Terror Trap

Director: Dan Garcia
Michael Madsen, David James Elliot, Jeff Fahey

When it comes to the world of movies, I think just about everyone has had some specific dreams about them. Those dreams concern being personally involved in the making of these movies. Who amongst us has not dreamed of being a movie star, or being a hot shot movie director? I've certainly had those dreams from time to time. But there's another movie job that I have dreamed of that I think most of the public has not dreamed even once of being in. That being a movie producer. I think it would be really neat to be a movie producer. You are the one who decides what movies get made, and who gets involved in the making of these movies, from the stars to the directors. I would like to know that if I managed to become a movie producer, I would do things a lot different than the average movie producer. For example, you probably know my love of westerns by now, so it shouldn't come as any surprise that I would try to make some westerns... though if I had the choice of making a bad western or no western at all, I would choose the latter. But what I really want to talk about is where I would get ideas for non-westerns. Well, there are a couple of routes that I would try. One idea that I think has a lot of potential would be to look at the works of screenwriters who hadn't broken into the business yet. More often than not, these screenwriters have with them spec scripts from ideas that they have had for a long time, and polished over and over during that long time to try and attract a producer. There are a lot of gem spec scripts out there just looking for a buyer. What makes it even better is that with these newbie screenwriters, they would be so happy to make their first sale and get into the business that you would probably be able to purchase their scripts for a low fee.

Of course, being a producer I would use other methods to get ideas for movies. One such avenue I would use would be to look at books. No, I wouldn't go with the obvious tactic of scanning the best sellers list and getting into a bidding war with other producers who also have their eyes on the same books. I would look at the books that you find in drug stores and bus stations, books written by people who are not famous or have best sellers to their name. Like with spec scripts, there are some gems out there. Best of all, you can probably get the film rights to these books cheap, maybe sweetening the deal by hiring the author (cheaply) to pen the adapted screenplay. (This is what B movie producer Mark L. Lester did with Night Of The Running Man.) Anyway, while I have told you some tactics I would use as a movie producer to get ideas for movies to make, I want to tell you of one tactic I would hope I would never use. And that tactic would be to rip off the plot of another movie. There are several reasons why I would not want to go down this route. Oh sure, there are some advantages to ripping off other movies, one of them being that many audiences do indeed crave repetition, wanting to see again the same things they saw in other movies. But to be honest, I don't think I would be able to look myself in the mirror if I were to rip off another movie. Looking at myself, I would internally be telling myself, "You can't be very talented if you have to imitate someone else." I know what I would want, and that is to come up with stuff on my own, so audiences would say, "That producer is really talented and original," instead of, "He's just a no-talent plagiarist."

There's another reason why I would try not to rip off another movie. That reason is because of a lesson I once learned from a famous businessman, which was, "Copies never do as well as the original." Each of those rip-offs of Jaws didn't make anywhere as much as the original. And none Terror Trapof those rip-offs of Die Hard made as big a profit (if any) as the original. That's the main reason why I would rather as a producer gamble on an original idea than a rip-off. Though I am not a producer, just a regular moviegoer, and in that position I will admit that I have seen some original movie ideas that I've subsequently willingly sat through again with rip-offs. And occasionally one has been decent, like the Die Hard rip-off Command Performance. So when I found a copy of Terror Trap, and with subsequent pre-viewing research revealing just about everyone calling it a rip-off of the major studio release Vacancy, there was still part of me willing to give it a chance... though there was also a part of me reminding me how inferior movie rip-offs usually are. But I ultimately went ahead and watched it. The central protagonists in Terror Trap are a couple named Don (Elliot, The Untouchables) and Nancy (Heather Marie Marsden, Austin Powers). Though married, their relationship is on the rocks, so they decide to take a short road trip. While driving, their car gets into an accident, and they are stranded in rural country. But they soon get help from the area's sheriff (Fahey, The Sweeper), a fellow named Cleveland. Sheriff Cleveland guides Don and Nancy to a local motel run behind the scenes by a man named Carter (Madsen, Executive Target) The couple see the motel is disgusting and has a weird clerk (Andrew Sensenig, Powers) running the office, but having no other place to go while their car is broken down, they decide to try to make the best of their situation. But it doesn't take long for Don and Nancy to find out that their car accident and being stranded are the least of their worries...

In case you were wondering, I did see Vacancy a number of years ago, though I have to confess that the number of years that have passed since watching it have faded my memories of it and I don't remember much. But to me, that was a good thing, because I would be able to judge Terror Trap more on its own merits - that is, if it had any. I feel I should point out that the filmmakers had to deal with one serious obstacle right from the start of filming, and that was having a very low budget; my research on the movie uncovered that the budget was only two million dollars. As it turns out, director Dan Garcia (who also wrote and produced the movie) managed to make the movie look pretty convincing... some of the time. When it comes to things like locations and sets, things are done fairly well. At the motel (where most of the movie takes place) the exteriors were obviously filmed at a real motel, which looks believably crummy. The sets built for the interiors of the motel also have just that right amount of filth without coming across as extremely exaggerated or downright phony. However, other aspects of the look of the movie aren't as well accomplished. It's obvious that the movie was not shot on film, because there are a number of shots that are photographed in a way that you could almost swear that a VHS camcorder was used. These shots are slightly blurry, lacking detail, and washed out in color. Sometimes there is color, but often it's a yellowish look to everything that makes this seedy motel look too ugly. This is not a rant against modern digital cinematography; even when working with a low budget. it can look almost or just as good as using film when it's used right. But with this movie, it comes across as extremely amateurish and will make you wish for the days when even low budget B movie productions shot on film.

Though the cinematography was unprofessional, I had to admit that I was able to focus for the most part on the other aspects of Terror Trap while watching it. And I did manage to spot some good things. Well, actually, the remaining merit I can acknowledge the movie has is just with the movie's two protagonists. The writing for the characters of Don and Nancy actually has a little spark. There are two scenes (first in their car, and later in the motel room after checking in) when the characters are simply talking, and their dialogue actually isn't that bad. The two are obviously having problems and disagreements, but they don't come across as totally hostile or repulsive; you can tell by their words and actions that while their marriage is very strained, there is still a little love hanging in there. Actors Elliot and Marsden also do give competent performances as these leads, and with that combined with their characters' scripting, I did find myself caring a little about Don and Nancy. I might have cared even more about them had the antagonists they faced been constructed better. While the character of the motel clerk is a little creepy in his limited scenes, the two main antagonists simply don't cut it. Sheriff Cleveland, for one thing, is much too jovial to be much of a menace. In his first scene (pulling a motorist off the road), he at first jokes around, so much so that even when his character suddenly turns darker in nature to the motorist, he doesn't come across as a real threat. Later scenes with this character continue to focus on the comic side of this character while he does various bad things. Maybe the intent was to make the character's dark side come across as more horrifying when compared to his comic side, but for whatever reason, it doesn't work here.

As for Carter, the motel owner, he is barely seen in the first half of the movie, and the second half of the movie he's not seen that much more. Added to the fact that actor Michael Madsen gives a somnambulist performance, we end up with a bad guy that hardly feels like a threat at all. Most of the horrific stuff the protagonists have to face comes from members of the supporting cast, characters who are not given names and sometimes not even get to show their faces. It should probably come as no surprise then when I inform you that Terror Trap at its best is only (slightly) creepy; it certainly is never scary or suspenseful. One reason is that there's never a mystery as to what's happening at the motel, because the opening credits of the movie give the audience a clue that even the most dim-witted viewer will be able to figure out. Another reason is that the movie moves awfully slow. It takes thirty minutes for the protagonists to check into their motel room, and about fifteen minutes more for them to realize they are in a dangerous situation. And once they realize they are in danger, the terror that they have to face feels awfully soft. The bad guys that they face seem to be extremely accommodating, allowing the couple several times the opportunity to momentarily get away from danger. This is not only unbelievable, it gets boring really fast. It certainly doesn't help that instead of focusing on the protagonists facing a dangerous and non-stop threat, the movie surprisingly spends a lot of the time cutting to the bad guys taking it easy nearby (that is, when they are not killing each other for various stupid reasons.) Terror Trap is the worst kind of B movie. It's bad enough that it's a rip-off, but it's worse because it happens to be a really bad rip-off.

(Posted October 1, 2020)

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See also: Curfew, If I Die Before I Wake, Terror House