Writer/Producer Dennis Bartok is nothing if not a true student of the cinema. He’s the son of an avant-garde filmmaker and a graduate of NYU Film School who spent 13 years as the programming director for the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles. Bartok is even responsible for restoring and re-opening the famed Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. With that kind of resume, one would imagine that as the creative force behind an anthology collection of horror films, Bartok would provide a formidable vision on screen. Unfortunately his debut production—for which he has amassed an interesting array of cult filmmakers (and one newcomer) as diverse as Monte Hellman, Joe Dante, Sean Cunningham and Ken Russell—is something of an uneven mess. And one which falls squarely on the shoulders of it’s chief architect.
TRAPPED ASHES tells a tale of a group of seven people who while on a VIP Studio Tour of a famed Hollywood backlot, become trapped on an old movie set and are forced to tell true-life horror stories from their past in the hopes that it will set them free. Each of the tales and the overall wraparound is helmed by a different filmmaker, but all are penned by Bartok.
The first story—THE GIRL WITH THE GOLDEN BREASTS—comes courtesy of legendary British director Ken Russell (ALTERED STATES). Russell is no stranger to nudity in his films and this tale of a Hollywood actress who decides that breast augmentation will help (ahem) lift her career offers plenty of opportunity for that. The twist is that the new breasts—created from processed human tissue—are actually blood-sucking monsters that can’t wait to latch onto the first victim they can find.
It’s pretty easy to see, based on the set design and the storyline that this segment—although supposedly based in reality, according to the internal logic of the film—is stylistically surreal and overtly satirical. It works overall because of the whimsy of Russell’s direction and the bubbly hysteria of Rachel Veltri’s performance as Phoebe. Early special effects in this episode are laughably fake but when the plot finally reveals the toothed nipples on camera, the film actually manages to pull it all off. A later reveal is almost jaw-droppingly brilliant and definitely conjures up images of the best in TALES FROM THE CRYPT–styled madness.
Sean Cunningham steps behind the lens after a long hiatus from horror to direct the second segment JIBAKU which follows Henry and his wife Julia on an overseas business trip to Japan. Designed by Henry to reignite the spark in their sex life, Julia ultimately finds herself attracted to another man. Henry and Julia later discover the man has committed suicide in a local graveyard. Now, Julia’s dreams are haunted by the dead lover who plans to take her soul to hell.
This episode threw me for a big loop, initially because the film feels like a cross between an episode of RED SHOE DIARIES and a Japanese Henti flick—complete with animated demon sex. But, beyond all that, it’s the final moments where Henry enters Hell to save Julia that the film lost me. The reason is that in Japanese Jigoku (not JIBAKU) is the word for hell. Western audiences would recognize it based on the 1960 film by Nobou Nakagawa. It’s images of the netherworld and the Orpheus tale that Bartok is aping above were later incorporated into the Robin Williams disaster WHAT DREAMS MAY COME. Ultimately those issues made the film feel wildly derivative and disingenuous. The other thing that didn’t sit well with me was—beyond all the none-too-subtle sexual imagery that served as set pieces—the film features what I could only describe as zombie sex…disturbingly intense zombie sex. Let’s just leave it at that!
Up next, Monte Hellman—who has known Bartok for the better part of a decade—was coaxed out of retirement to direct the story STANLEY’S GIRLFRIEND. Inarguaiable the most straight-forward of the stories, this episode is narrated by John Saxon (A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET) and it tells of a young Hollywood screenwriter in the 1950’s who meets an up and coming filmmaker named Stanley and begins an intense friendship that is ultimately torn apart when the screenwriter begins an affair with the directors girlfriend.
The supernatural element of STANLEY’S GIRLFRIEND is simply that of a succubus story—once again allowing for more intense sex scenes. But, what the episode really offers is a dramatic twist that—if you read nothing about the episode in detail beforehand—makes for an interestingly satisfying and wholly unanticipated revelation. The beauty of the revelation in the film is that it’s so very obvious when you look at it in retrospect, but perhaps due to the previous two film’s bizarre and outrageous situations, the viewer is put off guard by the simplicity of this very well crafted tale.
The final production comes from neophyte director John Gaeta—who won an Oscar for visual effects work on THE MATRIX. MY TWIN, THE WORM is the most interesting story—although it is also the least successful. The tale is told from the perspective of a child inside the womb. When the mother becomes pregnant she discovers that she has also contracted a tapeworm. As the treatment for the tapeworm would also kill the fetus, the mother must choose to carry both the child and the worm. Later when the child grows up, she imagines that the worm too has remained in her life.
Besides being a languidly paced episode with yet more occurrences of bizarre sex, when the final moments of the wrap-around reveal the ending of all the told-tales, the final story rings as totally false. In the utter insanity that existed in the first and second tales the film never betrayed the absolute reality of those situations. In the final story, we are told that the girl made the whole thing up. I honestly felt a little betrayed by that, especially after the impressive showing the production made during the third act.
I suppose you’re wondering what happened to Joe Dante up there. Well, if you haven’t guessed by now, Dante directed the wraparound story. The standout of this is not only the interaction of the trapped houseguests, but also the innocent and yet wryly sinister performance of Henry Gibson (THE ‘BURBS) as the tour guide. It’s clear that Gibson is more that he admits too, and what is supposed to pass for a final sup singly moment is crystal clear miles ahead of the ending. Still, the weak point in many anthologies is the wrap and this time…happily…that is not the case.
Bartok claims to have been influenced by a childhood of Roger Corman productions and Amicus Films. It’s easy to see that the format he took and the setting of the gothic house and round table storytelling mirrors many of those productions. The problem lies in that those films—like TWICE-TOLD TALES—rely on literary storytelling to further elevate themselves—to make themselves seem self-important, designed by Corman and the bunch to give legitimacy to their bargain basement b-films. Here all of the films, with the exception of STANLEY’S GIRLFRIEND feel more like a soft-core Skinamax version of horror, designed to titillate and not to terrify, and certainly not to evoke the hallowed works of Nathaniel Hawthorn or Edgar Allen Poe. Ultimately, TRAPPED ASHES could have been something very special, but it feels cheap…and not in the sense of budgetary constraints. No, that would be forgivable. It feels cheap because it’s salacious, and that—in this setting—is not.