Tourist Trap (1979): Mannequins, Murder, and The Cleanest Bathrooms In the State
To kick off Spring Slashers, I thought I would see if there was someone’s first film that would fit the bill. I found just what I was looking for in the premiere feature from David Schmoeller, future director ofPuppet Master, Netherworld, and Crawlspace. With a career filled with both cult classics and complete misses, I knew that Schmoeller’s first film could go either way, but I had heard things about Tourist Trap (1979). Good things mostly, but I’d also been told it used a slasher formula that was tired even by late Seventies standards. However, I had to see it because no one loves a tourist trap quite like I do. No matter if an attraction boasts a two headed snaked, cavemen hanging with dinosaurs, a weird cave, or a giant statue, you can sign me up because I will go. After watching House of 1000 Corpses, the thought of crazy people inhabiting a tourist trap never strays far from my mind when I pull into one of the invariably dusty parking lots, but it wasn’t quite enough to make me stay away. What might do the trick though is mannequins and The Rifleman, and that’s not a combination I would expect.
The movie does start formulaically with a group of teens and their broken down car. One goes up the road to get help (never to return) and the others soon run into Mr. Slausen (Chuck Connors), proprietor of Slausen’s Lost Oasis, a wax museum. The stranded teens (including future That 70’s Show MILF Tanya Roberts) hitch a ride with Slausen back to his place. While the group’s lone guy, Jerry (John Van Ness) and Slausen head back to try to fix the car, three girls are left at the Oasis and warned not to venture out due to coyotes. The real danger is Davey. As the girls start to venture out exploring the creepy old house behind Slausen’s tourist trap, they soon encounter the doll faced Davey and his telekinetically powered killer mannequins. The girls are soon picked down to one, the sweet and wholesome Molly (Jocelyn Jones) who discovers the true nature of the slasher’s secret.
So, Tourist Trap sounds like a stale, crusty, hackish slasher, but the first few minutes disprove that notion. The film starts out like a DIY version of Herbie Hancock’s Rockit video plus blood, and sets the film’s strange tone from the get-go. Judging from David Schmoeller’s other film, the man has an offbeat sense of humor and it’s on full display here. Not only does the killer alternate between incredibly creepy and neurotically hilarious, the situations that the film presents appear deliberately broadly portrayed. There is a subtle spoof going on under the surface at all times, and Schmoeller has rarely been more in command. With Dolomite (and frequent Graydon Clark) DP Nicholas Josef von Sternberg behind the cameras and a supremely eerie score from Italian maestro Pino Donaggio, the whole feeling of the film keeps the viewer off kilter. Tourist Trap is the type of film where I felt like I knew what to expect, but the result was something more erratically charming.
With all the great people at work behind the camera, the real magic for me happened in front of the camera. Chuck Connors, a.k.a TV’s Rifleman, landed in several cult and genre films late in his career, but I’ve never seen him be better anywhere than in Tourist Trap. The sad thing is that I can’t talk about the complete greatness of his performance without spoiling parts of the movie, and the sadder thing is that just saying that is a spoiler unto itself. So I’ll leave it at this, if you like Chuck Connors, this is THE Chuck Connors movie to see. The supporting cast is not anything to write home about, but they all serve their purpose as grist for the eerie, weird murderous Davey. I do have to take a second to mention Tanya Roberts’ miniscule tube top barely containing her assets. The replacement Charlie’s Angel does get a chance to show off some of the ditzy adorable humor she would tap into again in the ’90’s, and she far outshines female lead Jocelyn Jones (The Great Texas Dynamite Chase). The other two characters, played by Jon Van Ness and Robin Sherwood, do prove themselves utterly disposable, but the kills are so strangely imaginative their deaths were indispensable.
I will always take a chance on films from a director like David Schmoeller. Even his lesser efforts have some kind of attraction to them. Sure Netherworld is a piece of crap, but just try and resist the crap-tacular wonders of the flying stone hand. Tourist Trap needs no such defense. As a first film it captures something that Schmoeller would flirt with in every film of his I’ve seen, horror as tone. There are moments of Tourist Trap that feel like Mario Bava was let loose in Charles Band’s backyard. Even though there were many dark laughs, Tourist Trap also served up more than its share of disconcerting moments equaling anything in better known slashers. If I were going to compare Tourist Trap to a roadside attraction, I would have to say it was the kind that draws you in from the highway and shows you something incredible that might also make you throw up in your mouth a little. In other words the best kind, and for that it gets the first five Bug rating of 2011.