Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankhamun
Like many people, I find that there are certain types of films that appeal so strongly to me on a conceptual level that I tend to cut them considerable slack when reviewing them. Often times, even the very worst of these films, like when Santo is old and fat and spends half the film driving a station wagon to the grocery store, muster enough of the elements I like to keep me satisfied. And one of my very favorite genres is the Eurospy film and the various offshoots and influenced tributaries — among them the Italian fumetti-inspired films. As we covered in some weird and convoluted fashion in our review of Kriminal and the three Turkish Kilink films, as well as Danger Diabolik, fumetti were saucy Italian comic books populated by sexy, violent anti-heroes and villains. Super-thief Diabolik became the flashpoint for a whole series of comics and related films that drew both from Diabolik and the James Bond movies. Diabolik himself was a throwback to the old pulp heroes like The Shadow, The Spider, and European counterparts like Fantomas — with a bit of Batman thrown in for good measure.
Most of the heroes and villains of fumetti did not possess super powers. They simply liked dressing up in outlandish body stockings and kicking people in the head. Needless to say, the combination of gratuitous sex appeal in the form of various Eurobabes slinking around in mod 60s mini-wear, combined with garish space-age sets and amoral violence really speaks to a sophisticated man like me. So I tend to gravitate toward these fumetti-inspired films whenever I can find them, and I’m always happy to discover new ones (such as the ones from Turkey). However, it ain’t all steak and onions, and if the 1968 fumetti film Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankhamen proves nothing else, it proves that it is possible to make a film that will disappoint even someone like me with my incredibly low standards.
Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankhamen may be infamous to some for squandering an awesome title and the lovely Lucretia Love in a movie that, in its best moments, manages to be a middling affair. To others, it is infamous merely by association. Wait, let’s backtrack. To most people, it isn’t infamous at all, because they’ve never even heard of it. But among people who keep track of movies with titles like Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankhamen, the film is notable as the debut (or very close to it) directorial effort from Italian exploitation filmmaker Ruggero Deodato.
Deodato is a man who has built his entire career on the shoulders of the controversy generated by his infamous cannibal gore films — specifically Cannibal Holocaust, a film that amazes me in its ability to be simultaneously disgusting and boring, shocking and banal. Cloaked in the taboo surrounding the film’s content — Deodato was put on trial by a prosecutor who was convinced the film contained actual human snuff footage, instead of just actual animal snuff footage — Cannibal Holocaust has passed into the rarefied airs of the best known and most infamous cult films in the world. What gets lost amid all the stone dildo rape and ass-to-mouth impaling is that stripped of these few Grand Guignol scenes of brutality, Cannibal Holocaust is a really boring film helmed by a largely pedestrian director. Hell, even with them, the movie is still kind of dull, though if nothing else, it serves as a very useful intellectual exercise for twenty year olds in film studies classes, wanting to prove how shocking yet insightful their reading of the film is. And yes, shamefully I speak from first-hand experience.
Deodato’s short-comings as a director are made more obvious when you have to watch one of his films that doesn’t benefit from several minutes of controversial cannibal torture footage. As I am a sucker, I have seen pretty much everything he’s done short of the various TV movies he directed, and then something about a washing machine full of dead people or something, and there’s really only been two times that Deodato kept me entertained from start to finish. In my younger and more formative years, I admit I was a booster for films like Jungle Holocaust and even Cannibal Holocaust (actually, I admit I still sort of like Jungle Holocaust), but once the initial gee-whiz shock wears off, you’re left forcing yourself through a really boring couple of movies.
Really, the only times Deodata succeeded for me was with the outlandish Raiders of Atlantis, which propels itself along under power of its own brain-twisting looniness, and Barbarians, a sword and sorcery clusterfuck that is as infamous for being idiotic as Cannibal Holocaust is for being disgusting and boring. I guess my big problem with Deodata is his need to intellectually justify the basest of his works by casting them as “cautionary tales” of the hoary old “who’s the real savage?” vein. Sort of like the endless string of films that teach me heroin is bad for you, or that absolute power can corrupt you. Thanks, movie makers of the world, for these news flashes. I never would have thought to question the brutality of modern man if Deodata didn’t force me to, just like I never would have dreamed that people with untold amounts of power might go mad with it until Caligula taught me otherwise. But heck, at least Caligula is funny, and it has even more film school intellectuals attempting to rationalize and justify its excesses.
Even with the Deodato films I’ve enjoyed, it’s often been despite his direction, rather than because of it. Raiders of Atlantis gets by on weirdness, and on hot pink-haired Filipino Road Warrior chicks. Barbarians gets by on the astounding yet affable ineptness of its twin bodybuilder stars. Neither of these films could ever be taken seriously — unless you see Barbarians as a cautionary tale about letting annoying jugglers and mimes have free passage throughout your kingdom — and that’s probably what makes them tolerable. Most of Deodato’s other work is just as incompetent, but with the added bonus of having a pretentious moral forced in to make the film seem more palatable and smarter.
Given that Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankhamen has the title Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankhamen, and given that it was a comic book movie supposedly cut from the same cloth as Diabolik and Kriminal, I expected to enjoy the hell out of it despite a rookie Deodato being behind the camera. With any luck, his penchant for making boring movies out of intriguing topics would not yet have kicked in. Alas that being boring seems to be the core competency he showed right out of the gate, and rather than ending up being cut from the same cloth as Diabolik and Kriminal, Phenomenal is more assembled as an elementary school art class project out of the scraps left over. Against all logical presumptions based on the title and the subject matter, Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankhamen ends up being a barely watchable bore that is notable only for its ability to turn a movie about villains trying to steal King Tut’s treasures being foiled by a dude in a featureless black pantyhose mask into something fairly uninteresting.
Things start out fairly promising, as we join a drug smuggling operation already in progress. Unfortunately for our dastardly ne’r-do-wells, mysterious superhero Phenomenal has smuggled himself onto their smuggling boat, and as they approach the docks, he sets about kicking some ass. Notable is that Phenomenal, unlike most of the other fumetti heroes who made it onto the big screen, is actually a hero. Diabolik and Kriminal were thieves, and certainly not above the occasional murder. But Phenomenal is expressly on the side of the good guys, operating with the blessing — or at least with the appreciation — of the local police. Also notable is that Phenomenal has the lamest superhero outfit I’ve seen in a long time. He wears the aforementioned featureless black mask, which he somehow manages to see out of despite the lack of eyeholes, and this mask he accessorizes with…a long sleeve black t-shirt and a pair of plain black dungarees. Seriously? Diabolik took the time to buy himself all sorts of cool latex suits, and Kilink spent a whole week knitting himself skeleton themed bodystockings — and Phenomenal shows up in jeans and a turtleneck? That’s like being the obnoxious kid who shows up on Halloween wearing a cardboard box and says he’s a cardboard box when everyone else has awesome Frankenstein and Dracula outfits. Unfortunately, Phenomenal’s lame outfit pretty much embodies the thrill level of the movie as a whole.
To be fair, the opening is good stuff, and exactly what I wanted from the film. And if you, like me, enjoy it, I suggest you watch it a couple times, because that’s pretty much the last you’ll be seeing of Phenomenal or of action for a long time. The drug smuggling foiled, Phenomenal dives into the bay, and the plot proper kicks in. A priceless collection of treasures from the tomb of King Tut are on display at the local museum, so naturally security is skittish since every criminal gang in Europe is plotting to steal the treasures. Since, you know, that’s what criminal gangs spend their time doing, rather than running prostitution and extortion rackets. Seriously, when was the last time you picked up a newspaper and read the headline, “Mafia Steals Tut’s Mask! Scotland Yard Baffled!” Maybe I wouldn’t have put it past John Gotti — he liked to be flamboyant, and has a jacket made from the skin of unborn wolves (or so I was once told). But besides him, I think Tut’s treasures are safe from any gangs of guys in gold chains and jogging suits.
But they are not safe from big Gordon Mitchell, who leads one of the criminal gangs intent on stealing King Tut’s treasures. Of course, they’re not the only ones after the goods, and things are further complicated by the fact that cheap but convincing copies of the treasures were made for security reasons. Also thrown into the mix is the standard issue fun-loving, Bruce Wayne style rich guy, Count Guy Norton, played by Mauro Parenti. We are immediately lead to believe that maybe he’s Phenomenal, but of course, the most obvious character is never revealed to be the masked man — unless the film is exceptionally clever or exceptionally dumb. In the end, I’m not even sure why the film played coy with Phenomenal’s identity, as it never becomes crucial to the plot, and it never manages to make the viewer give a damn one way or the other. I will say that if you do have a secret identity and a signature costume, no matter how lame, you probably shouldn’t carry it folded neatly on top of everything else in your luggage when going to the airport.
Most of the film revolves around Gordon Mitchell’s thugs plotting to steal the treasure, getting double-crossed, and then plotting again to steal the treasure. Seriously, man, you’re a super-powerful gangster. Surely you can hire better help, or I don’t know. Beat up old people who run delis and make them pay you protection money. Or just open a casino. There are lots of ways for thuggish mobsters to get rich without having to concoct elaborate plans to steal stuff from natural history museums. But maybe I’m being crass and shallow, assuming that it’s all about the money. Maybe it’s the thrill of cat burglary, or the beauty of the objects d’art. Or maybe Gordon just wants to put on King Tut’s mask and run around town making groaning noises and scaring Lou Costello and Buckwheat. I guess I can see the appeal in that.
Eventually, Phenomenal shows up to stand on the rocks along a winding country road, where he can put his arms on his hips and laugh at people. This was Kilink’s specialty, but he usually followed it up by doing a plancha onto a gang of bad guys and starting a fist fight. Phenomenal is in it mostly for the standing around with arms akimbo. But at least our title character is finally back in the movie, leading us on what should be a wild chase across Europe and northern Africa as the various sides steal and re-steal the treasures. Unfortunately, by this point, the film has pretty much drained the viewer of any energy and good will at all, so the globe-trotting final half-hour fails to make up for the previous sixty minutes of uninspired tedium and long shots of Gordon Mitchell’s living room.
My standard disclaimer applies: I hate hating movies. Teleport City has never been about “ripping bad films a new one.” I genuinely enjoy enjoying movies, and if my taste is somewhat suspect, that’s really only bad for the people who read these reviews and then get fooled into thinking they want to watch Asambhav just because I liked it. And if there’s anything I hate more than hating movies, its hating movies I really thought I was guaranteed to like. It never occurred to me, before viewing the film, that I would be anything but overjoyed by Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankhamen. So about half way through, I was more than bored; I was genuinely distraught, like something had gone horribly, horribly wrong. “No!” I yelled earnestly and confused at the television as I watched yet another scene of Gordon Mitchell sitting in a recliner. “No! You’re supposed to be a great movie! Come on! Quit messing with me!” but by the time the credits rolled, I had to hang my head in sadness and admit that, despite all the rooting I’d done for it, despite the fact that I believed in it, Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankhamen let me down like a politician six months after getting elected on appealing campaign promises. My opinion of Deodato, already low as you know, was made even worse now that he had wandered into one of my favorite genres and stunk the joint up.
But I try to be positive, and so let me first mention some of the few good things Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankhamen delivers. That first scene was short but cool, with Phenomenal wearing that dress sock on his head and punching out a lot of guys. The music that accompanies that scene, and plays throughout, is far better than the movie in which it appears. Bruno Nicoli was one of the stalwarts of Italian film music, and he’s rarely not on top of his game, even if the movie for which he’s writing music leaves a lot to be desired. And although it’s too little too late, the finale is sort of fun, including a great little fight that stumbles into a women’s steam room — a scene for which there exist several stills featuring the women doing nudity. That was either done for some unseen “international” version, or purely as titillation for the promotional stills, because when the fight actually happens, the women all manage to keep their towels wrapped around them, since even a giant guy beating up a dude in black dungarees with a black toboggan pulled over his face isn’t enough to make a proper lady forget her modesty.
Not that gratuitous boob shots would have helped this movie — they just wouldn’t have hurt. But a couple fun fights and the coy promise of flesh aren’t always enough to salvage a film, and Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankhamen has more problems than can be compensated for with those meager table scraps. Phenomenal himself is an obvious rip-off of Diabolik, minus the menacing cool streak, hot girlfriend, awesome lair, and cool collection of cars. Where as Diabolik makes love on a rotating bed covered in stolen hundred dollar bills, Phenomenal seems more likely to find a penny stuck to his ass after he’s finished jerking off on the couch. He may stand like Diabolik, and laugh like Diabolik, and wear the Wal-Mart Halloween costume version of Diabolik’s outfit, but Phenomenal is certainly no Diabolik. But that’s OK since Ruggero Deodato is no Mario Bava. Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankhamen never achieves that phantasmagoric, sprawling, big budget feel that Diabolik managed without a big budget. Everything here feels small and uninspired.
The performances of the actors deserve a better movie. No one here is bad at all, though Gordon Mitchell does at times look like he’s completely forgotten he’s in a movie and is thinking about something else. Still, are you going to pick on Gordon Mitchell? He’ll kick sand in your face and steal your girl, leaving you in the lurch to contemplate purchasing a “Charles Atlas Secrets of Dynamic Tension” informational package. As Count Norton, Mauro Parenti is serviceably bland. He lacks the smoldering hotness of John Phillip Law, who played Diabolik, and the impish charm of Kriminal’s Glenn Saxson, but if nothing else, he’s too dull to be bad. It’s no big shock that he never became a big star. It’s also not a big shock that he was the producer of this film, not that I’m suggesting he made this film purely as an exercise in vanity. Lucretia Love, who shows up as a love interest/possible criminal/possible good guy, is always a welcome sight, but amid a flimography that includes Battle of the Amazons, The Arena, From Istanbul: Orders to Kill, and Seven Blood-Stained Orchids, a lump of a movie like Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankhamen tends to just get forgotten.
There are probably worse fumetti movies out there, but right now, this one is the bottom of the barrel for me. Doedato disappoints on every level and fails to deliver pretty much everything you’d want from a fumetti inspired film. It’s a shame a title like Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankhamen was wasted on a movie that can’t live up to its promise. You really shouldn’t be calling yourself Phenomenal if you aren’t.
Release Year: 1968 | Country: Italy | Starring: Mauro Parenti, Lucretia Love, Gordon Mitchell, John Karlsen, Carla Romanelli, Cyrus Elias, Charles Miller, Mario Cecchi, Agostino De Simone, Teresa Petrangeli, Spartaco Battisti, Bernardo Bruno, Mario De Rosa, Pieraldo Ferrante, Enrico Marciani | Writer: Ruggero Deodato | Director: Ruggero Deodato | Cinematographer: Roberto Reale | Music: Bruno Nicolai | Original Title: Fenomenal e il tesoro di Tutankamen