Tourist Trap marked the feature debut of its creators David Schmoeller and J. Larry Carroll. They may not be the most immediately recognisable of names, but there’s a strong likelihood that you’ll be aware of some of their work. Schmoeller, who directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Carroll, has remained in the horror genre and would be responsible for Crawlspace and the first instalment in the Puppermaster franchise. Carroll, who also served as producer, would focus on the writing, later earning credits on a host of eighties cartoon series (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Bravestarr, She-Ra: Princess of Power) and plenty of live-action television (Star Trek: The Next Generation, Diagnosis Murder). At the start of their careers, however, they were simply concerned with remaking Schmoeller’s student short, The Spider Will Kill You, about a lonely man who falls in love with a mannequin and slowly descends into madness.
Tourist Trap expands on its original in a number of ways. This is a more conventional horror movie in some respects, complete with holidaying teens ready to picked off and various nods to the likes of Psycho and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The kids in question (including a pre-Charlie’s Angels, pre-Bond girl Tanya Roberts) find themselves off the main highway and in the vicinity of Chuck Connors’ wax museum. We already now that murderous things are going on thanks to the opening sequence in which a young man gets terrorised by a bunch of mannequins and so, after a quick bout of skinny-dipping, the terror starts up once more. As such we can also add House of Wax to the mix of references, though arguably Tourist Trap more obviously resembles the teen-centric 2005 remake than it does either the 1933 or the 1953 versions.
The combination of youths in peril, an isolated old house, slash-and-stalk prowling camerawork and an easy to identify psychopath means that Tourist Trap can be a little predictable at times. But there are also plenty of interesting details and developments to warrant a look. Connors, the TV star and one-time Geronimo, is a welcome presence. That all-American square jaw and its attendant grin are able to switch between the friendly and the sinister quite nicely. According to the commentary by Schmoeller, Connors was intending to move into the horror genre and position himself as a latter-day Boris Karloff. It never quite came off, but on this evidence the potential was there. The other key credit is composer Pino Donaggio. At this point in his career he’d already scored Don’t Look Now and Carrie; he would go onto plenty more for Brian De Palma, not to mention The Howling and a handful of Dario Argentos. His presence on Tourist Trap was a case of pure opportunism: Donaggio was in town scoring Piranha for Joe Dante and so Schmoeller simply made an approach. The composer being unable to speak English they instead secured a deal by conversing in Spanish!
Donaggio’s score strikes the right balance. It flits between melodies that would suit a whimsical sitcom theme to something a little moodier and more sinister. There’s something similar at work with the wax figure designs which are, ultimately, just strange. As with the old Doctor Who story Spearhead from Space these mannequins don’t resemble the department store standard and that makes them more than a little unnerving. The fact that one looks uncannily like Bruce Campbell and another just like Gunnar Hansen only adds to the frisson. Schmoeller and Carroll are also quite canny in the way in which they initially refuse to pin down exactly what is going on: are we dealing with puppetry and elaborate booby-traps, the supernatural, telekinesis or just downright insanity. The fact that Tourist Trap, for all its clichés and predictability, refuses to stick to the tried and the tested says a great deal. Indeed, it is no doubt the more unexpected additions which prompted Stephen King to cite the film as one of his favourite horrors.
During his commentary Schmoeller states, “I watch my old movies and wish I could shoot them again.” He’s referring to his gained experience in the years since those camera first rolled in the summer of 1978. He isn’t blind to the flaws and I suspect audiences today won’t be either. His pacing is a little off and the revelations and developments occur somewhat haphazardly. You can tell that Tourist Trap was a feature debut, but that never diminishes its more effective moments. Watch the film for those - some are just as striking almost 35 years down the line.
Tourist Trap is the latest entry from Charles Band’s back catalogue to be resurrected by 88 Films. The oldest of their releases to date (following The Pit and the Pendulum from 1991 and Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-o-Rama from 1988) it understandably fares a little worse in the presentation department. The print suffers from moderate damage, with tiny scratches appearing intermittently, but also possesses strong colours and a more than acceptable level of detail. The original aspect ratio is adhered to and presented anamorphically. The soundtrack is mostly fine, though the levels could be a little better. Donaggio’s score is really quite full-on, but the dialogue has a tendency to sound somewhat murky alongside it. It could do with being a touch cleaner and clearer, though such flaws may very well be inherent in the original materials. No subtitles are available, for the hard of hearing or otherwise.
As for special features here we find the already mentioned commentary by Schmoeller, a brief interview with the director, the original theatrical trailer and a trailer reel for other Charles Band-related movies. Schmoeller has plenty of interesting things to say, but if we’re being honest he’s not the most engaging of speakers. It can be easy to tune out of his commentary, meaning that some will prefer the interview. Just seven minutes long, it nonetheless covers the main stories, such as the PG rating Tourist Trap inexplicably gained in the US, the casting of Connors and Roberts and the tilted room that was utilised to make one of the effects scenes all the more effective.
Mannequins and madness.