Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Tourist Trap (1979): Shut yer trap, dummy!

In today's climate of remakes and sequels that serve as the latest servings from time-tested franchises, it's great to look back on a movie like "Tourist Trap" and experience something unique and interesting.  Even if it's not a particularly stunning movie, "Tourist Trap" has imagination going for it, as well as a strong sense of that 70s Doom that I love so much.
Chuck Connors as Mr. Slausen, who one day was shootin' at some food, when up from the ground come a-bubblin' crude.  Mannequins, that is.  Wax dummies.  Robot ladies.

The plot follows five young friends who find their road trip is derailed by car trouble.  They stumble upon "Slausen's Lost Oasis", a swimming hole/museum type place that's just full of lifelike mannequins.  Mr. Slausen seems kindly and helpful at first, but the kids have a habit of wandering into situations where they're alone, and whenever they do, they're promptly murdered by a man in a weird doll mask, who uses telekinesis to attack his victims in horrible ways.  The "lifelike mannequins" actually do seem to have lives of their own, aiding and abetting Plasterface in his attacks on the kids, who wind up as mannequins themselves.  The kids are typical slasher types: there's Becky the sexpot, Eileen the wisecracker, Jeff the lunkhead, Woody the "first one to get it", and classic final girl Molly.  Molly is the nice girl, the one who must endure the fact that her friends are being slashed and turned into mannequins powered by telekinesis. 

No thanks, I'm a Pepsi gal myself.

The mechanism of the dolls and dummies is what really gets under my skin in "Tourist Trap".  They're built so that their mouths do this hideous thing where they drop open obscenely and either scream or sigh.  Sometimes they're clearly actors underneath costumes, and other times they're distinctly inhuman.  I'm not sure which ones bother me more.  The first kid to get dummy-ized is Woody, who arrives at the classic deserted gas station and is lured into a back room, where he finds a figure sleeping on a cot.  When he approaches it, it whirls on him and is only a puppet.  Then the room starts freaking out in telekinetic activity as the film's yet-unseen villain, "Davey", thrusts more mannequins at the kid before immobilizing him and sending a metal pole flying across the room to impale him against a door.  In a gruesome touch, his blood starts gently running out of the hollow pole as he dies, a gag often used by horror flicks, but done extremely well here.  Woody's appearance in the film is brief, but there's a moment when Davey suddenly appears in front of Molly, dressed in a bizarre female mask and clutching Woody's disembodied mannequin head.  Its mouth suddenly drops open and it starts screaming at her in Woody's voice, as if he's actually still IN there somehow, aware of what's happening.

There are also some really sick kills in the movie, considering it was originally rated PG.  Aside from the vicious impalement in the beginning, there's a scene where a wild west diorama comes to life and a character is attacked by a cowboy Sheriff and an Indian.  The Sheriff shoots at her with a real gun, but the Indian hurls a tomahawk and a knife at her.  The knife gets her in the back of the head and she just slowly....collapses.  Someone also gets an axe in the neck in a scene that's more disturbing for its realism than its outright gore.

There is plenty of interesting lighting on hand, and the sets are otherworldly and bizarre.  The only DVD transfer that seems to be around features a lot of film grain during the reel changes, which I actually loved and was glad about; it's the kind of thing they did deliberately in "Grindhouse", man!  There are spooky attics and basements, as well as the freaky museum set itself, but I was also bothered by the ordinary looking house where Mr. Slausen and "Davey" apparently live.  The scale is all wrong on it, like it's a stage instead of a real house, and considering it's home to a bunch of robot mannequins, that's the point. 

It's a shame it's not better acted. Most of the actors are competent, but other than Chuck Connors, only Jocelyn Jones as Molly is truly memorable. She has a number of scenes where she has to be terrified, and when she has to go over the top she's really insane. The final shot of the film, with Molly "escaping" with her friends, gives me the chills every time I see it. Future Charlies Angels star Tanya Roberts does pretty good here, too, although it seems like she's only in the movie because she was hot. The weakest link is Eileen, who has the most ridiculous death scene in the whole movie. The scene is actually really scary until she has to act like she's being strangled to death, which she botches and kinda ruins it. The guys in the movie are miscellaneous, except of course for Chuck Connors as Mr. Slausen.  He brings a presence and authenticity to his role that most actors probably would have felt the film did not deserve, and his scenes with Jocelyn Jones are often the best things about the movie.

Although it was filmed and released amid the slasher craze after "Halloween", "Tourist Trap" is something even more rare: a film that borrows from other movies, yet manages to seem unique and original on its own. But all gruesome murders aside, the dummy stuff is what will either sell or sink "Tourist Trap" for you.  If you're creeped out by them, then it's possible that you may love this doomy little movie.  Let's face it, horror flicks are usually about making a ridiculous idea seem very real and very scary.  The killer funhouse atmosphere of "Tourist Trap" makes it one of my favorite films.

PS: Remember Vera, the mean girl who busted Christina making out with a boy in a stable in "Mommie Dearest", and said "I'm going to TELL"?  That's her, Dawn Jeffory!  Only, poor her, because in "Tourist Trap" she's introduced late in the movie, killed one scene later, and nobody remembers her name. I guess that's what happens to SNITCHES!


Jay Shatzer said...

Creepy as all hell! Watched this recently with a bunch of friends and we got a kick out of it. Love the mannequins.

GroovyDoom said...

Thanks Jay. I don't know about you, but a lot of times I hated movies when I was a kid, then when I watch them now I really dig them. "Tourist Trap" was one of those. I thought it was ridiculous the first time I saw it (cause it kinda IS), but after about 30 more years of watching horror movies and seeing a lot of crap...I kinda appreciate movies like "Tourist Trap" for at least being unique.