Roadside Attractions and Creepy Mannequins: ‘Tourist Trap’ Turns 40 - Bloody Disgusting
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Roadside Attractions and Creepy Mannequins: ‘Tourist Trap’ Turns 40

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When Tourist Trap arrived in limited theaters on March 14, 1979, its quiet release meant it didn’t last long at the box office nor did it create much of a fanbase. Heavily inspired by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and early on in the wave of the golden age of slashers, Tourist Trap fell through the cracks. But its PG rating (which ironically likely doomed it at the box office) made the film suitable for airing on syndicated television, where it received plenty of broadcasting throughout the ‘80s. Its creepy atmosphere, marked by a great score and eerie mannequins that lurk at a roadside attraction, makes this slasher memorable. That was the beginning of Tourist Trap finally finding the following it deserved, and now, 40 years later, it’s well regarded as a cult classic.

Writer/director David Schmoeller was a budding filmmaker and grad student at the University of Texas in Austin. He just so happened to be shooting his thesis film, a short called The Spider Will Kill You, while Tobe Hooper was filming The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. When Hooper’s film broke out in a huge way, Schmoeller was inspired to turn his short into a feature length film in the hopes of following Hooper’s footsteps. He co-wrote the feature length script with J. Larry Carroll. They then took the premise of his short, which revolved around a blind man and creepy mannequins, and implemented elements from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Psycho. Thus, it became about a group of traveling young friends who find themselves getting stalked by a masked maniac when they stop by a secluded roadside museum.

It was Carroll who pitched their script to executive producer Charles Band, who produced it under Charles Band Productions. It was Band who suggested the killer have telekinetic powers, pushing this slasher into supernatural territory and taking away the psychological mystery Schmoeller originally envisioned. Schmoeller also wanted John Carpenter to direct, but he was far too expensive for their meager budget and Carroll convinced Schmoeller to direct himself, making this is feature debut.

Tourist Trap effectively uses its mannequins in unsettling ways, long before the actual killer is revealed. A large part of that is the special masks and mannequin effects by the makeup department, which boasted names like Bob Burns (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes), Ken Horn (The Hills Have Eyes, Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers), and Ve Neill (Beetlejuice, Constantine). The other vital component of what makes the mannequins so creepy is Pino Donaggio’s score. Schmoeller had met Donaggio on Joe Dante’s Piranha, where he served as the non-English speaking composer’s interpreter. Band also hit it off with the composer, and was willing to concede the higher fee for his work.

Despite the inherent creepiness of mannequins, they’re eventually revealed to be mere tools for telekinetic killer Mr. Slaussen, the friendly owner of the isolated tourist trap. Slaussen is played by Chuck Connors, an accomplished actor known for his work in films like Soylent Green, Old Yeller, and The Rifleman. When most masked killers in slashers are silent, the talkative Mr. Slaussen stood out. His initial charm gave way to frightening madness. Essentially, he’s one of horror’s more entertaining psychopaths.

A decade later Schmoeller would reteam with Band again to create a new generation of puppet-filled horror in Puppetmaster, which spawned a long-running franchise of its own. It’s a shame that Tourist Trap never took off in the way that it should’ve in 1979, because that final frame is chilling and ripe for continuation. There’s been talk in recent years about a reboot, but I’d argue that 2005’s House of Wax might’ve beat any reboot to the punch – it owes a lot to Tourist Trap. This unique slasher is also one of the rare entries in the golden era of slashers to not borrow from Halloween. Instead, it’s a close Texan sibling to Hooper’s classic. Tourist Trap is a fun horror movie that was likely killed by its not so scary sounding title and a PG rating. It may have taken 40 years to fully find its audience, but some movies are worth the wait.


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