In today’s bonkers instalment in our gruesome Video Nasty week, Joey Keogh turns her attentions to horror master Tobe Hooper’s naff redneck crocodile curio DEATH TRAP…
Also known as: Eaten Alive, Horror Hotel, Starlight Slaughter, Murder on the Bayou
The name Tobe Hooper has become synonymous with blood-curdling shocks and gut-wrenching gore, so it’s easy to forget that his first feature – the inimitable Texas Chain Saw Massacre – was a largely bloodless affair. Not so with his sophomore offering, Death Trap AKA Eaten Alive AKA Horror Hotel AKA Starlight Slaughter AKA Crocodile Conundrum (at least one of those is made up).
As so-called video nasties go – a term infamously coined by someone who’d never watched one – Death Trap is pretty rough. Adapting a grainy, lurid quality akin to Texas Chain Saw, the film takes place in a dilapidated motel in the middle of nowhere, which is operated by the clearly mental Judd (played with wild-eyed abandon by Neville Brand). Of course, why anyone would want to stay there is beyond comprehension, especially as there is a giant crocodile lurking in the adjoining swamp.
Currently holding an 18% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and a 5.4/10 on IMDb, Death Trap wasn’t received particularly well upon its release and has since faded into obscurity (aside from a particular group of cult followers). It’s easy to understand why. A nasty, relentlessly loud, very tough watch, in spite of its relatively short running time, the film features a shitload of violence towards its female characters, litres of joke-shop blood and some seriously dodgy wigs.
Arguably the biggest talking point nowadays is the addition of one Robert Englund, in one of his earliest roles. He stars as a horny young buck named, er, Buck, who as Tarantino “paid homage to” in Kill Bill, really likes to fuck. Funnily enough, Buck is the most likeable character and his death – also the most lengthy and gruesome – is the only one that elicits any kind of sympathy. Go figure.
Texas Chain Saw alum Marilyn Burns returns as a girl who, once again, runs around screaming a lot, but considering she doesn’t have woodland to get lost in this time around, she mostly goes around in circles. Halloween’s Kyle Richards – currently a Real Housewife and perpetuator of too-long hair – features as a resourceful little girl who cries too much and sadly does not perish when really she should.
The croc itself doesn’t get much of a starring role, popping its unconvincing head in and out of the frame here and there, before slinking back under the murky surface. Hooper may have been trying to recreate the Jaws effect but an abundance of dry ice, some screeching violins and a clearly intentional lack of lighting do not an ambience make – nor do they compensate for a lack of believable creature SFX.
Hooper takes part credit for the intrusive, headache-inducing score, alongside William Bell who was also responsible for that of Texas Chain Saw 1 and 2. Here, Bell throws caution to the wind, undercutting every attempt at tension. It almost sounds like the score to a low-budget sci-fi flick, with a weird organ pummelling away underneath everything. Brand’s performance as Judd caters to this quite well, even though his hair does most of the acting. Constantly muttering to himself, with his face shrouded in darkness throughout, the hotel owner/operator is the definition of a creepy old man – he even has a big ol’ swastika draped over his favourite chair, just to drive the point home.
He has a gumball machine on his reception desk though, so he can’t be all bad. Also, he seems shocked by his own murders so perhaps there were originally layers to the character that were left on the cutting room floor in favour of more scythe-swinging action. The farming tool is his weapon of choice, because this is Texas. The entire film is set at night, but the hotel is bathed in an eerie, red glow which only further serves to highlight the fact that nobody would stay there. Characters go missing for long periods of time, but nobody worries until it’s too late. Women are consistently left alone, before being revealed as utterly unable to take care of themselves when things go to hell.
Although everyone screams themselves hoarse throughout – aside from when delivering the painfully bad dialogue – nobody makes a noise while being, as the title suggests, eaten alive apart from Buck. Constant radio noise in the background alludes to Texas Chain Saw, but here it’s more jarring than creepy. Suffice to say, there isn’t much atmosphere, and the “scares” are created mostly by the unconvincing croc, whose appetite is damn near insatiable, or Judd being, well, Judd.
Death Trap wasn’t prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act, but it didn’t receive an uncut release until 2000 (it was originally released with 25 seconds cut in 1992). Considering the film utilises, among other things, drug use, nudity, attempted anal rape, a significant amount of violence against women, swearing, and a shit tonne of bloody violence, it’s bizarre that it was considered tamer than almost forty other films.
This is especially interesting given that The Funhouse, also by Hooper, was wrongfully prosecuted as a video nasty a few years after its release. Most claim that the film was mistaken for The Last House On Dead End Street, which also went by the title The Fun House, while The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was itself banned from theatrical release in 1975, in spite of the fact it contains very little gore.
Considering that, nowadays, films such as Hostel and the stomach-churning Saw series have passed through the BBFC’s filter to enjoy massive box office success, it’s almost unthinkable that something as tame as Death Trap could be regarded as having the potential to “deprave and corrupt” an unsuspecting audience.
In fact, the only recent horror films to have fallen foul of modern “censorship”, for want of a better word, are those that really straddle the exploitation line. For example, the often unfairly derided A Serbian Film – widely denounced because of one, particularly gruesome sequence – or The Human Centipede 2, which is laughably rubbish and not nearly as clever or as disturbing as its predecessor, and which found its audience in the home viewing market (it had two minutes and thirty-seven seconds cut by order of the BBFC).
Similarly, and somewhat bizarrely, Hostel Part II was once cited in the House Of Commons as an example of a film where screenshots could become illegal to possess. This was in reference to a recently-passed law criminalising possession of extreme pornography – what this has to do with Eli Roth’s gory, yet otherwise restrained, sequel to his hit torture porn flick is unclear. Surely a screenshot of three people attached mouth-to-anus is more demoralising and offensive, not to mention arguably more pornographic?
Although the legacy of video nasties is evident, Death Trap is one of the least noteworthy of its kind, and for good reason. In a modern context, the most obvious comparisons could be made to big budget creature features such as the Lake Placid series – which thankfully utilised a more authentic-looking croc, at least at first – or Adam Green’s Hatchet trilogy, which set the action in a swamp that looked, somewhat purposefully, like a set.
It’s easy to speculate as to why the idea of video nasties, and their impact on an easily-compromised youth, became such a cause for concern when it did. The video market was still an unregulated, burgeoning, area and one which the powers that be didn’t quite understand yet. The so-called nasties were also an easy target. The press noticed early on that the growth of such features, and the independent market which catered to, and often created, them, could have a negative impact on mainstream establishments, such as Sky, which was still in its infancy. Whatever the reasoning behind it, in most cases – particularly with the most famous video nasty, The Evil Dead – the level of scorn aimed at these features was utterly unjustified.
More often than not, the films were being judged almost as propaganda, meant to incite hatred and violence. At one point, the infamous Mary Whitehouse even described video as the “biggest threat” to life in the UK, which is ludicrous even considering how many terrible things have happened in the wake of such protestations, many of which are unfairly attributed to video games/horror movies/Marilyn Manson. Death Trap is perhaps one of the best examples of this misunderstanding as, although it’s a nasty film and it looks like shit, it isn’t particularly gruesome or disturbing. It’s also unlikely that it’ll encourage anyone to pick up a scythe and lay waste to those around them, before feeding victims to a giant crocodile.
The majority of cuts were made to video nasties because of real-life animal cruelty or excessive violence to women – Death Trap boasts plenty of the latter, but the term “excessive” is of course open to interpretation. Nasty, rough and very odd, Death Trap is a schlocky affair, which tries desperately to pass itself off as a Southern Gothic nightmare. It thinks of itself as far worse than it actually is, and in a lot of ways, that’s why it was considered to be part of this most illustrious group. Nasty it most definitely is, but as video nasties go, Death Trap is probably lucky to even get a mention alongside so much other “filth”. If it wasn’t on the infamous List, or if Hooper and Englund’s names weren’t stamped on it, it’s doubtful we’d even still discuss it nowadays.
Follow Joey on twitter @JoeyLDG