Chuck Connors - Mr. Slausen
Jocelyn Jones - Molly
Jon Van Ness - Jerry
Robin Sherwood - Eileen
Tanya Roberts - Becky
Dawn Jeffory-Nelson - Tina
Keith McDermott - Woody
Genre - Horror/Slasher/Supernatural
Running Time - 90 Minutes
PLOT (from IMDB)
A group of young friends stranded at a secluded roadside museum are stalked by a masked assailant who uses his telekinetic powers to control the attraction’s mannequins.
I remember the days when you could go outside without a mask and gloves to go on a road trip with your best friends, only to go down the wrong road and encounter a super-powered masked killer who has a fetish for mannequins. Ah, good times, weren’t they? I guess if there is a positive for being in quarantine during a deadly coronavirus, it’s that you won’t be murdered by a dude wearing a doll mask. But back in 1979, this was entirely possible if TOURIST TRAP is any indication!
TOURIST TRAP is one of those underrated, forgotten horror films that has gained some cult popularity due to a successful blu-ray release and because of Shudder’s The Last Drive-In with Joe Bob Briggs where it was the first film to get the Joe Bob treatment during the show’s revival. The film was released in between two slasher giants - 1978’s HALLOWEEN and 1980’s FRIDAY THE 13TH, making it somewhat forgotten as an innovative slasher film that tried to combine as many genres as possible to create an interesting experience that elevates what is a generic script. The backwoods vibe is similar to 1974’s THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE. The mannequin museum, which is the killer’s secret lair, is reminiscent of 1953’s HOUSE OF WAX. The killer’s mask is a combination of both Leatherface and The Shape. And the killer even possesses the power of the telekinesis like the title character in 1976’s CARRIE. And even when you think that’s a whole lot of going on in one movie, TOURIST TRAP sometimes doesn’t have anything really going on during its short runtime. So even after all this, how does the film still kind of work?
A lot of that has to do with David Schmoeller’s direction. Schmoeller, probably best known for his work on 1982’s THE SEDUCTION and 1989’s first PUPPET MASTER movie, elevates a pretty generic story by infusing the visual presentation with so much mood and atmosphere, it makes you never see a mannequin the same way again. No Starship or Kim Catrall pleasantness here, as these mannequins are things of nightmares. With the use of the killer’s telekinetic power, the mannequins move on their own. Sometimes it’s just the eyes. Sometimes it’s their whole body, shot in medium shots or close-ups to really take up much of the screen to appear as creepy as possible. Yes, sometimes you can see strings pulling the mannequin movements. But Schmoeller makes it look as smooth as possible, creating a vibe not many horror films can capture. Considering this was his first feature film as a director and learned a lot about filmmaking through the process of making TOURIST TRAP, he did a nice job bringing the story to life.
The film is also shot with a lot of natural light or dim bulb light to create a large amount of shadows. While the mannequin museum looks cool, it’s lit like a nightmare that’s waiting to happen. I also think the grittiness of the film stock helps the film, as it doesn’t look polished and gives off a more raw vibe that a lot of films of the era captured really well. It never feels or looks safe, making you glad you’re not one of the characters dealing with this drama in this kind of environment. It’s one of those horror films that is better watching with as many lights off as possible.
I also think the set design is directed well, as the museum feels like a maze at times with multiple rooms waiting to scare and harm the characters. It gives the film a claustrophobic vibe for much of the movie, even when the characters are able to escape outdoors to the woods. Considering it was mostly done by TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE set designer Robert A. Burns, it would make sense for TOURIST TRAP to capture a similar sinister feeling as the Tobe Hooper classic.
And the musical score by the great Pino Donaggio compliments the film greatly. Just like his many works on multiple Brian de Palma films, Donaggio captures the essence of TOURIST TRAP. There is some nice whimsical music at the start, which slowly sounds more evil and sinister as the film slowly moves towards its conclusion. The mannequin score, in particular, can be chilling at times, adding to the visual effect. This is a film many probably would think doesn’t deserve quite a wonderful Donaggio score, but I’m glad it’s here. It definitely elevates the film.
As for the story itself, it’s pretty much THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE but with less cannibals, less chainsaw murder, and more creepy mannequins. The main protagonists, besides the lead character Molly, are all pretty interchangeable to be honest. But Molly is an interesting character study of a woman who seems a bit more prudish and nerdy compared to her more bombshell friends, seemingly looking for a place to belong. While her friends do appreciate her and enjoy having her around, Molly easily gravitates to the mannequin museum, almost feeling a kinship to these inanimate objects. She also strikes an easy rapport with museum owner Slausen, who gives her the most attention and preening out of the entire group. He treats her like a person, which is ironic considering what’s really going on with his family in that museum. Both characters appear to be tragic figures - Molly for maybe feeling inadequate in her group of friends, while Slausen has lost his wife and brother and only keeps company with mannequins ever since. I do wish the film had done more with this connection between the characters, but it’s obviously hinted at and easy to see.
The other characters have their moments, but are just there really to add to the body count of the film. Some are taking out pretty early into the film, while others are more proactive and manage to fight off the killer before bad things happen to them. They are your standard slasher film archetypes, with their specific personalities in tact. The good thing is that none of them are annoying enough to want the killer to get them, which makes TOURIST TRAP an easier film to digest.
As for the masked killer, I like the sense of mystery behind his or her’s identity - even though it’ll be very obvious who it is if you’ve seen enough of these films. But I liked how goofy and childlike he behaves at times, playing with his victims and enjoying scaring them. If you’ve seen HOUSE OF WAX, you can pretty much guess who some of the mannequins are. So the killer’s process of turning helpless people into his inanimate slaves is quite amusing, as the killer explains how and why they do it while almost getting off on it in a joking manner. The killer definitely has a Leatherface vibe going for them, but he’s more of a chatterer which erases a lot of the terror they should be bringing. But they are an interesting slasher villain with an interesting ability that’s never really explained until the last few minutes of the film.
Besides all that, TOURIST TRAP is your typical slasher narrative through and through. Besides maybe the telekinesis stuff, there’s nothing really original about this film, even for 1979. None of these characters will gain iconic status or anything like that, but they do the job to keep one entertained for 90 minutes. It’s a thin story that doesn’t match the depth that the more iconic slasher films have to keep them timeless. There’s something really special about this film, but it never rounds the bases to really stand out from the rest.
The acting in the film is fine, but nothing that will wow anyone. The two big names here are Chuck Connors and Tanya Roberts. Connors, a professional athlete who is probably best known for his run as The Rifleman on television, plays the museum owner Slausen. He plays the role as both innocent and charming, with just a touch of mystery and sinister underneath. Connors seems to be having a ton of fun playing the role, chewing on the scenery when he can, while elevating the material by making us care about his character. It had been a while since I watched TOURIST TRAP, but I remembered liking the film mainly for his portrayal. That sentiment hasn’t changed, as he’s pretty great here. Tanya Roberts - best known for many projects such as Charlie’s Angels, THE BEASTMASTER, A VIEW TO A KILL, and That 70’s Show - plays Becky, the curious and caring girlfriend of one of the male characters. She’s a beautiful woman and makes her character likable. But other than that, there’s not much to her performance here. She plays scared well, so she does her job. The only young actor who gets a character arc is Jocelyn Jones as Molly, who plays a more bookish Sally Hardesty [from THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE] here. She has a nice rapport with Connors and gets to do some fun stuff in the film’s last act. Apparently, she helped director Schmoeller direct the other actors properly, helping him gain what he wanted out of them in the final cut of the film. That’s probably more important than her acting performance here, but she does well with what she’s given.
THE FINAL HOWL
TOURIST TRAP is one of those horror films that takes a lot of elements from better movies to create something generic and disposable. Yet, there’s a certain charm about it that elevates the viewing experience enough to make it a good and entertaining watch. The story is thin as hell and the characters are stock characters you’ll see in most slasher films. But David Schmoeller’s direction adds a lot to the narrative by infusing the film with a very creepy mood and a bleak atmosphere, elevated by Pino Donnagio’s sinister musical score. The use of creepy mannequins to haunt the characters, as well as a playfully demented killer, will appeal to those who want something more mean-spirited and creepy with their horror. The acting, especially by Chuck Connors and Jocelyn Jones, add some needed depth to the thin script by giving the audience characters to root and cheer for. TOURIST TRAP shouldn’t really work as well as it does, making it somewhat an underrated little slasher film that will probably be enjoyed by horror fans who haven’t given it a chance yet.
THE FINAL HOWL