David Schmoeller’s roadside slasher is an effort whose praises should be sung loud and proud.
The 1970s brought us a variety of terrifying and influential horror offerings. The Exorcist, Black Christmas, Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Halloween are a few that are frequently discussed when the conversation turns to noteworthy horror pictures of the decade. But Tourist Trap rarely gets a seat at the table. Many die-hard horror fans appreciate the film and understand its impact. But the flick remains largely unknown to mainstream audiences. And that’s a shame, considering Tourist Trap is an effective, frightening, and intense cinematic experience that deftly blends slasher tropes with the supernatural.
Tourist Trap follows a group of friends that break down near a rundown roadside attraction called Slausen’s Lost Oasis. When Mr. Slausen, the proprietor of said attraction, offers to aid with their malfunctioning automobile, the pals think they’ve been rescued. Unfortunately, their nightmare is just beginning. Shortly after being marooned, the friends are hunted down by a masked figure with homicidal impulses.
This film works for a variety of reasons. One of which is a fantastic score by the late, great Pino Donaggio that underscores the surreal nature of the subject matter. The musical accompaniment in the film’s opening is more than a little unconventional, featuring strange and unexpected noises, appropriately preparing the viewer for one helluva ride.
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The picture’s dreamlike nature can be attributed, in part, to director David Schmoeller’s time studying magical realism in Mexico. Magical realism is something of a close cousin to surrealism. And that influence is quite apparent in Tourist Trap. The situations the lead characters find themselves in feel outlandish and bizarre but in a way that adds to the tension, rather than pulling the audience out of the experience.
The flick really starts out with a bang. Very early on, we see a cast member attacked by sentient mannequins at a run-down gas station. At this point, the viewer is given no indication as to why the dummies are coming to life. But that lack of context serves to make the proceedings even more frightening and mysterious.
The late Chuck Connors (Soylent Green) also aids in the creation of an ominous and harrowing atmosphere. He is gleefully unhinged in his turn as Mr. Slauson. He leans into the zaniness inherent to the role and fully commits. Connors plays the character with a certain duality that makes Mr. Slauson simultaneously disarming and off-putting. First-time viewers may not know quite what to make of him. But he is sure to make an impression.
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Human characters aside, the mannequins are also surprisingly effective. And that’s no small feat. Schmoeller manages to bring inanimate objects to life in a way that makes them appear genuinely menacing. On paper, the idea of malevolent mannequins might be a hard sell. But the idea is masterfully executed in Tourist Trap. That’s a real testament to the director’s ability to build and sustain tension.
While the film has only really ever achieved cult status, as opposed to widespread mainstream recognition, Tourist Trap is nonetheless an influential effort that is well worth diving into. In fact, you may have even noticed that the remake of House of Wax takes many of its cues from Tourist Trap. In fact, the 2005 redux seems to align much more closely with the plot of Tourist Trap than it does with the 1953 Vincent Price film with which it shares a title. But that is yet another example of how this supernatural slasher remains unsung.
It’s a shame for Tourist Trap to live in the shadows of better-known films of its era because it is atmospheric, surreal, and full of scares. If you haven’t yet had the occasion to check Tourist Trap out, you can stream it on Shudder and Tubi as of the publication of this post. If you opt to check the flick out, please take a moment to let us know your thoughts on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.