I once heard on the radio a couple of guys chatting about classical music. One of them said that people frequently ask him to name his favorite composer, and he replies “Do you mean just real music or can I include Elgar?”
In the world of film-lovers this kind of thing is covered by the term “guilty pleasure,” by which is understood to mean those movies which have little if any recognizable artistic merit, but we love them anyway. Not just watch with pleasure—love.
Personally, I’m not big into the concept of guilty pleasure because I hate having to offer explanations or, even worse, make excuses for spending time at the bottom of the “B” movie barrel. That stuff is not all I watch, but I do find myself down there with more frequency as I age. I think that’s because a) my taste has widened—and I hope deepened, but I’m not making any bets, b) I like looking for the wee bits of gold among the dross, and c) many of these films can be connected to my childhood years, when I first discovered the joys of watching movies and everything was grist for the mill.
Which brings me, finally, to a throw-away horror picture from 1979—well past the years of my childhood, alas—called “Tourist Trap.” It began life as a 30-minute student film by director David Schmoeller (“Crawlspace,” 1986; “Puppet Master,” 1989) at the University of Texas. “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” was only five years old then and my guess is that many film students at UT hoped to strike another vein of Lone Star horror gold.
The feature version of the film stars Chuck Connors, an actor born to work in TV and “B” pictures, as Mr. Slausen, proprietor of a wax museum that has been bypassed by the new highway. His younger brother, Davy, was the sculptor, but Slausen tells us that he lives alone and that the large house behind the museum is now empty.
Who’s he talking to? A carload of young adults who have taken a wrong turn, had a flat, and are now looking for help. Woody (Keith McDermott), whose face opens the film, is seen rolling the flat down the road—you could be forgiven for thinking that Woody is returning to his car with the tire repaired as it appears to be all aired up—to Slausen’s combo museum/gas station/café.
But no one is there.Woody enters the café and, looking for help, enters the back room. The door slams shut behind him. It’s locked. He crosses to an open window only to have it slam down and lock. A mannequin crashes through the other window. What appears to be someone asleep on a cot turns out to be another mannequin, this one rising up to laugh at him. Things start flying around the room. This cacophony of action and noise ends when a piece of pipe hits Woody, inserting itself into his back. Suddenly, the only sound we hear is the blood running through the pipe and dripping onto the floor.
This occurs at the five-minute mark. Schmoeller and screenwriter J. Larry Carroll waste no time with set-up or exposition. They want to grab you by the hair, pull your head back, and put the blade to your throat before you’re comfortably in your seat. We have no idea who these kids are nor where they’re going, and we never come to care. We have the attachment to them we naturally have for attractive actors playing screen characters we know are victims, but as far as true empathy is concerned, forget it.
Soon Eileen (Robin Sherwood), the gal traveling with Woody, gets a ride with three friends in another car and they all end up at Slausen’s where they meet the man himself. He’s a big fella (Connors was 6’5”), he packs a shotgun and he’s a little on the eccentric side, but his speech and actions seem harmless. He invites them into the museum and promises to get his tools to help them when their Jeep stalls out.
Someone—either Slausen or an unknown person—appears to have telekinetic powers. The first clue that Davy may still be alive comes when Slausen tells his guests that his brother was a whiz with anything electrical and we assume that a clue to the “telekinesis” has been given to us.
Could all the mysterious movement by inanimate objects be due to electronic jiggery-pokery? Or will it all turn out to be part of a shared insanity?
Not that it hasn’t already, but from here the plot follows a well-trod path. Slausen’s wife was a beauty and the joy of his life, but she died young. He has a wax figure of her that, when touched, feels as if it were covered by skin. Someone crazy is running around killing off the kids. It’s a tall man, say around 6’5”. He wears a plaster mask. Slausen says that it’s Davy. It all finally turns into a monster mash of “Psycho,” “House of Wax,” and the aforementioned TCSM.
The movie shows its influences clearly, but it’s just as obvious that it has inspired others as well. Spotting elements that will later turn up in the “House of Wax” remake and “House of 1,000 Corpses” is fairly easy. Schmoeller carried his animated mannequins over into “Puppet Master.” According to Henri Bergson, mechanical movement is supposed to be funny. I guess he was never stalked by a killer doll. Freud came closer when he wrote that children want dolls to come to life but adults are terrified of the idea.
Personally, I find signs of life in inanimate objects to be pretty damn creepy, if not overdone to the point of Bergsonian chuckles. Michael Redgrave’s ventriloquist dummy in “Dead of Night” and the clown doll in “Poltergeist” are scary; Chucky is a hoot. This film is full of, and perhaps too full of, mannequins with moving eyes and whispering mouths. This surreal element is far creepier than the physical imperilment with which the lunatic threatens his victims.
The cast wanders back and forth across the line that divides competent performance from overwrought hackery. Connors, despite his stated desire to become the Boris Karloff of the 1980s, seems frequently to want to drop character and say “Come on, how can anyone take stuff like this seriously?”
Among the potential victims, Jocelyn Jones, daughter of character actor Henry Jones (he was the nasty maintenance man in “The Bad Seed” in 1956) is the best of the group as the mousy good girl. Jon Van Ness is Jerry, the guy who isn’t Woody, and Tanya Roberts, just barely pre-“Charley’s Angels,” is relatively convincing as Becky. Or maybe it’s just the shorts and tank top. Whatever, it works.”
Tourist Trap” is the creepiest—not scariest, but creepy is good, too—movie to come from producer Charles Band’s slush pile. Schmoeller knows what he’s doing and if this had been his third or fourth picture instead of his first, it would be a solid “B” classic. He has a good eye for the details that make a moment, as you’ll see in the last shot. Take a good look at the face of the person driving the jeep.
When you’re in the mood for schlocky “B” horror, you could do worse.