Tourist Trap (1979)
Director: David Schmoeller
Starring: Chuck Connors, Jocelyn Jones, Jon Van Ness, Robin Sherwood, Tanya Roberts, Keith McDermott
1/2 (out of 4)
There’s something endearing about Tourist Trap, David Schmoeller’s late 70s sleeper about a group of friends stranded in the middle of nowhere and tormented by a psycho trying to add them to his collection of mannequins and wax figures. It’s notable for a few reasons, one of which is a great performance by icon Chuck Conners (trying to alter his career so he could be the Boris Karloff of of the 80s), the other reasons involving director Schmoeller’s ability to infuse the picture with disturbing, visceral images, giving the film a nightmare logic while at the same time not even trying to explain itself. It’s a particularly welcome quality coming from a 21st century perspective where everybody is so preoccupied with over-explanations in their movies. While being influenced by a number of films before it (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Psycho, Halloween, Carrie), Tourist Trap still manages to operate on its own frequency, understanding that dreams can have meaning without making any logical sense.
Five friends, including pretty and intelligent Jocelyn Jones and totally hot sexpot Tanya Roberts, break down somewhere near a secluded roadside attraction – one of those tourist trap wax museums that became “lost” when one of those many American highways were built (try driving around America and you’re bound to run into more than a few abandoned attractions). Within the first few minutes of the film, Woody, looking for help at a nearby gas station, is assaulted by various dummies and flying objects, until he is unfortunately impaled on a metal pipe. While looking for him, the rest of the girls naturally decide to go skinny dipping in a nearby pond, when property owner Slausen (Conners) stumbles upon them, brandishing a shotgun. After a few uncomfortable moments, where Slausen is quite frankly unfazed by the fact that there are three nude girls in his pond, he eventually agrees to help them fix their jeep, while showing them the interior of his once-profitable wax museum.
Curiosity gets the best of Eileen (Robin Sherwood) as she goes to investigate a nearby house, which of course results in her death at the hands of various mannequins come to life and a strange menacing figure in a doll mask (looking curiously like Leatherface). It’s Mr. Slausen’s deranged brother Davey, who apparently has telekinetic powers. (Why is it always the unbalanced people who get the telekinetic powers?) At this point the viewer will notice that the movie accepts telekinesis as reality without trying to explain it, so basically we are left to form the theory that somebody is psychically manipulating objects to do his bidding. It’s a concept that will be challenged later, as Tourist Trap is quite fond of pulling the rug out from under us in favor of escalating the nightmare to more surreal heights. When later in the film, one character arrives to save the day only to be exposed as another mannequin (the bad guy simply dismantles him piece by piece), we are left with the realization that these characters have stepped into a bizarre unreality from which there may be no escape. The villain of Tourist Trap has created a whole universe out of his insanity, and everyone around him is simply swept up in it. At points I was questioning whether our unfortunate victims were suffering from Folie à plusieurs, or whether something much more menacing was going on.
While touching on concepts of loss and guilt, and what they can do to a person, Tourist Trap impresses with its ability to take us to uncomfortable places. A scene where “Davey” pours plaster over a poor girl’s face, killing her of fright before she can suffocate, is quite effective, as is various scenes of mannequin heads dropping their unreal mouths open to scream or sigh out a twisted siren’s song. Jocelyn Jones plays the final girl with a connection to the Conners character and I must say that she should have continued as horror’s scream queen, not Jamie Lee Curtis. Finally, Conners himself gives the part his all, playing two different “characters”, one of which hides behind masks and is a real hoot. Add to the mix a truly interesting score by Pino Donaggio, some black humor, unsettling atmosphere, and a memorable final shot, and you have quite a fascinating little film. I would stack it next to Phantasm as an offbeat 70s gem that you may have missed.
- Bill Gordon
The widescreen DVD release I viewed has an interview with (and audio commentary by) director David Schmoeller, who can’t believe that the MPAA only slapped a PG rating on the film. (Schmoeller would later give us Puppet Master – no surprise). Some trailers round out the disc. By the way, in case you didn’t notice, this is the best movie to come out of Charles Band’s catalogue, hands down. Sorry, Laserblast fans!