Bauer Power: The Tomb (1986)

Matty cracks open Fred Olen Ray’s softly spooky gem. 

Having shot a few days worth of footage for Star Slammer (1986) during the making of Biohazard (1985) (on sets left over from Roger Corman’s Galaxy of Terror (1981), no less), Fred Olen Ray found himself between gigs in the gap between Biohazard’s conclusion and Star Slammer mounting as a proper production. As detailed in his own landmark 1991 tome, The New Poverty Row: Independent Filmmakers as Distributors, towards the end of 1984, Ray reconnected with Biohazard and Star Slammer’s production manager, Robert Tinnell, who was then studying film at the Columbia University School of the Arts.

“Tinnell was complaining that he had acquired an elaborate temple set from an Indiana Jones-style blue jeans TV commercial,” Ray wrote, referring to this 1985 Wrangler campaign. “It was a loaner for his student project, but the school would only allow him eight hours a day for two days to shoot his film in their small studio. We drove over to the scene dock at Cinebar, a set-building company, and I looked over the stacked flats. They weighed a ton, but looked great, so I offered to help Tinnell out with his problem. I would hire a truck to transport the sets, rent a studio at my expense, and let him have it for twelve hours a day for two days, instead of the school’s conservative eight hours. He would have it from 7AM until 7PM and then my crew would take over for the night and shoot something for me.” 

To give him material to work with, Ray commissioned thirty pages of script to serve as the opening and closing of a quirky, low-budget horror-adventure-comedy about an evil Egyptian mummy called THE TOMB. It was a cheeky, two-pronged masterstroke, really. Because as well as capitalising on a quality chunk of scenery that pretty much fell into his lap (indicating the kind of seize-it opportunism that would go on to define future offerings Wizards of the Demon Sword (1991), Maximum Revenge (1997), and a boatload more), The Tomb was designed by Ray to cash-in on a then potentially forthcoming attraction from New World Pictures. 

“A buddy of mine was a reader for New World and he was evaluating F. Paul Wilson’s [1984 novel] The Tomb,” Ray stated in Draculina [1]. “I thought of the trouble we had with Biohazard’s title, which Fox were going to use for Warning Sign (1985) until I stopped them. And I thought I ought to go and shoot anything and call it The Tomb, run a big ad at the American Film Market, wait for New World to come at me, and then let them buy me off!”    

After shooting on the temple sets, Ray cut together a promotional trailer and showed the footage to Richard Kaye, the man who would ultimately be credited as The Tomb’s executive producer. Kaye showed the trailer to the execs at Trans World Entertainment. Formed in 1983 by Moshe Diamant, Trans World had previously purchased certain territorial distribution rights for Biohazard, and were impressed enough by what they saw to agree to bankroll The Tomb as a feature to the tune of $185,000 (incidentally, on the same day, Jack H. Harris, producer of The Blob (1958) and John Carpenter’s Dark Star (1974), also finalised a deal with Ray and Diamant’s business partner, Eduard Sarlui, to get Star Slammer done, agreeing to shoot the rest of it once The Tomb wrapped).

Those well-versed in Ray lore will understand The Tomb as a film of ‘firsts’. Not only was it the first time Ray would ply his trade with Trans World/Diamant/Sarlui, whom he’d collaborate with again on Commando Squad (1987), Deep Space (1988), and many, many more, The Tomb marked the first of an innumerable amount of team-ups with model-slash-actress, Michelle Bauer (twenty-four pairings as of this writing, but, considering how Ray would shoot bits and pieces of random, often never-used stuff here and there, the true figure is anyone’s guess). Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers (1988), Spirits (1990), Dinosaur Island (1994)The Tomb was the start of it. 

However, more so than that, The Tomb was Bauer’s first starring role in a horror movie full stop. With that in mind, The Tomb should be considered as the film that put the former Penthouse Pet on the path to Scream Queen infamy, where she’d reign supreme alongside fellow B-babes Brinke Stevens and Linnea Quigley.

“I became a Scream Queen by accident,” Bauer reflected in Scream Queens Illustrated [2]. “I was doing a film called Romantic Visions and the man who cast me for that introduced me to Fred Olen Ray. They had already cast The Tomb, all except the lead, and there was one good friend of Fred’s who really wanted the role but she was blonde — she came in with a black wig on because she really wanted to do it! But Fred liked what I did; he liked how aggressive I was because I had to slam a guy against a wall and act like a real bitch and, for me, that’s natural! So I got cast and I couldn’t believe it. I was so nervous: “Oh my God! I’ve got a real part in a movie!”… And Fred and I just clicked. We’re very good friends. He never makes you feel small, he makes you feel important. He knows I admire him but he doesn’t act like it, and he doesn’t get an attitude. He’s fun to work with.”

Though I’m forever convinced that it’s not Bauer’s voice and that she was dubbed, in terms of her actual physical performance, she’s paramount to The Tomb’s success. Cast as the film’s villainess — a slinky, vampire-mummy enchantress by the name of Nefratis — Bauer radiates a tremendous presence whenever she’s on screen. While in classic exploitation fashion, promise versus execution, that isn’t quite enough — and double while insofar as her green turn not being as accomplished as her subsequent, better known appearances in Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama (1988) and Nightmare Sisters (1988) et al — Bauer oozes a dangerous, sensual, and beguiling aura as she prowls modern-day Beverly Hills. Ray knows how to present her visually too, and in regards to spectacle, Bauer is at the centre of The Tomb’s coolest horror moments as she wakes from her thousand year slumber to track the amulets that have been swiped from her by a couple of thieving, Jones-like sarcophagus raiders. Said fabulously done horrors include: a flesh-burrowing scarab; an implied heart-ripping; the draining of Cameron Mitchell’s lifeforce; and a quietly lavish, sacrifice-led finale that sees Ray affectionately paying homage to all the similar beats in the vintage Mummy flicks from Hammer and Universal. 

Of course, the frights are very genteel, which will invariably disappoint the eagle-eyed and more splat-hungry viewers who spot future gore genius Robert Kurtzman’s handle nestled in The Tomb’s FX department. Several lingering shots of boobage aside (besides Bauer’s bountiful bosom, Ray cuts loose with a glimpse of Dawn Wildsmith’s chesticles in a brief, lesbian-baiting tangle involving snakes, and an extended striptease from Russ Meyer’s long-time partner, the bodacious Kitten Natividad, is as hooter-heavy as an owl farm), The Tomb is a Saturday morning shocker. It’s a waggish, softly spooky potboiler imbued with arch and amusingly churlish character-to-character patter as people belt around, chasing artefacts and each other. Alas, this engaging and enjoyable lightness wasn’t an auteurist choice. Rather, it was the result of a sadder Ray first: interference from meddling producers, which Ray had never experienced before. Upon completion, Trans World were unhappy with The Tomb’s giddy tone and elected to recut it, muting Ray’s intended mix of outright horror and comedy. As Ray went on to explain in Draculina:

“[It was meant to be] a rock n’ roll horror movie with about seven musical numbers throughout the film. It was a real comedy when we were doing it, then they went in and cut as much comedy out of it as they could because they didn’t like it.”

Ray gave further clarity in the Summer 1989 issue of Horrorfan [3]:

“When we were making [The Tomb], Creature (1985) was being distributed by Trans World. Creature, which starred Klaus Kinski, was a gory little movie and Trans World were encountering lots of trouble because of censorship problems overseas. I guess they were so scared that when Trans World got hold of The Tomb, which was finishing up as Creature was making the rounds in theatres, they decided that it shouldn’t look like a horror film. So [as well as the comedy] they trimmed almost all the violence too. It’s got some unusual stuff in there but they tried to cut the original thinking out of the film.”   

Thankfully, as wry chuckles and ghoulish weirdness are so densely woven into The Tomb’s fabric, the larfs and (mild) chills still bubble throughout this lively and joyously diverting programmer, even in its compromised version. A delight to watch, it’s a blitz of polished, easy-going entertainment — as you’d expect from a film peppered with cameos from a Cessna-flying Sybil Danning, and wily ol’ pros such as Mitchell and John Carradine (who, for the record, does his usual trick of spouting five minutes of exposition from behind a desk).

Lensed in a grand total of fifteen days (the two day temple shoot and thirteen additional days when it got the thumbs-up from Trans World), The Tomb hit video here in the U.K. in April 1986. It arrived on U.S. tape six months later, where it went on to shift an impressive 40,000 units at approximately $80 a pop.

“I was amazed when Sam Sherman told me that, within the distribution industry, The Tomb was considered a classic — not of filmmaking, but of distribution and revenue,” mentioned Ray in Horrorfan. “It went Certified Gold almost immediately. It made millions. I was pretty stunned! It was one of the highest-selling direct-to-video movies ever made. A year later, the phone rang and [Trans World] asked, “Do you want to come back and make two more pictures?” I said, “Sure, but why? You hated The Tomb.” They said, “Perhaps it was better than we initially thought…”.”

The Tomb (1986) UK VHS

[1] Draculina, No.10, February 1990, interview with Kris Gilpin
[2] Scream Queens Illustrated, Vol. 1, No.2, Winter 1994, ‘Michelle Bauer Expresses Her Point of View’ by Mark Yanko
[3] Horrorfan, Vol.1, No. 2, Summer 1989, interview with Bill George

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