The Plot: Kevin Hall (Michael Sopkiw) is a archeologist on the hunt for the great land known as Dinosaur Valley. A nearly prehistoric land within the Amazon where it is rumored that many great archeological wonders are just waiting to be uncovered. Hall manages to hitch a ride into Dinosaur Valley with a well known professor who just so happens to be going there for the same reasons. Along for the ride is a Vietnam veteran with power issues, two models who can hardly keep their clothes on and the professor’s beautiful daughter. As they approach Dinosaur Valley their plane has issues and they crash land into the jungle. Some are killed, many are wounded and now this rag-tag group are forced to band together in order to take on the local head hunters who have made it apparent that they do not appreciate these Westerners. How can this group possibly survive?
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To be perfectly honest, and this might solely be my own opinion, there is a certain quaintness to these pictures that could have only been established during the prime years of the Italian film industry. When you pop in Massacre in Dinosaur Valley, Cannibal Terror or Cannibal Ferox for that matter, you know precisely what you are going to get. This is a movie made entirely for the exploitation of one facet of a cultural obsession. Starting with the craze of Mondo Movies created by Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi (Mondo Cane, Goodbye Uncle Tom, Africa Addio), the obsession that Italy had with native inhabitants and their bizarre rituals seemed to last throughout the 1960s all the way up until the early half of the 1980′s. Within these two genres, the Mondo documentary and the Cannibal exploitation world, this fascination lasted for roughly twenty years. So, with so much attention to this genre, you begin to know what to expect. That familiarity is part of what keeps me coming back as a viewer. Despite the nature of these movies to be threatening to the audience, in delivering shocks that they normally wouldn’t see outside of these particular movies, there comes a certain sense of expectation within them that a select few audience members come to find solace in. Sound crazy? Well, we probably are.
With any given piece of Italian cannibal sleaze, we know to expect a select number of reoccurring items. We have natives, we have nudity, we have a very poor English dub, we have gore and we have very simple plots with no need for any actual interesting narrative devices. However, when we see one of these films actually delve outside of their safety net, interesting things can happen. While Massacre in Dinosaur Valley has universally been panned (and rightfully so) as one of the weaker entries in the Cannibal subgenre, I have to congratulate it for a few very different exceptions to the genre stereotypes. The very first thing that stands out as being different and/or interesting about the movie is the sense of humor that it carries. Not that Massacre in Dinosaur Valley could ever be construed to be a comedy, nor even a darker version of one, it does have a healthy sense of comedic timing that borders between chuckle-worthy and blatant cheese. The mix of comedy and legitimate human horror however is mangled throughout and the first half of the movies comes far lighter than the second half which takes on the premise of a generic jungle survival movie.
Michael Sopkiw surprisingly did not have a massive career in the number of projects he was associated with. However, he was very lucky to have been a part of several movies that would later turn up as Cult Classics within the realm of Eurocult cinema. He last graced the pages of Varied Celluloid in my review for Lamberto Bava’s less than classic Rambo knockoff Blastfighter and he returns here in an equally obscure title only this time he plays the role of a Indiana Jones knockoff. A archeologist tough guy, who wears a brown jacket and gets into an adventure while searching out priceless treasures and uses comedy in order to fend off danger? This seems familiar! However, much like the humorous element that dissipates slightly in the second half of the movie, the allusions to the Harrison Ford character become invisible the longer the movie goes along and Sopkiw manages to deliver an interesting performance if nothing else. Also, he traded in Indiana’s whip for a shotgun, so who is to say who would win if the two characters did battle!
Sopkiw and his charisma, which I didn’t see much of in Blastfighter, actually carry the movie for the most part. His antics are the main reason that this movie is actually getting the score that it is. Whether it be his overwhelming sense of self worth or his tendencies to play the part of the playboy, I was sucked in by his ridiculous charm. The rest of the cast are generally serviceable and serve as fodder for random death scenes that pop up throughout. The body count is relatively high, but the actual level of violence that the movie provides is relatively tame. I dare say it may be the least blood Italian cannibal movie I have seen up until this point – and I believe I am only a few titles away from having seen them all. If you’re looking for exploitation however, there is still plenty of nudity to be had. Including a Cinemax-worth sequence where Sopkiw is “thanked” by one of the models mentioned in the plot synopsis. Apparently one night stands are a customary form of gratitude in Italy. That works for me!
|The Plot: The story starts during the mid 1300′s when the Black Death struck Europe and monks across the continent felt their faith was being tested by God during the plague. However, Lucifer decided to use this time to offer a charismatic, faithful former servant of God an offer of eternal youth by rounding up his own faith-hood who wanted to avoid the Black Death; all the recipients had to do was sacrifice one of their immediate relatives. Thus enters brother Thomas Seaton (Beckwith) who is chosen to fill this role with an iron fist and he starts by subjecting his convent to join his side and live eternally or die right there on the spot.|
We now take the story to present day New York where Seaton runs a church and his believers, old and new, are living long by individually sacrificing a relative of theirs every thirteen years. We quickly get acquainted with the soon-to be victims of the thriving cult, the main one being Alexandra (Moore), a social worker for the female criminal frame. Alexandra’s grandfather George and his own Satanic relatives are getting ready for Alexandra’s sacrifice, all the while George has every intention of filling Seaton’s shoes seeing how he’s the oldest living member next to Seaton. In the midst of this, Sister Angela of Seaton’s church is coming on to the cult’s activities as she is familiar with their home wrecking sacrifices and, with the Minister’s help, plans to thwart the up-coming sacrifice before another life is lost. Who will win in the bloody battle of good and evil?
To sound less impetuous in my pessimism, the movie offers a fair premise with a compromising background and one convincingly deep heroine with a small assortment of good acting. All of these were wrapped tightly to a constrictive budget that wanted to do bigger things with its already small production value. Prime Evil is boring and lagging as it presents far more unimportant scenes of dialogue in abundance, making the scenes that are important whiz by in a manner of seconds. Worst of all, the beginning of the film is actually very hard to follow because it starts out with every separate scenario for various characters with quick jump cuts that never bother to tie together until the middle of the movie. Whew, now that I’ve got the summary out of the way, let’s look at what tries to make this movie what it could’ve been, shall we?
The cinematography was a bit varied as the movie starts out with a fairly lucid flashback coupled with some rather tiring narration. The disjointed scenarios following immediately afterwards don’t help our early understanding of the plot’s direction, which makes the movie feel like it has a number of different plot lines in different universes going on simultaneously until characters from each scenario start meeting up with others (sort of like Pod People, except the monster in this movie looks cooler… but more on that later). The lighting is pretty bad as every shot is dependent on natural light and very few artificial lights are used for certain scenes, making it difficult to find the details of many of the scenes.
The music has a half-and-half effect for the movie as the soundtrack is composed from a z-grade keyboard that’s similar to various spiritual mischief films of the eighties (the first two Ghoulies movies come to mind); the nutty evil-mischief sounds however are often coupled with pseudo mystical/evil chant tunes and some neat ambient notes. The sound effects seemed a bit bungled as well: a few sound effects are much louder than the dialogue. The sound shared a cheesy attribute to the movie as there was one scene in which one of the characters swears on screen, yet it’s cut out by the sound of someone’s feet shuffling across tile floors… yet all the characters present in that scene are standing still.
The visual effects in the movie were fair yet revealed a mass of cheapness to them as one character brandishes an obviously fake combat knife in preparation for a kill scene. The gore effects resorted to a few close ups of sharp objects going into flesh and one decapitation, yet most of which are sadly cut out. Apparently the version I got and the only version commercially available on DVD is censored of gore, a few possible breasts and the one curse word in the entire movie, though there’s little information about the possibility of there being an available uncensored version, not that there would be a significant difference (just more breasts and Argento style stab-wounds). The most remarkable effects would have to include some random page burning during a sacrifice that the antagonist performs, in which all of the papers come from a random book that are stuck on a knife and held over a candle, but instead of slowly burning, the pages immediately incinerate into a ball of fire. The pages were obviously flash paper, the kind you use for a magic show or MST3K skit (Manhunt in Space), but it was effective for the scene none the less. The demon I mentioned was fair as well, though far from scary as it was obviously a foot tall marionette used for one scene and a few quick shots. Still, it was refreshing to look at as its skin-less he-goat appearance was ghastly none the less. It didn’t have the same creepy effect as the horny he-goat demon in The Church, but it was still kinda cool.
The acting, though straddling the lines of fair and pretentious, actually had some credible roles to them. Alexandra got to expose a few aspects about her childhood trauma in a wonderfully expositive scene (probably my favorite scene in the whole movie) and the fellow playing Father Seaton, though stereotypically one-dimensional and a little silly, played a wonderfully sinister antagonist; perhaps the only other actor I can think of that could match this actor being John Phillip Law of B-movie fame (Barbarella, Marylin Behind Bars & Space Mutiny). The dialogue seemed to fit for most of the characters: those important to the plot had clear, competent lines while those unimportant to the plot got to fill the screen with irritating, unbearable dialogue. Sadly, the latter group is the one we hear the most from. Halfway through, I was begging for the villains to kill off Alexandra’s friends, relatives, associates and the two cop characters; funny enough, I think most of those wishes came true.
None of the good bits in this movie save it though, Prime Evil is still a stinker. For one, it’s a great exercise in pointless scenes. The number of different scenes where Ben, the burly ‘garbage man’ for the cult (and probably my favorite character next to that he-goat/demon marionette), had to perform the task of kidnapping random young women off the streets and swimming pools of New York to use in the cult. You’d think this unfortunate young ladies would be used in some humiliating ceremony out of a warped John Van Meale painting, but no, this is what they do with the captured women: Padre Seaton gazes into their eyes a la Dracula, hypnotize them into getting into slinky robes, initiate them in horribly cut topless scenes where each girl gets a gash on the wrist and then they spend the rest of the movie standing around holding books for him to read!!
You mean to tell me this cult is so evil it has to kidnap people just to get a bookstand?! What, were actual book stands expensive in the eighties? Furthermore, what the Hell was with the random scenes of Alex talking to her porker friend at the local gym?? It led us into Alex’s character the first time around, juxtaposing her to a seemingly ‘bad’ girl, but later in the movie we get the same kind of scene, with no purpose, yet with deplorable length! Just the two of them talking, while Alex’s friend indulges in junk food as she exercises, expressing bad dialogue and brandishing bad clothes for no other reason than to piss me off!
Stinger: “Well maybe I am just a bit extreme! But you’re extreme too, the OTHER extreme!”
The Plot: Taking place in the Sung Dynasty, we are treated to a tell of espionage and ever-twisting loyalties. Our story begins with the death of Emperor Kuang Yin, who was rumored to have been killed by his brother De Zhao. When the new Emperor Guang Yi took the throne he immediately ordered De Zhao to commit suicide. We skip forward several years and now De Zhao’s son Zhao Jue has been crowned as the prince of Xiangyang and he has his mind set on vengeance. Zhao Jue looks to overthrow the Emperor and he starts off by ordering his men to steal several precious objects from the current government. Zhao Jue keeps himself locked away in his House of Traps, where he fears no spies due to the massive number of booby-traps within this home. Inside of the House he keeps a membership list that holds the name of all those who have joined his rebellion, as well as the precious jade and ivory horse that he has stolen from the government. Zhao Jue has his eyes on becoming all powerful, but at the same time Judge Pow (Chien Sun) is heading up an investigation into the accusations that Zhao Jue is a traitor. As Judge Pow heads off to do some investigating, the prince sends out two pair of hitmen in order to end his snooping. Along the way the judge, who is not skilled in kung fu, runs into Pai yu-tong (Chin Siu-Ho) who is enlisted as a bodyguard and defeats the men. As the tides keep turning, other groups continue to step into the battle. Who will win in this battle of government officials and rebels?
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House of Traps comes at the tale end of the old school movement and is indeed one of Chang Cheh’s last films featuring many of the Venom clan. It came about right before action-comedy would become the prevalent dominating force within the community. While House of Traps is far from the best film the director or this team ever made, it demonstrates everything that made Chang Cheh such a visionary and it at times also demonstrates the pitfalls that he was known to sink in. The name Chang Cheh has almost become synonymous at this point with certain types of melodrama. His work exemplifies chivalry and honor amongst men and House of Traps is no different. The good guys are remarkably good and the bad guys are just dastardly in their evil attitudes. Cheh and Ni Kuang did not usually dabble in the gray areas of life (with House of Traps playing both sides of the fence to a certain degree, but I’ll get to that shortly) and the old fashioned sentimentality of these movies adds a certain charm to them. Cheh’s heroes are kind to all men, fair in their view of justice and are generally amicable in all respects. Chien Sun’s character in House of Traps is the definition of this trait, as he takes in The Black Fox (played by Phillip Kwok) despite his obvious attempts at grifting him for money. Although Sun Chien seems a bit wasted in the shoes of this character (he never has a single fight sequence), he correctly demonstrates how definite the moral equation is between these two groups who are waging war with one another… or so it would seem.
There is a particular twist that comes about in roughly the last thirty seconds of House of Traps that defies much of what has come before it in the film. Although I don’t want to spoil anything, if you are at least vaguely familiar with the formula for a martial arts film then you know that this movie will end with an elaborate battle. It’s as if the filmmakers decided to throw a monkey wrench inside of the machine and call into question the very formula of martial arts cinema itself. Although not played in nearly that profound of a fashion, the final lines of the film seem to make a statement that perhaps war and fighting are not the way in which to settle disputes. Heave, right? Not really. The main problem with House of Traps comes from this elaborate and unnecessary plotting. Quite literally within the first minute of this movie, you are going to be confused. House of Traps opens with a succession of quick cuts and random facts dealing with the actual House of Traps from the movie, its history and the two warring factions. If you can keep track of this information as well as the endless series of characters who are introduced and their responsibilities within each faction, then you are a far better man than I. Writing down names and phonetically spelling out the names for their characters, it was still tricky to keep up with everything that House of Traps throws at its audience. I had similar issues with Ten Tigers From Kwangtung, where it seemed as if Cheh tried to gather too much information with too large of a cast to be conveyed in such a short amount of time. Ultimately, this is the greatest downfall of the movie. No matter how great the martial arts and how charismatic the actors may be, when you’re having trouble keeping up with the vigorous plot then your enjoyment level is going to be severely limited.
Cheh and his crew do manage to flaunt some of their better qualities as well. I mentioned the gimmickry of Chang Cheh’s movies up above and this title is no different. The house of traps from the title is actually a really fantastic and entertaining idea. The house is essentially a booby trapped hut meant to house the Prince and his secret documents and stolen goods. A lot of the action is set around one single set piece that features a staircase that leads to a cellar/pit area. When a martial artist is trapped in this room, spikes begin to raise up from out of the floor and they are left with only the option to try and run back up the stairs. This holds another trick for the unlucky victim, as the staircase quickly has its steps drop, leaving anyone on them to fall to their death. If a quick witted martial artist somehow manages to evade the spikes and quickly flip up to the second story, then they have to fend off several nets that feature wooden boards on their sides which are adorned with massive spikes. The movie features many other secret booby traps throughout that of course have a secret weakness to some given martial arts technique. Not everyone can survive however, and that leads us to a few instances of traditional Chang Cheh gore. Known as the most violent filmmaker of this period, Cheh does not disappoint as we are given several very bloody death scenes throughout. One of which includes a man having half of his foot chopped off within the house of traps!