[5 March 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Trickery. Movies are built on and out of it. The twist ending. The unusual casting or the actor playing against type. Even stories can create their own magic through their use of ideas and invention. One of the most popular, especially in certain genre titles, is the trap. Villains love to set up such ambushes as part of their devious plans, while heroes occasionally use same to defeat their foes. The more criminally insane often employ these concepts as a way of teaching the immoral or uncaring victim pool a lesson, while the police implement similarly styled subterfuge to discover such psychosis. In fact, one franchise, the one built out of James Wan and Leigh Whannel’s game changing suspense thriller Saw, went from being about a madman with a mission to all about the traps. In fact, few fans can remember the mythology. Most remember the various cruel contraptions Jigsaw uses to meter out his revenge.
Therefore, we think it’s time to celebrate these moviemaking mechanics with one of our patented lists. This time around, in celebration of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire arriving on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital HD on 7 March, we have to come up with some clear caveats. First, we aren’t talking about mere set-ups. Putting a policeman in a dress hoping a rapist will target him is not our idea of a true “trap.” Secondly, we had to limit Saw‘s influence on the final tally. From rotting pig grinders to gun barrels against door peep holes, these movies could easily make up their own compendium (hey…). Finally, we are dealing with contemporary films here. Certainly there were times in the past when the idea was used, but it’s better to limit our scope to what’s happened in the post-modern era. With that being said, here is out list of the 10 Best Movie Traps of All Time. They may not be the most inventive or terrifying, but all have an impact that lingers long after other elements of the movie mentioned have faded away.
This is a bit of a stretch, but it still qualifies. When Paul Newman’s character, private investigator Lew Harper, is trapped with a target’s wife in the above listed locale, he tries everything to escape. Finally, he decides to flood the entire room, hoping the pressure will pop the door and/or windows. Placing clothing in the drain, he turns on the massive spigots and lets the entire space fill with water. It’s tension upon suspense until some suspicious character’s return, hoping to get Harper to “talk”. They get something instead. A bit fat liquid surprise.
Of all the Saw traps—and there are literally dozens to choose from—we picked this as one of the most horrific. It’s not the most ingenious. It’s not the most complicated. In fact, it’s just a hole in the floor of a random room filled with disgusting used syringes. The point is, Jigsaw sets this up as a test of one of his disciples, and when a pissed off drug dealer throws her in to find the key (the “needle in a haystack” so to speak) the agony on her face is very real. So is the psychological trauma.
While Paul W. S. Anderson‘s adaptation of the popular video game made some fans angry, others have turned it into one of the longest running and most successful franchises in film. While the sequels seem to rely more and more on big budget action, the original movie had some ingenuity to it, including this bit where a wary computer trying to protect itself unleashes a dissection distraction for the military men trying to infiltrate its secrets. The F/X may be a bit CF-corny, but the end result is one of the most memorable elements in the entire movie.
If the first Hunger Games was all about survival, the second version of the dystopian phenom (arriving on home video today) was about rebellion and fighting the system. To that extent, in order to keep the competitors in line this time around, the entire arena—a Truman Show like island—is one big trap, with timed floods, poisonous fog, etc. used to control/kill off the competitors. Eventually, our heroine and her allies figure out the atoll’s timepiece tech specs, leading to a major reveal, and the moment when the entire franchise turns from kids killing kids to kids taking on the Establishment.
It’s an idea so simple it’s surprising no one else thought of it. A disgruntled cop, hoping to get the money his agency failed to deliver, sets up a bomb on a city bus. He then lets everyone know that if the vehicle travels at less than 55 MPH, the entire blows sky high. Placing a policeman on the bus only ups the ante, as does the desire for those involved to thwart the explosive plan. In the end, our villain has more mischief up his ornery sleeve, but his initial trap takes the four wheel drive cake.
Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon are just insane. Not only did they deconstruct the entirety of the horror genre with their amazing movie, they made one of the main tropes—the title element—the means to justify the ends. Within said sagging wooden structure are a series of talismans each one linked to a nightmare creature ready to kill five friends so that giant angry gods don’t return to the Earth’s surface to lay waste to humanity. Nutso, right? Well, in their hands, what shouldn’t work becomes wonderful, a truism take to illogical limits by our own familiarity with the artform.
Saw again, and oddly enough, this trap involves the same individual later thrown into that aforementioned pit of medical waste. With its head splitting design and meatball surgery means of escape, the suspense surrounding this deadly machine, only the second or third such set-up we see in the entire Saw franchise, set the benchmark which all other traps had to live up to for the next few films. Most wouldn’t make the cut. Oddly enough, the device makes a cameo later on in the series, suggesting its endemic qualities to the filmmakers as well.
Like the mini-Indiana Jones that they are, the members of the outcast title troops decide that deciphering an ancient pirate’s treasure map is the only way to save their town. Granted, said puzzle is filled with well-anchored rocks, a pipe organ made out of human bones, and a ship which carries its own “booty trapped” designs. Naturally, no one gets seriously injured within the Rube Goldberg make-up of this underground adventure, but an entire generation of movie fans found their calling in the caves of Northern California and a certain “Truffle Shuffle”.
When he wished his family away, the young man at the center of this movie never thought he’d get such a heady holiday present. Then he discovers his house is being targeted by a couple of less than competent burglars. A series of self-made traps and trip-ups later, and he’s ready to give these “thirsty for more” dolts the deceptive bends. Granted, almost all of what the little boy does—and in response, what happens to these haggard adults—comes directly from slapstick, but it’s still a whole lot of homemade defense fun.
This was the opening which started the myth, the iconic moment when our post-modern serial hero stepped into the lion’s den and came out with a few acknowledged scratches. From guessing the weight of the idol to misjudging its heft and the need to face blow darts, spike walls, and one massive rolling boulder, our future icon, Henry “Indiana” Jones, Jr. set the standards by which most movie contraptions are culled. While the other films in the franchise would feature similar set-ups, including a classic ending for Last Crusade, this is the one everyone remembers, and the one that matters, movie-wise.