David Schmoeller’s “Tourist Trap” (1979) is a vastly underappreciated horror cult classic.
Arriving during the introductory period of teen slasher horror movies, it haunted a generation of audiences who turned out in droves for “Halloween” (1978), “Friday the 13th” and “Prom Night” (both 1980) without matching their success. Instead, decades after its release, Schmoeller’s bizarre, campy and skillful thriller has found an enthusiastic following and enjoyed a newfound appreciation.
Like “Curtains” (1983), “The Funhouse” (1981) and “Motel Hell” (1980), it biggest fans have belatedly cited its influence and lingering power, which is especially remarkable when you consider the film’s modest stature and (an almost unheard of quality for this genre) its effectiveness as a horror film in spite of its PG-rating.
A group of young men and women find themselves stuck at a rundown tourist trap on the side of the road. The owner of the establishment, Slausen’s Lost Oasis, is the friendly Mr. Slausen (played by veteran actor Chuck Connors), whose business is stacked with dusty artifacts but has a few surprises; turns out the Dr. Pepper soda dispenser isn’t the only machine there that works, as Mr. Slausen’s shop has a number of impressively made animatronics to amuse the visitors.
When our young cast (one of which is Tanya Roberts, in an early role) decides to split up and explore the grounds (always a big mistake in movies like this), they encounter some macabre surprises, such as the presence of Mr. Slausen’s mysterious and extremely dangerous brother.
FAST FACT: Actress Dawn Jeffory-Nelson says the production used either mashed potatoes or shaving cream to mimic the goo that covers her face in a pivotal scene.
“Tourist Trap” is a nice discovery from the age of sleazy drive-in movies, bottom of the barrel B-movie fright flicks and softcore teen comedies, Schmoeller’s film is a genre anomaly for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s a PG-rated slasher movie, which is kind of like being an R-rated children’s film.
What this lacks in gore and nudity, it makes up in scares and intensity, as well as rich atmosphere and anticipation. Of the numerous films that tied hard to duplicate Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” this is one that actually succeeds.
“Tourist Trap” wastes no time getting started, setting the plot in motion and quickly hitting the audience with its first major set piece. I actually clocked it: after a patient opening credits, we’re five minutes in when the film drops a wild, inventively nightmarish set piece on us without any warning. I won’t describe it, only to say its jarring and impressively staged.
This is followed by the camera slowly panning around an untidy room; we hear a large, heavily breathing man but never see him. It’s truly unnerving.
From there, the genre tropes kick in, with the attractive group of lost teens naively taking a skinny dip in a pond, meeting the gregarious Mr. Slausen and getting cozy in his home/place of business. Early warning signs like a phone that doesn’t work and an eerie animatronic that resembles his late wife don’t resonate until later.
Once the story kicks into high gear, it’s more than just moonlight chases from a masked killer (though there’s that, too). If nothing else, the film’s decision to go all-in with the weird logic of the story (which involves telekinesis), and the many shudder-inducing shots of dolls and mannequins displaying signs of life, succeeds at rattling the audience.
For some, the lack of explicit violence and grounded explanations (or any explanations, as the characterizations are especially thin) won’t cut it. For those wanting to experience the height of the genre during the time of our introductory encounters with Leatherface and Michael Myers, this takes an offbeat approach that trades in raw bloodletting in favor of surrealism and theatricality.
While there’s no gore, this is still a brutal film. There’s a particularly rough scene where the masked killer suffocates a victim in plaster and verbally taunts her the entire time. Make no mistake -- while not a sensationally violent thriller, it finds ways to unsettle its audience without resorting to explicit violence.
It’s a PG-rated slasher movie, which is kind of like being an R-rated children’s film.
The PG-rating seems ludicrous at first -- where’s the gratuitous nudity? Where are the geysers of blood? Actually, whether it was by design of the filmmakers or simply the lighter-than-expected rating they were stuck with, the admirable, rare amount of genre restraint amplifies the suspense and mood, making them a priority over repugnant visuals.
Connors’ performance grounds this -- it’s exactly the kind of go-for-broke character turn, folksy but cleverly performed, that keeps this elevated from the other actors, whose work is fairly amateurish or underwhelming.
The plot borrows story threads from “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “Psycho,” “Carrie” and “House of Wax” but, to its credit, is distinctly strange enough to leave its own impression. Actually, the movie plays like a cinematic cousin and precursor to “Halloween III: Season of the Witch” (1982), which also got a lot of mileage by putting emphasis on creepy living dolls.
The art direction perfectly creates the look and feel of a rundown, crumbling but fascinating location (note the perfect, tacky positioning of the initial animatronic that resembles Slausen’s ex). Pino Dinnogio’s great score captures the quirky, chilling tone of the film.
The imagery that some of Slausen’s animatronic dummies convey is of America’s past: figures in wartime and Norman Rockwell garb suggests that Slausen will do anything to keep the image of both his home and his country’s lineage intact.
This is one of the best films produced by Charles Band, the genre mogul whose Empire Pictures and Full Moon Features gave us horror classics like “From Beyond,” “Trancers,” “Ghoulies and “Re-Animator,” to name just a few.
“Tourist Trap” is also a high mark for Schmoeller, who later made the Morgan Fairchild-starring voyeurism thriller, “The Seduction” and the cult favorite “Puppetmaster” (1989), which became the signature franchise for Band and his Full Moon Productions.
Schmoeller’s film debut was a 1976 short film titled “The Spider Will Kill You,” upon which “Tourist Trap” is based. It’s incredibly spooky, on YouTube and, if you’ve never seen, I recommend it as a companion piece.
The final shot of “Tourist Trap” is both creepy and mystifying. I’m unsure of what it means, exactly. I guess I’ll have to visit Slausen’s Lost Oasis one more time to find out.