“Tourist Trap”, the 1979 horror flick which manages to pay major homage to both “House of Wax” (1953) and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974), stars Chuck “The Rifleman” Conners as Mr. Slausen, a reclusive gentleman who owns an old wax museum in the middle of nowhere. Along comes a group of young people (among them Tanya “That 70s Show” Roberts and Jon “The Hitcher” Van Ness) who manage to have car trouble and stumble upon Mr. Slausen and his “tourist trap”.
The film is fairly predictable if you have seen either “House of Wax” or “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (and who hasn’t) but the twist is that, instead of turning his victims into wax figures, Slausen makes them into very creepy mannequins. He has a whole house full of the damn things AND he is telekinetic, so he can make them move and “talk” and generally make one very nervous the next time one goes clothes shopping in an establishment that uses mannequins. The production design is wonderful, done by Bob Burns who also was the production designer for “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” so you can just imagine what the interior of Slausen’s house looks like. There is also a genuinely creepy feel to this movie, what with Conners’ demented performance (he has dinner and a conversation with a mannequin, wears a blonde wig and a bizarre female mask), phones ringing that are not even plugged in, a torture scene where Conners covers one of the characters in plaster, all the while telling them exactly what is going to happen to them…and it does.
The acting among the kids is fair – Tanya Roberts, still a brunette here, as well as the other girls with one exception, Molly (Jocelyn Jones, who is jarringly dressed like a little girl), mince about in skimpy shorts and scream a lot. Conners is great as this part if SO different from the tough guy Westerns one is so used to seeing him in – he goes from sweet lonely widower to “demented psycho” VERY well in “Tourist Trap”.
The specials effects are pretty good, particularly a scene early on where one of the hapless, can’t-read-a-map kids goes nosing around Slausen’s place and the room he goes into…well, I thought it was an original effect. And there are a couple of scenes with the mannequins that were disturbing – having them all drop their hinged jaws and either laugh maniacally or sing a single high-pitched note was creepy and there was another where a bunch of the mannequins gather around one of the actors who is trapped lying on the floor and just stare blankly. Creepy.
The score by Pino Donnagio, who used to collaborate frequently with Brian de Palma, is as offbeat as the movie, made up of screeching violins, women hauntingly sighing and moaning and the corny theme itself.
The gore is minimal but the violence is still rather startling for what was rated “PG” at the time it was released. Apparently the director was even surprised by the rating and that may account for why “Tourist Trap” didn’t do better at the box office. But it’s one of Stephen King’s favorites, it is a truly unnerving film and Chuck Conners gives the performance of a lifetime.
But be wary of those damn mannequins the next time you go clothes shopping.