Monday, January 27, 2014

Trapped Ashes (2006): When horror compendiums go wacky

Trapped Ashes (2006)
dir: Joe Dante, Ken Russell, Monte Hellman, John Gaeta, Sean S. Cunningham
wr: Dennis Bartok

This is one of the more peculiar passion projects that I think has ever existed. The movie has one writer, but five directors. And, that one writer was also a credited producer of this film.  The writer? Dennis Bartok. Uh...who?

Dennis Bartok is the son of LeAnn Bartok, who was a conceptual artist and avant-garde filmmaker, at least according to Dennis Bartok. Dennis Bartok is better known as being Head of Programming for the American Cinematheque in LA. He also occasionally appears on AMC's Behind the Scenes. I suspect he's one of those LA types who knows a lot of people and has a lot of stories to tell.

Trapped Ashes is Dennis Bartok's baby. He wrote a horror compendium, a la Tales From the Crypt, only centered everything about the trappings of Hollywood. Then, he hired an assortment of beloved filmmakers to direct each segment.

  • Joe Dante, of Gremlins and The 'burbs, got the wraparound segments. 
  • Ken Russell, Lisztomania, The Who's Tommy, and Gothic, got the first segment "The Girl with the Golden Breasts." 
  • Sean S Cunningham, Friday the 13th, took up the second segment "Jibaku"
  • Monte Hellman, Two-Lane Blacktop and Silent Night, Deadly Night 3, snagged the third segment, "Stanley's Girlfriend"
  • John Gaeta, who had been the visual effects supervisor for The Matrix, wrapped it up with "My Twin, the Worm"
Each and every one of these films had a style that was as diverse as the directors were, even though they were written by the same hand. And, sadly, that hand was ultimately the problem with the movie.

Joe Dante really tries his best with the framing device. The story of the frame is that there is a group of people on a lot tour with Henry Gibson as the tour guide. They enter a haunted house, that has a bunch of movie set tricks, only to discover that they are trapped in the center room, where they must tell their stories to pass the time. And, while I love watching Joe Dante play, he just isn't given enough meat to make the wraparound interesting. Get them trapped and get to the stories.

Ken Russell seems to be having the most fun with his segment, which is totally up his perverse aisle. "The Girl with the Golden Breasts" is about a semi-hot girl who's too old to play young and too young to play old, and too flat to be considered for anything, according to casting agents and her self-esteem. So, she gets new fangled breast implants made of actual meat instead of bags of gel. They are meant to look natural. Only, the breast implants have a problem: they're vampiric. Yes, this is a story about vampiric tits. Really. And, Ken Russell is having as much fun as he's had in years, at least since 1988's The Lair of the White Worm. The lurid tale is told in equally grotesque visuals with effects of particular note. The writing also is less misogynistic than anti-plastic surgery, focusing on the breast implants being evil, but the woman who got them is not. This is, to me, the most fun of the segments.

Sean S Cunningham went the farthest he's ever gone, and the farthest this movie has gone, with his segment "Jibaku." This is a movie that pretends to be steeped in Japanese culture about a married couple, where the wife totally gets it on with a monk who dies and takes her to hell. The husband has to rescue her. The visuals are kind of striking, and the segment delves into necrophilia, but overall Jibaku is little more than shock value and an attempt to use the J-Horror trend that was still hitting hard in 2006 (just before the remake bug would be hitting full force).

Monte Hellman's segment, "Stanley's Girlfriend" is about two friends, split apart by a girl who is a ghost, or something. They used to meet for chess all the time, but then one friend disappears. Or, something. It's a movie that is fascinated with itself, and fascinated with Hollywood. Anybody who is so fascinated with Hollywood that they fetishize it will love this segment, but the rest of us are probably bored stiff.

The final segment by John Gaeta is just a strange mood piece about some girl who gestated while her mother had a tapeworm, and she formed an emotional and psychic bond to the tapeworm. When she was abused, the tapeworm got revenge. Yeah. It's as weird as you think, and as worthless. 

If a movie is only as good as its weakest link, Trapped Ashes is god awful. The stories aren't really scary, and Masters of Horror had already been producing great episodes giving free reign to their horror directors. Joe Dante had great segments both seasons, which were plenty meatier than this work for hire (and, honestly, meatier than his latest full film The Hole). The writing is mediocre at best, in general, and not scary at all.

While Bartok was trying to create a sort of warning about the types of people that Hollyweird attracts, he fails by also including the Japanese segment which has nothing whatsoever to do with LA, it seems. He's also trying to explore the different types of horror, but it doesn't work as well as letting the director's play by themselves, as displayed by the Masters of Horror series (which I cannot recommend enough). In the end, Trapped Ashes becomes a frequently awful trifle.

But, "The Girl with the Golden Breasts" is amazing, and should be a short separated completely from the other movies. Luckily, they placed it first so that you can leave as soon as it is over. Ken Russell showed us his wit one final time.

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