‘Tourist Trap’ (1979) Review

“You’re so pretty.”

I’ve avoided watching Tourist Trap for a long time in part because I was afraid I wouldn’t like it. That somehow feels like a betrayal of Stephen King, because I’d first heard of the film in his excellent overview of horror (at least as it existed in 1981), Danse Macabre. It’s the one “unsung” horror movie he credits with being a personal favorite, which of course guaranteed that the film would become famous, for his recommendation if nothing else.

Danse Macabre was my guide for much of my early horror viewing – well, that and Fangoria. There are a number of my favorite horror films, books and TV shows that I first read about in those pages – films like X – the Man With the X-Ray Eyes and Shivers. I spent years tracking some of them down, going through the list in Appendix 1 like it was a guide (which I guess it was). And yet, somehow, I could never bring myself to watch Tourist Trap.

The rest of the reason – beyond disappointing the Stephen King in my head – was that I just don’t find puppets, mannequins and dolls very scary. I understand they have that effect on a lot of people, but for me it’s always a dead space, a blind spot. I see the doll moving and… I just don’t buy it. All the work of the suspension of disbelief comes crashing down and I’m outside the story/movie. It’s why I don’t bother with the Annabelle movies or even the Five Nights at Freddy’s games.

That being said, there are exceptions. I decided to watch Child’s Play last year, despite this block, and I enjoyed it immensely. The Zuni fetish doll in Trilogy of Terror is always fun to watch. And I have a soft spot for Puppet Master – the first film in particular. I just loved Blade, Pinhead, Leach Woman and the rest. (And still do, as yesterday’s review can attest.)

Which brings us back around to Tourist Trap. You see, I’d never known that the man who wrote and directed Puppet Master, David Schmoeller, also directed (and co-wrote) Tourist Trap. Realizing that this was a man who knew how to get around my general non-enjoyment of ‘animated human-like figures’ in horror movies, at least in one instance, finally gave me the impetus to get over my reluctance and finally watch the one major film from Dance Macabre that I’d kept avoiding.

The Medium
I watched Tourist Trap streaming on Shudder. It’s also on Tubi (with ads) and can be purchased or rented on Amazon. While a Blu-ray release does exist – from Charles Band’s reconstituted Full Moon Features – it’s apparently missing roughly five minutes from the original (and is also a sub-par transfer). An ‘uncut’ version is apparently forthcoming. I think you can find the older DVD releases fairly cheap.

The Movie
Take Carrie, add Friday the 13th, mix in a little Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the old Twilight Zone episode, “After Hours,” for spice. This is the potent, and odd, mix of influences that makes up Tourist Trap. There are psychic powers, a group of good-looking young people to get killed off, a weird family dynamic that includes cross-dressing and a house piled with odd items (and bodies), and, of course, mannequins. None of this should work together, and yet the film manages to work in a surreal and oddly menacing way. Not all of it, but enough to make it worth watching.

A group of young people, out on a trip, run into car trouble which forces them to look for help at an old, roadside tourist attraction. The kindly owner – The Rifleman’s Chuck Connors – seems like a nice enough sort, if a little rusty with his people skills. It’s been a while since he’s had visitors, you see, since they put in the highway bypass. (I think there’s even a more direct reference to Psycho in the dialogue.) He’s more than happy to show the kids his old, animatronic displays and help the kids get their jeep fixed and on their way – he just wants to make sure they don’t go snooping around up at his house. Where nobody else lives, by the way. Nosiree.

Chuck Connors… doesn’t quite gel as Mr. Slausen. Unlike Rory Calhoun, who seemed to embrace the kinds of films he found himself in late in his career, like Motel Hell, Connors always seems slightly uncomfortable. Like he’d rather be doing something else. At the same time there are parts of the film where I can’t imagine things being quite as creepy without him. He’s got a great voice, and a very physical presence that can be overwhelming to any other actors on the screen with him.

The only other actor in the film that might be of note is Tanya Roberts as Becky, but they’re all fairly one-note characters meant purely to scream and die, as in most slasher flicks. Those deaths are fairly inventive, as slasher flicks go, because the killer has psychic powers. And a fondness for playing with mannequins. Tourist Trap doesn’t have a huge budget, so the presentation of those powers is pretty simplistic – wires attached to objects, tilted sets and reversing the film manages most of it – but there are some effective moments of objects moving about and doors and windows slamming.

It’s the mannequins that really make the film, though. Even here I find myself struggling with investing too much into them, but as they’re really not self-animated, just moving with the power of the killer’s mind, it’s easier to let go of my particular bias and enjoy a room full of wigged mannequins with crazy flappy mouths singing, or whispering or (more often) moving in for the kill…

The killer has a distinct Leather Face feel at times, prone to wearing a mask and a wig, dressing up in odd ways and their almost childish glee at some of the things they put their victims through. There’s also a distinct touch of the supernatural to their ability to be exactly where the need to be at exactly the right time. (The final girl, for example, runs from the killer and takes refuge in a pond only to discover the killer is already there… beneath the water!)

While there are plenty of dud moments and places where the film drags, there are also a number of creepy set pieces, not all of which are dependent on the “psychic powers” gimmick. A scene where the killer – dressed in a suit, a wig and an odd mask that mimics the mannequins – slowly covers a woman’s face with plaster of paris while informing her she’ll die of fright before she suffocates, is pretty creepy all by itself. A scene where the killer uses their powers to bring all the animatronics to life and fire real bullets (and throw real axes) is another standout.

Nothing quite beats the moment – for me, anyway, when a character returns to save the day… only to have the killer casually remove their arm. They’ve been a mannequin the entire time. I think there was a lot more they could have done with that concept, but alas it’s fairly late in the game and not really followed through on.

I’ve intentionally left a lot of the film vague, as there are some decent twists and shocks as the film progresses, and it’s enough of a minor cult classic that some folks may not have seen it.

The Bottom Line
Part classic slasher flick, part surreal B-movie, Tourist Trap is just plain ODD. It does enough things different to make it stand out from what would become a flood of Halloween and Friday the 13th imitators. How much you enjoy the film will probably depend on your taste for slasher flicks, surrealism, or cheaply made horror movies in general. Though it is uneven, there’s enough creepiness in the setting, effects and the performances to make it something I’ll probably end up watching again.

Note: At one point John Carpenter was attached to direct, but he ended up being too expensive for the production. I think this might have been (even more of) a minor classic had it been given the Carpenter touch, but we’ll never know!

Author: Bob Cram

Would like to be mysterious but is instead, at best, slightly ambiguous.