Monday, March 24, 2008

Tourist Trap (1979): or, Mama Slausen Didn't Raise No Dummies

1979's survivalist/psychic psycho/mannequin terror mishmash Tourist Trap may have its faults, but it's safe to say that nonchalant, leisurely pacing is NOT one of them. We're barely out of the whimsically-scored opening credits sequence before we're right in the thick things--a broken down car on a deserted country road, a feathered-haired, bandana-sporting hunk rolling his damaged tire toward an eerily-deserted roadside shop, his scantily-clad girlfriend left back with the car to await some forthcoming friends. Before we can warn our muscled slab o' manflesh not to go exploring under any circumstances, the Nobel Prize-winner has wandered into a back room stuffed with incomplete mannequins and haphazardly stored cutting tools. It's a surprise to him and no one else when the door slams shut behind him. It's almost as if it were a trap.

Once the trap is sprung, though, a lot of things happen at once, all of them batshit insane. A mannequin crashes through the room's one window--from outside--and its head rolls into the room; then the disembodied head opens its mouth like an egg-eating snake and starts howling in a very disturbing manner. Then a closet on the other side of the room opens, and a troll-faced dummy springs out shaking and laughing in the most demonic, maniacal manner you could ask for! As the blond hunk picks up a length of pipe and knocks a hole in the now-hermetically sealed door, the dummies continue their psychological assault, all laughter and screams and funhouse jerky motions. The muscleman reaches through the hole to unlock the door, and something grabs his arm, cementing him in place and forcing him to drop the pipe.

Cabinet doors open and close, cans of paint fly across the room and smash against the walls, and a large knife zings from a toolbench at our hapless hero, missing his face by mere inches. Just when the set-piece has gone on so long you think there's bound to be a "haha, gotcha! It's all a trick!" reveal, the pipe levitates off the floor and impales the blonde himbo where he stands, his life's blood draining through the tube onto the dusty, brightly-lit floor. The cackling troll and howling head fall silent. Clearly, their work here is done.

Meanwhile, back at the broken-down car, the blond buff-boy's girlfriend Eileen (Robin Sherwood) has hooked back up with her friends, among them Sha-Na-Na reject Jerry (Jon Van Ness), micro-shorts and halter-top model Becky (softcore legend and That 70s Show dingbat Tanya Roberts, smoldering here in a straight black wig rather than her customary strawberry blonde 80s curls), and good-girl Molly (Jocelyn Jones), who in her pigtails, white sack dress and wide-brimmed hat looks like nothing so much as a kinder, gentler Nellie Oleson from TV's Little House on the Prairie! Figuring they'll catch up with Woody (their piping-perforated companion) further down the road, they all pile into Jerry's jeep and motor on down the dirtway.

Pop Quiz: Which of these characters will be the Final Girl?

It's not long before they come upon Slausen's Lost Oasis, a roadside attraction from days gone by featuring an amateur wax museum and a crystal clear swimming hole, complete with paradisaical waterfall! Of course it takes little convincing for the three girls to shed their clothes and go for a mid-afternoon dip while Jerry tries to figure out why the jeep's battery died just as they rolled into the Oasis's parking lot (dun-dun-DUNNN!). Unfortunately here the flick loses some of the brownie points it gained with that crazy opening, as none of the skinny-dipping actresses show so much as a fully naked back. I mean, come on! Tanya Roberts got buck nekkid in Beastmaster AND Sheena, and BOTH of those were rated PG! What does it take, guys?

Luckily, things pick up shortly thereafter with the appearance of TV and movie legend Chuck Connors! Now I've always held Connors as one of only two actors of the same period who could go toe-to-toe in a "quietly terrifying twisted tough-guy" contest with the granddaddy of all quiet psychos, Jack Palance (the other? Robert Mitchum. See the original Cape Fear), and here Chuck is in rare form as Mr. Slausen, owner and proprietor of Slausen's Lost Oasis, who has come down to the swimming hole (shotgun in hand!) to ask the trespassing skinny dippers WTF is up.

From here on out it's all Connors's show, as he effortlessly outshines the other purported "actors" in the flick with his natural, menacing professionalism. He's all smiles and good ol' Southern politeness, but in every line and under ever smile is an edge of threatening psychosis you're just aching to watch come cresting to the surface. He graciously invites the stranded motorists back to his gift shop-cum-wax museum, where he shows them effigies of Buffalo Bill, Chief Running Bull, and one special manniquin that's a tribute to his late wife, who expired shortly after the "gub'ment" built the new freeway and robbed them of the tourism on which they made their living. (Chuck's wounded, angry retelling of this history lets you know that he will NEVER be over it.)

"IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII...ain't got no body!"

When Eileen asks who lives in the huge house behind the museum, Slausen tells her only he and his brother Davey live there--Davey is the wax artist and mechanical genius in the family, and the dummies are all his handiwork. I wonder if we'll get to know Davey better as the story goes on?

While Slausen and Jerry go back to see if they can fix the jeep, Eileen, Becky, and Molly are left to their own devices, and it's not long before firebrand Eileen has ignored Slausen's warnings about coyotes and headed on up to the house to meet Davey. No points for guessing that the house is absolutely packed with mannequins, whose cold dead eyes follow the hapless young woman as she explores. Eileen follows the crazy-sounding voices that may or may not be their friend Woody. Before you can say "Uri Geller!" we learn that not only is Davey a talented sculptor and animatronic engineer, he's also a maniac with TELEKINETIC POWERS that enable him to do just about anything his twisted mind desires! It don't rain but it pours, huh?

Like all good psychic psychos, Davey wears a wickedly disturbing doll-like mask (reminiscent of Leatherface circa TCM: The Next Generation, except, you know, NOT ridiculous), and quickly uses his mental powers to bring all the dummies to life and capture Eileen. He gets Becky too when she follows her foolish friend to the mansion, while good girl Molly waits patiently for Jerry and Mr. Slausen to return.

"Whassa matter? Dontcha damn kids LIKE puppet shows?"

Now if you are disturbed by mannequins at ALL, Tourist Trap is tailor-made to creep you the fuck OUT. Not only does the telekinetic Davey use these abominations in humanoid form to torment his prey in an evil cat-and-mouse game, he also goes all Vincent Price on Eileen in the basement, pouring plaster over her face and narrating how it will heat up and peel the flesh from her cheeks, how once her eyes are covered she'll "never see anything again," and finally covering her mouth and nose so that her "heart will explode from FEAR!" All this while Becky and Jerry (long story) watch on helplessly from the sidelines. It's a very disturbing set-piece, and Davey's froggy, deadpan voice certainly doesn't make things any less horrifying.

To reveal anything more would be cheating, but suffice to say Davey isn't the only maniac in the family, and it's an absolute joy to watch Chuck Connors just get more and more unhinged as the flick goes on, indulging his fascination with Molly (who reminds him of his wife, naturally) to an unwholesome and genuinely disturbing degree. By the time the not-very surprising twists are revealed and the final showdown between Molly and maniac rolls around, you'll be shocked, creeped out, and more than a little entertained--that is, if you're anything at all like me.

There are things about Tourist Trap that I can point to as almost weaknesses, though in the final analysis I'm not sure that they're not strengths. For instance, the aforementioned whimsical score continues throughout the movie, a music box/carnivalesque motif that seems always on the verge of going right off into cartoony camp, but somehow never quite gets there. Similarly Davey's changing masks, his over-the-top narrative quips (including one borderline hilarious exchange about the quality of the crackers he and Chuck are having with their soup), and his bombastic telekinetic outbursts almost push the proceedings into comedy, but again seem to stop just short. It's too disturbing to be funny, but just funny enough not to be too disturbing. It's strange, and I'm not sure I've ever seen another movie walk that line with similar...well, the only word I can encompass it with is "grace."

The family resemblance is uncanny.

But then there are the parts that you can call strengths without reservation--Connors's powerhosue performance as Slausen, the middle-of-nowhere setting, the creepy snake-mouths of the mannequins when Davey makes them sing, and just about any scene with Davey talking to his automaton "friends." Though looking back there was surprisingly little blood, there was the torturous face-plastering scene, a couple of hair-raising nightmarish mannequin attack sequences, at least one surprising protagonist demise, and a last shot with final girl Molly driving away to freedom that will either make you chuckle or raise the hairs on your neck, and possibly both.

Of course the non-nude skinny-dipping scene hurts it. That shit is just NOT DONE.

Still, it's a wild, wacky late-70s horror ride that I was glad I took, and you should take too. 2.5 thumbs, and a wonderful acting debut for Shailar Coby as Davey. Whatever happened to that guy, anyway? :)

Sleep Tight!


Karswell said...

God I remember seeing this in '79 at the drive-in with I think Terror Train. Tourist Trap was probably the more memorable of the two, and rewatching it again recently on dvd I thought it was pretty okay still, not great but it definitely has it's insane creep factor moments (and Tanya!)

But man, '79 was an amazing year at the drive-in. I remember Toolbox Murders still playing with Driller Killer, Alien paired with Phantasm, Amityville Horror with The Changling, The Fog with Dawn of the Dead... kids today have no clue what a new horror movie really meant, especially back in the day when you got two for the price of one.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Tanya is pretty hot in this, but again, you just don't have a skinny dip scene and NOT exploit it to the fullest potential. That's moviemaking 101.

But TT is definitely effective in a weird, weird way. And Connors totally OWNS it here. Great performance.

Shweta Mehrotra Gahlawat said...

OK I am scared to death- pupperts/mannequenis etc just terrify me period; and just reading your post has me quaking in my boots. Lucky for me, having read it, i wont have to see it - ever :) but that just really is more applause to your writing :)

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