Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #484
Number of Views: One
Release Date: March 16, 1979 (U.S.)
Country of Origin: United States
Running Time: 90 minutes
Director: David Schmoeller
Producer: J. Larry Carroll
Screenplay: David Schmoeller, J. Larry Carroll
Special Effects: Richard O. Helmer
Cinematography: Nicholas Josef von Sternberg
Score: Pino Donaggio
Editing: Ted Nicolaou
Studio: Charles Band Productions
Distributor: Compass International Pictures
Stars: Chuck Connors, Jocelyn Jones, Jon Van Ness, Robin Sherwood, Tanya Roberts, Dawn Jeffory, Keith McDermott, Shailar Coby
Suggested Audio Candy:
Pino Donaggio Soundtrack Suite
I would imagine that I speak for the majority of us when stating my belief that all mannequins are inherently evil. Who can blame them? Day after day, they are required to stand to attention behind department store windows while the general public gawk at them, dressed in all manner of ridiculous clothing, none of which they choose for themselves. On very rare occasions one may get lucky and find some listless chump to fall in love with them and give them the kiss of life but, more often or not, they end up with all the other spare parts in a musty stockroom gathering dust.
It stands to reason that, sooner or later, said mannequins will revolt and teach mankind a well deserved lesson and that was precisely what happened in 1979 when David Schmoeller (Puppetmaster, Crawlspace) made his feature-length debut with Tourist Trap. Unfortunately for Schmoeller, the MPAA considered it to be relatively powder puff in comparison to other horror movies doing the rounds and granted him the dreaded PG rating. This effectively killed off any chance of commercial success as, despite opening it up to a far wider audience, no self-respecting horror buff is interested in such family friendly fare and his chosen demographic gave it a particularly wide-berth.
For years, folk were oblivious to the very existence of Tourist Trap until Stephen King threw him a bone and heaped praise on Schmoeller’s cast aside chiller in his book Danse Macabre, paying particular reverence to its disquieting opening scene. Any endorsement from this man is worth its weight in gold and this proved to be the case as suddenly people began to sit up and take notice. It has taken many years for it to gain the recognition it richly deserved and, while hardly representing the pinnacle of excellence, it is now regarded as something of a lost classic.
Based on Schmoeller’s senior film project from school, Tourist Trap tells the story of a group of a group of typically attractive young friends who find themselves stranded off the beaten track after suffering the obligatory car trouble. So far, so blasé although it is worth noting that this was a long time before this particular horse wa flogged to death. For Eileen (Robin Sherwood) her boyfriend Woody (Keith McDermott), and pals Becky (Tanya Roberts), Jerry (Jon Van Ness) and Molly (Jocelyn Jones), a flat tire proves to be the very least of their concerns and, for hapless Woody, it’s time to run that early bath as he heads off to locate a nearby gas station.
Barely five minutes have passed before Tourist Trap grabs us by the short and curlies and King was right to single this scene out as it sets the ominous tone exquisitely. It’s best that I keep things vague as many of you will likely be investigating this for the first time but I would suggest you bear in mind that a PG rating isn’t the be-all and end-all should your pre-requisite be well-staged frights. It is clear from this point that Schmoeller knows precisely how to rattle the cage and, with Pino Donaggio pulling the audio strings, he has our undivided attention from the offset.
While Woody is collecting his pay check and Jerry performs alpha duties under the hood of their grounded jeep, the girls decide that a harmless skinny dip is in order. This is where Schmoeller misses his first trick although not from lack of intention. His script originally called for nudity and that would invariably have bumped his film up to a more attractive R-rating. However, the shy and retired director couldn’t pluck up the courage to force the issue and, when he eventually made his timid request, he was met with a collective “not gonna happen”. Fortunately, good old Mr. Slausen (Chuck Connors) is on-hand to gently remind us that there’s more than one reason we’re making this road trip.
Outwardly affable and more than willing to lend a hand, Slausen suggests the group head back to his homestead so he can retrieve his tools and get them back on the road. The fact that he is grasping a shotgun while offering his assistance is a little dubious and he seems to be harboring a little bad blood over the construction of a nearby expressway leaving his business far less than flourishing but his winning smile wins them over in no time. For Slausen, home means a defunct wax museum, and the true meaning of the term tourist trap is about to become painfully clear.
We are more than aware by this point that this is far more than the trash we have come to expect from a film which has escaped our attention for such a protracted period. Director of photography Nicholas Josef von Sternberg perfectly captures the lush greens of this back-handed paradise during the pacy opening act before flipping it on its head and making each shadow dance. In addition, the cast are uniformly solid, with special mention going to Conners for giving us a psycho every bit as awkwardly charming as Norman Bates that we can’t help but think the best of despite any nagging concerns that his house of wax is closed to the public for damn good reason.
While mystery isn’t necessarily upheld for a great deal of time, the extent of Slausen’s involvement and true threat to their safekeeping is kept purposely hazy. This, in turn, provides an uneasy tone which serves Tourist Trap decidedly well. It ebbs and flows in its own way and we’re never entirely sure where Schmoeller is prepared to lead us or who to place our money on getting out in one piece. With only four potential victims and precious little bloodletting to pep things up, it proves to be a wise decision as the second act plays out on a knife-edge.
The slack-jawed mannequins themselves are a gloriously eclectic bunch and perfectly convey the dread of this ever-worsening situation, becoming animate each time they gain themselves an audience. Meanwhile, the words “see my friend” may well be etched into your frontal lobe for the foreseeable and there’s a genuine sense of hopelessness to proceedings which we still can’t quite put our finger on. By playing the cards close to his chest for as long as humanly feasible, Schmoeller’s movie makes a mockery of its PG curse. Make no mistake, Tourist Trap is capable of entrenching itself way beneath your skin, particularly if you have an aversion to waxworks.
The final act tops things off with both a truly startling moment and parting snapshot which resonates more every time you reconsider it. With that, our trip is over and we have found ourselves a real curate’s piece. It feels a tad severe to pick holes in a piece of horror which is so quietly effective but it’s not all strawberries and champagne and I feel duty bound to state the obvious. Had Schmoeller have opted for a slightly more mean-spirited approach, then he could have had a bona fide nightmare maker on his hands and undoubtedly far wider scope to make a lasting impact. While Tourist Trap should supply vague discomfort as token for spending 90 minutes in the presence of its diabolical dummies, it never quite pulls enough strings for greatness.
Jaume Collet-Serra’s House of Wax has many detractors and I vehemently declare myself not to be one of them. Tourist Trap applies a much different tack to coercing us out of our skin and there is much to be admired in Schmoeller’s execution, despite falling a little short of its vast potential. Kim Cattrall aside, I’m glad I never pursued a career in window dressing after all. I just wish it hadn’t taken thirty-five years to clear the wax from my ears and hear its gentle screams.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10
Grue Factor: 2/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: With regards to the grue, it’s child’s play for the most part. That said, there are a couple of faintly grisly dispatches, and one tail-end example of why turning our blood ice-cold is often just as effectual as turning our stomachs. Alas, that teasing skinny dip it is left to our imaginations, although the sight of Roberts struggling to keep her glorious assets from overspilling from her tight top may well provide a mental screen saver after the credits have rolled. It seems crazy to think that an 8/10 score was merely two bare breasts away from becoming a very real possibility but what can I say? I’d hold both my hands up to being a shameless pervert but my trousers would drop to my ankles if I did.
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