Terror Tuesday: Why Haven’t You Seen TOURIST TRAP?

Brian steps up to the plate for an underloved 70s horror cult classic.

Now, this was pre-HMAD.  I didn’t have to find every unseen horror movie in existence, and while I was a big horror fan, I rarely went out of my way to see anything I had missed in the past; I was a Netflix subscriber for months before I finally opted for something that wasn’t a new release.  But my enjoyment of the ’05 Wax, mixed with what I have to assume was some sort of ESP, resulted in me spending the better part of Saturday driving around to local DVD stores looking for a copy of this movie.  Luckily there was still time to watch it when I got home, and for the next 90 minutes I was highly entertained, to say the least.

Right off the bat I was impressed, because (again, pre-HMAD) I was tired of seeing “breakdown” movies that all started the same; we meet our teen heroes, they all pile into a car, and more or less the instant they get out of civilization, they either get a flat tire, run out of gas, or the car simply starts making a funny sound and then smoke comes from the engine as soon as they stop.  It’s probably the most overused cliché in all of horror, which is saying quite a bit.  And while Tourist Trap has this scenario as well (which, being 1979, could be forgiven for it, as a lot of those other movies didn’t exist yet), what makes it awesome is that the movie starts AFTER the breakdown has already occurred!  Our first shot of the movie is one of our teen heroes wheeling his spare tire (which is also flat) toward a gas station while the other friends wait by the car.  Any movie that doesn’t waste time getting to the inevitable is fine by me.

And yet, it’s not exactly a non-stop kill fest either.  This guy’s a goner, sure, but the others last a while, and are likable and fairly well developed.  The set up seems to be influenced by Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but there’s no annoying Franklin type, and again, the others last long enough to turn into actual people, unlike Hooper’s film, where the characterization of the heroes is a bit slim (not a slam, just an observation).  I wasn’t particularly sad to see Kirk or Pam go, because we didn’t know much about them or spend enough time with them to develop any sort of attachment to them, but the deaths here kind of bum me out.  Therefore, it’s actually pretty scary – actually caring about the folks going into those deserted buildings and sneaking around creepy attics results in a far more effective horror movie, something that is almost entirely lost amongst the folks making things like Platinum Dunes’ Nightmare on Elm Street remake.  Plus that final shot is one of the most unnerving closers in horror history; I guarantee anyone who saw this as a kid had nightmares about that freeze frame!

It also has the perfect implementation of a certain twist, which I’d like to discuss a bit so skip this paragraph if you haven’t seen it yet.  At a certain point, our masked killer is unmasked and we realize that there’s been a bit of trickery going on (think Psycho), but there’s still a good chunk of the movie to go – it’s actually sort of the climax to the 2nd act.  Some movies pull off this kind of twist right at the very end, which makes a nice shock but doesn’t really satisfy on a narrative level (hell even in Psycho we have to listen to that goddamn psychiatrist drone on and on in order to make sense out of it).  But here, it’s delivered late enough in the movie to work as a bit of a shock, and yet there’s still enough time for it to actually add another level to what’s left of the film, and allows the villain to demonstrate the full extent of his powers without the need of trying to trick his victims/the audience (it also distracts us from catching on to a second twist!).

Another thing I loved was that it’s the rare teen horror movie post October 1978 that wasn’t influenced by Halloween.  The relationship between the three girls may feel a bit familiar, but this is a coincidence as the two films were in production around the same time (TT had its first screening in January of 1979; less than three months after Halloween premiered).  But interestingly, both films had the same mentality of emphasizing suspense and genuine creepiness over explicit gore, and in fact that leads us to the kicker – Tourist Trap is actually rated PG!  There isn’t any nudity, and the kills, while occasionally disturbing (the suffocation in particular), are pretty blood free.  Yet it’s got several scenes that still creep me out after seeing the movie a number of times now, and in fact I didn’t even realize it was PG until I listened to the commentary; I just assumed it was R based on the fact that it was a slasher movie and the PG-13 didn’t exist yet.

It’s also a lot classier than the average late 70s teen-based horror flick (and certainly classier than you’d expect from a movie that has Charles Band as a producer – yes, this is from the same guy who terrorizes us with endless Puppet Master movies and the Evil Bong trilogy).  The art direction by Robert Burns (who also worked on Chain Saw) is quite impressive; I was amazed to discover that certain locations were sets as everything felt truly lived in and genuine.  And it boasts a Pino Donaggio score, and a memorable one at that – while the chase stuff is typical (albeit better than average), the main theme that plays over the opening credits, with slide whistles and other oddball instruments, sounds almost comical at times, like it should be accompanying a mishap comedy like Funny Farm or The Money Pit.  However it sets the tone perfectly – it’s an off-kilter, slightly funny (the killer complaining about his brother not letting him use his telekinetic powers is a particular delight), but yet very unique and creepy movie.

This one is shorter than most of my articles because I assume a lot of you haven’t seen I yet and I don’t want to get too spoiler-y (and also because you probably want to get back to playing LA Noire).  The movie was not a hit when it came out (the director blames the PG rating for that!), and really, House Of Wax gave it more exposure than anything else has in the past 30 years.  The DVD has a commentary and an interview with director David Schmoeller, plus a nice new (anamorphic!) transfer, but is rarely stocked in stores, which means the awesome, eye-catching cover is barely ever seen unless you are specifically looking for it online or whatever.  Star Chuck Connors is no longer with us, and two of the three female leads (Jocelyn Jones and Robin Sherwood) have seemingly retired from show business, and the other is Tanya Roberts, so when she does interviews most folks ask about Bond or Charlie’s Angels, not the obscure late 70s horror movie where she got menaced by mannequins.  So it just doesn’t “come up” that often, but hopefully, screenings like tonight’s at the Alamo and others around the country will occur with regularity and start giving this movie the sort of recognition it deserves.  As I mentioned on Twitter earlier, this isn’t like me defending Cathy’s Curse or Shocker; trashy, not very good movies that I love anyway – this is a legitimately great horror film that isn’t in nearly as many horror collections as it should be.

Stop in at Horror Movie A Day and be trapped there!