Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Census Flashback: Everything But Rich

On our Fright Flashback/Census Bloodbath crossover, every week this summer we'll be exploring an 80's slasher film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to the weekend's upcoming blockbuster.

In anticipation of Crazy Rich Asians, I'll be reviewing a movie that is both crazy and Asian: the Japanese slasher Evil Dead Trap!

Year: 1988
Director: Toshiharu Ikeda
Cast: Miyuki Ono, Aya Katsuragi, Hitomi Kobayashi
Run Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

When one thinks of Japanese horror cinema, the slasher genre is not what rises to mind, and for good reason. J-horror has been dominated by ghostly visitations and ethereal folk tales long before The Ring brought them to American shores in the early 2000's. Oh, but no corner of the world was unaffected by the 1980's slasher craze. It was the box office boom heard round the world, and when Japanese director Toshiharu Ikeda (of 1980's Sex Hunter) got in on the fun in 1988, he found a way to blend an extremely traditional slasher structure with some of the weirdest J-horror sh*t you ever did see.

Pictured: the slasher genre trying to escape after reading Takashi Ishii's script.

In Evil Dead Trap AKA Shiryō no wana, fluff news reporter Nami Tsuchiya (Miyuki Ono) gets sent a mysterious video of a woman being tortured and, smelling an opportunity to actually report on a real story, takes her team to the location where the video was shot. You know, as you do. But you gotta get your tray of meat to the spooky isolated location, which in this case is an abandoned military base infested with vermin that seems to be actively falling apart while they explore it.

Also in typical slasher fashion, the Meat here is a heap entirely indistinguishable women who don't have two personality traits to rub together: sound engineer Masako Abe (Aya Katsuragi), make-up girl Rei Sugiura (Hitomi Kobayashi, at the time a massively famous Japanese porn star), scripter Rie Kawamura (Eriko Nakagawa), and the token man - assistant director Kondô Akio (Masahiko Abe). Also wandering around the base is Daisuke Muraki (Yûji Honma), a man who is looking for his brother Hideki. Over the course of the afternoon, one after another of the crew members meets their untimely end at the hands of several different killers (the most prominent wearing a mask that makes their face look like a crumpled heap of laundry - it's scarier than I'm making it sound) and traps that have been set up around the area.

See? Spoooooky!

That basic plot synopsis is the only place where Evil Dead Trap can be remotely compared to a generic, run-of-the-mill slasher. It does draw influence from quite a few slasher films (the structure of the kills - with a lot happening all at once then giving way to an extended Final Girl sequence - is certainly reminiscent of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre), and the style of the kills quite vividly emulates the best of the Italian giallo, especially Dario Argento's Suspiria. But Evil Dead Trap has a lot more on its mind than that.

For one thing, it steals the careening, unmotivated POV shots and two-thirds of the title from The Evil Deadand a major death is a direct riff on Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí's Un Chien Andalou. And I don't want to spoil the movie necessarily, but let's just say the plot turns out more Frank Hennenlotter than Tobe Hooper.

A lot of this material is really fun and totally bananas. The kills are an overwhelming melange of rapid editing, black-and-white surrealism, hyper-gory effects, and Kabuki makeup that jolt you like a cattle prod. It's like an experimental film gained sentience and set out to destroy your corneas. From the Evil Dead II-esque moments where blood spurts all over people's mouths to the very Japanese approach to the setting, which is constantly exploding, catching fire, and flooding for no reason whatsoever, Evil Dead Trap has a live wire energy that grabs you by the shoulders and shakes you around mercilessly.

And as much as it's drawing from the traditions and tropes of a lot of Western horror films, it's thoroughly Japanese, using an approach that couldn't possibly be emulated in any other filmmaking culture. Just take a look at certain choice images from the film and tell me you've seen anything like it anywhere on this side of the Pacific.





The only unfortunate thing about Evil Dead Trap is that it's not all horror sequences, and everything that isn't directly engaged with murder and terror is fabulously boring. The characters are identical paper dolls that just exist to be slashed open, and the structure of the narrative leaves a lot of lead time between the last body count kill and the bonkers finale. These sequences mostly involve Nami and Daisuke slowly limping down endless tunnels and having conversations that think they're being cagier about the nature of the plot twist than they actually are (in fact - and this may just be an issue with subtitling - a certain line during a deplorable exposition-via-rape sequence gives away the ending, or at least the general gist of it).

Plus, the score is both a useless riff on The Exorcist and an unbearably repetitive insult to the ears. They clearly wrote one and a half music cues and are hopelessly devoted to making sure we get to hear them again and again and again.

But when Evil Dead Trap is great it's spectacular. The closing fifteen minutes are some of the most bonkers effects-driven cinema of the 80's, the horror sequences craft infinite disturbing and uncanny images (my favorite being a stack of televisions all showing the same image of Masako's face while she's being imprisoned and screaming for help). The expansive setting also allows for some truly bizarre interiors, including a factory-esque floor that looks like the vast expanse of Hell in The Beyond and a Crimson Peak-esque hall of falling objects.

The fascinating thing about Evil Dead Trap is that as much as I'm constantly thinking of other movies it reminds me of, it still has its own indelible personality, and a truly strange one at that. I wish the non-scare sequences were a lot better, because if that were the case it would absolutely be a masterpiece of modern horror cinema. As it stands, it is a hidden gem, but less like a diamond and more like an opal or something else cool to find but not life-changingly valuable.

Killer: Hideki
Final Girl: Nami Tsuchiya (Miyuki Ono)
Sign of the Times: It seems that the "teased hair so big you could use it as an umbrella" craze reached Japan at the very same time the slasher did.

Best Kill: Rya's death, because it is completely impossible to describe, and the one that most replicates the surrealist style of Argento.
Scariest Moment: Rei accidentally steps on a snake and must stand stock still while it decides whether to kill her or not.
Weirdest Moment: After watching her friend's head get pulverized with a machete, Name is chased out of the room when the killer shoots fireworks at her.
Champion Dialogue: "Stop talking about your penis, we're supposed to be working now."
Body Count: 7
  1. Video Lady gets her eye gouged with a knife.
  2. Rei is impaled with spears from all directions after triggering a trap.
  3. Rapist is impaled with a spike,
  4. Rya is dragged over a van with a lobster snare.
  5. Kondô is decapitated offscreen.
  6. Masako has her head split down the side with a machete.
  7. Daisuke falls from a great height and basically disintegrates. 
TL;DR: Evil Dead Trap is a bizarre and beautiful film that blends Japanese horror with the Italian giallo and the American slasher, but is too much a slog in the middle third to truly love.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1308

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