Tourist Trap (USA, 1979)
My one hard rule for the October Horror Movie Challenge is that I can’t have seen any of the films before. Tourist Trap feels like a bit of a cheat. I started watching it many years ago, making it about half an hour in, but got interrupted before I could finish. I’ve meant to go back to it many times but somehow never did. Once again, the OHMC is giving me a chance to put things right.
Tourist Trap is currently streaming on Shudder in the UK.
Woody and Eileen, a young couple, are stranded when their car gets a flat tyre. Woody heads off in search of help, only to find a gas station full of mannequins and flying objects. One of these objects, a metal pipe, skewers him with fatal consequences.
Meanwhile, Eileen is picked up from the roadside by a group of her friends Jerry, Becky and Molly. Their search for Woody is cut short by their own car troubles and they continue on foot. They stumble upon the grounds of Slauson’s Lost Oasis, a one-time tourist trap rendered obsolete by the construction of a new highway.
The kindly Mr Slauson, owner of the establishment, tells Jerry where he can find a mechanic. Meanwhile, he offers the women a tour of his wax museum. The exhibits are all animated in unusual ways, and the centrepiece is a model of Slauson’s late wife. Slauson warns the women to stay in the museum for their own safety.
Of course, the women do no such thing. This wouldn’t be much of a horror film if they played safe. Instead, Becky and Eileen explore the neighbouring house, which is even more packed with creepy mannequins. It is also home to Slauson’s supposedly deceased brother, a masked psychic serial killer with a mannequin fetish. This ends about as well for them as you might suspect.
What is the terrible secret behind all these mannequins? Why do they sometimes move and speak like people? And just what terrifyingly predictable twist about the brother’s identity awaits us?
Tourist Trap‘s theme music and score are odd. They are bouncy and cheerful, like something from a 1950s sitcom, only with a few sinister flourishes. While this may sound like an odd choice, it adds to the unsettling tone of the film. The soundtrack was written by Pino Donaggio, who had scored major successes like Don’t Look Now and Carrie. His fee apparently ate up a significant chunk of the film’s budget.
This was also an early outing for prolific producer Charles Band, who would later found Full Moon Features, responsible for hundreds of straight-to-video horror and science fiction movies over the following decades.
As with Eyes of Fire, Tourist Trap rode the wave of horror movies featuring psychic powers that followed the success of Carrie. Initially, these powers feel somewhat shoehorned in, offering window dressing for what is otherwise a pretty routine slasher film. The result is still creepy enough to justify their presence. By the end, however, they play a far more important role and the resolution wouldn’t be anywhere near as effective without them.
Oddly, Tourist Trap was awarded a PG rating upon release. While the film is fairly bloodless, it still revolves around a sadistic killer doing horrible things to helpless victims. The producers were disappointed by the rating and believed it undermined the film’s commercial success. This is an interesting contrast to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, where Tobe Hooper was surprised and disappointed not to get a PG rating.
It can be a intimidating to review a beloved classic of the genre. So many people saw Tourist Trap in their formative years and fell in love with it. And, honestly, I can see why. If I’d watched it back in the ’80s, it might even have become one of my favourite films. But now? Well, it’s not bad…
In terms of story, Tourist Trap is about as basic as horror films get. It’s a mash-up of Psycho, House of Wax, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Carrie. But we don’t really watch films like this for their originality.
What stops Tourist Trap from being just another generic slasher film is the weirdness of its execution. Mannequins and masks are always going to be creepy, and they’re used exceptionally well here. The killer’s treatment of his dummies as real people is unsettling enough, but the way his psychic powers animate them into a mockery of life makes them uniquely upsetting. Even when such scenes are played for comedy, such as Slauson dining with a female mannequin, they still make us shudder more than laugh.
Everything builds towards what I can only describe as an absolutely batshit climax. Until then, I wasn’t entirely sold, but the sheer lunacy that caps off Tourist Trap is irresistible. It wouldn’t be out of place in the most bizarre of Italian horror films.
While I don’t see Tourist Trap becoming an enduring favourite of mine, this is more because I watched it 40 years too late than any fault of the film. It’s patchy, and it drags in places, but still offers enough imagination and unpleasantness to offset its shortcomings. If you’re looking for a weird piece of horror movie history, this one is definitely worth a watch.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- Werewolves Within (USA, 2021)
- Crystal Eyes (Argentina, 2018)
- Super Dark Times (USA, 2017)
- Thirst (Australia, 1979)
- A Ghost Waits (USA, 2020)
- Cemetery of Terror (Mexico, 1985)
- I Came By (UK, 2022)
- 100 Monsters (Japan, 1968)
- Sea Fever (Ireland, 2020)
- Mill of the Stone Women (Italy, 1960)
- Glorious (USA, 2022)
- All the Moons (Spain, 2021)
- Broadcast Signal Intrusion (USA, 2021)
- Incantation (Taiwan, 2022)
- The Gore Gore Girls (USA, 1972)
- Luz: The Flower of Evil (Colombia, 2019)
- Butterfly Kisses (USA, 2018)
- The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (Italy, 1971)
- Saloum (Senegal, 2021)
- The Addiction (USA, 1995)
- Good Madam (South Africa, 2021)
- The Freakmaker/The Mutations (UK, 1974)
- The Long Walk (Laos, 2019)
- Errors of the Human Body (Germany, 2013)
- Eyes of Fire (USA, 1983)
- Caveat (Ireland, 2020)
- The White Reindeer (Finland, 1952)
- His House (UK, 2020)
- Tourist Trap (USA, 1979)
- Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (Sweden, 1922)
- Flux Gourmet (UK, 2022)
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Night House
- The Changeling
- The Endless
- Our favourite Cthulhu Mythos media
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!