Modern Japanese horror is what it is because of radical cineastes. Today’s directors like Hideo Nakata and Takashi Shimizu reference regional folklore and explore the uncanny, whereas auteurs of the eighties rejected commercial appeal and challenged everyday conventions. Hideshi Hino’s Guinea Pig series scared Charlie Sheen so much he called the authorities; Shinya Tsukamoto melded cyberpunk with body horror in Tetsuo: The Iron Man; Hisayasu Satô’s films look to explain the pull of sadomasochism.
Joining the same decade’s most exciting directors was Toshiharu Ikeda, who was previously known for his “pink” work at Nikkatsu. Despite not being a fan of horror, he proved he had an eye for the macabre in his 1988 feature Evil Dead Trap. The movie channels core traits of eighties Japanese horror while also incorporating elements from movies of the West. The end result is visceral and atmospheric; it can’t be defined by one label. In spite of its sordid reputation, Ikeda’s film is a singular entry that illustrates Japan’s complicated relationship with transgressive themes.
Evil Dead Trap follows a television crew as they scour a secluded, abandoned factory in search of answers after television personality Nami Tsuchiya (Miyuki Ono) receives what looks to be a snuff film. As they split up to confirm the mysterious video was indeed filmed at the location, each person is brutally slaughtered by a sadistic stranger wearing a raincoat.
SETTING THE TRAP
Evil Dead Trap is based on a script by screenwriter and fellow director Takashi Ishii. Despite Ikeda’s initial disinterest in making a horror movie — he didn’t grow up with horror as it wasn’t all that common during his childhood — he eventually accepted the offer and started filming for two months at a base in Asaka, a city located in the Saitama Prefecture.
The project began in September and ended promptly in late November because the government officials were unyielding when it came to the schedule. Because of their inflexibility and the studio’s push for a quick release, the movie required two production teams. This meant some scenes weren’t handled directly by Ikeda. Done fast with little money (roughly under $700,000 USD), the direct-to-video movie ultimately became a hit for the producers at Japan Home Video.
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Ikeda fell ill after filming finished so he didn’t even see the final product until an American screening in 1999. And as much as he prefers doing less scary movies, he still reunited with Ishii on the film’s in-name-only sequel, Evil Dead Trap 3: Broken Lover Killer. Izō Hashimoto’s Evil Dead Trap 2: Hideki is also unrelated to the original, but it continues to be an intersection of art and violence.
Evil Dead Trap is posited as Japan’s first splatter film. Under a scrutinizing eye, viewers can see influences in Ikeda’s movie, too. The late director said he hadn’t seen The Evil Dead or anything by Dario Argento beforehand, but the persuasions are obvious, if not coincidental. From the surreal, intestinal gore to the kooky and distinguished soundtrack by Tomohiko Kira, the film is a motley of inspirations and styles.
Much like The Ring, this movie’s impetus is a video cassette. Shin’ichi Wakasa handled the makeup effects, which include the famous eyeball puncture in the aforesaid tape that the film’s protagonist receives from an anonymous party. Her curiosity supersedes her natural repulsion in the same way audiences cannot stop looking at this movie’s nastier moments. The artful approach to unreality and physical violation herein echo various giallo features as well as another notable East Asian horror: Kuei Chih-Hung’s necrophilic account of a depraved serial killer, Corpse Mania.
The gruesome setpieces here entail the female characters being captured and intricately murdered by the unknown killer. One woman is systematically speared to death — Ikeda was not at all pleased with this particular scene carried out by the “B” team — while another is rigged to die if anyone tries to save her. Slasher impulses aside, the phallic and exaggerated executions are in line with other erotic thrillers from the same time period.
The cruelty within Evil Dead Trap is undeniable. It may require even the more enthusiastic fans to bend over backwards to appreciate the movie’s other strengths. Offsetting all the undue butchery and assault, Ikeda finds beauty amid all the ugliness on screen. His command of colors, lighting, and space is estimable given his background and resources.
MOTHERHOOD, BIRTH & DEATH
Evil Dead Trap is soaked in fundamental themes whether or not that was Ikeda’s intention. Reminders of one’s mortality are teased early on when maggots fester on a ceiling and someone stumbles upon an animal carcass inside the factory. In contrast, images and acts tied to birth — a man and woman engage in a lustful distraction; the killer brings new life into the world in the most literal and nauseating way; water is a recurring visual element — are present, as well. Life and death are constantly at odds with one another in this derelict and debased setting.
The 16mm gorefest does for maternal horror what David Cronenberg’s The Fly did for body horror. Not only is the factory a maze of vaginal corridors and tunnels, the antagonist is chiefly burdened by a parasitic life growing inside of them. Upon delivery, the murderer’s “child” beelines for Nami, someone he instantly calls “Mama.” She should be running away from the ghastly, fetal demon inching towards her inguinal area, but she only stares in shock with her mouth agape. The film’s ending goes on to say the idea of maternity is inescapable and, in this case, malignant.
No matter how seasoned you think you are as a horror fan, Ikeda’s notorious slasher is not an easy watch. It is depraved and appalling in so many ways that it’s difficult to understand why the movie has such a loyal fanbase. Yet that is precisely why films like Evil Dead Trap persist like they do. As with the New French Extremity movement that gained a following not too long ago, this movie’s reason for existing is that it wants people to feel the characters’ exorbitant pain and fear on a guttural level.
J-horror is pigeonholed as mere tales of haunted technology and vengeful ghosts, but cinematic heirlooms like Evil Dead Trap promote extreme variation and exhibit sheer audacity. Although deemed indigestible by some, the movie strongly captures the ethos of its strange time period.
Evil Dead Trap is available for purchase through Synapse Films. Share your thoughts on the movie and other gory horrors with the Nightmare on Film Street community on Twitter, in our Official Subreddit, or in the Fiend Club Facebook Group!