30 May 2024

Director David Schmoeller's exceptional Tourist Trap is a warped roller coaster ride of terror, featuring future Charlie's Angel star Tanya Roberts, adeptly mixing elements from the classic House of Wax, the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and De Palma's Carrie.

The result was truly a one-of-a-kind horror film which wonderfully exploits the fear potential created by wax dummies and mannequins. This was something Mario Bava had touched on in his films Blood and Black Lace and Hatchet for a Honeymoon.

Director Schmoeller and his co-writer J. Larry Carroll took it further in Tourist Trap by having the dummies laugh, scream, and even move. The score was composed by Pino Donaggio, who also created the memorable music for both Carrie and Dressed To Kill. As with those films, his work on this one was typically classy.

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A group of young people are driving through the desert. Eileen (Robin Sherwood) is with her boyfriend Woody (Keith McDermott), while their three friends Becky (Tanya Roberts), Jerry (Jon Van Ness) and Molly (Jocelyn Jones) are traveling separately in a jeep.

When Woody's car gets a flat, he takes the tire and goes off to find a gas station. He finds one but it appears to be deserted.

He enters an adjacent bar and hears a voice coming from a room in the back. He approaches what he thinks is a woman resting and tries to wake her.

She lifts her head and to his horror, the woman is actually a mannequin. She laughs at him and the door slams shut.

The windows in the room then start opening and closing by themselves. Another mannequin is thrust through the window and its head falls on the floor.

The head turns and also begins laughing at Woody. A third dummy jumps out of a closet and as objects in the room are flying at him, Woody tries to escape.

He breaks a hole in the door but something on the other side grabs his arm. A knife comes out of a cabinet and nearly hits him. Then a lead pipe is hurled at him. Unable to get his arm out of the door in time, he's struck in the back and killed.

When Woody doesn't return, the others go looking for him. They see a sign for what's known as a "tourist trap." It's one of those places commonly found just off the highways in these parts. This one is called "Slausen's Lost Oasis" and it includes a western museum.

As the group approaches, they find Woody's tire along the road. The sign they don't see is the one that says "closed to the public." The jeep suddenly stalls and one of the headlights mysteriously breaks. As Jerry tries to figure out what's wrong with the vehicle, Eileen walks away and finds a nearby waterfall and lake.

Becky and Molly join her and the three go skinny dipping...but they soon feel someone is watching them. It turns out to be Mr. Slausen (Chuck Connors), the proprietor. Although he's holding a shotgun, he seems like a nice enough fellow.

He tells them that he used to charge people to swim in the lake until a highway was built, forcing him to close his business. Slausen also warns them to leave before it gets dark because the lake fills up with water snakes.

Meanwhile, Jerry is still tinkering with the jeep and Mr. Slausen offers to help. He invites the group back to his house so he can get his tools. They're reluctant to go but Molly seems smitten with the old man and accepts the invitation.

He lives in his museum, which is filled with souvenirs and remnants of the Old West. Mr. Slausen tells them that after his wife died, it was all he had left.

There are also lots of realistic looking wax dummies around, including some of confederate heroes. They were made by his brother, Slausen says...who is now working in the city. When Eileen asks him who lives in the house next door, he kiddingly tells her that Davey Crockett does.

Slausen warns the girls not to leave the museum because there are coyotes outside - and then he and Jerry leave to go fix the jeep. Eileen wants to use the phone but it seems to be broken.

She thinks that the old man is hiding something and decides to walk over to the other house to find a working phone. When she gets there, she hears a voice coming from the living room. She opens the door and sees an elderly couple...but upon closer inspection realizes they're mannequins.

Eileen then thinks she hears Woody calling her name. She goes towards the bedroom and finds more mannequins inside. The eyes of some of them move and they appear to be watching her. As she tries on a scarf, a stranger suddenly appears behind her.

The mirror next to her breaks, the windows shut by themselves - and furniture begins to move. The stranger is wearing a grotesque mask and appears to be using telepathy to control things. The scarf around Eileen's neck begins to tighten and it strangles her.

Molly and Becky are still looking around the museum. They find a mannequin of a woman in a display with lights around it. When they touch it's face, they realize it feels like human skin. Mr. Slausen returns and tells them that Jerry took his car and drove into town.

He reminisces about his late wife, telling the girls that he and the Mrs. were planning to open a resort until she was stricken with cancer. When told that Eileen went over to the other house, Slausen leaps out of the chair and heads over. There he finds the girl, but she's motionless. She's been turned into a wax dummy.

Molly and Becky pick up a scrapbook and look through it. They see photos of a man they believe to be Slausen's brother. In another photo, they see his wife and notice an uncanny resemblance to the mannequin they had just been looking at.

When Mr. Slausen returns, he lies and tells them that he couldn't find Eileen and that he's going to look for her. The girls are frustrated and they too leave the museum to search for their friend.

They go near the other house and hear voices. Thinking it's Eileen and Woody fooling around, Becky goes in by herself. When she approaches Eileen, she sees it's not a real person.

Terrified, she tries to leave the house but the stranger who killed her friend leaps out and grabs her. Becky struggles to get away and hits the masked killer with the limb from a dummy. The mannequins in the room begin moving and fall on her, knocking her out.

When Becky wakes up, she finds herself tied up in the basement along with Jerry. Jerry tells her that the killer is Mr. Slausen's brother. Also held captive is a girl named Tina (Dawn Jeffory), who is strapped down to a table.

She tells them that she was picked up along the road while hitchhiking and that they're all going to die. The brother returns in yet another mask.

He proceeds to put plaster on Tina's face, as Jerry and Becky are forced to watch. When her entire face is covered, the young girl panics and her heart gives out. Jerry manages to free himself by biting through the rope and he tries to overtake the killer.

He's no match for Slausen's brother however, and soon he is tied down again. When Jerry sees a key on the floor near him, he tries to reach out for it but the killer uses telepathy to move it away from him.

All this time, Molly has been at the museum. The phone there rings and she picks it up, only to realize that the cord is cut. Creeped out by this, she takes a flashlight and goes out to look for the others. In the mist, she hears her name called out.

Slausen's brother is near her, wearing a blonde wig and a mask. He's holding Woody's dummied head and to Molly's horror, the mouth on the head is calling her name.

She tries to run away and climbs over a fence. The brother takes the head and tosses it over. It moves by itself and again says her name.

Molly scrambles to get away and runs into Mr. Slausen. She gets into his pick-up truck and tells him what happened.

The person she describes matches his brother, he tells her. Molly then waits outside of the house with his shotgun, while Slausen goes in and turns on the radio.

According to him, it's the only way to lure his brother back while he goes and gets the police. Molly is so scared, she's shaking. She sees the brother lurking in front of the house and fires at him.

Unfortunately, the gun isn't loaded and she only shoots blanks. When he tries to grab her, Molly hits him over the head with the weapon. The brother takes his mask off, and Molly sees that the killer is actually Mr. Slausen himself.

Now totally freaked out, she tries to hide in the lake, only to be captured by him. He ties her down to a bed and taunts her by bringing in the "dummified" Eileen.

Later, Becky and Jerry escape as their captor sits in a room playing with dolls and communicating with his mannequins. He's wearing the blonde wig and female face mask. (Very eerie!)

Mr. Slausen senses something as they try to sneak by and goes into the hall to see who it is.

The two stand motionless among the dummies. While Jerry is looking for a way to exit the house, Mr. Slausen abruptly confronts him, causing Jerry to jump right through a window.

Becky climbs out of another window and heads towards the museum. She falls and Mr. Slausen offers her assistance.

Not knowing that he is actually the killer, she allows him to carry her to the museum. She soon finds out the truth when the old west figures begin shooting at her.

A dummy of an American Indian chief throws an ax and misses. He then throws a knife and hits his mark...Becky is struck right in the back of her neck.

There's one captive left. Mr. Slausen takes Molly up to the the attic and when he starts to fall asleep, Molly tries to crawl away. The dummies in the room react and some of them emit sounds. Soon Molly is begging for it all to stop.

Slausen tells her that she reminds him of his dead wife and puts a mask on her face. He wants her to tell him that she loves him and she complys. This makes Slausen admit that he killed both his brother and his wife when he found out they were involved with each other.

Molly hears Jerry's voice and thinks she's about to be rescued. Jerry walks in with an ax...but alas, it's all a cruel joke. It's actually a mannequin - which Mr. Slausen demonstrates by taking an arm off and smashing his head on the ground.

Finally, Molly has had enough of the games and picks up the ax. She strikes Mr. Slausen while his mannequins look on...

A strange, final shot shows the shocked young woman driving away in the jeep with her "friends" - four figures who are most definitely not human anymore.

There are images in Tourist Trap of the mannequins which are indellible and inforgettable. The direction by David Schmoeller, combined with Pino Donaggio's haunting score, make for a moody, truly frightening experience.

What is striking is the film's originality and intensity. The atmosphere throughout builds to a freakier and freakier level, the masks are incredibly bizarre. The portrayal by Chuck Connors of Mr. Slausen, in particular, reveals with each viewing a more fucked up personality than we've seen in horror cinema in some time. The overall result is decidedly a powerful item.

Tanya Roberts' death is harsh, true. But by the end of the film, the level of depravity reaches a level where you accept anything.

Schmoeller's future projects would include 1981's thriller The Seduction with Morgan Fairchild, as well as Crawlspace (1986), Catacombs AKA Curse IV: The Ultimate Sacrifice and the cult classic Puppetmaster (1989).

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