A group of tourists on a guided tour of a Hollywood studio back-lot foolishly decide to explore an abandoned haunted house movie set. Aspiring screenwriter Andy (Jayce Bartok), his starlet girlfriend Phoebe Cain (Rachel Veltri), has-been film director Leo (John Saxon), surly goth girl Nathalie (Michelle-Barbara Pelletier) and holidaying couple Henry (Scott Lowell) and Julia (Lara Harris) are trapped along with their meek yet strangely sinister tour guide (Henry Gibson) inside and find themselves compelled to re-enact the framing device of a classic horror movie by long-deceased, depraved director Desmond Hacker. One by one, each proceeds to tell a hair-raising horror story drawn from their own lives.
Filmed back in 2006 but inexplicably shelved for several years, this US/Canadian/Japanese horror anthology was eventually released to critical indifference and a strangely hostile reception from genre fans. No doubt in this present age of rape-happy torture porn and repetitive found footage flicks, a comic book styled throwback to the Amicus anthology films of the Sixties and Seventies seems downright quaint. Produced and scripted by Dennis Bartok - whose younger brother, Jayce, essays the role of Andy - Trapped Ashes is an undoubtedly flawed effort yet proves lively, inventive and on a, story level, far more compelling than gimmicky trash like V/H/S (2012). It helps that Bartok and his Japanese co-producers - who include Yoshifumi Hosoda, writer-director of cult cross-cultural comedy Sleepy Heads (1997) - hired an impressive array of offbeat and ingenious veteran filmmakers.
Joe Dante handles the wraparound segments with his customary film buff flair and considerable skill. He crafts a funhouse atmosphere with candy-coloured lighting invoking the ghost of the great Mario Bava (the man behind one of the all time great anthology horror films of course, Black Sabbath (1964)) plus the inevitable and welcome Dick Miller cameo that sets up the first story, "The Girl with Golden Breasts" which proved to be the last film work from the great Ken Russell. Here, poor, luckless Phoebe recounts how, as a struggling actress, she resorted to cosmetic surgery at the hands of crazed surgeon (wait for it) Dr. Larry Breastman (groan!) who endows the unwitting starlet with monstrous breast implants that feed on human blood. As a satire of Hollywood venality it is far from subtle and betrays Russell's advanced years with its reactionary attitude towards body enhancement and the transgender community. Like a lot of late period Ken Russell, the tone is gleefully vulgar, featuring photos of malfunctioning mammary implants and detailing Phoebe's surgery in grisly detail. Crass and cartoonish, the segment barely delivers on its outrageous premise yet features a genuinely committed and engaging performance from bubbly actress Rachel Vetri.
Next up, in a nod to the film's part-Japanese origins, Sean S. Cunningham delivers "Jibaku", a J-horror pastiche that ranks among the high points of the anthology. On a trip to Japan, neglected housewife Julia is entranced by a handsome stranger (Yoshinori Hiruma) as he draws her attention to an unnerving but sensual artwork that depicts a young woman being ravished by an insatiable, tentacled demon. A visit to a Shinto shrine reveals this same man has since died yet he begins haunting Julia's increasingly fevered erotic dreams. When Julia disappears, Henry learns his wife has been abducted into the netherworld. Eerie, erotic and unsettling, "Jibaku" stands as Cunningham's finest work as a director as he tweaks an intriguing treatise on infidelity into darkly dreamlike and sensual realms. Eye-catching sets styled after those featured in pioneering horror classics Jigoku (1960) and Kwaidan (1964) combine with inspired avant-garde animated sequences, drawn from tentacle porn anime such as La Blue Girl (1992), Wicked City (1987) and the infamous Urotskidoji: Legend of the Overfiend (1987), to create a heady, hallucinatory feel. Things even head into Nekromantik (1987) territory with a scene where Julia frenziedly fucks a rapidly decomposing corpse. Audition (1999) star Ryo Ishibashi plays a Shinto priest and controversial J-pop sexpot Aya Sugimoto cameos as a perky policewoman.
For his first directorial outing in seventeen years, former Seventies coffee house hero Monte Hellman serves up "Stanley's Girlfriend", an idiosyncratic character piece set in the late 1950s as Leo (played in flashback by Tahmoh Penikett of Battlestar Galactica) finds himself embroiled in a love triangle with his close friend and fellow up-and-coming filmmaker Stanley Kubrick (Tygh Runyan) over the seductive and mysterious Nina (a captivating Amelia Cooke). Yes, that Stanley Kubrick. Events take a sinister turn that results in diverse fortunes for the two aspiring auteurs. Barely a horror film, this moody, sensual, well acted character piece draws cleverly, albeit outrageously from Kubrick's early life to craft an intriguing allegory about the auteurist survival instinct and vampire-like nature of the Hollywood studio system.
Finally special effects wizard John Gaeta, of among others The Matrix (1999), makes his directorial debut with "My Twin, the Worm." Snarky Nathalie recounts how consuming undercooked meat implanted her pregnant mother Martine (Michele Barbara-Pelletier, in a second role) with a nasty tapeworm. Forced to carry the parasite along with her baby, poor Martine suffers the added indignity of losing her adulterous husband to her supposed best friend, Annie (Deanna Milligan). With Martine eventually suffering a nervous breakdown and confined to an asylum, it falls to young Nathalie (an impressive Matreya Fedor) to use her symbiotic relationship with the monster worm and exact horrific revenge. Gaeta's inexperience shows as this segment takes a long time to get to the meat of the story. Yet the offbeat premise of someone conveying their own twisted impression of past events from when they were essentially in the womb proves darkly poetic and in some instances, memorably grotesque even though the effects are surprisingly sub-par.
Unfortunately, the film makes the curious decision to withhold the punchlines to each story until the very end. Whereupon new revelations turn them into rather different stories. The twists serve some tales better than others, making a mess of the otherwise potent conclusion of "Jibaku" whilst serving a fine sting in the tale for "My Twin, the Worm." And any horror fan familiar with the Amicus anthology films can guess exactly what fate awaits our hapless tourists at the fadeout. The music by Kenji Kawai is elegant and unsettling and the film concludes with a fond dedication to, among others, Budd Boetticher, Andre De Toth and Kinji Fukasaku.
American director of science fiction and horror, a former critic who got his big break from Roger Corman directing Hollywood Boulevard. Piranha was next, and he had big hits with The Howling and Gremlins. But his less successful films can be as interesting: Explorers didn't do as well as he had hoped, but illustrated the love of pop culture that is apparent in all his work.
It was trips to the cinema with his mother that made British director, writer and producer Ken Russell a lifelong film fan and this developed into making his own short films. From there, he directed dramas on famous composers for the BBC, and was soon making his own features.
After the seventies, which he ended with the biopic Valentino, his popularity declined somewhat with Altered States suffering production difficulties and later projects difficult to get off the ground. Nevertheless, he directed Crimes of Passion, Gothic, Salome's Last Dance, cult horror Lair of the White Worm and The Rainbow in the eighties, but the nineties and beyond saw more erratic output, with many short films that went largely unseen, although a UK TV series of Lady Chatterley was a success. At the age of 79 he appeared on reality TV show Celebrity Big Brother but walked out after a few days. Russell was one of Britain's most distinctive talents, and his way of going passionately over the top was endearing and audacious, while he rarely lost sight of his stories' emotional aspects.