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Sunday, April 28, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Dante (2006)

17. Trapped Ashes

The horror anthology has a long history. 1945's “Dead of Night” is generally credited with popularizing the concept. However, there are even earlier examples, with “Eerie Tales” and “Waxworks” dating back to the silent era. Maybe it's because horror is so well suited to the short story format. Maybe horror fans just like getting as much bang for their buck as possible. Either way, the film style has never truly gone away. It's seen something of a revival in popularity in the last fifteen years. An indie horror anthology with another crop of semi-well known genre directors pops up almost every year now. This year's model is “A Field Guide to Evil” while past years have brought us “V/H/S,” “The ABCs of Death,” “Southbound,” and quite a few others.

Yet this modern trend of indie horror anthologies has a largely overlooked predecessor. “Trapped Ashes” was released to little attention in 2006. It gathered together Joe Dante, Ken Russell, Sean S. Cunningham, and Monte Hellman to tell a collection of stories, all from unknown writer Dennis Bartok. While television series “Masters of Horror” or Asian collection “Three.... Extremes” were likely inspirations – for the way the film gathers together established horror directors and its general Asian atmosphere – “Trapped Ashes” is obviously an extended homage to Amicus' long running series of horror omnibus films, with set-up and ending that recalls “Tales from the Crypt” and “Dr. Terror's House of Horrors.” (Also like “Masters of Horror,” it too often relies on explicit nudity and sex, sometimes feeling like a especially macabre Skinemax flick.)

Dante directs the framing device, which establishes the general set-up. “Trapped Ashes” begins with a meek tour guide leading a group of tourists through a Hollywood backlot. They are led to a spooky old mansion, the set of a classic horror film from the sixties called "Hysteria." Though the guide discourages them, they go inside anyway. After falling through some trap doors, the gang is locked inside a secret room. The tour guide encourages the group to tell horrifying personal stories about themselves, mirroring "Hysteria's" plot. This wraparound sets up a theme of the film industry which connects two out of the four stories.

It seems sort of odd that “Trapped Ashes” would pull in its biggest name director just to have him direct the framing device. Yet Dante's segment still proves to be one of the best in the film. Dante perfectly captures the classic horror atmosphere of the spooky old mansion setting. The building has a deliberate expressionistic look to it. We can see this in a shot of a winding staircase or the harsh angles of the central room where the story are told. Bartok's script also name-drops Mario Bava, so Dante throws in some accompanying surreal neon lighting. In case you missed that Dante directed this part, he casts an appropriately spooky but unassuming Henry Gibson as the tour guide and gives Dick Miller a cameo.

The film's first proper story is “The Girl with the Golden Breasts,” directed by Ken Russell. (This would be Russell's final theatrical credit, though he would direct two more shorts before his 2011 death.) The segment follows Phoebe, a struggling actress. Despite only being in her late twenties, Hollywood has already deemed her too old for leading lady roles. Feeling despondent, she decides to get breast implants. Instead of silicon or saline, she opts for an experimental options: Implants made from re-purposed dead tissue. At first, this goes great. She gets more roles, feels more confident, and even romances her co-star. Then she notices her new breasts seemingly have a mind of their own... And a hunger for human blood.

“The Girl with the Golden Breasts” could have been a cutting commentary on how Hollywood cruelly treats women as they age and the steps they'll go to maintain relevance. Instead, it goes for a cartoonish and ugly breed of camp that Russell relied on too much later in his career. Phoebe is rarely treated as a serious character, Rachel Veltri playing her as a brainless blonde bimbo. The character around her are equally exaggerated and broad, from the aggressively sleazy plastic surgeon to Phoebe's ridiculously shallow co-star. This obnoxious comedic streak builds towards a shockingly dumb twist ending. Russell's direction is garish and grotesque. He throws in some unnecessary neon color. He lingers on nudity and rubbery gore, especially during the needlessly extended breast implant surgery scene.

The second segment is directed by Sean S. Cunningham, whose place in horror history is secured because of “Friday the 13th,” despite him directed few other films of note. Its called “Jibaku” and follows married couple, Henry and Julia. They have recently traveled to Japan in what Henry promised would be a romantic getaway but turned into a business trip. The sexually frustrated Julia wanders off to an art museum, where she's entranced by a strange Japanese man and an even stranger painting. The painting depicts a woman being erotically drawn into Jigoku – mythological Japanese Hell – and Julia is soon experiencing this first hand. Henry must struggle to rescue his wife.

“Jibaku” – I don't know why they just didn't call it “Jigoku” – is certainly more interesting than “The Girl with the Golden Breasts.” Japan has a long history of combining horror and eroticism. Cunningham recalls both shunga wood-cuttings and hentai anime with animated interludes, depicting women being abducted by and then becoming tentacled monsters. (Aside from the obvious homage, the animation also makes up for the lack of budget.) This is not the only example of kinky sex in the segment, as Julia also has an erotic nightmare involving necrophilia. As interesting as this stuff is, there's sadly not much of a point to “Jibaku.” The characters are thin sketches. The story is nothing more than a series of encounters, happening without much explanation. The mythology is vague and half-assed. Though occasionally diverting, Cunningham's segment does not hold together as a whole.

The only segment in “Trapped Ashes” to receive much attention at all was “Stanley's Girl,” from Monte Hellman. Beginning in the 1960s, it follows Leo, a screenwriter that has had some success. He forms a friendship with a young Stanley Kubrick, right off the release of “The Killers.” The two play long games of chess while talking about film, art, music, and history. That changes when a sexually vivacious woman named Nina comes into their lives. Nina seems to disrupt Stanley's obsessive pursuit of genius. Once Kubrick goes off to Europe to film “Paths of Glory,” Leo and Nina begin to sleep together. Leo never sees his best friend again, assuming Stanley never returned because of the affair. After Kubrick's death, Leo discovers the dark truth.

“Stanley's Girl” is obviously the highlight of “Trapped Ashes.” Kubrick's last name and the titles of his films aren't explicitly mentioned but no other attempts are made to disguise his identity. By framing itself around such a famously mysterious figure, “Stanley's Girl” connects itself to a real world sense of regret. Screwing up and loosing your best friend is bad enough, but when that friend is one of the most respected directors to ever live? This sense of weighty loss informs the story. John Saxon plays present day Leo and narrates the story, Saxon bringing the right level of weight to the surprisingly sharp and blunt dialogue. “Stanley's Girl” is such an effective take on guilt and loss that its horror movie twist, added right at the end, is totally unnecessary.

The last segment is entitled “My Twin, the Worm” and it's the sole directional credit of John Gaeta, a visual effects artist most famous for his work on “The Matrix” trilogy. The segment is narrated by Natalie, the mysterious French-accented goth girl. She explains the story of her conception and childhood. How her mom ingested a tape worm from undercooked meat the same night she became pregnant. Natalie and the worm formed a symbiotic relationship in the womb, growing inside her mom at the same time. After she was born, the worm becomes Natalie's imaginary friend. And as her relationship with her mom grew worst, the worm is summoned.

While the majority of “Trapped Ashes'” segments are on the half-baked side, “My Twin, the Worm” is by far the least baked. While “Stanley's Girl” used narration effectively, the last story is overly reliant on Michèle-Barbara Pelletier's bored sounding voice-over to explain its plot. The explicit sex feels especially unnecessary and gratuitous here. The ending attempts a level of nasty body horror that just comes off as crass and desperate. Gaeta's career as a visual effect artist is evident in the short's repeated shots of a CGI fetus and tapeworm crawling around inside the womb. These moments are certainly not up to snuff with Gaeta's previous work and make the segment feel padded out and cheap.

”Trapped Ashes'” conclusion obviously recalls the Amicus anthologies that inspired it. However, it can't help but come off as somewhat mean spirited here. While Hellman's spot is good, and Dante's wraparound is decent enough, the other three stories in “Trapped Ashes” range from underwritten to outright bad. The connecting theme of the entertainment industry is half-assed and there's an unseemly hostility towards women running through all the stories. One good segment is not really enough to justify watching an entire anthology, sad to say. While a fun idea on paper, “Trapped Ashes” proves disappointing over all. [Grade: C]

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