Trapped Alive (1988)

JUNE 6, 2019


By the mid '80s, the only non-supernatural slashers that were still getting wide theatrical releases were the franchise entries, with very few exceptions. But thanks to independent productions, the genre kept itself alive with dozens of movies like Trapped Alive (aka simply Trapped), which wasn't released until 1993, but was shot in 1988 in upper Wisconsin and apart from its low body count would have fit right in alongside its golden era peers. While a lot of the others of the time were chasing Freddy with supernatural elements, writer/director Leszek Burzynski was content to make his killer just your standard mountain man kind of hulking brute, stalking a handful of victims in a mine shaft without any further plot complications.

I remember reading about the movie in John Stanley's Creature Features book, which I read cover to cover when I got it around 1997 and maintained a list of movies that sounded worthy of my time. And even though he didn't have much good to say about this one, it still sounded up my alley: the protagonists are at odds with each other (it's a pair of young women and a trio of escaped convicts) but are facing a common enemy, the same "the enemy of my enemy is my friend, for now" plot that worked just fine for Carpenter and Romero, and the location was an abandoned mine, a la My Bloody Valentine which was then and is still one of my favorite slasher films ever. And I didn't agree with Stanley on a lot of things anyway, so I didn't want to take his word for it and skip it. Alas, even with six+ years of daily watching, I forgot all about it until Arrow announced a special edition Blu-ray, which hit shelves this week.

As it turns out, Stanley wasn't wrong - it's certainly not a must-see entry in the sub-genre. The pacing is deadly slow; the first legit kill occurs at the 57 minute mark, which would be OK (if still a bit odd) if he was at least stalking the folks and giving us a few quick glimpses at him here and there, but no - it's almost a spoiler to call the movie a slasher at all. Until he finally appears, it's more of a survival thriller, with our group trapped in this mine on a freezing night and trying to find their way out, with the added threat that the prisoners might just kill (or worse) our two heroines. It's almost like the killer is another obstacle as opposed to the primary threat, which isn't helped by the not-great acting, as they often don't even seem particularly frightened by him when he does appear.

But I was still engaged more than you'd think; for a regional production it's actually quite well made apart from those aforementioned weak actors. The mine - all built on sets - looks terrific and the DP shot the hell out of it, so it doesn't have that horrible low-budget lighting that kills the mood on so many similar films. And even though he doesn't appear enough, our miner killer has a great design; kind of a Madman Marz meets Hills Have Eyes mutant sorta thing, and I like that his preferred weapon wasn't the expected pickaxe but a large pincer like thing that he'd drop down and pull his victims up with. Basically, it felt like they were putting in a good effort to make something a little closer to Halloween than Friday the 13th Part Whatever, and while they missed that mark, I appreciate the attempt and found it easier to watch than, say, Memorial Valley Massacre or Iced (other 1988 slashers that were neither well done or seemingly attempting to be any good).

Speaking of MVM, Cameron Mitchell shows up in this one too, albeit only for a few minutes as the father as one of the girls, who is throwing a big Christmas party when she leaves with her friend to go to their own thing (running afoul of the convicts en route). The Christmas element isn't QUITE prominent enough to dub this as a holiday slasher, but still - it gives the movie that extra little bit of atmosphere, and it's always fun to see Mitchell hamming it up in one of these things. He's also the only person in the movie I recognized, though IMDb tells me the guy who played the cop was in the woeful Class Reunion - maybe slashers weren't really his thing? His role in the movie is kind of amazing; he gets the call about the car going into the mine, and while looking around for it he meets a woman who lives nearby. She invites him in to use the phone and maybe, I dunno, 12 seconds later they're hopping in bed, mocking her husband sleeping in the next room and throwing in a pretty great "shaft" related pun for good measure. She pops up again later in a twist that won't surprise anyone, but it was still amusing to see it play out.

The bonus features on Arrow's disc are actually more fun than the movie, in particular the 20 or so minute local news program from the time the movie was shot, touting the "Hollywood comes to Wisconsin!" kind of excitement that no one will ever really feel anymore now that they make movies everywhere, all the time (and half of them aren't even as good as this). The plan for this team was to get a production studio up and running in their little Wisconsin town, and they followed it up with two movies I never heard of (The Chill Factor and The Inheritor) as well as Mindwarp, the Bruce Campbell/Angus Scrimm movie put out by Fangoria. They talk about this in detail on the retrospective, which is also quite good; they're proud of their work without touting the film as a masterpiece, which is always the right approach for these things. And there's a story about Michael Berryman that kind of blew my mind; he was originally hired to play the killer, but was fired for giving script notes! Not for nothing, but maybe he was right?

There are also three commentaries, one with the director, one with Hank Carlson, and another with the Hysteria Lives guys, who barely talk about the movie itself and talk about late 80s slashers in general (at least for as much of it that I listened to; I was getting tired of seeing the movie so many times in a short period so I only got through about half of it). Carlson's one is probably the best since he has a lot of fun anecdotes and the moderator (a former Fangoria scribe) has his own input, whereas the director's is a straight up Q&A where he tells a lot of the same stories he told on the retrospective (it's also not scene specific at all, adding to the Q&A feel). Carlson also provides an interview, and the included booklet has a fun essay by Zach Carlson (no relation, far as I know) about the film's woozy charms, as well as a touching tribute to actor Paul Dean (who passed away in 2012) written by his son. Dean played the killer after Berryman was canned, but was apparently more of an angel in real life - starting a shelter, raising funds for people in need, etc. He could also bench press 655 lbs, so... how is it that this is his only movie???

No one but slasher aficionados need apply, of course - the movie never quite gets going and its best moments are too spread out to make up for it. But I have to say I was happy to discover that it was the rare late '80s indie slasher that wasn't undone by an abundance of hateful characters or zero lack of atmosphere (many of them, including the aforementioned Memorial Valley Massacre, spend too much time in the daylight - this one's entirely at night). Instead, the filmmakers opted not to bite off more than they could chew, doing a few things well instead of a lot of things poorly. Thanks to the Christmas setting, I might even throw it on again this December on one of those nights where I just want to drink a (spiked) hot cocoa in my usually chilly living room and doze off watching something I've seen before. It just has that late night, local access vibe that I'm always nostalgic for, even if it's not exactly the best example.

What say you?


Post a Comment

Movie & TV Show Preview Widget