Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before. A group of teens are out on a trip when their car breaks down. They all go off to some deserted looking place to find help, use the phone, etc. However, this deserted is actually populated by killers, looking to whet their thirst for murder with the blood of innocents. This is a very standard setup for late 70s slasher films, one that David Schmoeller’s 1979 film Tourist Trap follows to a T, at least at first.
There are a number of diverging points from this formula, and these are what breathes life into the film. Perhaps the most significant is the identity of the film’s killer(s). In a bizarre fashion, Tourist Trap’s murderous characters are mind-controlled mannequins, puppeteered by Chuck Connors, best known as wholesome cowboy father Lucas McCain in the late 50s ABC TV series The Rifleman. Connors plays Mr. Slausen, the delusional owner of the tourist trap the protagonists are trapped in, a civil war museum with very lifelike wax figures. He misses his dead wife, who he’s immortalized with a wax figure of her own in the museum. He’s also telekinetic and controls a special figure who he calls his brother to terrorize the kids. It’s all very bizarre and consequently very original.
Another way this film is different from a lot of other slasher films is the lack of kills and onscreen death. There’s a few, including a dude getting stabbed by a flying pipe and then blood runs down the pipe (classic) and a girl getting strangled by a scarf, but they’re few and far between. Mr. Slausen much prefers to turn his victims into mannequins so they can fill up his home and museum. This lack of gore adds to the film’s strange atmosphere, making it feel like a really weird episode of Scooby-Doo rather than an actual horror film.
Formally, Tourist Trap doesn’t exactly have much to go on. The sound and camerawork are a little poor, but that’s kind of a given for a low budget B-film like this. One of the places where it does shine, however, is its production design. Tourist Trap is fascinated by the uncanny valley effect that wax museums have, and exploits it a great deal. The mannequins all have very creepy drop-away mouths like on a bad ventriloquist dummy. Some of them have candles integrated into their bodies for lighting. The mask that Salusen wears when he kills is suitably strange as well. All of these add up to a hostile environment like no other I’ve seen in a film.
Tourist Trap is absolutely a film worth watching. It may not be “quality cinema”, but for fans of horror films, it’s a total blast.