T: Tourist Trap (1978)

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tumblr_nr1dptWZ0h1ut1d6co1_1280This is one of those movies whose fate leaves you scratching your head, and wondering about the whys and wherefores of culture. There are several things that contribute to Tourist Trap‘s longevity, chief among them a very positive review by Stephen King in Danse Macabre, and a PG rating, insuring it could be run on TV with little or no trimming.

There are two groups of young’uns on the road for mumble mumble something or other. They’re in two cars, so when the lead car has a blow-out, Woody (Keith McDermott) rolls the flat spare to the nearest gas station, leaving Eileen (Robin Sherwood) behind. The second car, driven by Jerry (Jon von Ness) and carrying Molly (Jocelyn Jones) and Becky (Tanya Roberts, very early in her career) catches up to her, she climbs aboard, and they head down the road to look for Woody.

tourist-trap-02-18Woody has found a gas station, but it is deserted. Except for a self-locking back room with cackling mannequins and objects that fling themselves willy-nilly at him. The capper is the pipe that nails him to the door. This is a superb opening sequence, and it scarred a lot of young kids during matinees.

Our surviving youngsters manage to miss that abandoned gas station and instead find themselves at the all-but-abandoned Slausen’s Lost Oasis and Wild West Museum, where their car mysteriously ceases to function. Who should show up but Slausen himself (played by Chuck Connors), who lets the ladies stay in the museum while he and Jerry try to fix the car. Oh, but don’t go out to the house in back – Davey lives there.

tourist_trap5So of course, one by one, they go out to the house in back. Where Davey undeniably is, with a small army of creepy mannequins that Davey can apparently control with some sort of Carrie White telekinesis. Davey (Slausen will explain it’s his brother) also wears a mask that makes him look like one of the mannequins. Or that’s the intent, anyway – I think it makes him look like Jay Leno. Given that the movie is almost 40 years old – and that it really doesn’t conceal the twist all that well – Davey and Slausen are the same person, and he is, to put it bluntly, insane, and our party is going to get whittled down to the Final Girl over the course of the flick.

puteshestvie-v-adWhat Tourist Trap has going for it is some novelty and some of the creepiest damn mannequins ever assembled for a movie. The scenes with them are beautifully realized and nightmarish; when the movie breaks away from them so another of the teenagers can get killed, that stuff – which, admittedly, is the stuff that most of the movie goers paid money to see – seems grafted on, like we dropped in on another movie set. The kills are fairly bloodless, including the most famous one, where Davey murders yet another traveler caught at the gas station (Dawn Jeffory) by layering plaster on her face until she suffocates (though he assures us she dies of fright) still  doesn’t breach the PG limit.

tumblr_nti1ruhrZL1rr8qsxo6_1280So there is the likely basis for Tourist Trap‘s failure at the box office. It was a PG oddity floating in a sea of R-rated dead teenager movies. The setup is strictly Texas Chainsaw Massacre without the Hitchhiker – hell, the kids are driving a Volkswagen Thing instead of a VW van. No gore, no nudity – there are chances for both, but they go unfulfilled. What remains is more dark fable than slasher movie, a tale of obsessive madness that gradually includes the audience (as well as Final Girl) in the delusion. Real people become mixed in with the mannequins, until it is impossible to tell which is which, or who is insane.

This is not what the audiences were looking for at the time.

tumblr_ne0p3bzcgO1tx499to3_1280If you’re only familiar with Chuck Connors from The Rifleman re-runs, and not some of  his other film work, like, say, The Big Country, you might be surprised to find him here (which is why it’s great casting). He finds the top and goes over it several times, but there are also times he is deliciously subtle. There is one scene toward the end when he goes from slobbering madman to sorrowful confession that actually had me thinking holy crap that was some really good acting. The cast is uniformly good, sometimes better than the material actually deserves.

judgementalbitchWriter/director David Schmoeller is better known for the Puppet Master series that arguably kept Full Moon Pictures’ doors open for years. Tourist Trap may not be able to tell if it really wants to be Chainsaw or Carrie or Psycho, but it is a pretty solid piece of Halloween creepiness. Those mannequins, man. Urrrrrrrr

Buy Tourist Trap at Amazon

(Note that I am linking to the DVD, not the blu-ray, which reportedly is missing five minutes and has a dreadful framerate)