Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Project DCOM #2: UNDER WRAPS


First aired in October 1997, Under Wraps started a tradition of the mildly scary Halloween-time Disney Channel Original Movie. The Halloween DCOMs are not true horror films, but rather the kind of unexpectedly weird and slightly sharp-edged efforts that could send squeamish tweens under the covers in fright. The themed nature of these titles make them among the most rerun DCOMs, so given this movie’s status as first in a long line of such releases, Under Wraps is no doubt one of the more visible and recognized of its kind.

It’s just as well, since it’s actually fairly entertaining. The movie operates from the same sort of Spielbergian suburban-kids-interact-with-creepy-stuff impulse that would later lead to greater works in recent years like Monster House, ParaNorman, and Super 8. In this case, director Greg Beeman and writer Don Rhymer start the 80s aping right off the bat with an uncannily accurate slasher-style sequence in which a nice family dinner is interrupted by sub-Carpenter-copycat creepiness complete with heavy-breathing POV shots lurking outside windows and a precariously sharp carving knife falling handle first into the garbage disposal.

If this all seems a bit overdone, that is because it’s just a scene from Warthead IV, a movie within the movie that our main kids are watching. The lead (Mario Yedidia) is a horror buff and totally into the schlock they’re watching, but his fraidycat best friend (Adam Wylie) would rather be home watching The Sound of Music, both for its softer tone and Liesl-related charms. Yedidia has none of it. “What do you think happens in horror movies? Horrible things!” he says. Soon, he and his friend, along with an honorary-dude neighbor girl buddy (Clara Bryant), will discover this first hand when they find something seemingly horrible in the basement of a crotchety neighbor’s big creepy house.

As you can probably tell by the mysterious old house and mean old man, the film plays appealingly within the bounds of good, solid tropes of its genre. The kids have some funny banter as they snoop around the man’s house until they find a gold sarcophagus and moonlight awakens the undead Egyptian inside it. Here the movie shows its true colors, shaking off the dusty freak-out expectations and heads straight to just-short-of-macabre tween comic fantasy territory. The mummy (Bill Fagerbakke, best known as the voice of SpongeBob’s pal Patrick) is played for laughs with mumbling, incomprehensible dialogue and stumbling, shuffling pratfalls. One of the first things he does upon waking is to take a bathroom break. “Man, that mummy had to go!” one of the kids marvels as the sound of the undead man’s stream echoes from off-screen.

More humor comes from the mummy’s culture shock as he grunts in surprise at the likes of drive-thrus and cars. Hey, if you were wrapped up in a box for thousands of years, you’d be surprised at the state of the world too. He quickly becomes a sort of combination buddy and pet for our trio of kids, who must keep him, well, under wraps. It’s E.T. (a film referenced by name here) with a mummy, complete with our lead’s divorced mom (Corrine Bohrer) providing a hint of dramatic subplot spice. Of course, the kids aren’t alone in the main plot. They go to one of those only-in-the-movies rare bookstores where the owner knows all about the mysteries of the paranormal necessary to further the plot.

Under Wraps is a modest, charming little movie, eager to please without stooping to mugging for attention. The kids have a nice natural rapport and the surprisingly sweet mummy is cause for an enjoyable physical performance. I’m not going to make any claims of greatness for this effort, but it’s a solid version of exactly what it wants to be. It’s really no wonder why it kicked off a tradition of more overtly genre-oriented holiday-themed Disney Channel movies.

Up next: You Lucky Dog

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