Theatre manager Dennis Bartok’s dream of producing an old-style Amicus anthology film is a noble but very clunky effort, even with the involvement of talents like directors Joe Dante (The Howling), Ken Russell (Altered States), Sean S. Cunningham (Friday the 13th), Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop), and newcomer John Gaeta (visual effects supervisor on the last two Matrix films).
The hook is very simple: seven people with VIP passes for an old Hollywood backlot are given a guided tour by an old-timer, and when they insist on visiting a gloomy haunted house set, they become trapped in the basement. The guide suggests telling their secret, most horrific tales from real-life experiences might free them, since it appears they’ve been brought into the basement to replay a game used in a former classic horror film.
Like Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), the film has disparate strangers ultimately discovering their fates have already been decided by an eeeevil presence, except where Terror’s finale was very straightforward, the ending in Bartok’s script makes absolutely no sense. Are they metaphorically trapped in the haunted house? Are they doomed to wander the same octagonal environs of the basement set for eternity? Are intense sexual cravings ultimately responsible for bringing the group to this doomed purgatory?
And more importantly, why are the women in the film so amazingly dumb?
The conventions of a generic sexploitation or exploitation film pretty much guarantee the female characters won’t be more than prizes or topless furniture, and within that politically incorrect realm, those conventions are fine (because without them, those genres wouldn’t work, and their fans would abandon them for good). What’s consistent in Bartok’s script is that the women aren’t very bright, and are responsible for their own fates as well as their husbands/parents because they don’t act independently.
In the first tale, “The Girl with Golden Breasts,” director Russell is trapped with an initially funny and titillating story of a generic pretty girl whose decision to undergo a breast enlargement yields career success, except the operation has transformed her nipples into carnivorous, blood-thirsty orifices. Exactly why the boob-boosting material (human matter retrieved from cadavers) puts teeth into her nipples is never clarified, nor the role of evil cross-dressing surgeons (one played by Russell himself) who’ve apparently preplanned the whole special augmentation endeavor for needy women. What is clear is that Phoebe (Rachel Veltri) has man-chewing boobs, and eventually they’ll set their sights on her banal boyfriend (Jayce Bartok).
“Jibaku,” directed by Cunningham, has an architect fighting to retrieve his neglected wife from a Japanese demon, and although the story is ostensibly about a couple trying to put some sparks back into their chilled romance, it ends up being a misguided morality tale about a wife whose sense of neglect causes her to liaise with a demon, and torment her husband.
Is hubby Henry responsible for putting his wife Julia (Lara Harris) into a vulnerable state? Sure, since the Japanese trip was more business than pleasure, and she’s treated like a party ornament during the business social soiree that sends her into the arms of a stranger, but the couple’s ills are the fault of both sides, since Julia has to willfully give in to copulating with a disintegrating corpse instead of her husband in order for the possession to take place.
The film’s third tale, “Stanley’s Girlfriend,” is, as director Hellman, describes, a musing on why iconic filmmaker Stanley Kubrick left the United States and remained in Europe for the rest of his career.
Well, sort of.
The premise involves a ménage a trios between photographer/critically acclaimed director “Stanley” (Tygh Runyan), screenwriter/best friend Leo (Tahmoh Penikett), and pretty girl Nina (Amy Markle), who never really sleeps much, and just kind of hangs around, nibbles on breakfast, and likes sex a lot.
As in the other segments, the set décor and design is beautiful, and there’s a good evocation of the fuzzy late-forties/early fifties period the characters inhabit, but while essentially a character piece, the horror aspects don’t make much sense.
Stanley leaves Leo with Nina to presumably pursue his desire to make a “24 hour movie,” and one suspects the romance between the other two characters in Stanley’s bed is the subject of some secretive, fetishistic work, but the big twist reveals Nina to be some kind of succubus, with the proof coming from a scratchy black & white film segment from pre-war Czechoslovakia starring Nina.
Was Nina the star of some aborted Czech horror film? Or was it some chance encounter by an amateur filmmaker that captured the succubus in heat? Or more importantly, why would a timeless creature with an obvious need for self-preservation allow herself to be filmed by someone?
The last tale, “My Twin – The Worm,” is the most promising because it deals with jealousy, betrayal, child abuse, and the weird relationship that supposedly evolves when a mother (Michèle-Barbara Pelletier) allows for a tapeworm to grow in her body so that she can safely carry her child to full term.
In the final story, “My Twin – The Worm, ” a mega-dose of iron would kill both the tapeworm and baby Nathalie in Martine’s belly, and yet the baby’s delivery doesn’t save a doomed marriage, thus sending Nathalie into the arms of her philandering Papa (Luke Macfarlane) and his new wife Annie (Deanna Milligan), Martine’s former best friend and confidante.
When Annie doesn’t take kindly to Nathalie’s strange habit of hiding pockets of food around the house, Nathalie sends her “twin” – the now giant-sized worm – to kill.
Not explained nor clearly revealed in the effects is whether the worm is indeed real, and if so, why it lives in the walls of the house. Did the mother give birth to the worm? Doesn’t a tapeworm live in the intestinal tract and not the uterus? Wouldn’t the person who found Martine in the forest after she delivered Nathalie also see the giant worm, and kind of be compelled to kill it (or keep it as a curio in a gerkin jar)?
The wraparound stories involving the doomed Group of Seven were directed by Dante, and while it’s great to see some fine veteran directors at work – Russell’s virtually disappeared into obscurity, Hellman hasn’t directed a film in twenty years, Cunningham more or less retired from theatrical film directing after Deepstar Six (1989) – as well as some familiar genre actors (including John Saxon as the older screenwriter Leo who retells the “Stanley” tale, and Dante’s stock company regulars Gibson and Dick Miller), Trapped Ashes seems to make sense as a tribute film – but only when one has heard producer Bartok and his directors discuss the meaning of their stories in the DVD extras.
Cunningham had fun interpolating some minor CGI material from Japanese silk paintings into his segment; Gaeta played with footage of wombs, worms, and fetuses for some creepy montages; and Russell, for better or worse, got to appear in drag and sport a pair of boobs, but there’s no satisfying payoff to the four tales of terror because their endings are deliberately kept loose: when a character has finished telling their ‘most frightening moment,’ the punchline is that they and/or their loved ones are already doomed, and being trapped in the house basement is their punishment or final resting place because they were too vain or greedy or hungry for their own good.
Or something like that.
On the plus side, Lionsgate’s DVD comes loaded with unexpected extras, such as a longer Director’s Cut of Hellman’s segment (mostly extra dialogue and character scenes), a longer edit of Russell’s segment, some deleted scenes, a running commentary track over the feature film, and making-of featurettes for each segment as well as the wraparound stories.
Bartok’s friendship with some of the directors (due to his tenure as programmer for the Egyptian Theater) managed to rescue several neglected directors from boredom, but it’s unfortunate the material they had to vivify mostly centers on boobs and weakly drawn female characters with I.Q. no denser that cheap toast.
The cinematography by Zoran Popovic (Grace, The Lost) manages to give the small-scale production a glossy look, but it’s baffling why none of the directors mined their locations for any wide shots (unless producer Bartok wanted all shots trained on characters and films sets to create a claustrophobic feel).
The electronic and orchestra-sampled score by Kenji Kawai (Ringu) addresses the stylistic needs of each segment, but his period music for “Stanley” falls far from the mark. The soundtrack’s sound design is fairly strong, particularly the grotesque effects in Russell’s “Golden Breasts” segment.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan