Editor's Note: Since NBC's Fear Itself is on hiatus during the Summer Olympics, Joe Blevins and Craig J. Clark have taken it upon themselves to review the direct-to-video horror anthology Trapped Ashes, which was released on DVD in July, as a stopgap measure. Their observations follow.
My fellow freedom-lovers:
Let me set the scene for you, citizens. It's Friday night [August 8 -ed.], and I'm sitting on the couch in my apartment watching a movie called Trapped Ashes. Screwy title, huh? Sounds a bit like Slapped Asses, which would also be a pretty screwy title but would not sound quite as gloomy and high-toned as Trapped Ashes. I'd been watching the Opening Ceremonies from Beijing earlier in the evening, but the Parade of Nations soon got to be monotonous, a seemingly endless procession of people dressed up like Century 21 agents, smiling and waving to the crowd in the manner of hometown beauty queens. Snoo-zers! So I succumbed the siren song of Trapped Ashes, which comes billed as a gore-riffic horror anthology, just the thing to substitute for my beloved AWOL Fear Itself. Anyway, the disc starts with previews, and normally I would automatically skip those but I figure, "What the hell? All the better to recreate the true experience of seeing a real movie in a real theater. Let the trailers commence!"
And at first this seems like a good idea, because the first trailer is that hysterical one for Midnight Meat Train, which I hadn't seen for a while. I don't know what's wrong with me, but I'd totally forgotten that Brooke Shields is in this movie. Six beautiful words -- Midnight Meat Train with Brooke Shields. That's poetry, that is. But even better is a trailer for something called Bone Eater starring Bruce Boxleitner. This is a real movie that people actually made intentionally. Huh. Go know. We're two previews in, and both are horror movies with titles that make them sound like filthy, filthy pornos. So now I'm happy, citizens. Like, real happy. But the trailers on the disc drag on and on -- some aren't even horror -- and somewhere around Rambo I get impatient and skip to the main menu for the movie, feeling a little guilty about it for some reason.
I knew (read: remembered) very little about Trapped Ashes going in other than it was a horror anthology film in the Creepshow tradition and that Ken Russell had directed a segment. I knew from reading a capsule review in the Onion AV Club that Russell's segment was about a woman with killer breasts and that it was probably pretty bad. What I did not know and was not prepared for was the fact that the killer breasts are RIGHT THERE IN THE FRICKIN' DVD MENU FOR EVERYBODY TO SEE! "Like they proud a' that shit," to quote Samuel L. And the killer breasts, they look like something from the Jim Henson creature shop, sipping blood through straws from milkshake glasses. I get all embarrassed and quickly opt to "PLAY MOVIE" so I don't have to look at the menu anymore.
Now the movie is playing, and it starts with Laugh-In veteran Henry Gibson driving a trolley around a studio backlot, pretending like he's giving a tour, only there's no one else around. He's alone, giving his scripted spiel to no one. Weird, huh? But soon enough, he's got a few tourists on the trolley with him -- three guys, three gals, all Caucasians, varying ages but skewing young. Of these, the only one I recognize is John Saxon, who looks not so bad considering he's John Saxon. The others are not John Saxon. They're just a bunch of low-rent nobody losers who can't read their lines (which are awful anyway) worth a damn.
The studio they're touring is pretty obviously Universal, but they have to call it "Ultra Studios." I myself took the Universal tour about twenty years ago when I was a kid on vacation with my family, and the three big things I remember other than Jaws and King Kong were: (1) the Cleaver house from Leave It To Beaver; (2) the Bates mansion and motel from Psycho; and (3) the whorehouse from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Obviously, (3) sticks in my mind because its inclusion on the tour meant that the perky Universal guide had blithely said the word "whorehouse" to a group which included many families with children. Here, in Trapped Ashes, Henry Gibson takes John Saxon and the low-rent losers to what is clearly supposed to be the Psycho house, only they have to refer to Psycho as Hysteria, and the house itself is not the real Bates place but the aforementioned Texas whorehouse dressed up with haunted house props. Anyway, there follows a sequence straight out of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory wherein the lame-o tourists explore the house but soon find that they can't leave the way they came because the doors in this place are all FUBAR and just lead you back where you started. So the tourists are all trapped in this one big room, and Henry Gibson tells them they've each got to tell a scary story if they want out. If there are clumsier, more roundabout ways to set up a horror anthology, I don't want to know about 'em, citizen. First up is a top-heavy bimbo, and it turns out she's the one with the killer mams from the DVD menu. So here we go. Time for bloodthirsty boobs and presumably the story of how they got to be that way.
At this point, I start to get really depressed. The whole production to this point looks shoddy and rushed, and the cast members seem dispirited even at this very early stage of the game. Plus, I can't help but feel like this movie is the cinematic equivalent of those fake wannabe cereals they have at the grocery store next to the real ones. Like your mom can't afford Cheerios so she gets Happy-Oh's instead. That's how this movie is shaping up: Happy-Oh's: The Movie.
It's an odd thing about cheap horror movies but they always seem at least half a decade behind the times in terms of fashion, slang, and pop culture references. I first noticed this phenomenon when I was a twenty-something and in the habit of renting Troma movies. Troma's Nineties movies looked like they were made in the Eighties, and their Eighties movies looked like they were made in the Seventies. That's how Trapped Ashes is, too. The IMDb lists it as a 2006 movie, but it seems to be capturing the zeitgeist of the late 1990s. One of the low-rent nobodies on the tour group, for instance, is a Clinton-era goth girl type, and at the start of the killer ta-tas story, our busty narratrix tells us she's an aspiring actress who's competing for roles against Heather Graham, Alicia Silverstone, Mena Suvari, and presumably other actresses who came to prominence before the Twin Towers fell. She doesn't mention the Towers, incidentally, I did - as a way to show how this movie is still partying like it's 1999. Don't the makers of Trapped Ashes know that 9-11 changed EVERYTHING, including the list of actresses that you'd be up against in auditions forcing you to go to a shady doctor who gives you weird evil breast implants that actually turn your breasts into little vampires that suck people's blood through the nipples even though that turns out to be kind of impractical because for it to work you have to be topless and the person whose blood you're draining pretty much also has to be shirtless because really how else are you going to rub your titties on him except maybe if he licks your nipple you can suck a little blood from his tongue which actually does happen in one scene? I mean, don't they KNOW that?
There's so, so much more to go in this movie. After Titsy McJuggs finishes her awful, badly filmed story, the other people stuck in the house with Henry Gibson get their turns to tell very hackneyed, unconvincing horror stories. One couple went to Japan, and the wife got dry humped by a dead monk. (She got over it, basically.) Then, it turns out John Saxon's character knew Stanley Kubrick back in the day and even schtupped Stanley's girlfriend while the auteur was off making Paths of Glory, though in this movie they'd probably have to wuss out and say it was Stanley Kendrick or something and he was making Trails of Grandness. And finally, the goth girl tells a story about siccing a giant tapeworm on her stepmother. I'm not going to linger on any of this stuff, because frankly it didn't interest me much. Not even goth girl's childhood, which seemed like something out of Disney's Beauty and the Beast, with quaint, old-timey, funny-looking people speaking English in French accents. To put it bluntly, the movie shot its wad with the over-the-top killer breasts thing right at the beginning, and everything after that was kind of mumbly and dreamy and subdued, except for the occasional return visits to the wraparound story, during which the movie turns hammy and dinner-theater-ish.
One odd thing about all these stories -- the tits, the Kubrick, the monk, the worm -- is that they all sort of peter out. Each supposed tale of terror boils down to: something really creepy and unbelievable happened to me... and then I kinda forgot about it and got on with my life, no big whoop. Now, to be fair, there is a big twist ending in which Henry Gibson reveals WHY all these stories just sort of petered out. But I must cry foul here, not only because the twist is particularly unsatisfying but also because watching the rest of the movie feels like perennially being on the verge of sneezing. You know that feeling, citizens, when you feel like you're just about to sneeze but don't? Well, do you?
In short, this movie delivers the sleaze but not the sneeze.
I wish I could tell you something, anything about Trapped Ashes, I really do. I received the movie in the mail from Joe on Wednesday or Thursday -- along with a letter written in eyebrow pencil on butcher's paper containing his thoughts on the film -- and was all set to watch it last night despite Joe's warning by e-mail that "the movie is really, really, really bad, practically from the first frame to the last." I was the one who found it in the new release rack at Wal-Mart and sent it to him to review, though, so I knew I had to suck it up and take one for the team. (After all, Joe already had.) And I was all ready to do just that when I had another one of my mysterious blackouts. Well, it wasn't an actual blackout, per se, but... It's kind of hard to describe. It wasn't like what happened last time, I can tell you that.
Regular readers of this feature may recall the incident that occurred two weeks ago when I was so enraged by the discovery of Fear Itself's preemption in favor of the season finale of Last Comic Standing that I reportedly caused injury to several individuals and damaged some private property. (My case has not come up in criminal court as of yet, so I am still hazy on the details of what happened that night, and my court-appointed attorney has deemed it best to keep me in the dark about them. I believe his plan is to plead temporary insanity, which I don't necessarily agree or disagree with. I'd just like to know what it is I'm supposed to have done, although maybe I don't in light of what's happened since then.) The upshot of all that was my contact with a representative of a group called Lycanthropes Anonymous. I have attended several of their meetings over the past two weeks and was starting to feel that I was making definite progress on that front -- that is, until last night.
It was a little after sunset when it started. I know this because I waited until it was dark to put the Trapped Ashes DVD in my player. (I still have a block about watching horror films during daylight hours, even cheaply slapped together ones.) I muted the TV so my ears wouldn't be assaulted by the previews, which always seem to be twice as loud as the movie itself, and got up and started pacing the room, occasionally glancing at the screen to check its progress. (I used to skip past the previews on DVDs, but occasionally I see something that catches my fancy and probably would have escaped my attention otherwise.) During one of my circuits I happened to look out the window and saw that the moon was full and very beautiful. I must have been entranced because my vision grew hazy and I began to feel sleepy. I retired to the bedroom, but left my clothes on, figuring I would only go down for a short nap before getting up and tackling the movie. Instead I immediately fell into a deep sleep and had extremely vivid dreams, most of which revolved around a hideous beast stalking its prey. The curious thing is sometimes I was the beast and sometimes I was the prey. Here's the dream as best as I was able to reconstruct it:
The first thing I remember was standing in the fenced-off deer preserve across the street from the apartment complex where I live. How I got there I don't know, but my sense of smell was most acute for I quickly homed in on one of the creatures and took off through the woods after it. The deer was surprisingly easy to take down -- I was a much faster runner in the dream than I am in real life -- and I greedily supped on its meat and drank its blood, quickly overcoming my surprise at my own bloodlust. Then, all of a sudden I felt the presence nearby of another bipedal creature (I could tell that it wasn't a deer or anything else on four legs) and instinctually made a break for it. Now I was the one being chased, first through the woods and then, after I leaped over the fence, the streets that bordered the preserve. Whatever was chasing me, I must have lost it because I found myself all alone on an unfamiliar back road.
Padding along as quietly as possible, I listened with my super-sensitive hearing for any sign that I was being pursued. I heard a door open to my right and, ducking behind a tree, watched as an inebriated man carried a garbage bag out to the curb. The beast within me awoke and in seconds I was on top of him, ripping both the man and the bag he carried to shreds with my sharp claws and fangs. I soon regretted tasting his blood, though, because of the alcohol it contained. Maybe if my senses hadn't been dulled by it I would have alerted to my pursuer's presence before it was able to get too close.
The creature let out a howl that chilled me to the quick. I squatted there, hunched over the dead man's still-warm body, for what seemed like forever before I shook off the paralysis and ran as quickly as I could. There was no escaping it this time, though, and at the end of the dream I was finally caught by the beast, which scooped me up in its massive, hairy arms and -- after a disorienting trip back through the woods -- improbably deposited me back in my bed, leaving me completely unharmed.
I couldn't even begin to tell you what any of it meant, but when I awoke this morning I was again in tattered clothes (but thankfully not languishing in the city jail), and felt more exhausted than I had when I had gone to sleep. Rolling out of bed, I returned to the living room to eject Trapped Ashes from the DVD player -- no use letting the menu keep playing on a constant loop -- when I discovered that it was missing. The DVD case was also gone, and taped to the TV set was a hastily scribbled note. As I reached for it, I noticed that I had an alarming amount of dried blood on my hands and, when I looked down, my clothing as well. Feeling unsteady on my feet, I staggered to the bathroom to wash it off and discovered to my horror that it was also on my face and matted in my beard.
I have no idea what's happening to me, but I do know one thing: I need to call my sponsor.