Tourist Trap

TOURIST TRAP. 1979

Director: David Schmoeller

Reviewed by Paghat the Ratgirl



Tourist Trap may well be the best psycho killer film of the 1970s, & is in the running for inclusion in the top one-hundred B horrors for all time. The director is better known as the originator of the Puppetmaster series, though his under-rated Crawlspace is a better film.

Chuck Connors' career was somewhat "on the skids" post-The Rifleman, & he appeared in several ultra low-budget films, none so well done as Tourist Trap, wherein he performs with genuine gusto & glee, rather than with the type of shame an aging Ray Millan felt when he could not get hired for anything but B movies.

Connors was delighted with the prospect of becoming the next Boris Karloff or Vincent Price, which never quite happened for him, but in Tourist Trap he gives it his all with a many-layered performance wherein he is by turns a chivalrous cowboy-joe, a tragic sad-sack nutbag, & a totally creepy madman. He seems to know it's "only" a B movie, but he knows also that B movies can be the greatest of great thrills & enjoyment, & holds back nothing to make it all worthwhile.

SPOILER ALERT. Although the film is campy as the dickens, it is also genuinely creepy, because the script is quite clever & Connors swinging like a manic-depressive from one mood to the next seemed surprisingly real, more real than Freddy or Jason or Michael Meyers, thus more disturbing. The opening credits name Shailar Coby as the actor who plays the masked psycho, & Connors does a great job of not giving the game away for the first half of the story. When he is chasing after his next victim, he has no knife or chainsaw but only a marionette head which he is holding up, & he is calling out "Little girl! See my friend?" It's is so frelling nutso it's almost enough to make someone wet their pants. END SPOILER ALERT.

The psycho has telekinetic powers so that his collection of creepy manikens periodically move & come to life. I won't give away the climax, but this power turns out to be more awesome & appalling than at first seems evident.

That this film is not extremely famous is a shame. I have watched films about psychos longer than my entire adult life & most of them I have to admit are unutterable crap, & even the good ones tend to be utterable crap. But Tourist Trap is such a stand-out for wit & weirdness.

Right from the opening credits when all you got is the soundtrack (by Pino Donaggi) to judge what's coming, it is absolutely brilliant, implying a surreal jolly romp but nevertheless spooky, like carnival music can be simultaneously jolly & spooky. The whole film's soundscape should be studied in film schools as an ideal example of how music can inform & highlight a story without getting in the way.

The support cast is more than adequate even though it's Connors who bares the weight of the film's success. The rest of the character array fall into the category of "teenagers picked off one by one" headed by Tanya Roberts later to become well known as one of Charlie's Angels, & most especially spooky-eyed Jocelyn Jones doing a fine job in the type of performance epitomized by Jamie Lee Curtis in the first Halloween.

There is a surprisingly subtle scene when Jocelyn as Molly is clutching one of the psycho's dolls as though she has herself reverted to a frightened child, & before she abandons the doll, she gives it a kiss. There are many easily missed moments that convey a deeper character than is typical for "scream queen" performances. The last image of her before the credits role, in which it is implied she believes she has saved her friends, takes her performance one insane step beyond Jamie Lee Curtis, into the realm of the strange.

Then there is the art design for masks, mannequins, the roadside museum. There is very little extreme in the design; the mannequins for instance for the most part only look like mannequins. But mannequins are sort of inherently weird, giant dolls in department stores for human dilectation, & the "normalness" of the mannequins becomes increasingly undermined as the story progresses. The images of the psycho wearing his own array of strange masks while playing with dolls turns "innocence" into rank horror.

Nor is the seriousness of the horrors ever undermined by the fact that it is easily viewed as a very sick comedy, because even the funniest bits exude from the madness of the piece rather than an intrusion of slapstick. In this context I would compare it to Motel Hell with Rory Calhoun, who turned in a performance rather like Conners' in Tourist Trap, though Connors is the more disturbing of the two "sweet cowboy loonies."

After having seen thousands of horror films in my life, very few of them have even brief moments that scare me, but there were several "Oh shit!" moments in this one. On every level I was just impressed by this film. It is for me everything that B horror should be, disgusting & artful in the same breath.

copyright by Paghat the Ratgirl



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