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 The hysterical if-you-don't-laugh-you'll-cry humour of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has been replaced by the dreaded knowing wink of irony.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.

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