The Test of Time: Tourist Trap (1979)

Last Updated on July 30, 2021

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they remain must see? So…the point of this column is to determine how a film holds up for a modern horror audience, to see if it stands the Test of Time.

DIRECTED BY DAVID SCHMOELLER

STARRING CHUCK CONNORS, JOCELYN JONES, JOHN VAN NESS, TANYA ROBERTS

Very few horror films are so qualitatively good yet so sadly underappreciated that they could qualify as both a F*cking Black Sheep and Test of Time candidate. And believe it or not, one such flick just turned 40 years old this year!

Yes, we’re talking about David Schmoeller’s deeply duplicitous and disturbingly deadly debut feature TOURIST TRAP, which the great Stephen King has even gone on record in his 1981 book Danse Macabre as calling the film both a “sleeper” and a “gem.” While that description would translate as a hidden gem/black sheep, true horror heads already know and rank TOURIST TRAP as more than a formidable fright flick. It’s essentially WESTWORLD meets HOUSE OF WAX by way of CARRIE and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. In other words, a damn near perfect concoction of halcyon-day horror filmmaking!

But what about now, 40 years later? Does the film still play as effectively as it must have in 1979? Does the movie pale by today’s fallow filmgoing diet…as empty calories of mass entertainment masquerade as substantive nutrition? We shall see when put old Mr. Slauson and his TOURIST TRAP up against The Test of Time!

THE STORY: According to Schmoeller on the 20th anniversary DVD commentary, TOURIST TRAP was derived from the director’s senior exit project in film school. Factor in how Schmoeller had only $800,000 and 24 days to shoot the film and the end result is an even more impressive feat. As for the plot, the flick grabs us immediately in a pitch-perfect opening sequence we’ll detail further below. First, Eileen (Robin Sherwood) and Woody (Keith McDermott) pop a tire while driving through the desert. Woody goes off to find a spare and happens upon an abandoned gas station. After being tormented and brutally pulverized by a gaggle of ultra-eerie looking mannequins, we cut to the real stars of the film. Eileen and Woody’s friendly quartet – Jerry (John Van Ness), Molly (Jocelyn Jones), Becky (Tanya Roberts) and Tina (Dawn Jeffory) – cruise along the same deserted pathway until they come across a sign for Slausen’s Lost Oasis, which is a quaint little roadside tourist attraction. The hell could possibly go south?!

Turns out, almost every damn thing imaginable! Greeting the arriving guests is the creepy-charming-cowboy Mr. Slausen (Chuck Connors) who we first meet as he perversely leers at the trio of skinny dipping nubile in his lake, shogun in tow. We learn almost instantly that Slausen’s wife has died and that his swimming-hole attraction has been shuddered due to the government building a highway and diverting business from his location. Motive, much? Maybe. As Slausen takes a sinister shine to Molly, the others begin to settle in. Slausen and Jerry haul the latter’s broken down jeep to a nearby shop. Eileen stumbles on a room full of skin-crawlingly bizarre mannequins. Items begins telekinetically hurling across the room. Eileen hears a stranger call out her name and soon her scarf is suddenly squeezed so tight she is strangled to death. The next time we see her, a man adorning a fleshy lifelike mask smears plaster all over Eileen’s face as a means of turning her into a terrifying taxonomic mannequin. Slausen claims the dolls are the work of his brother, who may or may not be holed up in the basement his damn self as the possible conductor of these systematic slayings. Jerry also believes Slausen’s brother is to blame, for reasons we hardly see coming.

WHAT HOLDS-UP: Having just given another once over, I can say with brimming confidence that, holistically, TOURIST TRAP holds up extremely well today. It starts with the inviolable premise, which was unabashedly aped in the 2005 redo of HOUSE OF WAX, as well as the truly terrifying mannequin designs, one of which was baldly ripped off by Tobe Hooper for the look of Leatherface in TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2, not to mention Jigsaw from the SAW franchise. This movie was inspired in 1979 and still remains so today, even if it too happens to be a wicked offshoot of say WESTWORLD and CARRIE. Almost every aspect of TOURIST TRAP still works extremely well today, including but not limited to the masterful opening sequence, the startling score by the great Pino Donaggio, the off-brand slasher movie kills, and the wildly unpredictable and equally unnerving finale.

You know the quote King gave about TOURIST TRAP above? Well, much of the praise was for the terrific tone-setter of an opening sequence that perfectly lays the stakes for things to come. When Woody enters the bar backroom and is utterly marauded by a vicious skein of cackling mannequins, many of which mentally loft objects across the room in order to pelt the kid, the exact same response is elicited now as it must have in ‘79. We’re talking about a truly unsettling sequence here, made so by the freakishly grotesque facial designs of the mannequins. Not just the Leatherface lookalike (ironically, another doll was referred to as Plasterface on set), but the leader with its bucket-hat, jet-black eyes, cracked facial grin and lolling tongue. Shite’s glory-day Tobe Hooper through and through! The claustrophobic feeling of the deadly dolls closing in on Woody is upsetting enough, but when you factor in their keen telekinetic ability to rifle blunt objects his way, the terror escalates twofold. The rhythmic editing of the sequence has an unmatched mania you simply don’t see in 70s horror films, which often adhere to the slow-burn approach. The lingering wound of TOURIST TRAP’s opening salvo is still felt 40 years later!

Another link to CARRIE happens to be one of the best decisions Schmoeller could have made. And damn it, if Pino Donaggio was paid one sixth of the entire budget to score TORUIST TRAP, you best your balls it better be this good. And yes, of course it is. With many musical arrangements spun around a similar theme, the score starts with an ironically waggish, circus-like sound that seems to intimate fun and games. As the film unspools however, the score takes different turns depending on the specific plot-point. The unique instrumentation builds tension and adds suspense like few others. Funnily enough, producer Irwin Yblans hated the score Donaggio turned in, as the Italian maestro completed ignored the direction to create a synthesized HALLOWEEN-like score. Whether going from soft, slow and wistful in one scene to a pounding up-tempo assault in another is a testament to how well-rounded Donaggio’s score is, and how integral the score is to the emotional impact of the film as a whole.

We’ll gloss over the details of every specific kill in the film, which also hold up quite sturdily (especially Tina and Becky’s deaths), and instead focus on the delightfully unpredictable finale. By now we know our semi-mysterious killer has an M.O. of turning his victims into plaster-faced mannequins. But how could anyone have known that, during all the time Jerry spent tied up in the basement off-screen, our killer secretly turned Jerry into a murderous mannequin as well? Can’t. Impossible. The screenplay shrouds the possibility of foreseeing it so well that, by the time the reveal happens, we’re genuinely caught off guard. But yes. As our killer chases Molly though the basement, ordering his figurine display of cowboys and Indians to come alive and shoot the place up, Jerry suddenly appears as the potential day-saver. He gets into a scuffle with the villain, only to have his arm broken off as if a piece of plastic. In this moment we realize, almost like that of Ash in ALIEN, that Jerry has been an unwitting mannequin all along…at least for the duration of his time being held captive. It’s a fantastic twist ending that only augments an otherwise effective finale. And just as the opening sequence is superbly achieved, the final freeze-frame of TOURIST TRAP, in which an insane Molly maddeningly peels away in the jeep with her plaster-faced friends as passengers, is a beautifully baleful bookend!

WHAT BLOWS NOW: It may not have been so obvious when it was released in 1979, but the one weak spot of TOURIST TRAP is how easily identifiable the killer is. It’s not even a mystery, yet Schmoeller insists on treating the film like one throughout. Sure, there’s some ambiguity as to whether or not the killer culprit has an accomplice, but the ambiguity fades as the movie progresses. By the time the killer is revealed, we are not shocked in the least. But because of the aforementioned twist conclusion involving Jerry, we’re still given a shock of some sort that atones for the lack of one regarding the evil overseer. If one can’t spot the murderous motives of the killer early on, one need only look at the enshrined, lifelike doll of the killer’s bride to know who’s really behind the whole ordeal. Still, I’d argue the killer’s identity need not be framed as a mystery, as there is already plenty of unpredictable action along the way to keep us guessing along other parts of the plot.

THE VERDICT: Coming full circle, it’s astounding how strong TOURIST TRAP is 40 years later, and equally confounding as to why it’s still so undervalued. The film is a rare crossbreed between an undying Test of Time horror classic and supremely cast aside F*cking Black Sheep. Other than the weak whodunit aspect of the film, TOURIST TRAP excels 40 years later with its inspired premise, genuinely scary opening sequence, wickedly ambient score, unique death modes, and unpredictable finale. The biggest marker though? The fact that even more popular horror film titles have stepped into and fallen prey to the ersatz imitation of TOURIST TRAP!

GET TOURIST TRAP ON MULTI-FORMAT HERE

Source: Arrow in the Head

About the Author

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Jake Dee is one of JoBlo’s most valued script writers, having written extensive, deep dives as a writer on WTF Happened to this Movie and it’s spin-off, WTF Really Happened to This Movie. In addition to video scripts, Jake has written news articles, movie reviews, book reviews, script reviews, set visits, Top 10 Lists (The Horror Ten Spot), Feature Articles The Test of Time and The Black Sheep, and more.