ABCs of Horror: “T” Is for Tourist Trap (1979)

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ABCs of Horror: “T” Is for Tourist Trap (1979)

Paste’s ABCs of Horror is a 26-day project that highlights some of our favorite horror films from each letter of the alphabet. The only criteria: The films chosen can’t have been used in last year’s Century of Terror, a 100-day project to choose the best horror film of every year from 1920-2019. With some heavy hitters out of the way, which movies will we choose?

Films from earlier in the slasher cycle—before 1980, and before Friday the 13th in particular—have a tendency to be among the strangest and most individualistic that the genre has to offer. Before getting bogged down in convention and cliche, beholden to franchises, or headlined by killers that audiences increasingly came to see as protagonists, these were slasher movies being made in an environment where “the rules” were still in the process of being written, and they possess a sense of unbounded freedom as a result. Films of this era—we’ve already written about Alice, Sweet Alice in this series—are often remembered fondly now for exactly that sort of individualistic streak, and Tourist Trap is a prime example.

This is a weird one, there’s no getting around that. It has a structure that is extremely familiar for the genre—the “teens go off the beaten path and end up somewhere they shouldn’t be” outline of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and many others—but rather than your standard backwoods killer or psycho cannibal family, the situation these kids run across is considerably more convoluted and bizarre. Even after the identity of the killer is revealed two thirds of the way through, Tourist Trap continues to evolve in unorthodox directions rather than simply coasting to the finish line. It’s actually a bit hard to decide whether it should really be called a “slasher” proper, or more of a supernatural thriller or fucked-up psychological drama. If the latter, it would surely hold some kind of record for “most mannequins.”

So too is the film interesting for the fact that it’s a minor footnote in many careers that included more prominent billings. It’s the feature debut of director David Schmoeller, who would team up with producer Charles Band to create the long-lasting Puppet Master franchise a decade later. Editor Ted Nicolaou would likewise become a regular at Band’s Empire Pictures and Full Moon Features, directing the likes of Terrorvision, Subspecies and Bad Channels. On the acting side of the spectrum, you’ve also got Tanya Roberts, a year before she would become an Angel in the final season of Charlie’s Angels, and pro athlete-turned western star (The Rifleman) Chuck Connors in the twilight of his career, playing the caretaker of a forgotten wax museum. It’s an unusual combination of talents, both in front of and behind the camera.

If you’re a horror geek who has heard occasional references to Tourist Trap over the years, perhaps because it’s always mentioned as having the admiration of Stephen King in particular, then you’ve no doubt heard about the mannequins. And even after you’ve seen Tourist Trap, it’s difficult to decide what to make of the mannequins—they’re the most memorably creepy thing about the film, but it’s never entirely clear if they’re actually “alive” or not, in addition to our psychopathic killer. Why’s that? Well, it’s because we come to realize that the killer seems to possess unlimited telekinetic powers, which calls into question whether any of the mannequins ever move on their own, or are simply controlled by the killer from a distance. This, he’s apparently capable of doing, in addition to throwing his voice with the skill of a Vegas street performer. It adds up to a scenario that is significantly weirder than simply telling a story about killer mannequins—not willing to settle for that simple, Twilight Zone-style premise, this is instead “insane telekinetic cowboy with dual personalities, controlling mannequins.” Try finding another slasher film with THAT particular premise.

The result is a surreal sort of quasi-slasher, familiar in some ways (the final girl is pretty standard and demure), and decidedly original in others. Schmoeller is said to have been a fan of experimental filmmakers such as Alejandro Jodorowsky and Luis Buñuel, and it’s that kind of surrealism that seeps into his work here, seeming to remove entire scenes from easy, literal interpretation. There are some sequences of shots here that just don’t make a lot of logical sense, displaying an inconsistency that feels like one part deliberate attempt to bewilder, and another part inexperience as a filmmaker. We’re liable to give him the benefit of the doubt—it’s not always easy to know what you’re seeing in Tourist Trap, but it’s always unnerving.

It also confirms something I’ve always suspected: Dying slowly of suffocation because one’s face has been sealed in plaster is apparently a very unpleasant way to go. Who would have thought?

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.

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