Death Trap (AKA Eaten Alive) (1977)
First released: 1978
Director: Tobe Hooper
Current UK Status: Passed 18 uncut
After striking fear into the hearts of movie fans all over the world with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), director Tobe Hooper returned three years later with the equally savage, if a little more tongue ‘n’ cheek Death Trap. Also known as Eaten Alive, the film was released, although cut, here in UK cinemas in 1978. The BBFC cut version then appeared on VHS rental in 1980 on the VCL label, followed by an uncut version by Vipco in July 1982. A year later the film was listed as a Video Nasty, however after several unsuccessful prosecutions, was removed from the list in December 1985. Problems persisted however, as Vipco released the film in 1992 with the BBFC demanding 25 seconds of cuts to grant an 18 certificate. Vipco again released the film on VHS in 2001, this time managing to get the film released uncut, and the DVD version in 2003 was also uncut.
Now, where to begin with Tobe Hooper the director, the man responsible for pretty much reinventing modern horror, and if it wasn’t for Hooper and his Texas Chainsaw Massacre, our beloved genre just might look a lot different today. Hooper, who grew up in Austin, Texas, started out as a college professor and documentary cameraman. This was his life during the 1960’s, and in 1974 Hooper brought together a small party of students and teachers to make his groundbreaking film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Written by Hooper and Kim Henkel, the story was loosely based on real life serial killer Ed Gein, who murdered several people in the 1950’s. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre became one of the most controversial and groundbreaking horror films of all time, and even today continues to upset and delight horror fans. The success of this film, and its banning here in the UK, made Hooper a household name. However, before the Video Nasty scare kicked off, Hooper was able to make another film which would also end up on the DPP list, Death Trap. Made just a few years after ‘Chainsaw’, Death Trap saw Hooper work again with a number of cast members from his previous film, and again saw him work with Kim Henkel.
While Death Trap (AKA Eaten Alive) did not cause as much controversy as Hooper’s previous film, it was still a shocking, violent but altogether easier film to watch, and it cemented Hooper as one of the leading directors in the horror genre. Winning a number of awards at horror film festivals, Death Trap was also the film which launched the career of Robert Englund, a man Hooper would later work with again on Night Terrors (1995) and The Mangler (1995). After being fired from directing The Dark (1979), Hooper had further success directing the 1979 mini-series of Salem’s Lot, which was based on Stephen King’s story. After this Hooper went on to direct The Funhouse (1981), and while the film was not a great success, today it is regarded as a classic. Hooper’s next film once again propelled him to the big leagues, but in a all together different way to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Poltergeist (1982)was the film which saw Hooper create an almost family friendly horror, although it was not without it problems. Steven Spielberg hired Hooper to direct, while Spielberg would produce: however, differences between the two meant that Spielberg would finish off directing, but Hooper is the man listed as director. The film, released by MGM, was a massive success and spawned a number of sequels, and proved Hooper really was a class act. However, surprisingly, Hooper had to wait three years to find work again after the success of Poltergeist, and in 1985 Hooper directed the fun and rather brilliant Lifeforce, his first journey into sci-fi and horror. The film was pretty well received, but with Invaders of Mars (1986) and the poorly received The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986), things started to slow down for Hooper. Now, personally, I quite liked The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (which starred Dennis Hopper), but many didn’t. After a number of TV series episodes, Hooper then directed a short for horror anthology Body Bags (1993), and then returned to feature length films in 1995 with The Mangler and Night Terrors.
For the next ten years, Hooper worked on a number of TV series from Nowhere Man (1995), to Taken (2002). After a long absence from films, Hooper returned in 2004 with a remake of Dennis Donnelly’s Toolbox Murders (1978), itself a Video Nasty. The film was slated, but personally I thought it was superb, incredibly grim and a welcome return for Hooper. He followed this with the equally dark Mortuary (2005), again this film was not well received but for me had a real dark and moody atmosphere which was absent from many horror films of this decade. Hooper then directed two segments for the exceptional Masters of Horror TV series (2005/06), and horror fans the world over are awaiting the directors first feature length film in seven years, Djinn. The buzz surrounding Djinn, and the fact fans are eagerly waiting to see it just goes to prove that Hooper still has an awful lot of respect from horror fans, and even now, some forty years after The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the director is still relevant. A true legend if ever there was one, and a director who will forever be in horror fans debt.
So, Death Trap, the film which came after The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the film which had Hooper attempting to prove that his previous film was not a stroke of luck. Here he had to prove that what came before really was a sign of serious talent, and with Death Trap Hooper proved it and waved a great big middle finger to all the doubters. Death Trap, for all its flaws, is a truly brilliant horror that grabs the viewer by the balls and holds them to ransom. Death Trap is over the top, completely mad, vicious, funny, loud, rude and pretty much tells the do-gooders to piss off. Death Trap is wrong, in so many ways, loves its violence, even celebrates it, but never ever apologises.
We get a pretty good idea of just where this film will lead as we meet Robert Englund’s Buck, a local sex crazed loud mouth who gets angry if he does not get his own way, and appears to be well known all over this small country town. He has taken a prostitute up to the room of a brothel and bar, and is not happy that she does not want to play his games. Angry, he causes a scene, bringing the head Mistress to the room who kicks the poor prostitute out, leaving her to find another place to stay for the night. Unfortunate for her, she stumbles through the Bayou mist and discovers The Starlight Hotel, run by a man named Judd (an insane Neville Brand). We get a good idea of what sort of man he is as he asks the poor girl to sign in to the hotel while he looks down her top. We also quickly learn that Buck bullies the hotel manager, and uses his rooms to take women back for a good time.
There is minimal plot here, apart from the local sheriff searching for a missing girl, and her family also turning up and staying at the Starlight Hotel in the hope of finding her. However, less is better here as there is very little demand for a complicated, well thought out plot. Simply, Judd has a pet Crocodile, and every now and then he likes to feed guests to his pet while appearing to be really upset by his actions. The film is Judd’s show, with Neville Brand delivering a superb, insane performance that will make you laugh out loud while you also look away in disgust. He bellows out what is barely English as he has temper tantrums and spends most of the film shouting at himself. With his long hair, crazy eyes and sweaty face, he is a fearsome creation. When he does brandish weapons, like his trusty scythe or garden rake, he is actually incredibly frightening. Unfortunately, with the body count growing, a woman tied up upstairs and Buck bullying him, this man is close to breaking point. With another family arriving whose dog is eaten by his pet Croc, Judd has no option but to retaliate, killing the Father of the family with the dog in hilarious fashion. Screaming and waffling to himself, Judd forces the man into harm’s way, and surprisingly the Croc effects are actually very very good.
Death Trap keeps its tongue firmly in cheek, and knows just what level of comedy to bring to the violent proceedings. One minute you will be shocked, the next laughing out loud as Judd shouts and frantically rushes around in full on maniacal mode. Brand has created one of the most mental, bonkers and totally insane villains you will ever witness on screen, this is great stuff. Added to that Robert Englund’s vile Buck and a whole host of rather good looking women, Death Trap is a real treat. Hooper has directed another tale of madness, very similar to ‘Chainsaw’, but very very different. While ‘Chainsaw’ was very serious and upsetting, Death Trap has far too much stupidity to make it as disturbing as it probably should be. I mean, with a sign on the hotel saying “zoo” and pointing out back where the vicious Croc lives, you will find it hard to take anything here seriously, but that is the films charm.
With the film clearly shot on a cheap stage, you can even hear the echo of the set, and the entire set is utterly ludicrous, but the tacky look of the film is incredibly one of its strong points. There is also a serious lack of colour, with the film appearing to have been washed in a washing machine before being presented: the colour orange is the most dominant colour here, but again, it gives the film an incredible charm that you just cannot help but love. Hooper’s shots of the attractive female cast do not disappoint, with one lady taking up a good quarter of the film preparing to get in the bath, and another removing her coat to reveal a completely naked body underneath. Scenes like this remain memorable, even today, and like it or not, good looking ladies and horror go hand in hand like salt and pepper. With the emphasis on a mad hotel owner, a superbly created Croc, good looking ladies and a cast of real grim, horrible people, Death Trap ticks all the boxes. The deaths are superbly directed, and at times are a little unsettling, and Hooper makes no apologies for using pet dogs or even a little girl to get his audience upset, the mark of a true horror master!
Even though dated, Death Trap delivers everything you could want from a Video Nasty, and delivers it head on, in your face and makes no excuses. This is a film which only needs the most basic of plots simply to tie together the scenes of carnage. This is a film which relishes, and glorifies its violence and unsavoury characters, and this is a film which demands you take your head out of your ass and just enjoy horror for what it is. Death Trap is a horror intended to be enjoyed on face value, there is nothing deep or meaningful here, and you certainly will not need to use your brain. All you have to do is sit back and enjoy the madness, the insanity, the completely mad ride into the Starlight Hotel, its owner Judd and is beloved pet Croc out back. If you prefer the simple things in life, you will love Death Trap!
Should Death Trap have been added to the Video Nasties list? I suppose for its time, yes it should have. There is no reason for the violence, and no excuse, it is simply violence for violence sake, but you won’t hear me complaining!