Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Film Review: TOURIST TRAP (1979, David Schmoeller)

Stars: 4.5 of 5.
Running Time: 90 minutes.
Tag-line: "Every year young people disappear..."
Notable Cast or Crew: Chuck Connors (FLIPPER, Lucas McCain on 5 seasons of THE RIFLEMAN), Tanya Roberts (FINGERS, THE BEASTMASTER, the title character in SHEENA, QUEEN OF THE JUNGLE), Jocelyn Jones (THE ENFORCER, THE GREAT TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE), Jon Van Ness (THE HITCHER, THE NATURAL), Robin Sherwood (DEATH WISH II, BLOW OUT), Dawn Jeffory (MOMMIE DEAREST, WHITE LINE FEVER). One of the producers is the one and only Charles Band (Full Moon Pictures).
Best one-liner: "Mr. Slausen, can I use your phone?" –"Oh sure, help yourself... but it doesn't work. I got nobody to call."

When you hear the name 'Charles Band,' you might smirk, scoff, roll your eyes– you might even groan. Then again, you might pump your fist and holler about how 'SUBSPECIES rules' or 'TRANCERS is the bomb' or something to that effect. Well regardless of where you fall on the Charles Band spectrum, or even on that of Compass International Pictures, TOURIST TRAP will surprise you. I still don't know quite what to make of it. I know that I loved it, and I know that it was goddamned terrifying. And you should know that Band's involvement here by no means defines this peculiar, shadowy, trancelike film- for better or worse.

Helmed by C-grade horror director David Schmoeller (PUPPET MASTER, CRAWLSPACE, THE SPIDER WILL KILL YOU) and co-written by Schmoeller and J. Larry Carroll (who went on to write for SHE-RA, DENNIS THE MENACE, THE SUPER MARIO BROS. SUPER SHOW, and other such celebrated examples of American Saturday morning television), your expectations might (rightfully) be pretty low. What is it that elevates this flick from 'boondocks slasher' rip-off to a quiet masterpiece of 70's horror? How about a crew defined by a dedication to genuine- and sometimes avant-garde- artistry? Check it out: TOURIST TRAP possesses ethereal, soft-focus visuals courtesy of Nicholas Josef von Sternberg (DISCO 9000, GAS PUMP GIRLS), son of- yup, Josef von Sternberg; an eerie, unsettling Italian soundtrack full of echoey wailing and offbeat woodblock/slide whistle/ominous harpsicord curiosities courtesy of Pino Donaggio (DON'T LOOK NOW, TRAUMA, PIRANHA, countless Brian de Palma flicks); and mesmerizing, mood-fitting editing by future director Ted Nicolaou (TERRORVISION, LEAPIN' LEPRECHAUNS). All of this might sound silly on the page, but, trust me, when it all comes together, it's truly special. Oh, and did I mention that this movie is all about–




A Japanese roboticist, Masahiro Mori, has a theory about this. His "uncanny valley" hypothesis puts forth the idea that humans inherently 'like' inanimate objects which imitate human behavior... to a point. The "uncanny valley" in question is the statistical drop-off which occurs as soon as they become a bit too human. We don't like our inanimate objects getting too faithful in their representations. A stuffed animal is fine. Robby the Robot is fine. A stuffed animal with eyes that follow you around the room is NOT fine. A Robot with clammy, lifelike flesh is similarly NOT fine. MANNEQUINS ARE NOT FINE. Sure, they're fine in a shop-window. They're fine in MANNEQUIN 2: ON THE MOVE. They are NOT fine A. in your home, B. in a creepy motel, C. giggling like banshees, D. ambulatory, E. applying plaster to your face until the fear of suffocation makes your heart explode inside your body; et al.

Acceptable portrayal of a mannequin.

Unacceptable portrayals of mannequins.

Let's move on to something else. Let's talk about Chuck Connors. 'All-American Chas.' 'Down-home Chucky.' THE RIFLEMAN.

He's just tryin' to eke out a living in his little neck of the woods. Sure, it might involve a macabre museum of animatronics that'd make Dr. Phibes' hair curl and a possible telekinetic brother named Davey, but, hey!

It's the Rifleman! You remember the Rifleman, right? Sure you do. The Rifleman is a stand-up guy with a square jaw and a modified Winchester carbine that he used to serve up heaping spoonfuls of justice to battalions of degenerates and he voted for Nixon and he played baseball and basketball and defended the innocent, and, in a strange turn of events even befriended Leonid Brezhnev.

But is he your garden-variety backwoods psycho or is he just a sweet old dude caught up in some sinister shit? Well, I'm not going to say any more about that, but Chuck reaches deep down and reveals that he's not just a one-trick (rugged father-figure) pony. He gets a chance to do a little bit of everything in TOURIST TRAP, and I've got to say that every bit of it is terrific.

Our stranded twenty-somethings are not nearly as boring as they would become just a few FRIDAY THE 13THs later, and the parts are likable, compelling, and, for the most part, well-acted.

Jocelyn Jones- she's the PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK happening there on the right- bears the brunt of the duties, and she accepts it, willingly, and with bug-eyed, ear-splitting élan.

In fact, now that I've unwittingly mentioned PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK, I've got to say that it fits, and somehow now leads me to a figure skating analogy, too, so look the hell out:

TOURIST TRAP attempts a TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE/PSYCHO double axel, but, once in the air, loops and transmogrifies like a great, fearsome bird and lands a perfect PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK/DON'T LOOK NOW/TWILIGHT ZONE triple lutz which elicits unexpected head-nods, hearty applause, and a standing ovation from the largely terrified crowd, who must now attend counseling for posttraumatic stress disorder- for the rest of their lives. Four and a half stars.


-Sean Gill

6. BLIND FURY (1989, Philip Noyce)
7. HIS KIND OF WOMAN (1951, John Farrow)
8. HIGH SCHOOL U.S.A. (1983, Rod Amateau)
9. DR. JEKYLL AND MS. HYDE (1995, David Price)
11. 1990: BRONX WARRIORS (1982, Enzo G. Castellari)
12. FALLING DOWN (1993, Joel Schumacher)
13. TOURIST TRAP (1979, David Schmoeller)
14. ...


J.D. said...

Wow, I haven't seen this film in ages. Didn't they just recently give this film a special edition treatment on DVD?

Chuck Connors his square-jawed all-American visage reminds me a bit of Jack Lord. Both guys I would not want to piss off.

J.D. said...

Welp, based on your review, I took a look at this film again last night and enjoyed the hell out of it. I actually felt sorry for ol' Chuck Connors. Sure, he committed double homicide and went schizo as a result but that's only because the world had passed him by and no one was visiting his creepy museum any more. Poor guy...

Sean Gill said...

Glad you enjoyed it again! That Donaggio score... the final, delirious freeze frame... it's fairly mind-blowing. And, as you say- if only more people had visited his creepy museum, perhaps all of this could have been avoided. Oh, well.

I'm not sure exactly which DVD I got from Netflix- I think it said 20th Anniversary Special Edition, and the transfer looked shockingly good for a 70's low-budget horror flick that wasn't particularly well-loved. I imagine you saw the same DVD?

And I must say that I'm sort of surprised that Charles Band had a hand in this and there was never a Tourist Trap 2. Or 3 or 4 or so on. I mean, there's 5 SUBSPECIES, 7 TRANCERS, and around 8 or so PUPPET MASTERS, to name a few.

J.D. said...

Yeah, I have the same DVD. I too was shocked to see that Band was involved and yes, that no other sequels came out afterwards! I'm sure not for a lack of trying. heh.

Also, was interested to see in the credits Ron Underwood, who would go on to direct TREMORS was listed in the crew as well as Robert Harmon who would go on to direct THE HITCHER. Small world!

Sean Gill said...

Wow- I didn't even notice Underwood's or Harmon's involvement- Who knew TOURIST TRAP was such a magnet for burgeoning genre talent?!