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CampBlood Reviews: Senseless Rants from a Picky Sissy

 

Tourist Trap David Schmoeller 1979

The Film that Launched a Thousand Shits

House of 1000 Shits, that is. Side by side, the comparison is almost laughable, especially considering how enormously inferior the Rob Zombie version is when lined up to its far classier and scarier older cousin. Imagine casting Marilyn Monroe and Anna Nicole Smith as siamese twins and you've got the idea.

The similarities are endless. You've got kids on the backroads. You've got a creepy roadside museum. You've got an old house that holds murderous family secrets, and more domestic pageantry and diorama-fetish than any one film rightfully deserves. You've got a final girl in a white dress running around in the woods. You've got seventies-fabulous hair.

But unlike House of 88 Wasted Minutes, you've also got scares. You've got atmosphere. You've got motivated camera moves and deliberate direction. You've got a story and characters that don't mysteriously appear or disappear from the plot for no apparent reason. And most importantly, you don't have Karen Black's gums, Sheri Moon's helium voice, or bunny suits to ruin everything.

The film begins as all films should: with a shot of a young, hot man's sweaty, shirtless torso walking down a highway in the blazing sun. Wasting zero time on exposition (a fact that one could argue will come back to haunt us later, pace-wise), the film immediately establishes what's going on: deranged mannequins are killing people at an abandoned gas station. I think. With hardly even a suggestion of location, time period, or anything, a guy who we will later learn is a main character (no "one day earlier" random opening kill, like Wrong Turn or Lover's Lane) wanders into a building and is terrorized by the most aggressive and horrifying assortment of dummies this side of America's Next Top Model. Efficient and to-the-point, the filmmakers have established some important things: this movie is hopelessly and deliciously tied to its decade of origin, to the point of being a museum piece; the folks behind the film have a sick sense of humor and enjoy working your expectations against you; and most importantly, mannequins, when used properly, can be incredibly disturbing.

We then move to the poor guy's friends, who are an unusually likeable group of whores and prissies for a movie like this. For one, they're mostly female, which is nice. And for two, only one of the women is a whore/bitch, unlike many slashers that seem to delight in offering every loathable female they can muster in 90 minutes. The final girl announces her arrival like an invading army carrying a flag over a hill by first appearing in a genuinely disconcerting Nellie Olsen white dress/sunbonnet combo, complete with pigtails and bug-eyes. The girls skinny-dip while the fella works on the truck, and are of course instantly accosted by the local Ugly White Man (Chuck Connors - who, although he sounds like either an action star or an athlete, is neither), who may as well be the cousin to Farmer Vincent in the movie that may as well be the cousin to Tourist Trap, Motel Hell.

Connors takes the kids up to his museum of sorts, which would later be raped, beaten, and hung out to dry by Rob Zombie and company, and heads back down to the truck with the fella while the girls hang out and naturally start to uncover his checkered past while getting a little too curious about the giant mansion out back. Eileen, the bitchy one, is the first to venture in, and in one of the scariest scenes I've seen in a hell of a long time, wanders through rooms filled with mannequins with eyes that follow her, and upon trying on a hideous orange scarf, is set upon by a giant person with a creepy articulated mannequin face (apparently he didn't think orange was her color, either). Using unseen hands (psychic powers?!), the mannequin man strangles Eileen, much to the relief of the audience.
Back in the museum, the other two gals are chatting until Mr. Slausen returns and scares the bejeesus out of them. He seems a bit alarmed that Eileen went into the house… and this is where things get tricky.

From this point to the end of the film, each character gets caught by the big mannequin person and then escapes at least twice, sometimes more. Mr. Slausen slips in and out of scenes like a wet mink, gaining and losing your trust, and confusing things quite a bit. I honestly can't remember much else about what happens until Becky (Tanya Roberts. Yes, that Tanya Roberts) gets a bunch of wavering mannequins dropped on her and later gets tied up under a stairwell, where she has to watch another random girl who has never been seen or mentioned before get her face covered in cookie dough and suffocate at the hands of the Doll Face Killah, who at this point is dressed up like the Amazing Mumford from Sesame Street. Before you can say "A la peanut butter sandwiches!", they're loose again, and then caught, and then Tanya gets a knife in the back of her head and that's pretty much it for her.

Meanwhile, Nellie - I mean, Molly (Jocelyn Jones) - is having a tough time of getting away from this mess but no trouble at all keeping her white dress clean as a fresh tablecloth. Until she hikes it up to hide in the water from Mr. Slausen (who of course is the killer), who magically appears in the water behind her (psychic powers and teleporting powers? Some guys get all the luck…) and takes her home to be his new bride (seeing as how he killed his first one). Jerry (the fella) turns up to save her, but he ends up being a mannequin animated by Mr. Slausen's powers and that's pretty much a dead end. Luckily, though, Slausen is much more interested in dancing around with a mannequin that looks like his dead wife than Molly, and she takes an opportunity to whack him in the neck with an axe, grab the mannequinned bodies of her friends, and get the fuck outta dodge. She speeds away into the morning with 4 corpses in her convertible like Tommy Mattola after a Miami coke bender.

Sure, it's slow at times. Sure, the whole "turning people into mannequins that turn into people" thing is confusing and full of holes. And the fact that Slausen is crazy, multiple personality, telepathic, AND a cross-dresser is just a bit greedy, in my book. But the fact that this film can deliver up so much atmosphere and so many intensely creepy scenes - and all within a PG rating! - makes it worth it. Director David Schmoeller, in his directorial debut, would never again achieve such singular and inspired creepiness (especially in the dozen or so Puppet Master movies he would go on to write), but here he has contributed a true classic to the genre that delivers smart story and visceral scares alike.

Rating (out of 5):