A unique three-sided pyramid is the archaeological discovery that triggers some distinctly one-dimensional drama in “The Pyramid,” a likably lame-brained Egypto-horror exercise from tireless B-movie merchants Gregory Levasseur and Alexandre Aja. Marking longtime co-writer Levasseur’s directorial debut, this efficiently crafted pic makes a perfunctory attempt to board the already overloaded found-footage bandwagon, but such contemporary trappings do little to mask the William Castle-style spookhouse ride at its center. Written and performed with little visible irony — but sure to be enjoyed with considerably more by a certain knowing sector of genre fiends — “The Pyramid” should unearth OK returns as a tipsily tacky alternative to the glut of higher-minded December fare.
“This doesn’t look like the Egyptian stuff you find at the British Museum,” remarks one of the narrative’s ineptly intrepid quintet of explorers, as they penetrate the sandy bowels of the eponymous ancient structure. She could as easily be talking about the film itself, which puts its cheerfully loose grasp on the country’s history — past and present — to use that could at best be described as fanciful.
At worst, it’s offensively crass: The pic opens with decontextualized shots of the August 2013 civil riots in Cairo’s Ramses Square, as Nima Fakhrara’s ominously percussive score drums up a generically exotic sense of panic. With no political scene setting, naive auds are led to interpret the protests as a response to the research of American father-daughter archaeologists Miles (Denis O’Hare) and Nora Holden (Ashley Hinshaw) — whose excavation of a new pyramid, buried for five millennia beneath the desert, is unlikely to be the average Egyptian citizen’s most pressing concern of the moment.
The film is on surer ground when things get more overtly silly — and when it blithely abandons the found-footage conceit that it barely manages to maintain for its opening reel, with strident newswoman Sunni (Christa Nicola) and her dim-bulb British cameraman Fitzie (“The Inbetweeners” star James Buckley, doing a less lewd riff on his sitcom persona) providing its initial impetus. The first act rushes hurriedly through a series of contrivances — attacks of toxic air poisoning, a military-ordered evacuation, a NASA rover mysteriously destroyed inside the pyramid — designed to get the principals in the forbidden tomb as swiftly as possible, pausing only for languid consideration of its female stars’ assets. (The younger Dr. Holden, unsurprisingly, is both a prodigious prehistorian and a graduate of the Christmas Jones Academy of Scientist Couture.)
Trailed by the story-hungry Sunni, the reluctant Fitzie and afterthought technician Michael (Iranian-American comic Amir K), the archaeologists enter the pyramid only to be immediately consumed by its labyrinthine architecture, as collapsing floors, marauding packs of man-eating mutant cats and any amount of grisly crypto-trickery familiar from sundry “Mummy” pictures conspire against their escape. The pecking order of the ensemble is easy enough to ascertain from the outset; more difficult is identifying a survivor to root for, given a characterization spectrum that ranges from merely vapid to actively hiss-worthy. “We’re just like food in a bowl right now,” despairs Fitzie — a typically inelegant line that accurately describes the script’s own indifferent attitude to their fate.
Correctly ascertaining that auds will be less interested in the outcome than in the obstacles along the way, Levasseur plants and executes the pic’s exclamation-point scares with grinning, squelching gusto. It matters little that most of the jolts have been lifted from previous movies, given that much of the borrowing is from films (a Hammer Horror curio here, Renny Harlin’s “Deep Blue Sea” there) that were once cut-rate knockoffs themselves: Such hand-me-downs are still cheaply effective, and all the more endearing for their familiarity. The sight of a character impaled on an old-fashioned bed of wooden stakes, nibbled at by screeching Sphynxes, is somehow revolting and reassuring all at once.
Late in this echoic narrative, however, writers Nick Simon and Daniel Meersand do pull off one disorientating reveal: While this particular pyramid appears to be a mummy-free zone, a climactic literalization of ancient Egyptian theology is as luridly unexpected as it is patently ludicrous. Quite how alien invasion figures into the folklore, however, is a mystery for sharper minds than those presented here. (One scientist’s guileless response to the identification of dried blood on a spear: “What does that mean?”)
Tech package is sleeker than is strictly required for funky filler of this nature, with Laurent Tangy’s gold-dusted widescreen lensing refusing to replicate found-footage scrappiness at any point in the proceedings. Production designer Marco Trentini has evident fun with the pyramid’s shape-shifting interior, its sliding walls and phony hieroglyphs as indebted to classic Saturday-matinee tradition as Pharaoh aesthetics. The pic’s creature effects, meanwhile, appear to have been digitally augmented to retain just the right degree of Harryhausen-style creak.