VHS THROWBACK: Bloodsucking Pharaohs in Pittsburgh

1991’s Bloodsucking Pharaohs In Pittsburgh seemingly had all the right ingredients for a video store smash. There’s that all timer of a title, boxcover art that leans heavily on the comely visage (and otherwise) of one of its female stars, and prominent billing of special effects legend Tom Savini. The back cover promo copy was equally intriguing, promising blood, guts and belly laughs, with a tantalizing side of female ninjas.

Despite its surface promise, the film failed to make much of an impact on the rental market, and quietly languished in obscurity other than a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it DVD release from Lucky 13 Collectibles in 2001. The film wasn’t ported to Blu-ray until 2015, in an equally short-lived reissue from 88 Films, and is only currently only available to stream via niche service The Film Detective.

Sweeney Birdwell (Jake Dengel) and Joe Blocker (Joe Sharkey) are two bumbling cops tasked with tracking down a power tools-wielding killer who takes body parts as trophies, and leaves notes written in Egyptian hieroglyphs on each corpse. The case bears an eerie similarity to one Blocker had worked in Las Vegas twelve years earlier. 

Deedee Taylor (Susann Fletcher) is the daughter of Joe’s former partner in Vegas, and when the new deaths appear to tie in to the mysterious disappearance of her dad, she travels to Pittsburgh to help the hapless duo investigate. Despite her only legal authority being her day job as a meter maid, she’s far more competent than either man. The clues lead to the Egyptian district of Pittsburgh, occult rituals, and a shady businessman who has good reason to settle old scores.

This is basically Airplane! for the slasher set, the bulk of the runtime a pile of broad slapstick, one-liners and audio visual gags.  Pharaohs’ best laughs occur when it leans into its own mix and match premise. A riff on horror stinger music cues at the beginning of the film, an increasingly surrealist subplot about Birdwell’s chain smoking wife, and a goofy running gag about the killer being heralded by the sound of a squeaky pushcart (to lug all of that heavy equipment about) work better than the bantering imitation of mainstream hits.

While none of the performances are awful, the three leads don’t quite have the chemistry or comedic timing to make this silliness work quite as well as it should, or make the more retrograde joke topics seem less off-color. Adult film star Veronica Hart (billed here under her given name, Esther Jane Hamilton) is the surprising standout, in a supporting role as a clumsy waitress who might just be the killer’s next victim. She’s charming, comely, and just camp enough that it seems a missed opportunity she wasn’t given more chances as a scream queen. Though her role isn’t huge, the movie is better for it whenever she appears on screen.

Amongst all of the pratfalls, the film is rather coy with its kills, and parcels them out carefully amongst all of the exposition. Tom Savini turns in the exact sort of well-executed grue one would expect from one of the masters of the form, from exposed brains to a rather impressive – for the budget – face melt. Yet the bulk of the kills are rather choppily edited, apparently in a concession to both the ratings board and a conflict between the director Dean Tschetter and producer/co star Beverly Penberthy’s vision for the film. This led to some prints bearing the anonymous “Alan Smithee” credit, and a finished product that will likely leave gorehounds disappointed that Savini’s billing and his work’s actual screen time don’t quite match up.

The film feels a bit older than its early 90s release date would suggest, as its visual aesthetic and references are so heavily steeped in a previous generation’s genre kid nostalgia, from noir-ish detective procedurals and Catskills-style comedy to the obvious loving homage to Herschell Gordon Lewis’ splatter classic, Blood Feast. While not as successful at updating monster kid memories as The Stuff, Killer Klowns From Outer Space, or even the equally H.G. Lewis-obsessed Blood Diner, there is a certain shaggy charm in how devoted Pharaohs is to keeping its tongue firmly in cheek, for as long as that tongue stays attached.

Bloodsucking Pharaohs In Pittsburgh was one of the last gasps of this cheerfully cheesy style of horror comedy that thrived in the VHS era. Just a few short years later, 1994’s meta mega hit Scream would dominate the landscape, and sardonic irony would flood the market with a host of too cool for school black comedy filled spoofs, parodies and shameless rip offs. While certainly slight, Pharaohs at least manages to paper the cracks in its modest goals by being unapologetic in its own goofiness.

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