Trapped Alive
Arrow Video // Unrated // $39.95 // June 4, 2019
Review by Adam Tyner | posted June 7, 2019
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Graphical Version
Oh, I'm not trapped alive with you.

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You're trapped alive with me!

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Look, Robin and Monica, I get that you have a Christmas party to head to, but (1) you're in a horror flick, (2) the roads sure are treacherous in all this snow, and (3) you just passed a sign reading "Prison Area - Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers". Do you want to be kidnapped by Hot Rod, Mungo, and Face? Because that's how you get kidnapped by Hot Rod, Mungo, and Face. That's also how your car plummets down into an abandoned mine where a feral mutant cannibal tries to eat you. Eventually.

Therein lay the tragedy of Trapped Alive, a thriller-slash-slasher that was intended to form the foundation for a Northern Wisconsin film empire but instead sat on the shelf for five years, escaping onto VHS in 1993 and effectively remaining unseen in the many years since.

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I mean, there are individual moments throughout the film that are gloriously gonzo. The ridiculous sight of them plummeting down into the mine. A wide-eyed man-hungry housewife seducing a sheriff's deputy with pink-frosted cookies and laying almost completely immobile during a sex scene while her husband is snoring overhead. Robin spending the climax showing off her granny panties. Hot Rod – y'know, the handsome escaped convict with a heart of gold – insists that he needs someone to go back and fetch a lighter. I mean, if someone doesn't light one of these lanterns, how can he see to work on the rusted generator down there in the mine? He makes this argument while his no-goodnik partner Face is standing right next to him and literally shining a flashlight right on the friggin' genny. Whatever. There's also one of those moments where one character heroically tries to spare another a slow, painful death, but...nothing's actually happened yet! There's still plenty of time to turn things around! You could try aiming the gun somewhere in the vicinity of the actual killer, for instance. And hey! Cameron Mitchell acts his heart out in his several minutes of screentime in scenes almost completely detached from the actual movie and having no bearing on anything that happens.

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It's just that Trapped Alive is almost half over by the time we first catch a glimpse of the cannibal's leftovers. You're around the 57 minute mark until his first victim is claimed on-screen and almost precisely an hour in before you see the demented bastard take a chomp out of anybody. There's a certain progression you expect when you hear "trapped in a mine with a crazed cannibal", and yet how many deaths is this bastard directly responsible for? You can tally up his body count on one hand and still have four fingers left. Everyone else that dies is claimed by other means.

At the end of the day, Trapped Alive is let down by its screenplay. The cast proves more than up to the task, and it's surprising that its two leading ladies never went onto appear in any movies beyond this. The cavernous, labyrinthine mine set looks terrific. Though there are certainly a handful of moments that are complete misfires, Trapped Alive is a nicely shot film with some worthy practical splatter. That potential is squandered by a languid pace, disappointingly low body count, and a mutant cannibal that's barely in the damned movie. Maybe there's some greater point here like "the real monster is man's inhumanity to man!", since omnivorous non-mutants are responsible for the bulk of what little killing there is. Its 91 minute runtime may not sound particularly daunting, yet Trapped Alive is tedious and in dire need of tightening. There's no verve or intensity to any of the action, whether it's the escaped convicts swarming on the girls' car or the swift, bland denouement of the C.H.U.D. who barely even puts up a fight.

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I love and respect Arrow Video for rescuing all-but-lost films like this, but Trapped Alive is just...whew. Difficult to recommend.

Trapped Alive was barely released on VHS and never managed to find its way onto Laserdisc or DVD. Arrow Video is making up for lost time with this outstanding 2K master from the 35mm OCN, which is still under the title of Trapped. As indicated in the liner notes, the grading was supervised by director Nancy Schreiber, and she and director Leszek Burzynski gave the restoration work their thumbs-up as well.

Its colors are dazzlingly bright and beautiful, especially in those moments when the film isn't plunged however many dozens of feet underground. From the cheery hues of Christmas to a car ablaze to an azure winter sky to a bloody disembowelment, Trapped Alive's palette continually impresses. This is a very nicely shot film overall, and the strength and polish of its cinematography shine in 1080p. There's a touch more speckling than I'd have expected – you'll frequently see a fleck or two on the screen at any given time – but it's never to the point of distraction. Arrow has reproduced the film's gritty texture as skillfully as ever, and there are, of course, no issues with excessive filtering, clumsy compression, or the like. I did notice a judder or something when Robin's head pulls back while speaking to her father around the 3:29 mark, and I couldn't help but spot this shift in color later in the film:

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Sure, sure, I'd imagine this change in color may be too subtle to notice on your phone or monitor, but it greatly stood out to me on my home theater, anyway. We're at the point of picking nits, though, and this is obviously worlds removed from being any kind of dealbreaker. I'm beyond thrilled with what Arrow has delivered here, and I can't wait to see similar miracles performed on The Chill Factor, another Windsor Lake production that they're bringing to Blu-ray next month.

Trapped Alive opens up the mattes a sliver to reveal an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 – its first-ever widescreen release on home video. The film and its extras arrive on a dual-layer platter.

Newly-remastered and served up here in lossless, 24-bit stereo, Trapped Alive sounds phenomenal. Every element in the mix is dazzlingly clean and clear, not marred by so much as a flicker of distortion or any trace of background noise. The film's dialogue is reproduced beautifully, with the light reverb you'd expect since they're all stuck in a subterranean prison pretty much the whole time. This DTS-HD Master Audio track is wonderfully full-bodied as well, from the bassy growl of Cameron Mitchell's voice to the meaty thuds of this abandoned mine collapsing. The plunking-away-at-a-Casio-keyboard score by Michael Mark – the guy behind Entertainment Tonight's theme song! – is not exactly my thing, but it sounds as good here as it conceivably could. I can't say that I'm left with any gripes at all.

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Along with an optional set of English (SDH) subtitles, Trapped Alive piles on a Gatling gun barrage of audio commentaries, and we'll tear into that in just a moment.

  • Audio Commentaries: The first of Trapped Alive's three (!) commentaries features director Leszek Burzynski. It's not exactly the easy-flowing conversation I waltzed in expecting. Moderator Joe Rudin asks a question. Burzynski answers, there's maybe a brief pause, and then it's onto the next question. It never settles into a comfortable rhythm. A fair amount of what's discussed is addressed in the interviews elsewhere on this disc, although Burzynski does expand on some of these points, such as the logistics of filming in this remote a location. There are a fair number of other interesting notes, such as shaping the dynamic among the convicts and their captives, the set being so well-constructed that it made lighting a challenge, why the film is set at Christmastime, and a prospective Japanese investor at Cannes sniffing around for more gruesome outtakes.

    The track with special effects wizard Hank Carlson and horror writer Josh Hadley is more my speed, feeling so much more like a natural conversation. It's one outstanding story after another: doubling in drag for an actress who accidentally set her hair on fire, pissing off Cameron Mitchell by having no idea who the guy was, Windsor Lake's ambitions for being a Universal Studios-style attraction, the big-budget Evil Ernie adaptation that was in the works at the studio, and getting a special dispensation from Wisconsin's then-governor to skip out on his senior year of high school while filming was underway. Carlson does, of course, delve in-depth into the film's effects, particularly the mechanics of its monster. He also details why, specifically, The Hills Have Eyes' Michael Berryman took such issue with the screenplay and was ultimately fired after the first table read.

    Last to bat is a commentary by the podcasters behind The Hysteria Continues. None of them are all that familiar with the movie, so a lot of this winds up being the results of their Google and IMDb research. They point out a number of other movies cut from the same cloth as Trapped Alive, along with rattling off a list of horror flicks shot in or at least set in Wisconsin. As much as I agree with some of their criticism – the movie could stand to lose at least 10 or 15 minutes, the body count is too low, and the monster should've been unveiled sooner – I have to admit that this is my least favorite of the disc's extras.
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  • There's Evil Underground... (32 min.; HD): The producer of Hellraiser bought from the Girl Scouts a 560 acre camp in remote Rhinelander, Wisconsin, where a newly-crowned Academy Award winner designed a faux-subterranean maze for a cannibal-in-a-mine gutmuncher. That's a hell of a story, and this half-hour retrospective – featuring interviews with director Leszek Burzynski, director of photography Nancy Schreiber, production manager Alexandra Reed, and actors Alex Kubik and Sullivan Hester – tells it brilliantly. Among the innumerable highlights are an assistant camera operator finding herself in the early stages of hypothermia in this inhumanly cold weather, Cameron Mitchell asking to be paid in cash to sidestep his alimony obligations, the creature mask's mighty struggles with water, that there wasn't really a concept for either of the other two films that were meant to be shot using these same sets, and how rare female cinematographers were in these days. Easily the most essential of Trapped Alive's six hours of extras.

  • An Interview with Hank Carlson (19 min.; HD): There's less overlap than you might think between Hank Carlson's commentary track and this interview. After delving into his longtime fascination with filmmaking and effects, Carlson explains how, while still a teenager, he was hellbent on breaking into the industry. And, hey, as luck would have it, a movie studio just opened down the road... He also talks about what a jack-of-all-trades he was at Windsor Lake, mucking up a sex scene as he less-than-subtly tried to sneak a peek, and what he contributed to the cannibal makeup and a partially devoured corpse. From there, Carlson touches on other productions at the studio as well as his illustrious career that followed, including work on Super Mario Bros., Army of Darkness, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

  • Upper Michigan Tonight TV Documentary (23 min.; SD): Windsor Lake Studios and the production of Trapped Alive were documented by WLUC-TV way back in 1988, and it's a treasure trove of behind-the-scenes footage. This includes the mine sets being constructed out of a maze of 2x4s, conceptual art of the monster, and Monica's car being demolished by the crew. Producer Christopher Webster and his wife Cheryl, director Leszek Burzynski, and Academy Award-winning production designer Brian Savegar are interviewed as well.
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  • Leszek Burzynski: The Early Years (10 min.; HD): This journey through the early years of Leszek Burzynski's career is essentially a retrospective for the Wisconsin-lensed slasher Blood Harvest – starring Tiny Tim and available on Blu-ray now, courtesy of our friends at Vinegar Syndrome. Okay, okay, Burzynski also briefly touches on getting his start at the BBC and filming a short werewolf spoof, but it's pretty much all Blood Harvest, all the time, not that I'm complaining.

  • Image Gallery (HD): Last up is Trapped Alive's sprawling photo gallery, heaping on right at two hundred stills in all. There's a tremendous amount of repetition, with the photographer just clickclickclickclickclick-ing away and every last one of those pictures finding their way on here. But hey! Nothing wrong with a gallery being exhaustive.

The new artwork by Justin Osbourn looks phenomenal – if only the movie lived up to it! – but the cover is reversible if you're craving shitty vintage art under the earlier title Trapped. The liner notes include a wildly enthusiastic appreciation by Zack Carlson as well as a loving remembrance of Paul Dean (among those who played the feral cannibal) by his son Brian. It's also worth noting that this is an all-region release, so import away.

The Final Word
Arrow Video has assembled a hell of a special edition release for the long unavailable Trapped Alive, and those with a longstanding passion for the film are undoubtedly bursting at the seams with excitement right about now. Even though I'm about as easy a mark as they come for down and dirty horror flicks, I've gotta admit to finding Trapped Alive punishingly, gruelingly dull to endure. As I write this, the movie doesn't appear to be on any streaming or VOD services, rendering the advice I'm about to give pretty much useless. Still, I can't really recommend shelling out thirty bucks sight-unseen for Trapped Alive, so...I dunno, wait until it is? Stream It / Rent It first.

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