Tourist Trap (1979)

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Tourist Trap (1979)
Cast:  Chuck Connors, Jocelyn Jones, Jon Van Ness, Robin Sherwood, Tanya Roberts, Shailar Coby

Director:  David Schmoeller
Nutshell: A broken down car leads to a stay at a creaky old Tourist Trap where the inhabitants are in for the time of their lives!  Macabre and intensely creepy, this film is one of horror’s most majestic yet unheralded classics. 

Tourist Trap, shot in just 24 days in 1978, was a film that very nearly fell through the cracks.  It was released at the height of the slasher movie craze which by 1980 and post Friday the 13th was increasingly driven by Tom Savini style gore effects and the “creative kill”.  Audiences started expecting the gore factor to be taken up a new level each time they ventured out to the cinemas and Tourist Trap didn’t perhaps fulfil those expectations and perhaps the most negative aspect of the film that was a factor which made the majority of the horror crowd steer clear of it.  The film mystifyingly had a PG certification which in those days was as good as a kiss of death for a horror film.  It’s one claim to be noticed was a mention in Stephen King’s Danse Macabre book as being a film that was well worth a watch and a large proportion of the admittedly few that watched the film upon its theatrical release was due to King mentioning the film as being noteworthy.  How right he was.

We first found the film on a pirated VHS which was brought home with no expectations because of its PG certificate but found the film shockingly effective, creepy, eerie and downright terrifying full of dread, tension and bizarre horror.  Gradually over the years the film has been discovered by generations and finally given due credit as one of the strongest horror films of the era; an honour that it richly deserves.  The film begins with a group of friends whose car breaks down in the middle of nowhere and soon they find themselves in the middle of a hellishly inexplicable nightmare.  The first death is a stunner and sets the mood and tempo for what is to follow.  Woody, one of the friends, heads down to an old ramshackle inn with the damaged car tyre that needs attention. 

The inn appears to be empty but from a back room he hears what seems like a couple having a conversation and heads to the room to seek assistance.  He finds a cheap motel room with nothing but a fragment of a dummy that appears to twitch into animation along with a cacophony of cackling.  Freaked out, Woody is trapped in the room as a large closet door creaks open and its contents appear to fly out from within smashing against the wall where the bewildered and terrified man is literally stuck.  The open window comes crashing down as the cackling sound mounts to a crescendo and the contents of the closet seem to come alive with a deadly force.  It’s an utterly bizarre sequence and though it might sound comical, it is pretty terrifying with the sounds and the swirling, mounting score by Pino Donaggio creating an atmosphere of madness and mayhem and outright terror in devilish proportions. 

For those fans of Carrie and the sublime horror montage of the Bucket of Blood scene in particular, this scene strikes a chord as the music brilliantly ups the ante of madness and horror fabulous levels of cinematic horror.  Woody’s demise is a stunning sequence and if there were any doubts about the film being soft on horror with its PG certificate, they are all dispelled as the horror is taut and tangible and hideously menacing.  Tourist Trap is not kidding around, nor is it playing tongue in cheek; this opening scene is a stunning and memorable start and the audience now knows that this film is not messing around.

The rest of the group are rescued from the wilderness by Mr. Slausen (Chuck Connors) who is the proprietor of the Slausen’s Museum and an adjacent guest house.  The museum features some weird and wonderful mannequins which are the work of Slausen’s elusive brother Davey with whom he manages the derelict property.  Slowly but surely the group of three women and one man find themselves engulfed in a world of seemingly surreal horror but unfortunately turns into a grim and inescapable reality swirling around them.  Soon they are snared in a deadly trap with the genial Mr. Slausen the only possible salvation. 

There are nightmarish sequences involving mannequins and a ghastly masked character who appears to be Slausen’s brother Davey evoking memories of “The Cook” from a recent horror masterpiece with his slightly affected manner but similar deadly intent. However, nothing is quite what is seems to be as the film reaches its ghastly revelation. It comes as no major surprise that the films design work was in the hands of Robert A. Burns who did such an impressive job with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and this film has more than a whiff of his brilliant work.

The film will certainly not appeal to those who look for gloss and slickness as a yardstick for quality but for true genre fans, it serves up a cocktail of atmospheric brilliance.

David Schmoeller has played the ace of his career with Tourist Trap (based on intriguing short film from 1976 called “The Spider Will Kill You”), aided and abetted by a brilliant score by Pino Donaggio and together they weave together a potent and creepy little horror film that comes as a huge and satisfying surprise.  Stephen King referred to the film as a “hidden gem” and the film lives up to the belated hype that his words created.  Great pity is that the film was largely ignored upon its initial theatrical release because here is a film that is full of dread, menace and atmosphere with some terrific characters and still hasn’t quite got he acclaim and respect it deserves.  A “hidden gem” were the word of King but we would add Minor Masterpiece to bolster his viewpoint.  Tourist Trap is a great little horror classic that is unmissable for any horror film fan; especially those who thrive on dread and atmosphere and sheer eeriness rather than startling gore effects. 

Tourist Trap may well be a blatant cross between Psycho, Texas Chainsaw with Carrie thrown in for good measure. Pino Donaggio score is wonderfully effective in evoking a thoroughly creepy atmosphere. A very low budget, yet stylish and well-crafted little shocker deserves a much wider audience than it ever received loses steam ever so slightly towards the end, but there are sequences in the film that rank with the very best.