A reviewer at Fright.com, one of the few places on the internet where ATRAPADOS is even mentioned, describes it as “one of the world’s great unknown cult films, a shocking, nightmarish, mind-expanding apocalyptic parable.” The one user review for the film on IMDB is from a former critic for Variety magazine and states, “I….still remember the impact of the film 35 years later.” At the time of its limited release, the Los Angeles Times called it a “staggering and haunting film.”
Despite the critical acclaim, ATRAPADOS never received a video or DVD release and has disappeared into complete obscurity. The AMC website’s description of the film, limited to a plot synopsis, gets the plot wrong. A Google image search for the film brings up only two pictures and both are from Fright.com. A Google video search for the film doesn’t bring it up at all (crowding it out with other movies with the same title and news reports about people who are trapped). The only way it is even available on Youtube is because the director, himself, has uploaded a copy. Though it’s been streaming on his channel for three years, it has only received a few hundred views. Good for a cat video, terrible for “one of the world’s great unknown cult films.” The cult is apparently still small. I recommend that you join it immediately.
The plot of ATRAPADOS is fairly simple. Two people, a man and a woman, are trapped in the woman’s basement apartment when the building collapses. The man is a plumber, a stranger to her, who has just arrived to fix her broken sink. They are of different classes, but also of entirely different temperaments. He is a survivalist and a materialist. She is an intellectual with a mystical bent. As their time trapped in the basement passes from days into months, the film charts the different ways that they deal with their predicament and with each other. The evocative black-and-white photography depicting their entrapment (compared to ERASERHEAD by the Fright.com reviewer) is contrasted with their fantasies and memories of the outside world which are often depicted in bright, garish colors.
This brief synopsis, however, does not cover it. ATRAPADOS is clearly allegorical, but its meanings are not so obvious as they might appear at the beginning of the film’s slow progression toward psychedelic, metaphysical horror. At first the contrast between the man’s desire to escape and the woman’s emotionally escapist passivity seems to comment on the relations between classes and genders. The woman’s philosophical interpretations of their entrapment make direct parallels between their situation and the existential conditions of humanity in general. Their differing responses to the horror matches exactly the dubious psycho-social theory concerning different “tastes” in horror films that I mentioned in my previous post about SOLE SURVIVOR. One can’t help, considering the gravity of the characters’ crisis, sympathizing with the plumber and his more sensible grasp on reality. This sympathy on the part of the viewer may change when he begins to be consumed, in fear, by his more animalistic impulses. At the same time, as escape becomes more and more hopeless, the detached, “spiritual” tendencies of the woman seem to become more and more reasonable.
As time passes for the trapped couple, the “naturalistic” quality of ATRAPADOS is abandoned and the story passes into Surrealist territory that reminds me of Luis Bunuel’s THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL…or THE TURIN HORSE by Béla Tarr. I was also reminded of a short story by J.G. Ballard in which a man, refusing to leave his kitchen, becomes a kind of suburban Robinson Crusoe and eventually develops the perception that his kitchen is as large and full of possibilities as the universe itself. In ATRAPADOS, the moral distinctions between the man’s materialism and the woman’s seemingly escapist spiritual pursuits begin to blur and possibly even reverse once it becomes evident that there will be no escape. The meaning of “hope” and “freedom” for the characters becomes more and more abstract and, depending upon one’s point of view, a catalyst for enlightenment or an insane disassociation that spirals into a metaphysical hell: a universal, transcendental “trap.” ATRAPADOS is the ultimate in Gothic horror. In this film space has literally collapsed and time lost all point of reference: opening into eternity.
I recently watched the new BBC documentary HYPERNORMALISATION by British filmmaker Adam Curtis. It is one of the most thought-provoking, powerful documentaries that I’ve seen in years and, for the moment, available on Youtube in full (I will link to it below). The documentary attempts to chart the development, in contemporary politics and culture, of our escapist attempts to replace the complex realities of human, political relations in the “real” world with a simulacra: a carefully constructed illusion intended to satisfy our need for understanding the world while also destabilizing the meaning of “truth.” The result is carte blanche for the immense inequalities and corrupt, exploitative representatives of power that we’re now faced with all over the world.
I couldn’t help being reminded of HYPERNORMALISATION while watching ATRAPADOS. The dynamics at play within the two films are exactly the same. Neither of the films offer any direct solutions to the problems presented, but they certainly attempt, in their own ways, to fully examine the issues we face: individual, social, psychological, physical, and spiritual.
As we enter, according to the analysis in Adam Curtis’s documentary, a “post-truth” world, it is more important than ever to explore and learn from the many representations of our current state of crisis created by perceptive, “precognitive” artists and philosophers throughout the centuries. It is harder than ever, now, to conceive of “escape” or “freedom” and truly imagine what it would entail to realize the fulfillment of these concepts in our actual lives. We question, based on our history, whether such a fulfillment is even a worthwhile pursuit or just one more illusion among many that we may choose to embrace. There are many who have addressed these questions before and carefully considered the various possible answers.
Several times, during this year’s blog entries, I have suggested there is a dichotomy between the ideological foundations of “folk horror” and “gothic horror” representing a basic, fundamental difference in how we, as humans, relate to a world that is partly constructed and thus controlled (?) while also partly “fated,” chaotic, and out of our control. ATRAPADOS represents an ambiguous world in which these two contrasting conditions are pit against each other, feed off each other, and overlap. In that sense, it is a more realistic (though still metaphorical) representation of the confused, multi-layered, frustratingly mediated reality in which we actually live.
It is a great irony that the BBC funded documentary HYPERNORMALISATION is (rightly) a critical and popular success, currently being discussed by intellectuals and radicals all over the world, while ATRAPADOS, an equally insightful and perhaps more nuanced exploration of the same topics by a talented independent filmmaker, is buried by Google algorithms and largely forgotten.