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June 10, 2007

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Movie Review – Evil Dead Trap (1988)

by JAMES BRIGHAM

IMITATION, WHAT’S UP? HEY, HAVE YOU MET FLATTERY?

One afternoon a few years back during a jaunt through the DVD section of the local Best Buy electronics store, I grew curious about a film with an eerie cover that was prominently placed in the Horror aisle. Its gloomy title, Evil Dead Trap, was the first thing to catch my eye. I immediately saw it as a variant on the good name value of The Evil Dead – a kinetic and gruesome zombie romp which I happen to regard as being one of the scariest movies ever made. A hearty endorsement from Oliver Stone by way of a quote on the front further piqued my interest. Stone declared it to be, “A daring and grim thriller,” and that, “[it] reveals Japan’s twisted sexual soul one terrifying scene after another.”

While I was unable to purchase the film that day, I was nonetheless intrigued and retained memory of the title for entry in my massive list of films to see. A recent trip to Indy’s wonderfully eclectic Mass. Ave Video presented me the chance to finally experience the long gestating Evil Dead Trap. Disappointingly, the resulting foray was not through an untapped realm of celluloid shock, but instead into a veritable PowerPoint presentation on horror tropes. This enormous buildup of curious anticipation was met with a bevy of images brazenly exposing their influences onscreen. The majority of the exercise felt like a late night infomercial – a “Best Of” scene assembly only bereft of a bubbly blond and an established genre star to pitch the product to the masses:

“Dario, this collection is a must-have for anybody who grew up on the drive-in creeper double features or the late night VHS monster movie rentals! It’s even got classic riffs from the Italian horror wave, including your own Deep Red and Suspiria!” the perky nymph would chirp while optimally holding the merchandise for the camera.

“That’s right, Sharon. This has all the blood-curdling chart toppers and cult fads from the 70’s and 80’s compiled onto one handy disc,” Mr. Argento would lowly respond in Italian, his half-lidded eyes barely moving. “Do you remember clutching your boyfriend’s shirt in terror during this scene of ocular destruction?”

True to this promise, Evil Dead Trap almost immediately kicks us in the metaphorical gut with a bizarro gross out bit of eyeball gouging that seems ripped (no pun intended) straight from Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2 (or The Beyond, I can’t decide which). The viewer is further “rewarded” with a creepily sparse electronic theme and a masked killer (Carpenter’s Halloween – Shatner mask replaced by camo gear); static-filled televisions projecting crazed peril (Cronenberg’s Videodrome); and extreme zoom-ins on disgusting insect mounds in the walls (Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, with maggots in lieu of spiders).

“Wow, Dario,” our commercial co-host would quietly respond. “That’s quite the anthology. There can’t be any more, can there? Please?” Sharon would gulp while brushing blond highlights out of her eyes and glancing off-screen.

“Wrong, Sharon!” Dario would exclaim, his corpse like demeanor slowly dissolving as a result of the energizing montage. The star director would point his fingers towards the viewer – his gloved hands mimicking pistol shapes. “You also get these horror hits!”

Evil Dead Trap further features tromps down mist filled industrial tunnels (Scott’s Alien); a writhe worthy sexual assault (Craven’s Last House on the Left); a killer inevitable comeback (Friday the 13th); and a suit wearing, riddle speaking, mystery character who seems to have wandered in from a David Lynch movie. And those are just the major examples! I’m sure that for each one of the colossal, Lovecraftian tentacles this film-beast has wrapped around preexisting horror, there’s a dozen smaller tendrils that help latch the movie onto its genre predecessors.

None of these scenes are poorly crafted, mind you. The assembly of each is competently done and all too often they’re quite effective at conveying the intent of Evil Dead Trap: to whittle away at your sense of a safe reality with a steady procession of nightmare scenarios. To momentarily brush aside the larger questions of such fare’s cultural worth and “entertainment” value, the problem with this set-up is that film can’t disguise the fact that its success is the result of outright duplication. It’s like a grade school kid who wears his first place science fair medal out to the family’s celebratory dinner at Applebee’s – and then continues to display it around his neck for a week afterward. Congratulations, lad, you successfully recreated an experiment that Newton performed 303 years ago; don’t hold your breath waiting for that NASA recruitment call.

The premise for getting us into this haunted homage house has to be one of the most mind-blowing examples of character stupidity that I’ve yet seen in my short life on this planet. Nami (Miyuki Ono), a popular hostess of a wild and weird late night TV show receives an unmarked video in the mail and is aghast to see what looks to be a professionally edited snuff film. Her curiosity overwhelms her disgust and she consults her boss at the station to see what an appropriate follow-up action would be.

His response? Don’t report this to the police – it will just start trouble. Also, don’t go investigating this on your own – you could get killed. He’s a living, breathing roadblock, neither willing to cater to what reality dictates nor to the conventions of stereotypical horror plots.

Luckily for us (or unluckily, depending on viewpoint) Nami’s determined to get to the bottom of this case and quickly assembles a gaggle of coworkers to assist her. For you see, in addition to the dark murder, the video contains footage shot from a car showing street signs and highway exits – it even displays the decrepit factory in which the activity allegedly occurs. With this handy media map in tow, the team speeds off to illuminate the dark maw of the unknown.

With such a serious assignment, you’d think that these folks would be focused on the task at hand with laser intensity. That is not the case. Evil Dead Trap’s unoriginality rears its head once again by giving us dim buffoons who debate the veracity of the footage in an infuriatingly casual and carefree way. To me (and most rational people, I’d hope), the content of Nami’s tape is a step away from ending with a shot of a giant sign over the complex entrance reading, “You Will Die in Here. Welcome!” Wouldn’t it be poetic if this plant had formerly been a mousetrap factory?

I recognize that most folks in horror movies are content to split up when reasonable people in the real world would stick to each other like glue. I would suppose that I’m having particular difficulty swallowing that notion with Evil Dead Trap when the characters in question are all late twenties / middle aged career men and women and not a bunch of stupid teenagers. In addition, even though they work for a tabloid TV show, it seems like watching a video (allegedly) containing a violent demise would be enough to invoke a degree of stoic professionalism. This isn’t an urban legend about a ghost or a man with a hook – it’s mailed footage. Hoax or not, that implies human activity and human beings are often capable of violence. Bearing that in mind, it doesn’t seem like the ideal time to be pulling pranks on each other and wandering off to have mid-afternoon lovemaking sessions.

Although it may be a thinly disguised haunted house, the set design for the plant is noteworthy for its variety of debris and abnormal visual trappings. Otherwise similar areas are differentiated by tilting the camera angle or by casting the scene in a previously unseen color of light. Director Toshiharu Ikeda also likes to create themed rooms based around a peculiar prop: webs of wires extending from floor to ceiling; a series of skeleton paintings adorning the walls; hell, one space even has strategically placed mirrors and a strobe light! I don’t know if they have haunted houses in Japan like they do in America, but if not Ikeda unconsciously recreated the atmosphere of one.

Traditional American sensibilities and typical horror expectations are best checked at the door when watching this particular film. If there’s the slightest chance something will elicit fright or revulsion, it will show up somewhere in this installation. The movie is more in tune with the “anything goes” chaotic style of Italian horror and bears little attention to the rational mind or demands of coherency. And if that’s not the rationale, then the film’s writer, Takashi Ishii, spent a ton of time role playing as a kid. There are enough hidden pits, jutting spikes, and flying arrows in Evil Dead Trap to fill an AD&D adventure module. Even those Americans growing accustomed to the recent spurt of J-Horror English language remakes might be taken aback, as this movie shares of none of that trend’s symbolism or folklore.

The by-the-numbers presentation hurts Evil Dead Trap greatly and I would normally be inclined to rate it as a completely average film. What partially prevents me from doing this is Miyuki Ono’s performance as Nami – her character’s quiet resolve, zen-like curiosity, and heroic dedication easily earned her favored status amongst a crowd of poorly defined losers. She’s somewhat comparable to Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley (Alien series) in depth and bravado and I hope this movie was a springboard for Ms. Ono into better projects.

The other aspects that elevate the quality of Evil Dead Trap in my eyes are a few key moments of pitch-black humor and an ending twist that is as ludicrous as is it is awesome. Like Roger Ebert pointed out in his review of Titus, there are times when things are so outrageously bloodthirsty that they have to be for comedic intent. Now I’m not comparing Ishii’s writing to Shakespeare’s, but tell me after viewing Evil Dead Trap that there wasn’t some attempt to make the viewer awkwardly chuckle at the “two-layered” trap – or the “Where are you going?” line, for that matter. (I’d frame these with context, but my spoiler sense is tingling already.)

Anybody who rents something called Evil Dead Trap would ostensibly have some inkling of what lies in store, but I’m still a bit unnerved by my desire to watch it. I suppose that on some level, I want to identify, analyze, and possibly overcome my own anxieties in the process. I also like to compare and contrast different cultures’ fears against each other, but there’s not going to be much agreement with Stone’s assessment of the film. I’m no expert on the subject, but I‘m hesitant to say that this movie is necessarily any deep insight into Japan’s “sexual soul.” That would be like saying Hostel is the grand summary of America’s view of foreigners. They’re each just pieces of a much larger milieu.

Speaking of which, I think I’ll follow this up by watching some other films from Japan: Shall We Dance? with My Neighbor Totoro, and Tampopo close on its heels. Like a sunflower, I need light rejuvenation every now and again; after watching Evil Dead Trap, my brain and heart would especially benefit from an injection of bright art.


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