There’s no denying that David Schmoeller’s creepy and claustrophobic 1979 horror film Tourist Trap is one hell of a bizarre film. There’s really nothing quite like it, and it’s a hard one to describe in terms of subgenres because it incorporates so many different ones into its brisk 90 minutes. It’s at once a supernatural and psychological slasher film, black comedy, mystery, suspense … a real mixture, with plot elements that involve telekinesis, hypnosis, evil mannequins, doll-faced killers, ghosts and schizophrenia. The result is fascinatingly weird and stylish horror fantasy with an atmosphere like no other, an impressive feature film debut by Schmoeller (The Seduction , Crawlspace ), who had only made the 1976 experimental short film “The Spider Will Kill You” at this point. One of my favorite thing about Tourist Trap is the fan-fucking-tastic Pino Donaggio score . I mean, wow … that’s a stunning musical composition that fits Tourist Trap beautifully and adds so much depth and poetry to the film even during its occasional silly moment.
Tourist Trap concerns the desolate roadside attraction of the title, a creepy museum of life-sized wax mannequins run by kindly widower Mr. Slausen (Chuck Connors). One day, four young travelers — Molly (Jocelyn Jones), Becky (Tanya Roberts), Eileen (Robin Sherwood) and Jerry (Jon Van Ness) — stop at the museum searching for a missing friend named Woody (Keith McDermott). After enjoying the museum and Mr. Slausen’s hospitality for a while, Slausen and Jerry trek off into the night to look for Woody, leaving the three girls alone in the wax museum. One by one, the foolish ladies wonder into the night and meet dreadful fates when they enter the nearby mannequin-filled house occupied by Davy, Mr. Slausen’s reclusive brother, a schizophrenic in a puppet-style mask with telekinesis. The only one left is then Molly, who eventually ventures outside herself when her friends don’t return and discovers that “Davy” is actually Mr. Slausen’s split personality, a gravely-voiced psychopath who controls and manipulates with his warped mind the mannequins that populate his home, which were all once actual living people that Slausen has kidnapped and transformed into life-sized dolls. The lonely psychopathic hermit spends most of his day conversing with his collection of human dolls, creating a dangerously disturbed reality that exists totally separate from the real one.
As you can tell, Tourist Trap is not for everyone and is quite far off the beaten path, but provides plenty of rewards for open-minded viewers who are tired of the norm. Horror author Stephen King once named it as his favorite film, and it is considered a cult favorite and has found an adoring audience throughout the years. There’s an unforgettably grim murder scene — that doesn’t feature an ounce of blood — that has crazy “Davy” plastering the face of a young woman he’s kidnapped (Dawn Jeffory) and tied to a table in his basement, suffocating her with the gooey, fast-hardening substance. It’s an impressively disturbing and claustrophobic scene that is rather intense for a PG-rated film, an MPAA certificate which director Schmoeller disagreed with and which caused the film to suffer a bit at the box office, since much of its intended audience wanted to see an R-rated slasher film after the success of Halloween (which helped to inspire Tourist Trap and was produced by the same company, Compass International). There’s very little blood in the film, only slightly more than in Halloween , but it’s effective without it.
Veteran actor Chuck Connors is at once funny, sad and frightening as the schizophrenic Mr. Slausen, and Jocelyn Jones makes a great scream queen as heroine Molly, who Slausen takes a liking to and wants to replace his dear departed wife. Gorgeous Tanya Roberts is surprisingly good in her pre-Sheena days as sexy Becky, who has a knife controlled psychokinetically by evil Slausen fly across the room and into the back of her neck. Jon Van Ness adds solid support as Jerry, who is telepathically frozen by Slausen and broken into pieces like ice, and Robin Sherwood is cute and fun as adventurous Eileen, who Slausen strangles to death with a mind-powered red scarf. Keith McDermott does well in his brief role as the ill-fated Woody, the missing friend of our young victims who is stabbed in the back with a flying metal pipe controlled by Slausen in the film’s creepy opening scene that sets the bizarre tone for the rest of the film. Visually the film is quite stunning, with luxurious cinematography by Nicholas Josef von Sternberg that makes the film seem like a dark and eerie surrealist painting come to life.
Tourist Trap was unfairly neglected in its day, but has since achieved the popularity it deserves from its target audience and undoubtedly will continue to create delighted fans who discover it over the years to come. It’s not a perfect film by any means, but a very special one due to its originality and sheer creepiness and is probably best described as a cross between a slasher film and The Twilight Zone . I rate it an 8.5 of 10 and recommend it to all horror fans, especially those with a taste for the avant-garde.