Places like amusement parks and circuses have been captivating settings for horror movies for years. From Tod Browning’s 1932 circus creepfest Freaks, through Tobe Hooper’s carnival slasher The Funhouse, right up to guerilla filmmaker Randy Moore’s surreal Disney freakout Escape from Tomorrow, fun places seem to get spooky when the light hits them just right. The effect is amplified when the roadside attraction is deserted and decrepit, as seen in 1979’s aptly named Tourist Trap.
Tourist Trap is the story of five friends who are taking a vacation together. On the way to their destination, one of their cars gets a flat tire. A boy named Woody (Keith McDermott from Without a Trace) sets off on foot for help and finds an abandoned service station. He goes inside and is assaulted by mannequins until he is finally killed by a flying spear. When the rest of the gang comes across the disabled car on the side of the road, they go searching for him. Just as they find a creepy, deserted amusement park called Slausen’s Lost Oasis, their car breaks down as well. While Jerry (The Hitcher’s Jon Van Ness) struggles to repair it, the girls find a swimming hole and decide to go for a dip. Eileen (Robin Sherwood from Blow Out), Becky (The Beastmaster’s Tanya Roberts), and Molly (Jocelyn Jones from The Enforcer) are enjoying the water when Mr. Slausen (Soylent Green’s Chuck Conners), the owner of the park, approaches and offers them help. Everyone goes to Slauson’s house to fetch his tools, and they are shown the remnants of his park’s main attraction, a fully animatronic wax museum. They also meet Slausen’s brother, a masked maniac with telekinetic powers and sociopathic tendencies, who is bent on serving and protecting the wax statues. One by one the kids are captured by the brother, leaving Molly and Slausen to save whoever might be left alive.
Tourist Trap is the first feature by director David Schmoeller, a man who would go on to find success in the horror world with other twisted films like Crawlspace, Puppetmaster, and The Seduction. The screenplay was written by Schmoeller and J. Larry Carroll, who would go on to write for animated television shows such as “Ghostbusters” and “Thundercats.” The film has all of the typical elements of a slasher movie – group of kids, isolated setting, and maniacal killer – yet has the added twist of the telekinetic brother and the wax statues. Coming out just after Halloween yet right before Friday the 13th, Tourist Trap was a tad bit ahead of its time.
Although Tourist Trap was only made five years after The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the influence of Tobe Hooper’s film is very evident. The masks and curly wigs that Slausen’s brother wears makes him look just like Leatherface. The dilapidated inside of the Oasis appears similar to the TCM compound, with mannequin body parts and wax statues taking the place of the real carnage and corpses in the TCM house. Jocelyn Jones, who plays Molly, is even a dead ringer for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre final girl Marilyn Burns. Although it doesn’t have nearly the gore and brutality as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Tourist Trap nods its head to it in several other ways.
Leatherface isn’t the only horror legend that Slausen’s brother emulates. His telekinetic powers are reminiscent of Carrie White from Carrie and Robin Sandza from The Fury – both films that were released just before Tourist Trap. However, Slausen’s brother uses his powers for his own amusement more than revenge; whether he is killing people or playing tricks on them, there’s no higher motive other than his just being evil. He also serves as a precursor to Freddy Krueger in some ways, as he is a very talkative killer, berating and taunting his victims the entire time. In one of the most chilling scenes, Slausen’s brother has a female victim tied to a table and makes a plaster mold of her face in order to turn her likeness into a statue. He tells the helpless girl exactly what he is doing as he is doing it, even going so far as explaining to her the precise moment in which she will stop breathing and die. His behavior is heartless, ruthless, and downright horrifying.
There is something about dolls that is inherently scary, and Tourist Trap capitalizes on this fear. The wax statues in Tourist Trap are a big part of what makes the film so frightening. The mannequins are just real enough to be mistaken for real people at first glance, yet are deformed and surreal enough to be genuinely horrifying. The ambiguity of the statues’ faces looking like Slausen’s brother’s mask adds to the horror, as he is able to blend in with them at will. The fact that they move on their own and attack the kids just makes the mannequins all the more freakier. Whether being controlled by the animatronics or Slausen’s brother’s telekinesis, the statues claim more than their share of victims, and they are the iconic image that viewers take home from Tourist Trap.
The music for Tourist Trap was written by frequent De Palma composer Pino Donaggio (Carrie, Dressed to Kill). Donaggio seems to have a lot of fun with the score, giving it a lot of playful elements that keep with the amusement park theme of the film, yet unleashes the power of dynamic stingers and cacophonous orchestras when the need to frighten arises. Donaggio knows what he’s doing, and does it well in the music for Tourist Trap.
Not stopping at abandoned roadside attractions has become one of the unwritten rules of horror movies; in most films, it’s a good way to get killed. The reason these stereotypes exist is because they work, and Tourist Trap shows viewers a fine example of why they should avoid deserted landmarks.