt, the Pharaoh Khufu (Jack Hawkins) returns to his people with many riches and slaves, and wants to build an inviolable tomb to hold his possessions. He calls upon the enslaved architect Vashtar (John Robertson Justice) to oversee the construction of this great pyramid, and in exchange, Khufu promises to free Vashtar's people. Vashtar designs an elaborate and secret system of passage blocks which will be locked in place upon the death of the Pharaoh, and only he and his hunky assistant Senta (Dewey Martin) know all the secrets of the pyramid; workers who must be told the secrets will wind up either being buried with the Pharaoh or having their tongues ripped out. The building begins with great verve and fanfare, but over fifteen years' time, the people become miserable and Khufu strains the treasuries of the lands which owe him tribute. In lieu of money, Cyprus sends him the sexy Princess Nellifer (Joan Collins) and after a brief battle of wills, she becomes his second wife. As Vashtar goes blind, he gives more responsibility to Senta, who saves Khufu's life one day when a test of the labyrinth almost kills him. Meanwhile, the Princess plots to assassinate Khufu, having been told that she will become Queen thirty days after his death. The plot fails, but the Pharaoh ends up dying from his mortal wounds, and from beyond, he has one last trick to play on his greedy wife.

I guess this is being sold as a "Camp Classic" on the mere presence of the often over-the-top actress Joan Collins. I didn't find the movie to be particularly campy, though Collins does make a fine bitch villainess. It's generally enjoyable, but with Howard Hawks directing and William Faulkner having had a hand in the screenplay, it's disappointing that it's not better than it is. The main problem is the acting (when Joan Collins gives the best performance in the movie, I suspect that's a problem) though the acting isn't awful enough to be campy "good/bad" fun. (I really shouldn't be badmouthing Joan since I have seen very little of her, not having been a fan of Dynasty.) Hawkins is not a very commanding presence to be playing such a powerful ruler--where's Yul Brynner when you need him? Justice is bland, Martin is hot but not very charismatic, and aside from Sydney Chaplin as Collins' co-conspirator, there are no other major characters to bond with. The widescreen is put to good use, the sets and costumes are first-rate, and the chilling ending works well. [DVD]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is being screened in L.A. next Sunday...with a panel...a chance for someone to ask the question...

The Art Directors Guild Film Society and American Cinematheque will screen CinemaScope epic Land of the Pharaohs (1955)
Hollywood’s revisionist tale of ancient Egypt and the construction of the pyramids, with a panel discussion to follow, Sunday, October 23 at 5:30 p.m.
The Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Boulevard, Hollywood