Thursday, 30 October 2008

Death Trap, aka Eaten Alive

Director: Tobe Hooper
Writers: Alvin L Fast, Kim Henkel and Mardi Rustam
USA 1977

From the best film on the list so far to the worst - and both by the same director.

It's difficult to say just what makes Death Trap so bad, but its early promise is certainly a factor. With a decent budget to spend Hooper shoots on a fake, creepy Deep South swampland set, all dry ice swirling mists and red light district lighting. It kicks off with an anal sex-obsessed redneck driving a woman out of a whorehouse and into the clutches of a psychotic Norman Bates-style hotel owner, played by Neville Brand, and his pet alligator. What follows has all Hooper's trademarks - a well thought-out sound design of nighttime crickets and croaking frogs, mixed with a few jungle sounds and synth squelches for good measure; looming wide-angle close-ups and scenes shot from odd angles; bad trip atmosphere; a signature over-the-top crazed redneck performance from Neville Brand. But it just doesn't gel.

For a start there isn't any tension. The film uses fight and chase scenes right from the beginning and never slows or ups the pace, the result a constant and profoundly irritating Keystone Cops effect as people run up and down stairs and round and round the hotel. This is broken up in places by character exposition as people arrive at the hotel, but none of the characters are interesting or sympathetic. I felt indifferent to them, and couldn't engage with the film.

Worst of all though is that Hooper has descended into self-parody. The hysterical if-you-don't-laugh-you'll-cry humour of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has been replaced by the dreaded knowing wink of irony. Everything is just a bit too silly or played up for the camera, and the dialogue is shouted and stagey. Towards the end a horribly misjudged sequence copies an iconic scene from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to little point or effect. It smacks of desperation, and you realise Hooper must have really struggled to follow his 1974 classic.

Hooper fans quite like Death Trap and I'm going against the grain in finding it so bad. So much so in fact that I've sat through this tedious and disjointed mess twice thinking I might have missed something, both times resorting to drink to get me through, glancing at the clock and praying for it to end. Without the low budget charm of other terrible films on the Video Nasty list, Death Trap leaves you with nothing to think about, nothing to laugh at, and no reason for it to be so bad. The sad thing is that it was probably more of a disappointment to its director after his amazing debut than to his fans, and it shows.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008


I started this blog as a more focused and hopefully more interesting version of what I originally wanted to do, which was to review every single film I saw. Fortunately "microblogging" site has arrived, giving me the opportunity to do that in a pithy, one-sentence form that appeals to my love of keeping it short and to the point.

So if you'd like to see what I think of the other films I watch, along with my opinions on lots of other stuff I know nothing about, come and follow me!

Saturday, 11 October 2008

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

Director: Tobe Hooper
Writers: Kim Henkel and Tobe Hooper
USA 1974

The first time I saw this film, alone in the middle of the night, I received a phone call halfway through from a friend who thought she was being followed after getting out of a taxi. Staying on the phone with her while she found a police station with Leatherface’s chainsaw screaming in the background isn’t something I’ll forget in a hurry.

At the time the film had an almost holy mystique after being banned in the UK for so long. I was filled with anticipation and dread before watching it - and the unfortunate events of the night aside, it scared me rigid. Last month I picked up an uncut DVD version for three quid in my local Tesco. How times change.

“The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” is the most respected, most influential and probably the most frightening film on the list. It excels in every area. The camera work is astonishing in its originality, the direction tight, the pacing unique. It eschews the traditional murky, dark tones of the time in favour of dripping colour, sunsets and sunrises providing a lurid background to the horror. And that horror hits you like a smack in the face, an abrupt switch part-way through the film that doesn’t let up until the very end.

Hooper uses unusual camera techniques – low level tracking shots, burnt-out lens flare, wide-angle lenses for closeups – to create a deeply unsettling, claustrophobic atmosphere. There are iconic scenes throughout – the blood-soaked, sobbing figure of actress Marilyn Burns as she is tracked at low-angle through sun-parched undergrowth; an extreme close-up of her terrified, fluttering eye; Leatherface's psychotic dance in front of a blinding sun. It's all shot on colour-drenched 16mm film, high-contrast and hyperreal, with an amazing sound design of chugging diesel generators, gibbering madmen and incessant, terrified screaming.

The subject matter and rural setting are commonplace nowadays but were unusual at the time. No-one had thought to exploit the city audience's fear of that other America of the isolated, inbred redneck. Hooper does it expertly, and though the formula has been imitated many times it's never been topped. There's even a queasy humour in there, hysterical in the literal sense, hardly ever commented on because the horror swamps it so utterly.

And it is absolutely terrifying. The speed at which the horror appears and then attacks with double-punches of cinematic shock and sickening cruelty leaves you breathless. The body count mounts so rapidly it seems the film must run out of steam but it doesn't, switching expertly to the drawn-out torment of a single character and a bleak, soul-destroying finale.

It's almost an insult to call this masterpiece a horror film, relegating it to the ghetto of the genre movie where it has never received the mainstream critical acclaim it deserves. But it is a horror film through and through, building on those that came before it and sticking to the same claustrophobic, tension-building formula that makes previous classics like “The Birds” and “Night of the Living Dead” so effective. It's proof that the horror genre is a vital and innovative part of cinema, driving the industry and giving it much-needed kicks up the arse, while remaining resolutely underground, independent and subversive.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008


The guys over at Horroretc recorded a nice, long podcast a couple of weeks ago covering a selection of films they deem to be the most shocking of the exploitation genre: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Last House on the Left, Cannibal Holocaust, I Spit on Your Grave and Thriller (the Swedish rape-revenge film, not Michael Jackson's admittedly brilliant music video).

The Horroretc guys are great reviewers, and I was pleased at their recognition of the use of sound as a horror device in a lot of these films - notably the constant hum of the generator in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Cannibal Holocaust's incongruous, gently melancholic soundtrack, which adds a dimension of sadness to the all-out gore.

They see these films as grueling, difficult and very effective horror movies, but otherwise opine that they have little merit - before going on to contradict themselves in long discussions about possible meaning and director intent. This is most notable their review of I Spit on Your Grave, which they dismiss as despicable before descending into a heated discussion about its possible feminist angle. I love the way I Spit on Your Grave provokes this discussion every single time, without fail.