The spirit of 1970s omnibus horror films ? such as Asylum, Tales from the Crypt, Dr. Terror?s House of Horrors, Vault of Horror, and others produced by England?s Amicus Productions ? lives on in the entertaining, yet undemanding anthology film Trapped Ashes, unspooling this coming weekend in its U.S. premiere at the Philadelphia Film Festival. Recently picked up by Lionsgate, which one would guess will send it direct to DVD, the movie is a love letter to trashy, darkly humorous horror cinema from writer/producer Dennis Bartok, who has assembled a terrific lineup of old school talent to bring his nightmares to the screen.
In a wraparound story helmed by Gremlins and Howling director Joe Dante (who gives a brief, but welcome cameo to old friend Dick Miller), a motley group of tourists on a tour of a decrepit Hollywood movie studio find themselves trapped in an isolated room inside a supposedly-haunted mansion previously owned by a sadistic film producer. To pass the time until they can discover a way out, they are prompted by their tour guide (the always-fun-to-watch Henry Gibson, the ?I?ve always loved you? head Nazi from The Blues Brothers) to reveal their worst nightmares, which leads into four separate stories. In the first, ?The Girl with the Golden Breasts,? is an aspiring young actress who decides to improve her career by enlarging her assets, but little does she know that the human cadaver flesh used in the implants will turn her hooters into hungry, blood-sucking vampire boobs! Directed with lunatic fervor by the legendary Ken Russell (The Lair of the White Worm, Altered States, Tommy, The Devils), who also appears in the episode sporting a pair of fake tits himself, ?Golden Breasts? is a fun romp with abundant nudity and gore, plus an impressive central performance by newcomer Rachel Veltri, whose face, scream and, ahem, other endowments are reminiscent of a young Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator).
?Jibaku,? directed by Sean Cunningham (Friday the 13th, A Stranger is Watching), takes place in Japan, where a pair of Americans on vacation discover a Buddhist monk who has hanged himself in a temple. But when the wife is visited at night by an undead creature that has sex with her, she realizes that the spirit of the monk is restless ? and horny! ? and the couple must fight to keep her from being dragged off into the land of the departed. Definitely the weakest of the four stories, the episode boasts some unsettling imagery but not terribly much else.
The best episode, however, follows in the spectacular ?Stanley?s Girlfriend,? directed by ?70s Hollywood legend Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop, China 9 Liberty 37) and told by horror vet John Saxon. Set in 1950s Hollywood, and posing the theoretical question ?What if Stanley Kubrick had fallen in love with a succubus??, it follows the early careers of two budding filmmakers ? Stanley and Leo ? who become close friends, bonding over a shared love of the game of chess. One day, Stanley shows up with a new girlfriend, a beautiful woman who seems to be a dream match. Not soon after, Leo starts a secret affair with her, little realizing that the lethargy and fatigue he begins to feel is a result of her terrible appetite. Soon the vampiress has come between the two men, but in not the way you might expect. Less horrific and more elegiac than the other episodes, it features a well-crafted screenplay that captures not only the nostalgia of old Hollywood, but also the sadness of a lost friendship and the desperate feeling of being compelled to do something you know will hurt the one you love. Plus it?s a fascinating fictional history that should fire the imagination of open-minded movie buffs.
The final episode marks the directorial debut of John Gaeta, the visual effects supervisor for the Matrix films. ?My Twin, the Worm? (astonishingly, also based on a true story) is about Nathalie, a young woman whose mother was infected with a tapeworm at the time of her pregnancy. Unable to kill the worm (the medication would have also harmed the baby), her mom came to term with both creatures growing inside her. After her birth, the worm was killed, but now years later, Nathalie finds herself haunted by her long-dead ?sibling,? who has reappeared to wreak vengeance on her philandering father. Unevenly directed and not particularly scary, the episode feels somewhat overlong but is also features some wild visual effects and, best of all, that wonderfully perverse central idea. When taken as a whole, Trapped Ashes hits more often than it misses, and does so with a hearty mix of sex and violence not seen very often on the movie screen anymore. More effective than many of Showtime?s much-lauded ?Masters of Horror? episodes, it should find a comfortable home on DVD and cable, and heralds an interesting new talent in writer/producer Bartok, whose knowledge of the genre was honed as chief programmer for LA?s American Cinematheque. His perverse imagination, inspired choice of directors and faithfulness to tried-and-true genre mechanics all add up to a nostalgic-feeling night of sexy, bloody horror that cost a fraction of big-budget boondoggles like Grindhouse and only takes half as long.
Trapped Ashes is playing as part of the '07 Philadelphia Film Festival.