In 1980 the American slasher craze kicked into high gear. A glut of boring, stale, and monotonous (not to mention tedious) films were being released on the cheap and flooding American theaters and drive-ins. If you're like me, though, and you're intrigued by the film's that were released prior to the onslaught of mediocrity known as the 1980 American horror film, then perhaps you should check out the oddity that is Tourist Trap. Here's a film that cribs from its better predecessors (making it one of the first referential horror films) – Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Carrie, House of Wax, and Repulsion – and adds creepy mannequins and a unsettling and unorthodox musical score that makes for one of the more interesting (in a both good and often bad way) late 70's horror films. Tourist Trap is all at once eerie and goofy, nasty and sterile, creepy and laugh-out-loud awful...in other words: I don't think I've seen a horror film like it.
The film is your basic "teenagers get lost on the back roads and wander into an abandoned museum where a telekinetic, wax mask wearing maniac is killing people with tomahawk throwing mannequins" horror film. You know that old chestnut. Actually it's just your basic slasher template…the one that Roger Ebert later dubbed the "dead teenager" movie. One look at the character types here (teenagers out for a wild weekend) and there's no doubting who the Final Girl of this bunch is (hint: it's the modestly dressed one in the picture above). But if predictability is something that sets you off and keeps you from watching a movie, then what the hell are you doing watching a horror movie? I will give director David Schmoeller some credit for creating a creepy and unsettling atmosphere for the first 20 minutes or so, but after that the film is of two minds: it can't decide if it wants to be a nasty little number a la The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or a fun frightfest a la House of Wax. It's maddening trying to figure out the tone of this thing, and it's a shame, too, because had this not been in the hands of such a hack director there's a pretty decent little horror movie in here somewhere.
The film begins with five teenagers driving out in the middle of nowhere when their jeep gets a flat. One of the teens rolls the tire to the nearest town (deserted, of course, plus it's the first homage of the film, in this instance to House of Wax) and stumbles on an old building where some creepy mannequins are hanging out. Once inside the building the furniture begins to shake and the mannequins pop out of closets and begin to move and laugh manically. It's at this point I should add that the film had me laughing my ass off…in a good way. I was so delighted by what I was seeing – something so completely "out there" – that the only thing I could do was laugh. So, our unlucky teenager gets freaked out (rightfully so, the mannequins are damn creepy) and tries to break down the door that locked behind him. However, his arm gets stuck and unfortunately for him one of the objects in the room that is moving around is a lead pipe, which, of course, ends up impaling him. You've probably figured out by now that the objects moving around the room are due to an unseen person with telekinetic powers. Now, this scene was unsettling and bizarre to say the least, but one of the things about it that bothers me is the lack of blood. Oh, not because I demand gore in my horror films, but because the scene – as clever as it is in its execution – just shows how cheap Tourist Trap is. And again, I'm fine with that idea and the film's PG rating if what it set out to do was exactly what the opening death scene promises, but instead the film borrows from two better horror movies within the first 10 minuets, and then it takes an odd detour as it devolves into a sadistic Texas Chainsaw Massacre kind of film where the rest of the surviving teenagers meet a seemingly harmless local, follow him to his house (filled with mannequins of course), and proceed to follow all of the tropes that Firday the 13th would popularize just a year later (read: people running into dark places by themselves, boring stalk and slash scenes, etc.). I was down for the harmless – almost Scooby-Doo like – lark that the film was promising with its opening scene, but instead I got a film that wanted to be nastier than its PG rating would allow it to be, so all that was left was an uneven – albeit interesting – mess.
What the film does poorly (we'll start with the bad news first) is pace itself. The film barely manages to eke out 87 minutes, and that's a problem for a film that has only one location and essentially consists of a middle where its characters simply walk around and look at creepy mannequins. The other complaint is that the film is too claustrophobic rarely getting outside of cellars or rooms stuffed with creepy mannequins. The effect is great, but again, I didn't understand what the tone of the film was supposed to be: was supposed to feel that claustrophobia in the same way Tobe Hooper made me feel it? If so, then I didn't understand one of the worst parts of the film: its villain. Played by veteran TV Western actor Chuck Connor ("The Rifleman"), the killer in Tourist Trap runs around wearing a latex mask and wig trying his darndest to look creepy like Michael Myers or Leatherface; however, what ends up happening is that Conners hams it up so much that the killer comes of as something from a Scooby-Doo cartoon. Compounding this problem is the chase at the end involving the Final Girl where we are supposed to (I'm guessing) feel the way we felt watching the relentless chase near the end of TCM, but instead we get Conners constantly vocalizing (under the mask, so it just sounds like cheap voice over work…which it probably was) the inner thoughts of the killer with lines like "come hear girl" or "I'm going to get you"…it just didn't fit with what the film was trying to do prior to the chase scene: a creepy scene where he plasters a girls face (with her friends being tied up and having to watch) with hot wax and explains to her the process of how she's going to die once he covers her entire face with the substance. It's an off-putting scene that had me wondering why the filmmakers didn't just go all the way exploitation with the film, but then I looked up the man responsible for the film and found out that our good director Schmoeller is responsible for the Puppet Master series. There ya go.
The goofiness of the second half of the film baffled me and made me think of the failed attempts of inappropriate comic relief found in films like The Last House on the Left. This film so badly wanted to be TCM but it didn't have the balls to go all the way, and my God, when the end film happens, and our Final Girl drives off into the sunset, I wasn't expecting to laugh my ass off (this time for all the wrong reasons). In a moment that seems out of nowhere the film ends not on the final horrifying images of our Final Girl screaming because she just axed somebody in the neck...no, instead she packs up her mannequined friends and stuffs them into the jeep and drives off. The film ends with her sporting a crazed look with a maniacal smile as she cruises by the camera -- dead friends in tow -- and the filmmakers decide to freeze that image and then fade to black. It's the most baffling ending to what seemed like just a ho-hum horror film. If nothing else that ending proved that Tourist Trap -- despite its tendencies to crib from better movies -- wasn't a wholly unoriginal or uninteresting film, and it definitely wasn't just going to sit by and let you get away without scratching your head and asking yourself: "what the hell did I just watch?" That's maybe not the best quality for a horror film, but after the barrage of slashers that would come out after Tourist Trap's 1979 release, hindsight tells me that I wish there were more bizarre oddities like this that were released.
Despite the uneven tone of Tourist Trap there's still a lot going for it. The aforementioned death of the girl being covered in hot wax is one of the highlights of an otherwise forgettable film, and the use of the creepy mannequins – although a tad overused – had the same effect on me that clowns do; however, one element makes the film stand out from other horror films of its time: the music. Pino Donaggio's score uses everything from wood blocks to slide whistles to music boxes to evoke an eerie and unsettling mood. As the characters wander around the house and pad the film, Donaggio's score is always accompanying them and providing the scene with a level of creepiness that elevates the material we're seeing on screen. It's a classic case of music heightening a scene, or even a film; it's no surprise, either, as Donaggio scored the terrific horror film Don't Look Now, as well as many early De Palma films like Carrie, Blow Out, and Dressed to Kill. Tourist Trap isn't really anything special though – it meanders too much and feels like a lazy production – or even that scary of a horror movie, but it's an interesting addition to the genre (and I imagine little seen, too, as it came out a year after Halloween and a year before Friday the 13th , and shared its release year with seminal "Nasty" The Driller Killer) with its effective music score and set pieces. The deaths (and thus the gore) are pretty tame (although they do score points for the tomahawk-throwing mannequin taking out one of the teens) and the horror fairly timid, but if you're at all intrigued by low-rent, 1970's horror films then you definitely need to check out this odd little entry that shows just how different horror films were in America pre-Friday the 13th.