Pairing cult directors with macabre omnibus material is always a tasty proposition, but the results disappoint in “Trapped Ashes,” a quartet of mildly sexed-up, unscary horror tales with a unifying wraparound story. Hopes raised by seeing old helming hands like Ken Russell and Monte Hellman back in action are let down by Dennis Bartok’s underwhelming screenplays, blah production values and tepid casting. No better or worse — an improved final segment aside — than most average episodes of such latter-day tube supernatural showcases like “Tales from the Crypt,” pic will be most at home in cable slots.
Framing sequences have Henry Gibson as a mild-mannered but glint-eyed guide who leads six tour guests into the shuttered Ultra Studios spook-house set where mysterious late, genre helmer Desmond Hacker shot his notorious bloodfests. Once inside, they find themselves trapped in a room like the one in Hacker’s magnum opus “Hysteria,” where imprisoned characters were forced to tell real-life terror tales. Naturally, Gibson suggests the variously angry and frightened new arrivals do likewise.
First up is bubbly blond actress Phoebe (Rachel Veltri), who says her career was going nowhere until she got some quite unusual breast implants. Phoebe’s career takes off, but her eye-catching new breasts turn out to have bloodthirsty needs. Garish lighting and a camp grotesque tone mark this as Russell’s contribution, but the bad-taste satire feels toothlessly broad.
Against his uptight wife Julia’s (Lara Harris) wishes, Henry (Scott Lowell) relates the tale of their recent trip to Japan, which found the yuppie couple menaced by the ghost of a suicidal monk intent on dragging Julia into the afterlife. There’s some simple manga-style animation and morphing FX, but this seg by producer-cum-“Friday the 13th” originator Sean S. Cunningham doesn’t pull off the stylized eroticism desired.
Next, irascible veteran B-pic director Leo (John Saxon) flashes back to his earliest professional days, when (now played by Tahmoh Penikett) he befriended eccentric aspiring helmer Stanley (Tygh Runyan), who ceases contact when he gets involved with vamp Nina (Amelia Cooke). When Stanley wisely flees the country, Leo winds up experiencing her succubus-like power over men. Script makes a big deal out of dropping clues that this Stanley, who became “possibly the greatest” director ever, is meant to be Kubrick, whom the seg’s helmer Hellman knew back in the ’50s. But those references don’t interface with the silly, pedestrian story, just as myriad other film-nerd references elsewhere in “Trapped Ashes” reveal both Bartok’s good cineaste taste and his lack of original storytelling/character instincts.
Final bit — barring the so-so wrapup for the framing device — is the only one by a no-name director, but it’s by far the best.
Surly punkette Nathalie (Michele-Barbara Pelletier) explains the weird circumstances of her birth — carried by an unhappy French mother (Pelletier again) married to a philandering California-transplanted vintner (Luke McFarlane), their household stress compounded by the woman’s contracting a tapeworm while pregnant.
Since the only available medicine might kill child as well as intruder, she has to incubate both the unborn baby and the parasite feeding off them. Nathalie grows up a strange child who still senses the presence of her non-human phantom twin. John Gaeta, VFX supe on the “Matrix” trilogy, lends this first directorial effort a queasy psychedelic edge that’s more effective and fully realized than the tired, low-rent feel of prior segs.
Production values are just adequate.