The 2017 Screen Demons Horror Film Festival kicked off last night with a rare screening of Tobe Hooper’s DEATH TRAP (AKA EATEN ALIVE, USA, 1977). The venue was B & D Studios, situated on the edge of the crater left by the recently demolished Odeon cinema, which probably screened this very film in the late 1970’s. In true guerrilla-cinema style, as is often the case with the excellent Screen Demons events, the film was shown via a video projector on a large screen in the art space, complete with cheap bar and a selection of sofas and chairs. The venue was quite apt considering that Hooper’s classic film THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (USA, 1974) is now part of the permanent collection at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. However, I imagine the only institution that would ever consider using DEATH TRAP, would be the CIA at Guantanamo Bay as part of a prisoner disorientation programme.
A nice addition to the event was provided by Screen Demons co-founder Steve Jones, who showcased his TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE DVD/Blu-ray collection on a large table adjacent to the seating area. It comprised of over 40 items. I take great pleasure in seeing stuff like this; it makes my own film collecting obsession look relatively minor in comparison. I smugly commented to my wife, "At least I only own this film on VHS, DVD and Blu-ray!"
The event had been planned in collaboration with the marvellous Arrow Films, who released EATEN ALIVE as a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack in 2015. This was a most welcome addition to my collection. Although the film is not amongst my own favourites – it is strangely compelling. It first came to most peoples’ attention by its inclusion on the DPP banned list in the early 1980’s. Prior to the Arrow release, I had bought the film on VHS, upgraded it to an awful murky VIPCO DVD release, then a Dark Sky Films dual DVD. This modest collection wouldn’t be enough to fill a table though.
The audience consisted mainly of members of the 1000+ strong Horrorvision North East facebook group. It was a good turn-out with around 50 people in attendance. In addition to the usual hard core of supporters, it was great to see many new faces. Upon entering the studio, we had to wade through a sea of black and green balloons - inhabited by an inflatable alligator - to a small bar. After buying drinks we took our seats and listened as Kristian Atkinson, the founder of Screen Demons, introduced the film, then ran a highly entertaining quiz session. Arrow Blu-rays and other DVDs were claimed as prizes before the lights went down and we were all transported back to a pantomime swamp in the 1970’s.
People expecting a return to the grim realism of TEXAS CHAINSAW MASACRE would have been surprised by the completely unreal aesthetic of this film. DEATH TRAP was completely shot on studio sets, and has a colourful comic style, preceding CREEPSHOW (USA, 1982) by five years. That isn’t to say this film isn’t grim. It's loosely based on real-life murderer and hotel keeper, Joe Ball.
There are several similarities to CHAINSAW; Judd (Neville Brand) endlessly rebuking Buck (Robert Englund) brought to mind the exchanges between the cook and Leatherface. Judd’s pursuit of a girl through trees wielding a scythe and, of course, Marilyn Burns’ desperate screaming also seemed familiar. However, it’s the soundtrack that really transforms the run-down hotel into a special kind of hell.
A relentless noise made by child’s toys and synths coupled with the country and western music blaring from Judd’s radio as he sits muttering to himself, and a child screeching from beneath the crawlspace. One viewer described the soundtrack as migraine-inducing. Away from the hotel, the only release seems to be a bar, a whorehouse or the police station. It’s an existence so awful that a caged monkey on Judd’s porch just gives up and dies. Mind you – it had a bigger cage than that chicken did in TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.
As predicted, the audience was split over the film. A reliable indicator is the number of mobile phones that briefly illuminate during the screening. Admittedly though, it does take something of a masochistic streak to enjoy this film.
It was yet another successful Screen Demons event, and a great way to begin this year’s Horror Festival.