Welcome to Cutting It Close, a monthly column that tackles one of the most popular subgenres in horror: slashers. Alas, there’s a catch—we won’t be discussing the likes of Freddy Krueger, Ghostface, Jason Voorhees, or Michael Myers. No, this series will only look at those slasher movies that aren’t as iconic, yet they can hold their own for various reasons. They may not be top-tier or even popular, but, as the column title suggests, they cut it close.
The once-elusive slasher movie Trapped Alive takes place at Christmas. Two young women, Robin (Sullivan Hester) and Monica (Laura Kallison), are driving to a party without a care in the world when three fugitives take them and their car by force. They all eventually end up in abandoned mine shaft where they’re then stalked by a cannibalistic mutant. And the deputy hunting the escapees down is now their only chance of survival.
British director Leszek Burzynski was approached by friend and producer Chris Webster to make another slasher after completing Blood Harvest in 1987. This time, though, shooting would completely take place in frigid Wisconsin; Webster liked a wintry setting as opposed to the sunny ones seen in other similar movies. Filmed under the title of “Forever Mine” before it was ultimately renamed Trapped or Trapped Alive on home video in 1993, the movie was financed by a bank under the belief it would be the first of many by Webster and partner Fred Armstrong’s Windsor Lake Studios. Of course, this didn’t pan out seeing as the studio dissolved in 1992 with only a few completed works under its belt.
Trapped Alive was shot in approximately eighteen days in Eagle River, Wisconsin. As the grueling work days ended and the dailies were flown to Chicago in order to be processed, the crew and cast were saddled with some of the most arctic weather they had ever experienced. The temperature dropped to a point where fears of frostbitten noses and even death came up; people simply underestimated the frosty climate.
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Christmas horror wasn’t unusual nor was it uncommon in slashers during the decade. Aside from the snow and the occasional yuletide festivities and decorations seen on screen, this movie isn’t exactly Christmassy. Even so, audiences won’t have a hard time feeling the dark chill of relatable stories like Silent Night, Deadly Night in many scenes. Director of photographer Nancy Schreiber was inexperienced, but she made a $250,000-budgeted movie look far more polished than anyone could have expected. Webster was admittedly wary of hiring a woman DP at the time because they weren’t too common in 1987; Burzynski went to bat for her after liking what he saw of her audition reel. It’s fortunate Schreiber was hired because her cinematography is a definite highlight in the low-budget affair.
Hank Carlson proved to be another of the film’s assets. The budding and self-trained special effects artist was still in high school when he was hired to do Trapped Alive. Carlson, who was native to the area and upon hearing about Windsor Lake Studios not being too far from his house, jumped at the opportunity to work in the company’s first movie. Getting Webster and Armstrong to even read his résumé was no easy task, but Carlson’s persistence paid off because he’s now been in the industry for thirty years. Once on set, though, Carlson was hit with with a major setback: he suffered a case of strep throat so severe one of his tonsils became infected. His ability to quickly bounce back was proof he was cut out for this toilsome business.
When it comes to the movie itself, Trapped Alive is screwy and then some. All seems routine as paragon of virtue Robin, the daughter of a local judge, and best friend and would-be bad girl Monica drive to a Christmas get-together. It’s once they’re stopped by the three criminals that their night goes straight to Hell in a handbasket. Their Jeep becomes a getaway car that finally falls into the condemned Forever Mine. Holed up in the claustrophobic and labyrinth tunnels, the two captives are handed even a worse fate than suffering a subterranean death — a man-eating mutant scrounging for flesh is on the prowl. His presence doesn’t quite make all that much sense right then and there, but the timing is in his favor, at least.
While all that’s going on, the deputy (Randy Powell) who’s tracking the fugitives finds himself at the house on top of the mine. He barely exchanges words with the rather unusual homeowner, Rachel (Elizabeth Kent), before they’re suddenly knockin’ winter boots by her fireplace. Once the oversexed officer gets down into the mine, though, he becomes potential prey like the others. Their numbers dwindle at the cannibals hands before everything ends on an explosive note.
Prior to the finale, viewers will be taken aback by what is easily the most underseen example of camp to come out of eighties horror. Kent delivers an emotional and utterly bizarre performance that must be seen to be believed; she’s inspirited by Shelley Duvall circa The Shining and what can only be described as an unauthorized Cher impersonator. This is the precise moment that Trapped Alive‘s sparse but enthusiastic fans will cite as the reason to watch the movie. They’re not wrong because even when you’re warned ahead of time, you’re still not ready for the spectacle that is Kent’s prolonged monologue.
By no means is Trapped Alive going to replace Black Christmas as everyone’s favorite horror holiday. Love it or hate it, there’s an almost indescribable sense of pure indulgence that radiates off this regional gem. Yes, the continuity is sorely lacking and the threadbare story feels more suited for an episode of Monsters. Even so, the production values are solid given this was an indie company’s very first outing, and most importantly, the climax is raving mad in the best way possible.
This column was made for movies like Trapped Alive. One look at the artwork for Arrow Video’s glorious restoration and viewers just know they’re in for somethining very, very strange. Burzynski’s obscure slasher certainly doesn’t disappoint anyone looking for something incredibly offbeat and a bit sleazy; it’s a movie most people will have never heard of and will likely never forget about, either.
Buy the movie directly from Arrow Video now, or purchase a digital copy at retailers like iTunes. Then come discuss this oddity with the Nightmare on Film Street community on Twitter, in our Official Subreddit, or in the Fiend Club Facebook Group!