I’m always on the lookout for the next flash of wtfuckery from the dusty video shelves of yesteryear; films bypassed perhaps due to a lack of publicity, or a flood of imitations, or sometimes even just a good old dose of common sense. And then there’s Scarab (1983), a nonsensical wonder that combines political intrigue, Egyptian warrior resurrections, a psychotic (okay, more so than usual) Rip Torn, and perpetual ‘80s whipping boy Robert Ginty. If I had discovered this on VHS, I never would have gotten rid of my VCR.
Bypassing theatrical distribution stateside (but released in November in the U.K., then in Spanish theatres in June of ’84 as it was an American/Spanish co-production), Scarab made nary a sound with horror fans on home video; I’d never even heard of it despite being a Torn and Ginty fan since the dawn of the Panasonic top loader. Oh well. As the saying goes, it’s never too late to unearth an incoherent yet delightful cult conspiracy flick. Or something like that.
I swear there is no janky autocorrect in this plot description: We open as a physicist (Torn – Men In Black) is surrounded by lit candles while attempting to jump start a scarab beetle with cables while trying to conjure up (okay, yelling gibberish at) an ancient Egyptian god, Khepera. He succeeds; flashes of light appear, as does a reject from the Shazam/Isis Hour Saturday morning show. Cut to reporter Murphy (Ginty – The Exterminator) in a Spanish bar getting plastered; he wanders over to a party in progress and quickly beds the Ambassador’s wife. Cut to a rich diplomat fencing with his granddaughter; one of his helpers sticks a tiny scarab down his back (given by Torn, now possessed by Khepera) and he breaks his epee before stabbing himself with it. Cut back to Murphy, watching another politician address a crowd; someone gifts the politico with a scarab and he kills himself with a security guard’s gun. At the scene Murphy sees a woman in a nun’s habit (Cristina Sánchez Pascual – Aftershock) and follows her back to a shelter, thinking she may know something about these unusual events.
When he does finally meet up with her, she explains that the physicist is her father and she must stop him from carrying out his plan for world domination through political disruption on the world stage. Plus she has psychic powers. Off they head to the abandoned castle where Khepera and his followers are preparing a final sacrifice. Will Murphy and The Nun (coming this fall on CBS) be able to stop him, and by effect, stop this film?
Scarab is the wildest misfire I’ve seen in many a moon, and easily the most enjoyable; it’s two movies in one, and the twain shall not meet until the final act in a convergence of B spectacle reserved for the charming dilapidated remains of a third billed drive-in feature from the ‘50s. Blame or praise the editing on the schizophrenia; one scene with Ginty, one with Torn, back and forth until they have no choice but to blend lest the tape rips apart.
The miraculous thing is that each path bathes in its own tub of weirdness; were they two individual films, I would still watch both. Luckily for us, they’re liquidated to their essence for 90 whiplashed minutes. Here’s a partial laundry list of sundry delights in store for the lucky viewer: Torn yelling at jumper cables; Ginty walking down the street with a Walkman on as someone tries to kill him with explosions, crashing cars, falling plants – and he’s oblivious; Torn nearly making love to a beautiful woman until it is revealed from the neck down she is a hairy sow, at which point he spits milk at the old cackling witch who apparently tricked him; Ginty fighting hooded warriors with a battle-axe (clearly the inspiration for Mandy); and oh so much more. Scarab never stops giving.
Is this madness intentional or accidental? Probably a little bit of both; director Steven-Charles Jaffe and his brother Robert co-wrote Motel Hell (’80), and that gothic Green Acres goofiness was a welcome change of pace from Slasherville. There are moments of humor here as well, but they stand out more because the rest of the film plays it more or less straight; unfortunately this highlights jokes that pretty much fall flat due to the disparity in the mix, and because, well, they’re simply not very strong. There are two other writers credited, Ned Miller & Jim Block, and I’m assuming that the Jaffe’s came in and overhauled the script to add a touch of coherency. That it didn’t work at all is what makes Scarab sing, screech and scurry across the floor like a tap dancing roach trying out for Star Search.
The film tries it’s hardest to entertain, is what I’m getting at. And I think it succeeds; Ginty was always seen as the poor man’s everything back in the day, but I’ve always enjoyed his crumpled and mumbled everyman routine, and here he gets the dame and saves the day, complete with final shot saxophone over the credits. Rip Torn’s mainstream Hollywood jail sentence was commuted starting with The Larry Sanders Show in 1992; his ‘80s output vacillated between acclaimed indies and more undistinguished fare such as this. One thing is for certain: he doesn’t phone it in here, with his Khepera stomping, growling, spitting (as I’ve mentioned), and generally playing to the tone that I think the Jaffe’s were trying to nail. That he does so while strolling with a serpent cane, in flowing robes, around a darkened and cavernous soundstage is a testament to his tenacity – or craziness. Perhaps it’s both?
Sometimes I just want to be entertained. Scarab will offer you no social insight or layered commentary on the downfall of mankind, but if you let it, it will give you flaming arrows psychically boomeranged into the chests of horsed Egyptian baddies. The choice is yours.
Scarab isn’t available on DVD or Blu-ray yet; but don’t worry I’m clutching my ankh in eternal hope.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: DEADLINE (1984)