It's been called Japan's first splatter movie and the first Japanese modern horror film. It's very 1980s horror, but that's a good thing.
The story is straightforward until it goes batshit towards the end. Miyuki Ono presents a TV show that broadcasts people's home movies, but surprisingly it's not about the usual "look at my gerbil falling over, ho ho" nonsense. She's not a comedian. She thinks she's a serious journalist and her staff are of a similar mind. Thus when sent what looks like a snuff film, she investigates.
NOT A GOOD PLAN.
On paper, the film's first two acts are bog-standard. Friends go to a dangerous location and regret it. You could accuse it of being structurally the same as a Friday the 13th or a Halloween film. There's some truth to this and indeed there's a certain familiarity to those early proceedings, but nonetheless the film still lifts itself above formula.
1. These aren't teenagers getting drunk and waving placards saying "slasher fodder". They're TV professionals investigating the source of a snuff movie. This grounds the film immediately. You take it seriously. Okay, yes, some of Ono's colleagues are more dedicated than others, but they're still grown-ups, not idiots.
2. You can believe in it. The TV setting feels down-to-earth and the place where the snuff movie came from is an abandoned military base that's liable to contain snakes and heaving piles of maggots. That's a good setting. It feels desolate and faintly depressing. This gives the film a realistic edge.
3. The film's not fannying around. Someone has a gun and uses it. It's not just running through the usual horror movie cliches (e.g. masked killer catches up with his targets despite the fact that they're running and he's walking, etc.)
4. It's a 1980s horror movie. This helps. The 1980s were a huge decade for horror, just as the 1990s were a wasteland. There's a confidence and a brash sincerity to that decade, before Kevin Williamson and the Scream crowd came along. There's no irony here. They're not winking, they're not self-aware and they're going for everything as hard as they can. Yes, there's obviously a 1980s aesthetic (e.g. the hairstyles), but I think it dates the film in a good way.
5. The gore's an example of this, I think. Every death is surprising and horrible. The snuff film at the start is nasty without going so far that you'll be throwing up, then the kills later are imaginative and even non-lethal moments like the knife-grabbing are likely to make you squirm. Then there's the outright sadism of the crossbow setup. I admired all that. It feels strong and fresh.
After that, the finale does something ridiculous, but with such unshakeable 1980s conviction that it works... and then goes even sillier. This should be laughable. It's not. It's goofy if you think about it, but it's also so wholehearted that I wanted to stand up and applaud the guts (and lack of sanity) of the filmmakers. You can't accuse them of chickening out, anyway. That's where the film takes a big left turn away from formula and becomes more character-based and interesting.
It's worth talking about those filmmakers. The director is Toshiharu Ikeda, who started out as Assistant Director on Nikkatsu porno like Flower and Snake, Wife to be Sacrificed and Noble Lady: Bound Vase. He left Nikkatsu in 1982 after they didn't support him in a dispute with an actress over a nude scene when he was shooting Angel Guts: Red Porno
, then joined a collective of young directors and for them did some of his best work. He won a Best Director award for Mermaid Legend and made two of the three Evil Dead Traps, but then mostly abandoned cinema in the 1990s and concentrated on V-cinema action and porn. He returned to theatrical films in the 2000s, but he was suffering from depression and it seems likely that he committed suicide in 2010.
Interestingly his scriptwriter was often Takashi Ishii, a significant director in his own right (Angel Guts, Gonin
, Black Angel, Freeze Me
). Evil Dead Trap was written by him too and although it doesn't feel overwhelmingly Ishii-like, it's got that same slightly chilly sense of an interesting writer who's not particularly interested in audience empathy.
Anyway, Ikeda hated horror! Not only had he never seen Raimi's The Evil Dead (which has nothing to do with this) or other classics of the genre, but he didn't even watch his own Evil Dead Trap. He'd made it, but he had no interest in sitting through it. He did eventually watch it in 1999, though, in Los Angeles for an American theatrical release. This fascinates me. I'm intrigued by the idea of horror directed by someone who doesn't like horror, especially since the film he made feels as if it belongs so well in its decade. Ikeda isn't just going through the motions, instead using occasionally extreme camera angles (once at ninety degrees) and of course none of it came from other horror films since he wasn't a horror buff. I also noticed the fact that his camera doesn't leer at the nudity. There's a bit of flesh, but despite all the pink films he'd worked on, Ikeda is matter-of-fact about it and isn't trying to give you a hard-on.
The actors all do their jobs. They believe in what they're doing. I was trying to work out throughout who Miyuki Ono reminded me of, but the answer might simply be "Miyuki Ono" since I've seen her previously in Black Angel Vol. 1
and in Ridley Scott's Black Rain. Anyway, she's got a strong, distinctive face and enough screen presence to own her big character turning point and stop it from making her look like another horror movie idiot heroine. The studio who'd financed this film (Japan Home Video) hadn't wanted her for the lead role, incidentally, but Ikeda had had his doubts about the acting ability of JHV's choice of Hitomi Kobayashi, a top adult video star. Kobayashi's here too, but in a supporting role.
I admire this film, but it's not a classic. The best horror films make a stronger emotional connection with their audience. This one's a little too distant to grab you and too realistic to be much fun. However it's an accomplished, serious piece of work and a landmark in Japanese horror. It spawned two sequels. It's also got a crazy ending. I think it's laudable.