Ghost in the Shell: The Mummy an’ the Armadillo (2004)

Dave turns his attention to a slow-burning masterpiece from the versatile J.S. Cardone.

J.S. Cardone may be inexorably remembered for penning and shooting The Slayer (1982), that ambiguous wonder of a horror film, but what came in the ensuing (and often overlooked) years is easily on par with his atmospheric debut.

Shadowzone (1990) and Crash and Burn (1990), the two satisfying sci-fi’s that he penned for Full Moon (the former he directed as well) both warrant your attention. However, his quartet of tonally related directing gigs that take in ’91 to ’98 drip with a desert-dwelling, sweat-stained, neo-noir sensibility that are both mouth-watering and essential. Black Day Blue Night (1995) is the best of these, but A Row of Crows (1991), Shadowhunter (1993) and Outside Ozona (1998) are all rife with the same hypnotic B-movie allure.

In regard to THE MUMMY AN’ THE ARMADILLO (2004), it’s probably the bastard child on Cardone’s resume. Sandwiched between gigs on Alien Hunter (2003) and Sniper 3 (2004), this one location oddity drifted way under the radar on release, and despite some so-so notices in the pages of publications like Variety, it now languishes in out-of-print DVD hell.

It deserves so much more.

Billed as ‘The Scare Hole’ in most territories other than the U.S., that title is the antithesis of what you might expect that picture to represent. The aforementioned Variety actually nailed the tone succinctly in their mediocre musings on the picture, calling it “a mix of Tennesse Williams, The Petrified Forest (1936), Southwestern Gothic, and B-movie thriller”.

Director Cardone explained its origins further during a chat with the website Moviehole prior to the film’s release:

“It’s adapted from a play of mine which was originally done in the ‘80s. Over the years a number of people have encouraged me to adapt it for the screen, but the right opportunity never presented itself until now”.

Filmed entirely within the confines of a roadside diner in Arizona called The Armadillo Café, we meet Sarah (Clare Kramer), who’s stumbled inside for a little shelter from the storm. It’s a beaten up joint, exacerbated by lightning flashing through the windows but softened by the welcoming smile of Billie (Lori Heuring), who runs the place.

It’s clear from the get-go that this is a film about long-buried secrets, and with the gradual addition of an ensemble, things get ever more twisted. Let (Betty Buckley) is the matriarch, who, with simpleton son Wyatte (a breathtaking Brad Renfro), decides to take Sarah hostage, as Billie (her daughter) takes a brief break into town. When Jesse (Johnathon Schaech in full on creep duty), the third sibling shows up, he turns the whacked-out craziness up to eleven, with able nutjobbery coming from fleeting appearances by Wade Williams, Busy Philipps, Jodi Lyn O’Keefe, and Amanda Aday (whose Dad, Meat Loaf, featured in Cardone’s Outside Ozona six years prior).

The stumbling point for an audience watching The Mummy an’ the Armadillo will forever be the stagey and, at times, claustrophobic feel. The criticism that “It’s just people talking” litters its IMDb page, but for me therein lies the film’s greatest success.

Along with his regular producing partner (and wife) Carol Kottenbrook, Cardone has transferred his theatrical potboiler onto the big screen with aplomb, and he has it bursting with intensity, distrust, duplicity and intimidation. Kurt Brabbee’s cinematography amplifies the unease of the whole shebang, while production designer Martina Buckley (who also served on The Forsaken (2001) and the vastly underrated 8MM2 (2005)) layers the set with texture and authenticity. Buckley, Kramer, Renfro and Schaech stand out among the cast, but it’s Cardone’s script that’s the star. Gradually exposing the direction of the narrative with each passing frame, it’s a joy to consume.

Forever destined to be a footnote in the career of a quite unique writer-director, The Mummy an’ the Armadillo is perhaps best served with a knowing wink among Cardone enthusiasts; it’s a masonic handshake for lovers of fine works of art.

USA ● 2004 ● Drama ● 101mins

Betty Buckley, Lori Heuring, Clare Kramer, Brad Renfro, Johnathon Schaech ● Dir. J.S Cardone ● Wri. J.S Cardone

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