‘Intrepid-archaeologist-disturbs-ancient-evil’ has got to be one of the most ubiquitous horror movie tropes out there; our seemingly irrepressible intrepid-ness means we’re forever sticking our trowels in where they’re not wanted, opening up some cursed tomb and awakening some demonic spirit from a millenium-long nap. When will we learn? Some things are just better off left buried…
But it’s not always our fault. Sometimes, the archaeologist is called upon to save the day with that obscure bit of ancient knowledge that can help boot that diabolical demon right back where it came from. So, grab your best pillow; you might need it bury your face in as we start our countdown of 10 of the best (and worst) horror movies featuring archaeologists that we managed to dig up from the deepest, dustiest depths of our DVD collection… All in time for halloween.
1. The Original
The Mummy (1932) As the first horror movie ever to feature an archaeologist, this is where the whole genre of archaeological horror begins! Made in 1932, not long after Howard Carter’s famous discovery of Tutankhamun and the notorious spate of deaths among the crew that followed, The Mummy features an Egyptologist who oh-so-very-inconsiderately awakens the mummy (played by Boris Karloff) from his 4,000 year snooze. I mean, which self-respecting undead pharoah wouldn’t want revenge after that?
2. The Most Famous
The Exorcist (1973) It’s probably the most famous horror movie of all time and certainly one of the least forgettable, but its surprising how few people recall the all-important opening scene in which we see Father Merrin excavating in the Iranian desert. Suddenly, just as he sets eyes on a statue of Pazuzu – an Assyrian wind demon, the wind picks up and a look of dread falls across Father Merrin’s face… If the statue’s grotesque phallus isn’t enough to convince you it’s the same demon that later possesses Regan in her bed, then all is revealed in Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005).
3. The Most Recent
As Above, So Below (2014) Despite its pretentious title, As Above, So Below has a pretty basic set-up: intrepid archaeologist Scarlett leads a motley crew of Parisian partygoers on an ill-fated mission to retrieve a forbidden treasure from the miles of twisting catacombs that lie beneath modern-day Paris. But this is archaeological horror with a twist… There’s no ancient evil here, just modern paranoia, because as the team crawl through a series of increasingly confined spaces, they begin a grisly descent into their own insanity. Claustrophobes beware; this one will push your (panic) buttons.
4. The One with The Biggest Explosion
Stonehenge Apocalypse (2010) Ok, ok, so this is probably more sci-fi than horror, but not only does this film have the biggest explosion, it’s probably (definitely!) also the most absurd. From ancient sites around the world being the seat of an ancient network of power to there being a man on the moon, this one draws on all things pseudoarchaeological. The plot is triggered when archeologists (those clumsy oafs!) unearth an Egyptian burial chamber in Maine (uhuh, Maine) and accidentally set off an electromagnetic pulse that originates in Stonehenge and unleashes a series of devastating shockwaves at the most famous sites around the world. As Aztec pyramids crumble, conspiracy-theorist Dr Jacob Glaser, some “scientists” and a team of British commandos embark on a race against time and logic to prevent the same force responsible for creating life on Earth from cleansing the planet to herald the dawn of a new age.
5. The One with Vinnie Jones
Beware of the bog, for there you will find a re-animated bog body and… Vinnie Jones trying to hunt it down with a shotgun. In this action-packed Irish thriller, two archaeologists – a professor and his pupil who both happen to be experts on bog bodies – get lost on their way to a nearby excavation and stumble upon Vinnie’s remote cabin where they spend the night. Why has the bog body awoken? Are the archaeologists hiding something? Or are they there to save the day? Soon they’re trapped at the center of the brutal battle between Vinnie and the vengeful bog body…
6. The One with the Most Cats
Demonia (1980) In 1498, five nuns are brutally murdered and crucified by a mob of angry Sicilian villagers. 500 years later, along comes Paul Evans, the world’s most arrogant archeology professor and his superstitious pupil Liza. They’re here to look for Greek relics, but obviously Liza just can’t help but enter the long-sealed medieval convent nearby to unleash the nuns’ demonic spirits and a string of disgusting deaths. But is Liza the real killer? Or Paul? In this gory Italian nunsploitation flick, nothing is clear, but the deaths inflicted by everything from killer-cats to tortuous-trees are so gross you’ll be rolling on the floor like a pair of possessed eyeballs.
7. The One with the Tourists
The Ruins (2008) Ok, this time you can’t blame the archaeologists (well, not unless you think they should have sealed off the location and hung up huge signs with terrifying symbols warning the general public to stay the hell away). But when’s that ever kept out a horror movie’s protagonists? Sure enough, a leisurely holiday turns sour when a bunch of American tourists visit a remote archaeological site in the Mexican jungle. Of course, they become entangled (literally) in a brutal struggle with… some flesh-eating vines. Bet you weren’t expecting that! Admittedly, there are no archaeologists in this one, but it’s still worth the watch if a) you’re just so into ancient archaeological sites you want any excuse to see one up on the big screen or b) you just really want to know who wins in the battle between tourists and flesh eating vines…
8. The One That’s the Most French
Broceliande (2002) Archaeology student Chloé joins an excavation in the legendary French forest of Broceliande. According to myth, it’s the burial site of King Arthur and Merlin. Sounds idyllic. But soon after their arrival, a series of murders begins to thin the ranks of the diggers. It turns out a vicious pagan beast is on the loose and it’s down to Chloé to rack her brains for that obscure bit of pagan lore that will save her from ending up on the rack herself…
9. The One That’s Just the Most Terrible
Now, there are some pretty atrocious archaeology horrors out there, but this one? Well, suffice it to say a party of archaeologists discover the remnants of a mutant five-millennia-old Sumerian civilization living beneath a glacier atop a mountain in Mesopatamia…
10. The One Where the Archaeologist Actually Saves the Day
Hiruko The Goblin (1990) Let’s see… what have we got here? A school built on the gates of hell, severed heads that spawn spider legs at night and an ancient Shinto tradition which alludes to the burial of an ancient evil. If that all sounds like the recipe for an apocalyptic disaster, it is. But none of it is the fault of archaeologist Hieda whose oft-ridiculed theory about the existence of goblins is taken seriously when strange things begin happening at the local school. Sure enough, Hieda takes it upon himself to save the day and confront Hiruko… Come on Hieda! We’re totally rooting for you!
And finally… the Bonus One (i.e., The We’re Actually Going to Watch!)
The Lair of the White Worm (1988) is an absolute classic. Based on a Bram Stoker novel, it stars Peter Capaldi as the unwitting Scottish archaeology student Angus Flint, and Hugh Grant as the local toff. And it’s not just horrifyingly bad fun, it also contains the most graphic explanation of stratigraphy ever seen on the big screen…
DigVentures crowdfunds archaeological projects that everyone can be part of, in the UK and overseas. With help from people all over the world, we investigate the past and publish our discoveries online for free. Become a DigVentures Subscriber and be part of great archaeology - all year round!