Tuesday, June 2, 2009

...Because Mannequins Make Everything More Freaky

The phrase “inspired by J.C. Penny’s” is enough to instill fear into any human; when said inspiration comes not from discount Arizona brand jeans, but from eerily expressive mannequins with violent telekinesis, fear becomes terror at a discount price.

Tourist Trap is a wonderfully fresh remnant of a time just before slashers staked their monopoly on the horror industry. Unfairly overlooked at its initial 1979release, director David Schmoeller puts an interesting spin on the early days of backwoods horror with a decent little cast, a wacky and well-thought out score, and oodles of mannequins that would make Chucky feel inadequate.

Quick Plot: A quintet of traveling pretty people (including an incredibly gorgeous Tanya Roberts) experience the usual road trouble and find themselves modestly skinny dipping in front of a tall widower off the beaten track. Mr. Slausen, the kindly, aw-shucksy samaritan who wields a smile and a shotgun, takes them inside his closed roadside museum to show off the impressive--and nightmarish--moving mannequins designed by his brother. Of course, no folksy lil rest stop is complete without a masked homicidal drag queen with less style than Leatherface and more craftiness than Norman Bates.

Many factors distinguish Tourist Trap from the typical low budget 70s horror. After a somewhat underwhelming opening kill that was probably more impressive thirty years ago, we slowly get immersed into the weirdly haunting atmosphere of Slausen’s Museum. Plastic heads drop their jaws to let out unearthly screams. Lifelike Davy Crockett’s aim toy rifles at our luckless young adults and objects fly across the room like nouns on the run from Carrie. There is certainly some overly heavy inspiration from other 70s cinema padding out the fairly brief runtime of Tourist Trap, but viewed today, the quirky atmosphere and almost artistic kills hold up as something fresh, while the kooky villain's mix of New Yawk and southern fried voice gives Orlaf a run for his accent. The twist is somewhat predictable, but the actual reveal is, like most of the film, so slightly off and oddly timed that it makes it all the more creepier.

High Points

The bizarre soundtrack is sometimes a little overbearing, but overall, its breathy pants and over dramatic musical cues weave together to make Tourist Trap the kind of film that stays in under your skin (or plastered face)

From the humans with mechanical movements to the jaw-dropping heads that do nothing but scream, the diverse collection of mannequins never stops being unsettling

The surrealism of the final death is enough for long term nightmares, while the closing shot just feels wrong and wonderful

Low Points
The actors and writing are good enough that they don’t require blatant stereotypish characteristics, so why is good girl Molly saddled with a white Holly Hobby getup?

For most of the deaths, the score beats insanely until the actual kill, where the filming slows down, gets quiet, and then climaxes in a rather bloodless kill. On first viewing, it lacks any real thrust, but at the same time, it's a different approach to the usual huntdown. I'm still mixed.

Lessons Learned
As someone with a strangulation phobia, I knew this in advance: never try on a scarf that has unclear origins

Telekinetic cupboards need to warm up before they can aim with any precision, sort of like Pedro Martinez

Most folks use highways because they figure it’s gonna get them to where they’re going faster

According to law students, paradise is a waterfall with brown water

If you’ve never seen Tourist Trap, its odd charm should work to give you a sufficient case of the creeps, while repeat viewers will probably find more to admire than they expected thirty years ago. This isn’t a great film by any means, but it’s worth adding to your collection for its intriguing approach to what’s become a tired genre. DVD extras include an illuminating interview with filmmaker Schmoeller, who explains how a PG rating basically killed its box office potential (oddly making a case for the much loathed PG13 so abused today). Also, a few ads for Full Moon products--including kickass Puppet Master toys I still have on my dresser--harbor back to an era of creativity in directo-to-video horror that I still find myself longing for. I guess like Mr. Slausen, I'm just too gosh darn nostalgic for kids today.


  1. First of all...nice Pedro reference! Though the Pedro I know was pure dominance.


    As far as Tourist Trap goes, it is a childhood favorite of mine and I have called in a VM about it to OTC (with mannequin moan imitations included!) at least once, along with the "Your heart will explode from fear!" scene being on my top 5 Shocking scenes list!

    So yea...I love Tourist Trap.

    I first watched it with my mom when I was real young and it scared the living shit out of me. Because of T.T. I had a wicked fear of mannequins for the longest time and still to this day, they creep me out.

    I bought it on DVD a few years back and it is definitely more quirky (especially the score) than I had remembered, but it still stands up as being pretty scary. Three scenes (outside of the "heart exploding" one) that are way fucking scary is the part when Mr. Slausin and the two mannequins are carrying on a conversation in the house, another is when all of the mannequins fall on the girl as they are moaning, and the chase sequence towards the end, when Slausen throws the mannequin head at the girl and the mouth drops open and does the AHHHHHH!

    I'm glad you liked it, and more people should see it as Tourist Trap is definitely an overlooked gem with one hell of a fucked up ending.

  2. I WISH I had seen this as a kid. Mannequins are just extensions of dolls, so I've always felt uncomfortable around them (save for the kid's show Today's Special, which rocked) and this would have seriously given me nightmares.

    It's such a weird little film that it's hard not to love. All those little images of screaming heads and not-quite-put-together faces just give me the chills. I watched it alone in a fairly new apartment with the lights out, and I definitely found myself making little "Agh!" noises here and there (that's about as close as I come to screaming).

    I want to hear your impersonation! Which OTC episode was it?

    And for the baseball talk:
    The Pedro I know and love came to the Mets a little long in the tooth. He was a prime investment more for what he brought to the team--a veteran's experience with spunk and an ability to fire up the younger guys--than for his pitching, which kept tailing off too soon. Looking at my starting rotation now, I sure wish Minaya had just ponied down a few bucks for one more year.

  3. Today's Special did rock! But it was kinda creepy though. The girl in that show looked like Pam Grier a little too!

    I cant remember exactly which episode of OTC it was...more than likely it was during Childhood memories month when Bill and Ryan did a top 6 movies that scared you as a kid.

    And seeing little spit fire Pedro decline was sad, but he is a great clubhouse guy...and one hell of an interview!

  4. New York needed Pedro to be sure. I just wish he took his vitamins a little more consistently. Last year, nothing hurt more than seeing him pull a muscle in the fourth inning of his VERY FIRST GAME, only to be out for most of the rest and leave us at the bi-polar mercy of Oliver Perez. Still, without him, I do believe Reyes would be picking daisies or twirling his hair during games, so I'm grateful.

    Jodi and Jeff! I'll have to find some episodes and see if Today's Special holds up. It actually eased my mannequin fear a little as a child, but that's probably because I didn't see Tourist Trap!