Today I will present you the Japanese horror cult classic Evil Dead Trap from 1988 by director Toshiharu Ikeda, a movie that proves that Japanese horror does not necessarily have to involve creepy long-haired girls.
Evil Dead Trap (1988)
aka Shiryo no wana
directed by: Toshiharu Ikeda, written by : Takashi Ishii
Shiryo no wana, as the original title goes, is a little gem that is, as far as I am concerned, not for the faint of heart.
The ambitious late night TV -show host Nami (Miyuki Ono) is frustrated, because the segment she invented for her show (tagline: “For all those who cannot sleep”), which encourages viewers to send in spectacular home videos, turned out to be an utter disappointment. Lone “sensation” of the program so far is the video of a crocodile snapping at a pigeon. A cancellation is imminent.
But one night things take an unexpected turn as a mysterious package with the ominous label “For Nami and all those who cannot sleep” arrives with the post. The package contains a VHS cassette, which the unsuspecting Nami puts listlessly into the recorder, not knowing what horrors are awaiting her (or the audience, for that matter).
It starts out harmlessly, some grainy footage filmed from the driver’s seat of a car that leaves Tokyo to arrive at a desolate warehouse in the countryside.
Then the recording suddenly cuts to the inside of the warehouse and we see a woman who is chained to a wall, screaming in fear at the sight of the person behind the camera. Paralyzed with horror, Nami witnesses as the hand of whoever is filming comes into frame, holding a knife and before we can cover our eyes with our hands, we get a sickening close-up of the knife cutting through the woman’s leg, followed by an extreme close up of the blade puncturing the eye and subsequently cutting through the eyelid.
Nami’s (and our) understandable shock is even more augmented when the video suddenly cuts to a photo of herself. Deeply perturbed by what she just witnessed, Nami contacts the authorities of the TV-station, but nobody seems to believe in the authenticity of the snuff video and her pompous boss writes it off as an elaborate prank by a crazed fan.
And really, after the first repercussions of the shock have waned, Nami bethinks herself of her role as tough-as-nails tabloid reporter and starts smelling a story, fake video or not. At her insistence, Nami’s superior reluctantly gives her the permission to investigate, but only under the condition that she keeps the expenditures low, due to budget cutbacks caused by dropped ratings.
Not deterred by those constraints, Nami assembles a news team consisting of three female colleagues, namely Masako (Aya katsuragi), Rei (Hitomi Kobayashi) and Rya (Eriko Nakagawa) as well as the only male member of the group, the somewhat nerdy newbie-assistant Kondo (Masahiko Abe).
With only a minimum of equipment packed into a white jeep, they set out to follow the lead in the first half of the video to find that warehouse, still convinced that it is the prank of a disturbed super-fan while secretly hoping to score with a more lurid story in the end. And really, the warehouse, revealed as an abandoned storage place for unused, non-lethal army-equipment, seems to exist, with the gates unlocked as if it was waiting for the group’s arrival.
To Nami’s disappointment, no traces of the grisly murder can be found inside the building, reaffirming the notion that the “snuff movie” was a hoax made up by an obsessed fan.
But soon an inexplicable feeling of dread befalls the group, not least caused by the creepy atmosphere of the desolate surrounding.
Of course that feeling is immediately confirmed to be not unfounded -it is a horror film after all- when all members of the news team, one by one, run into grotesque elaborate traps or get picked up by a masked killer in a army raincoat, who seems to be very skilled with his knife and crossbow. With sadistic gusto he drives each one into a different horrific scenario that ends with the person’s gruesome death.
Nami can escape to the roof and gets unexpected assistance by a mysterious stranger who appears out from nowhere and identifies himself as an ex-con who is looking out for his missing brother. He also claims to know that there are actually two killers- one of them being called “Hideki” and still a child…
As I stated in the intro, Evil Dead Trap is no light fare. The movie plays a little like a Japanese version of both the American “slasher movie” genre and its spiritual predecessor, the Italian “Giallo”.
Following the basic plot template of those subgenres, it shows a group of people hunted by a masked killer in a confined area without possibility to escape, only to be offed in the most creative ways.
Yet director Ikeda puts his own stamp on this film and twists it enough to qualify Evil Dead Trap as a truly unique entry into the horror movie.
One of the greatest strengths of the movie are its visuals. Everything is filmed in either very prosaic surroundings like the offices and studios of the TV-station or against the depressing and ugly, almost post-apocalyptic looking background of the warehouse. The closer the plot moves to the lion’s den, the killer’s “home” the more outlandish and bizarre the sets become.
The cinematography and the editing are nothing short of masterful and Ikeda directs with an assured hand. Daytime scenes are glazed over with a brownish hue while the night scenes are all plunged in that blue light we know from so many 1980s movies.
Diverse camera and editing tricks are effortlessly worked into the visuals without ever seeming to be self-serving or intrusive. POV, scenes shot in b/w, tracking shots, dolly zoom or jump cuts- the array of stylistic devices give the movie an energetic pace put the film close to Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead” (that obviously served as an “inspiration” for the English title of Shiryo no wana, hoping the notoriety of former would boost the VHS rental numbers*) in that regard, yet they are completely different beasts.
*To be fair, Shiryo no wana means roughly translated “trap of the dead” , so it’s not that far off the mark.
When the camera and editing go completely wild in the end, intercutting sped-up footage and chaotic jump-cut zooms with grainy b/w video material, one feels reminded of Ikeda’s fellow countryman Shin’ya Tsukamoto’s seminal cyber-/bio-punk excess Tetsuo (to be released one year later, in 1989).
Aside from Videodrome (1983), Evil Dead Trap also seems to be one of the first movies that acknowledges the inherent creepiness of VHS footage and VHS cassettes, long before Lost Highway (1997), Ringu (1998) or, well, V/H/S (2012) did. Like in Videodrome, a snuff movie is the starting point that triggers all following events, while Cronenberg’s masterpiece admittedly remains the more highbrow effort in the end.
There is some media criticism packed into the subtext, chastising the sensation mongering of the tabloid journalism that feeds the viewer’s lust for gruesome images and shining a light at the increasingly dissolving sense among the audience for what is real or not on TV, a trend that started with the “home video” craze coming up around the time when the film was released and still holding on till today, as the TV programs are clogged with “Reality TV”. Not to forget a hefty critique of the idolization of TV-hosts, a phenomenon that has always been particularly going strong among the Japanese population.
Screens showing flickering footage are used as props to great effect throughout the movie, symbolizing the ubiquitous and inescapable presence of the media that incessantly bombards us with horrifying imagery, often with no real context.
One haunting scene has Nami stumbling through a corridor, when she glimpses a small TV on the ground, the only source of light in the frame. It shows the gagged face of one of her colleagues, twisted in pain. As some noises suggest, the woman shown on the screen is being filmed live and she is suffering in a room nearby. But when Nami opens the door to that room to come to her rescue, she triggers a mechanism that kills the victim right before her eyes. This scene is pretty much a cynical stab against sensationalist journalism.
Apart from that metaphorical subtext, the philosophical plane is slippery with that icy kind of misanthropy that Japanese directors seem to do better than anyone else.
The kills and traps on display are simply amazing, preceding and still outshining similar contraptions from movies like Saw (2004) and The Collector (2009) in the way they are staged and captured on film. Evil Dead Trap is not filled to the brim with gore scenes, but when they come, they come hard.
How much you can enjoy the film also depends on if you can tolerate the sudden turn into another subgenre of horror the film makes around the one-hour mark. Things go completely haywire then, while fortunately never crossing over into the territory of randomness (unlike many recent Japanese outputs, juvenile efforts as Machine Gun Girl or Tokyo Gore Police), but always adhering to something that is commonly described as “dream logic”.
Nowadays, when the “crazy” and “weirdness” in many horror films seem juvenile, random and calculated, the sincere wickedness of a movie like Evil Dead Trap is a welcome change. Because tell me, how many recent horror movies still make you think “From what murky place of mind did that come from”? It became a rare experience and Evil Dead Trap delivers on that level.
The acting is surprisingly solid, especially considering the genre’s (low) standards. A completely gratuitous nude scene in the first 30 minutes of the movie is owed to the fact that the producers could make a casting coup by signing the Japanese AV (adult video) star Hitomi Kobayashi as “Rei”.
Also worth a mention is the haunting synth -soundtrack by Tomohiko Kira, that orientates itself towards the legendary work of the band “Goblin” that scored many films of Dario Argento and the international cut of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978). Kira adds a few clanging Industrial sounds to the swirling synth-melodies which fits the visuals that are rougher than say Argento’s exquisite image compositions.
The film spawned two sequels. 1990 saw the release of Evil Dead Trap 2: Hideki by director Izo Hashimoto (writer of the Anime “Akira”), that picks up the “Hideki” side plot from the end of the first movie. Bizarre and surreal, the movie is hard to follow, but also very well-made and hypnotic and may be object of a future review of mine.
Evil Dead Trap 3: Broken Love Killer from 1993 marks the return of director Ikeda. It’s a more conventional serial killer story in the vein of Brian DePalma movies and is much lighter fare compared to its predecessors to which the plot has no connection.
Sadly Ikeda, who had been dabbling in different genres throughout his career, has been found dead the sea near Shima in the Mie prefecture in December of 2010. It could have been an accident, but a suicide is, due to a wish to die he expressed on Twitter (!), more probable.
He left horror fans a true gem of the genre, a movie that effortlessly creates an atmosphere of doom and dread, without ever losing its energetic streak or descending into depressive boredom, something many horror movies don’t manage no matter how many buckets of blood are poured on the screen. Its techno-/cyber-/scrapyard- punk vibe still feels fresh today, although it has been copied, vulgarized and overused in many lesser movies.
An explicit recommendation to horror fans.