Friday, December 8, 2017

The Mummy Fungus Is Among Us :: A Beer-Gut Reaction to Tom Kennedy's Time Walker (1982)

While exploring the excavated tomb of the young Pharaoh, Tutankhamen, visiting American archeology professor, Douglas McCadden, marvels at what’s left of the ancient burial site that hasn’t been pilfered by graverobbers or museums, when suddenly, a violent earth tremor opens up an undiscovered burial chamber adjacent to King Tut’s tomb that hasn’t been disturbed for nearly 3,000 years. Calling dibs on the entombed sarcophagus he finds inside, McCadden (Murphy) arranges to have it and all of its undisturbed contents shipped back to California with him, where he teaches at the State’s eponymous University of Sciences. And once there, he will officially break the seal and reveal what’s inside to the world.

Now, McCadden’s discovery is a huge coup for the University, explaining the ginormous impending press conference for the sarcophagus’ grande unveiling the following day arranged by the school’s president, Wendell Rossmore (Karen), and his ever present toadie, Bruce Serrano (Chew Jr.) -- who have huge alumni and booster-fed dollar signs spinning in their heads. Meanwhile, McCadden and a group of grad students, including his TA / girlfriend, Susie Miller (Axelrod), begin the slow and methodical process of opening the stone coffin to help preserve and catalogue its contents and the mummified remains of whoever is within. Translating the hieroglyphics on the outer shell, Susie identifies the occupant as Ankh-Venharis, which translates loosely as “noble traveler."

With that, the seals are removed and the sarcophagus is opened revealing a large mummy covered in a strange green dust -- most likely a dormant mold or fungus of some antiquity. And while some samples of that are taken, McCadden quizzes his students on what they see. And what they all agree on is it appears whoever this Ankh-Venharis was, he was obviously buried in a hurry sans the usual mummification process -- therefore, the body should be completely intact. More answers for this puzzle will be found once the body has been x-rayed. Unfortunately, the clumsy x-ray tech, Peter Sharpe (Brophy), fails to check the settings before he starts shooting plates; and thus, accidentally bombards the mummy with multiple massive doses of radiation. This is finally noticed too late by Jack Parker (Random), an engineering professor and a friend of McCadden’s, who at least pulls the plug before the mummy starts glowing in the dark. Sharp offers to start over, but McCadden feels their “patient” has had enough radiation for one day.

Later that night, as he develops the plates, Sharpe notices five jewel like objects near the mummy’s skull. Returning to the darkened lab, he finds the compartment they’re secreted in and assumes these crystalline spheres are diamonds, pockets them, and then covers his tracks with one more x-ray at the highest setting to replace the incriminating original, which he must quickly secret behind some electrical equipment when Parker spots him loitering around. The following morning, Sharpe tries to pawn the jewels but is told they’re worthless. And so, to try and salvage at least something from this criminal boondoggle, he arranges to sell them off to a few of his gullible frat-brothers as gifts for their respective girlfriends, unwittingly putting them all in harm's way for reasons we’ll get to in a sec.

Meantime, at Rossmore’s big press conference, the gathered reporters wait anxiously for the mummy’s unveiling. But things get off to a rocky start when one of McCadden’s students notices a slimy green substances exuding from the seams of the sarcophagus’ lid that wasn’t there before, and then does something really scientific by sticking his finger in it only to find out the viscous substance is extremely caustic. (Well, at least he didn't try to taste it.) And as the screaming student is quickly hustled away, McCadden tries to postpone the unveiling until they can figure out what the gunk is; but the impatient Rossmore won’t hear it. And so, McCadden orders the tomb to be opened -- revealing an empty container! Thus, the press conference is a complete disaster. And while an embarrassed and outraged Rossmore feels this is nothing more than an ill-advised fraternity prank, for which the culprit will pay dearly for running off with his prized mummy, the truth is a little more strange and extremely dangerous. For you see, while those first doses of x-rays managed to reactivate the dormant dust into a lethal flesh-eating fungus, that second blast has apparently awakened something far more worse...

There was an old axiom floating around Roger Corman’s New World Pictures in the 1970s, where the wizened producer would offer these sage words to his underlings whenever they came looking for more money: “Make two successful pictures for me and you’ll never have to work for me again.” To translate this, what he meant was if his filmmakers could make a profitable picture on one of his shoestring budgets, the major studios would soon come knocking. And this they did, causing a bit of a brain-drain at New World as the 1980s got to rolling. Gone were the likes of Ron Howard, Jonathan Demme, Jonathan Kaplan, Joe Dante and Allan Arkush, who were now all making Corman-flavored movies for the majors. Hell, even the second tier talent from Corman’s effects crews were starting to get pilfered as James Cameron went from doing F/X and production designs for Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) to directing The Terminator (1984).

And as the grindhouses and drive-ins dried up and disappeared, Corman also faced a dwindling venue for his first run product, forcing him to shift gears and focus more on making features for the direct to video market. And so, it was during this weird period between 1980 and 1985, when New World was kinda in its death-throes, theatrically speaking, where Corman started looking outside his own studio for product to distribute, which is how he came to be involved in the production of Time Walker (1982); a delightful little creature feature featuring a rampaging mummy with a bit of a sci-fi twist.

The movie began as a story idea concocted by Jason Williams and Todd Friedman. Williams was an actor, whose main claim to fame was starring in a couple of Bill Osco’s demented softcore porn spoofs, Alice in Wonderland (1976) and Flesh Gordon (1974), where Williams played the title hero. I will assume these two met during the production of Flush (1977), a pretty turgid It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) knock-off that Friedman wrote and Williams had a bit-part in. After, the two would concoct a tale about an alien that crash-lands in Egypt three thousand years ago and is severely injured. The radiation the alien admits is also lethal to the touch and wound up killing anyone who tried to help him, including Tutankhamen.

And so, when the alien died, the Egyptians carefully wrapped the body and hastily buried it. Only the alien didn’t die; it just went into some kind of hibernating stasis until it was accidentally revived in the present by those X-rays. And like any stranded alien on Earth, the creature needed to phone home for a ride -- only someone ran off with the energy crystals he needs to power his communication device. And thus, the mummy goes on a campus-wide rampage -- and I do mean rampage as this mummy doesn't shuffle but glides around at a pretty good clip, to retrieve the parts he needs, crushing all in his path or spreading some of that toxic fungus to all of his victims, leaving McCadden, the University’s hospital staff (Stoker, Bower), and the police (Joston) scrambling to unravel what’s really going on and hopefully put a stop to it.

Williams and Friedman then took their idea to Dimitri Villard. Villard was Harvard man, who had served as an editor on the Harvard Lampoon, which would later morph into the National Lampoon. Upon graduation, he started his own record label and co-founded one of the first pay-TV companies in California before selling it off around 1980 to get into the movie production business. And after a brief internship with producer Edward Pressman -- Phantom of the Paradise (1974), Conan the Barbarian (1982), Villard was ready to produce something on his own, cobbling together a quartet of investors, including Corman, who got the U.S. theatrical and home video rights, to bring Time Walker to the big screen, and who would also serve as kind of a ghost producer on the project, offering all kinds of advice to the fledgling filmmaker; like how to skirt around the unions to keep production costs down by shooting the majority of the film on location at Cal-State Northridge, where campus security kept the teamsters at bay. And how when the film was completed, laying down a content-be-damned edict to cut the running time by ten minutes so it would fit in one film can to save money on shipping, explaining away a few jarring edits and leaps in plot logic.

To direct the film, Villard hired Tom Kennedy, a graduate of New York’s School of Visual Arts. From there, Kennedy worked as an editor on Joe (1970) and Silent Night, Deadly Night (1972) before moving to Los Angeles in 1977, where he helped found Kaleidoscope Films, which quickly became one of Hollywood’s goto places for audio-video ad campaigns and theatrical trailers. There, Kennedy supervised the campaigns and trailers for the likes of The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), The Terminator, and the Star Trek franchise, running from The Motion Picture through The Voyage Home (1979-1986). And while Time Walker would be Kennedy’s only time in the director’s chair, he does nothing to embarrass himself that couldn’t be rightfully blamed on the film’s low budget, rushed production schedule, and the script’s sketchy material outside the alien mummy rampage.

Still, despite all these hiccups -- like that asinine frat-party interlude, and Rossmore's blundering attempts to frame McCadden for this cock-up, Time Walker still qualifies as one of my most favorite mummy movies of all time because I love the ancient alien angle and the flesh-eating fungus wild card, which is actually exacerbated by all attempts to stop it only making it worse. And the unknown components of the fungus is just one of many clues that McCadden eventually pieces together to reach the improbable conclusion that Ankh-Venharis is not of this Earth. And after the noble traveler, who's actually kind of a dick, manages to retrieve all of the crystals, leaving several dead bodies in its wake, we get one helluva whackadoodle climax, where the mummy makes the call home and reveals his true form before his intergalactic-Uber driver arrives. And the fact that he winds up taking someone with him, leaves the film open for a possible sequel that, alas, had nowhere to go, which explains why we never, ever got one.

Like a lot of folks, I was personally introduced to Time Walker through Mystery Science Theater 3000, when they savaged it under the alternate title, Being from Another Planet. And it’s a fairly under-appreciated episode in my book. I just loved it when the ‘Bots freaked-out whenever the screen turned green to represent Ankh-Venharis' perspective, an ersatz “Mummy-Vision” if you will -- especially the extended stalk ‘n’ chase sequence, where Ankh-Venharis runs Susie in, around, and off a building, and the constant chants of “the fungus is among us.” And I enjoyed the episode so much I tracked down the film on VHS, watched it unadulterated, and still enjoyed the hell out of it.

Today, Time Walker is currently available on a stupidly expensive Bluray from Shout! Factory but is also available at a much more reasonable price on the Vampires, Mummies And Monsters 4-Pack Collection as part of the same company’s Roger Corman’s Cult Classics line. The MST3k version is also available to buy in the Volume XXXV boxset but last check it’s streaming on YouTube on a couple channels. Either way, the film comes highly recommended from me, Boils and Ghouls, as it seems to strike just the right balance between sincere earnestness and monumental stupidity to wind up just plain bonkers.

Time Walker (1982) Byzantine Productions :: Wescom Productions :: New World Pictures / EP: Robert A. Shaheen / P: Dimitri Villard, Jason Williams / D: Tom Kennedy / W: Jason Williams, Tom Friedman, Karen Levitt / C: Robbie Greenberg / E: Maria DiGiovanni, Lucile Jones / M: Richard Band / S: Ben Murphy, Nina Axelrod, Kevin Brophy, Robert Random, James Karen, Sam Chew Jr., Austin Stoker, Antoinette Bower, Shari Belafonte


KD said...

Fun little film...minorly enjoyable in the original theatrical release, at a tiny cracker-box shopping mall theater. Saw the original script turn up on eBay some years back...

W.B. Kelso said...

I remember the newspaper ads for it back in the day, but didn't get to see it until MST3k.

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