Tourist Trap (1979)
Dir. David Schmoeller
Written by David Schmoeller, J. Larry Carrol
Starring Jocelyn Jones, Chuck Connors, Jon Van Ness, Robin Sherwood
This is a nifty little oddity from eternally underrated horror director David Schmoeller (CRAWLSPACE, PUPPET MASTER) whose premise seems as clichéd as they come: a carload of attractive twentysomethings gets their car stuck outside a run-down wax museum and then get bumped off one by one by a masked killer with a gimmicky doll theme. What makes it different is that despite the familiar premise, it focuses on creating an unsettling, off-kilter --even surreal-- atmosphere, which makes everything feel much more malicious and threatening than it usually might.
Part of it has to be the creepy mannequins, obviously. Mannequins are creepy enough as they are, one of the best (but also laziest) ways to mine the uncanny valley for some respectable skin-crawling premises. They’re so like humans, and they’re even made to stand in for humans, but they’re also impassive and alien in their abstract perfection. They’re pod people, interlopers of humanity. And if one is creepy, a whole elaborate wax museum of them is much worse, and when you start to get in the back rooms where their appearance of ordered humanity disappears into a wild cacophony of displaced limbs and grinning, impassive severed heads... well, that’s already some nightmare material right there.
|This is exactly why we need to move beyond the Valley of the Dolls.|
But it gets worse, because these mannequins are intentionally fucked up and distorted, weird limbless bodies with cartoon heads or built with exaggerated, grotesque features (particularly the ones who can suddenly open their mouths unnaturally wide in a scream that makes them look like the Predator). These have an icky body horror Cronenbergian vibe (and are definitely the creepiest mannequins I’ve seen since that giant spider made of mannequin parts in SILENT HILL: REVELATIONS) but even beyond their intrinsic disturbing qualities, they ingeniously also convey volumes about the disturbed mind that actually made them. These are dolls which are fashioned by someone with an unnervingly aberrant vision of the human body, someone who is seeing the world through his own distorted lens. We don’t ever really learn a whole lot about the killer, but through the menagerie he’s fashioned out of these fake human bodies we can get a pretty good sense about how frighteningly divergent his world is from the one we inhabit. And that’s even scarier.
I’m gonna tread lightly because I don’t want to spoil much about the killer himself, but it turns out to be pleasingly complicated and strange. A whole bunch of weird twists kind of dovetail together into this bizarre half-explained nightmare which gets resolved in a way which seems both wickedly simple and enticingly ambiguous. Schmoeller’s real stroke of genius, though, was conscripting square-jawed Chuck Connors* as the backwoods owner of the titular Tourist Trap that starts the whole saga. Connors has such natural gravitas and an earnest, inherent good-guy quality to him, but his character also seems very slightly off, either socially awkward or subtly menacing, or something. You can’t quite place what’s going on with him (nearly always a bad sign in horror movies) but Connors so resolutely recalls Charlton Heston that you also can’t quite rule out that his motives are innocent and his awkwardness a result of the never-mentioned-but-always-present class tension between these pretty young city people and this lonely, overalls-favoring country boy. It’s a great role for him, and Connors creates a memorable and unique character, especially for this sort of movie where you’d usually get some greasy redneck stereotype in this role.
|From left: your worst nightmares, Chuck Connors (wikipedia stresses that he's "not to be confused with "Chuck Norris." Was this a big problem before they put up that warning?).|
Obviously the movie’s weak point is the victims, who never quite seem substantial enough to engender much sympathy. True, they aren’t the best actors ever (though a long way from the worst, especially for this genre) but more importantly we never learn much about them or see any spark of personality which would endear them to us in any way. Usually that wouldn’t be an issue in a roadside slasher cheapie, but this one is otherwise so filled with great textures and unusual ideas that it’s a little bit of a shame that the leads are so bland and disposable.
Even so, this one is surely a winner, an overlooked gem which has only recently been reclaiming its rightful status as a top-tier slasher from an enormously talented and ambitious genre great (Stephen King once called it one of his favorite horror movies, but then again he hated THE SHINING so who knows what his deal is). From the cool design of the killer’s doll mask/velvet Elvis chic to the bold surrealism of the plot to it’s enticingly menacing score (by Brian DePalma regular Pino Donaggio), TOURIST TRAP is much more than a sum of it’s influences, it’s a complete and satisfying little nightmare all of it’s own.
*The only person ever to have played in both the NBA and MLB, basically making him better than Michael Jordan. Besides, Chuck Connors starred in TOURIST TRAP. Did Michael Jordan ever star in TOURIST TRAP? Hell no! The most he can claim is SPACE JAM, which in my opinion is highly dubious Sci-Fi at best.
|Most of the characters are female, and they discuss their predicament.|