Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Dr. Jones I Presume?: MARK OF THE SCORPION (1986)

Just like Indiana Jones travels the globe in search of objects of art that people have rarely seen, our job here is to do the same. Ok, so these days, travelling is, uhhh, minimal, but still we dig in obscure places for hand crafted things that are stunning to behold, at least in one way or another. I'm sure not all of Indy's adventures have led him to incredible finds that warp men's minds (and faces). There have to be plenty where he scratched around in the dirt and came away with the jawbone of an ass. Much like we did here. Actually, a jawbone of an ass was something that was useful to someone at some time. MARK OF THE SCORPION (aka KISS OF THE COBRA and BETTER KISS A COBRA) could only be described that way because it brought the filmmakers some money by producing the cheapest hunk of junk possible and pawning it off on unsuspecting distributors hungry for product to stuff onto video store shelves complete with box art that is nothing more than a nest of lies.

Set in "West Sahara" in 1936, we are told of a group of soldiers, known as The Scorpions because of their scorpion tattoos, are rounded up and imprisoned for robbing the military and providing arms to the Berbers. So I guess what they are saying is that The Scorpions were mercenaries assisting the Berber rebellion against the Spanish occupation and the eventual combined forces of the Spanish and French armies that put down the rebellion in 1934. Too bad they didn't actually say that because most viewers in 1986 probably had no idea what the hell they were talking about because they would have had to actually dig out an encyclopedia and look up the history of Western Sahara.

Our hero, Phil Stone (Andy J. Forest) - yes, that's his name - descends on a rope into a small hole filled with human bones, gold treasures and snakes. Why did it have to be snakes? Because RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981), that's why. Oh, and also Egyptian statues. Even though the Egyptian empire was literally on the other side of the continent. But whatever, adventure! After searching the burial site (by which I mean, just kind of glancing around his general vicinity), Phil climbs up to find he is surrounded by angry Arabs who accuse him of profaning their tombs! You know what this means, right? Yeah, we got a fight! After a quick scuffle that puts Phil ahead, he is quickly knocked unconscious because one dude has a bullwhip. So this means that he'll grab the whip and use it in the rest of the movie, right? Nah, too much effort. The Arabs search him and find no treasures that whitey has profaned, so they just decide to give up and leave. Unbeknownst to them, our brave hero was playing possum and had secretly stashed a golden ring in his mouth. Because Phil is an archaeologist and therefore respecter of antiquity, he immediately goes to sell it to an Arab friend in the middle of the desert who is busy having a hand chopped off of some schmuck who dared to rob a tomb. Seeing that this plan might be unwise, Phil instead just tries to bum a loan. The Arab tells him "My religion says that loans are impure," to which Phil replies "I don't agree with your faith." Zing! The Arab decides gifts are ok, and gives him the necklace that was stolen by the profaner! His faith definitely is strange.

After lying in bed with his married squeeze Maria (Italian porn star Milly D'Abbraccio), he flees the jealous husband by leaping out of a closed window. Savor this moment like a 1934 Chateau Lafite Rothschild because this is pretty much the only action you are going to get in this somnia-inducing cash-grab. Because we have established that he needs money to get on a boat (he has been carrying a random picture of a cruise liner in his pocket for years), he decides to bet the ring, necklace and all of his cash on the Gom Jabbar test. Ok, so it's basically a bet on whether him or some other idiot can put their hand in a box that contains a "cobra", which looks a lot like a European Grass Snake*, and not die. Phil wins, but is instantly arrested by the military police for "killing that man". 
*(thanks to the amazing herpedude Mike Howlett)

Turns out this was an astoundingly elaborate set-up, assisted by Maria(!), to get him back in the local prison camp where Warden Fontaine (Paul Muller) wants Phil to find Cleopatra's treasure. This treasure, which he believes is not only here, nearly 2000 years and 3000 miles away from where Cleopatra sat on her asp, but is actually somewhere in the prison camp! WHAT?! Ok, ok, deep breaths, willing suspension of disbelief, willing suspension of disbelief. Phil, who may be the laziest, slowest and most unemotional hero I've ever seen, at least is no dummy. To this he replies "Do you still believe in Santa Claus?" Yeah, that's tellin' him, Phil!

Phil hooks up with another Scorpion prisoner (who the writer couldn't be bothered to name) to help him out in his hunt. At the same time, the camp's Sargent Kemal (Mohamed Attifi) is suspicious of Phil's constant visits with Fontaine. His master plan to find out what is going on? Kill Phil. Yep, that's his plan. To be fair, the guy is a prison guard in a desert prison camp, so clearly he's about as sharp as a sack of wet camels. The reason Fontaine thinks that the cache is nearby is because he has a medallion that a prisoner found in "The Pit"; a hole in the ground that Fontaine likes to drop surprisingly well-fed looking prisoners into. To accomplish the goal of hunting for treasure in The Pit, Phil says he needs 24 hours of freedom. Fontaine agrees to this, but poisons him with cyanic acid, which he says is fatal in 12 hours. I'm not a chemist, so I don't know, but considering the level of bullshit this movie has shovelled on viewers already, I'm a bit skeptical.

While driving away from the prison, Phil manages to get beaten up by Maria's husband without leaving the Jeep and is unconscious for 6 hours! So that means shit is going to get into gear, right? Nope! Instead Phil casually drives out to see his hand-chopping buddy in the middle of the desert who gives him a history lesson about an earthquake that happened in the region during the reign of Cleopatra. I'm not sure what baffles me more: the fact that an ancient history expert is hanging out in the middle of the desert hacking off hands or the fact that we are expected to believe that an earthquake caused all of Cleopatra's treasure to horizontally move 3000 miles! After some incredibly dull car trouble, Phil heads back to jail where his unnamed Scorpion buddy looking at the marks from his encounter with Maria's husband says "who did that to you?" to which Phil replies "some guy." Did I mention Phil has a wit like a razor?
Scorp dude: "Promise me one thing; should the time ever come, Kemal is mine."
Phil: "Um-hm."

Finally we get into a little action as Phil and Scorp Bro get the prison to riot while they sneak scuba tanks (which weren't invented for another seven years) into The Pit. After travelling through a waterfilled tunnel, they find themselves in some dangerous caves. Why are they dangerous? Phil and Scorp Bro have this exchange to explain:
Phil: "Hold on, with Cleopatra you can't be too careful."
Scorp: "What does that mean?"
Phil: "She was an expert in traps!"
After finding a chest, the cave starts to crumble and Phil shouts "Run!" Just kidding! Phil, blasé as ever, says "The old girl sure knew her traps." Yeah, everybody knows that.

Once back on the surface (Phil planted some dynamite and blows out the entire side of a mountain to escape the crumbling cave), Phil and Scorp Bro open the chest, to find a scroll and some bits of treasure. Phil who has clearly had his brains blown out along with the cliffside, says is worth $2 million! I think Phil needs to find an alternate line of work. Just then Phil's anti-profaner buddy shows up with an army of rifle-toting Berbers. Uh oh, shit's about to get real, right? Ha! You wish! The scroll is just a note left by a grave robber saying that he stole all the treasure, thanks! Phil's Arab buddy decides to take the scroll from the profaners and says he's going to sell it at auction (WHAT?!) and Phil can keep whatever treasure he found. So much for this dude's faith, sheesh.

This white-knuckle adventure comes to a close with Phil and Maria on a ship and Maria telling him that she is going to spend all of his money in America and "didn't you say you'd kiss a cobra? Now you're going to marry one." And again... WHAT?! Are we supposed to cheer at this point? I guess it's just a way to explain the title MEGLIO BACIARE UN COBRA (BETTER TO KISS A COBRA), but man, if my married hook-up got me framed and sent to a desert prison camp, the only ring she'd get from me is a lifepreserver after I throw her off the bow of the ship.

I always talk about us scraping the bottom of the barrel, but damn this one left me with splinters under my nails. In addition to being lethargically paced and stunningly bereft of action and adventure in an action-adventure movie, American actor Andy J. Forest is quite possibly the worst possible pick for an action hero. Or really any role. Inexplicably, he made a small career for himself in Italian exploitation movies, several with Umberto Lenzi. He moves like a sloth on lithium and manages to look incredibly bored even when he's being punched in the face. Though, maybe the movie was as exciting to make as it was to watch. Making this even worse (or maybe better) is the fact that the English dubber clearly didn't think much of Andy either and gives him a voice that sounds like that of a lazy child, which I have to say is a perfect choice. We also have Milly D'Abbraccio popping up occasionally, but strangely doesn't show an inch of skin even in the bedroom sequence. I realize Italians have a much more open and accepting attitude towards adult stars, and maybe they thought this would bring some folks into theaters, but if that were the case, why is there no nudity? Seems a little odd. We also have veteran actor Paul Muller who, while no stranger to schlock, must have wondered how he had sunk from Jess Franco to this.

Also, I know the filmmakers in those days rarely had anything to do with the artwork, but somebody has to take the blame for it! There are a couple of variations, but none tell the ugly truth. There is no blond woman, in blue outfits or not; there are no shotguns; our hero doesn't have brown hair; our hero doesn't have muscles, and never wears an outfit as shown; there is no scene of a person dressed like Indiana Jones repelling with a rope down a giant statue of Amenhotep; and while we're at it, there is no sun with a city surrounding it and the words "New York Video" on it. Unsurprisingly this has never been released to optical media and as such has an incredibly poor VHS transfer that crops off a huge amount of the image on the left and right sides of the screen, like many Italian genre films on home video, without even bothering to pan & scan. Additionally the image is fuzzy and blown out, adding insult to injury. Since it has zero exploitation value, it's no surprise that it's become so hard to come by, but considering what some of the shovelware that boutique blu-ray labels are mega-hyping and over-charging for these days, hell, we may just see this arrive in a 4K UHD remaster. Consider this fair warning.

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