David Schmoeller, 1979
Starring: Chuck Connors, Jocelyn Jones, Jon Van Ness, Robin Sherwood, Tanya Roberts
A group of friends on a road trip are delayed when one of the two cars gets a flat tire. One of the guys, Woody, goes off to find a gas station, but it seems to be abandoned. When he explores, he finds a room full of mannequins and is mysteriously killed. Unaware, the rest of the friends – Eileen, Becky, Molly, and Jerry – go looking for him. Their car also breaks down and Jerry tries to fix it while the girls so skinny dipping. The owner of a local tourist trap, Mr. Slausen, finds them and they awkwardly explain the situation. He lets them look around his creepy museum while he fixes their car, but explicitly tells them not to go in his house. Disobeying him, Eileen goes in the house to make a call and is mysteriously strangled by her own scarf. Her surviving friends go looking for her, but find far more than they bargained for, including Slausen’s masked brother and a number of creepy mannequins who are more than they seem to be.
Though Tourist Trap borrows some elements from other horror films from the period – telekinesis from Carrie, teenagers lost in the wilderness from Texas Chainsaw Massacre, menacing dummies from Hatcher for a Honeymoon, human mannequins from House of Wax – it is absolutely one-of-a-kind.
Director David Schmoeller is also known for the insane Crawlspace (1986) with Klaus Kinski and his most well-known film, Puppet Master (1989). Tourist Trap is among the best of underappreciated ‘70s horror films and is one of my favorites. Robert A. Burns (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) was responsible for the excellent art direction and some of the special effects, which are impressive despite the obviously small budget.
Atmosphere and the building sense of dread is where this film really excels. The mannequins are truly disturbing and have some haunting vocal/sound effects that will send some very real chills down your spine. The telekinesis element (I don’t want to ruin anything by explain it too fully) is awkward and pushes the film toward an unnecessary jaunt into the supernatural. On the other hand, it effectively adds to the overall sense of weirdness and utter unpredictability.
Though it might seem silly at times, with silly dialogue, characters making idiotic decisions, and more, make no mistake that Tourist Trap is full of genuinely creepy moments and takes its time to explain the horrors unfolding. It has a breakneck pace and some elements of satire or comedy, particularly where the telekinesis is concerned, but this works in the film’s favor. At times, it becomes cartoonish, almost a mash-up of old EC comics and episodes of Scooby Doo. This mixture of whimsy and menace, enhanced by the score, is part of what makes Tourist Trap one of a kind.
The acting is far from spectacular, but adds to some of the film’s unintentional humor and is easy to ignore; no one is offensively incompetent. Tanya Roberts (Charlie’s Angels) and Robin Sherwood (Death Wish II, Blow Out) are both nice to look at, but most of the other young actors were unknowns or B actors. Jocelyn Jones (The Enforcer) is laughable as the Final Girl, though Jon Van Ness (The Hitcher) is decent as one of the group of friends. Chuck Connors (Soylent Green, The Horror at 37,000 Feet) absolutely steals the film as Mr. Slausen, one of the most delightfully creepy characters in ‘70s horror.
Available on DVD, Tourist Trap comes highly recommended. Pino Donaggio (Carrie, Dressed to Kill) composed the excellent score, which is also a must-listen for horror soundtrack fans. Tourist Trap is also finally available on Blu-ray, but there is a controversy over a missing 5 minutes of the original run time. While it has some nice, new special features, including a commentary track from director Schmoeller, he has written online about how outraged he is that producer Charles Band inexplicably removed five minutes of the film. I would have to recommend the DVD over the Blu-ray in this case, particularly as I’ve heard that the print clean up wasn’t too extensive. Either way, you owe it to yourself to check out this underrated gem.