It is fitting that Tourist Trap came out in 1979. This was a year of variety in horror with everything from Ridley Scott’s Alien to Lucio Fulci’s Zombie. From space creatures to the walking dead and all points in between, this was the end of a decade and Tourist Trap couldn’t have been made at any other time. It’s magnificently weird.
Released in March by Compass International Pictures, Tourist Trap was not a commercial or critical success. That’s a real shame because it possesses a unique ability to get under the skin of the viewer with the oddest of fears: Mannequins. Have you ever been shopping and felt the dead eyed gaze of these department store statues? Ever felt they were watching…and waiting? Well sit back and strap in as things are about to get strange.
In a nutshell: A traveling group of young adults (including Jocelyn Jones – The Great Texas Dynamite Chase and Tanya Roberts – The Beastmaster) are looking for their friend whose car had a flat tire and was searching for a gas station. Instead they run into Mr. Slausen (Chuck Connors – Skinheads) who, lamenting the loss of any traffic to his out of the way, one of a kind ‘museum’, invites the weary wanderers to rest up at his place before they resume their journey. Maybe their friend will show up? Oh definitely. While they wait, Mr. Slausen shows the kids his run down digs – a parade of Wild West reenactments and other antiquated amusements that no one under the age of forty would find interesting. However the mannequins he uses seem eerily realistic and unsettling to our heroes. Soon they find themselves being terrorized by Mr. Slausen’s brother Davey (credited to Shailar Cobi in the credits). Sometimes it’s better just to take a stay-cation.
This was David Schmoeller’s directorial debut. He would go on to make fine genre efforts such as Crawlspace (1986) and Puppet Master (1989), but Tourist Trap is his highlight reel. With this film, it’s not about the set up, but rather the delivery. Skewed angles and beats that would normally seem a little slow help to create mounting tension and a sense of claustrophobia (watch out for the ‘mask mold’ scene – sheesh) that is akin to riding through a funhouse on acid. Everything is just… off.
Aiding immensely is the music of Pino Donaggio. Acclaimed for his work on Carrie (1976), he was in Los Angeles working on Joe Dante’s Piranha (1978), where he was approached by Schmoeller (who spoke his native Spanish) who convinced him to do the score. And what a score it is. The main theme is built on slide whistle, wooden blocks, and strings and is unsettling to say the least. This is the soundtrack of your acid fueled funhouse ride. Distributor Irwin Yablans had both Halloween and Tourist Trap in post production without music and thought this one would be the hit of the two films. When he heard Donaggio’s music he hated it and thought it killed any chance it might have had at the box office. He’s wrong though – the film is too bizarre to have been a hit regardless of the soundtrack.
This brings us to the set design (and mannequins) of Robert A. Burns. His work on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) is legendary (think bone chairs for starters), but this scooches under my cockles even more. Disturbing versus Chainsaw’s disgusting. His sets seem simple, but the placement of each and every menacing mannequin is exquisite. They’re unobtrusive, but always watching. Always ready. Special mention to David Ayres (The Hills Have Eyes – 1977) for the eerie masks and bringing the mannequins to unnerving life.
The cast is solid and natural with Connors especially a revelation. He was hoping to brand himself as a Vincent Price for a new generation if this film was successful. It’s a shame it wasn’t because he gives a sympathetic, lip smacking performance as Slausen.
The screenplay by Schmoeller and J. Larry Carroll (an editor on Chainsaw – more connective tissue) is effective in its simplicity. However, within that framework lurks many little magical moments that prove the devil is in the details – and possibly that storefront dummy.
Tourist Trap is available from Full Moon Features on Blu-ray.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: DEATH RACE 2000