Ten years before collaborating on the successful cult classic Puppet Master, director David Schmoeller and producer Charles Band created Tourist Trap, a bizarre lost-in-the-wilderness thriller that sees a group of young friends falling foul of a devilish museum of mannequins. Starring screen legend Chuck Connors and Charlie’s Angels beauty Tanya Roberts, the movie failed to make much of an impact upon its initial release but has since gained a reputation as a lost oddity. Full of bizarre imagery and a genuinely creepy villain, Tourist Trap is one of the most impressive and overlooked post-Texas Chainsaw Massacre rural slashers, inspired by an earlier Schmoeller short The Spider Will Kill You. Although Band would go onto greater acclaim through his work with Empire and Full Moon, his seventies output (which included Mansion of the Doomed) would remain his most effective.
Having experienced a burst tyre, Woody (Keith McDermott) heads down a deserted country road to look for a gas station where he can pump up his spare. With the sun beating down on him, he tries to cool himself down but finds that his flask is empty. Meanwhile, Eileen (Robin Sherwood) has been left with the car, where she is picked up by their friends; Becky (Roberts), Jerry (Jon Van Ness), and Molly (Jocelyn Jones). Woody eventually finds himself at an out-of-the-way station and heads into the diner, but is unable to find any help. But a strange noise from the back room grabs his attention and he goes in to investigate, where he finds a figure lying in the corner whimpering. Ill-advised, he leans forward and tried to make the person but suddenly it sits up to reveal itself as a creepy mannequin, which laughs menacingly as the door slams shut behind him.
He soon realizes there is no escape when suddenly a dummy’s head crashes through the window. Opening a door, a hairless mannequin bursts out and shakes back-to-front on a spring as the three figures begin to laugh frantically at him. He tries to break out through the door but as he reaches his arm through the hole something grabs his hand, keeping him from running as objects begin to randomly fly towards him, metal pipe eventually finding its way into his back. As they search for their friend, the group stumble upon a sign for Slausen’s Lost Oasis and find Woody’s tyre discarded by the side of the road. Soon enough, the jeep breaks down, forcing Jerry to try to fix it as the girls take a dip in the water. But whilst her friends strip off and take a swim, Molly seems reluctant at first but finally relents. Mr. Slausen (Connors), the elderly owner of the property, appears at the shore with a shotgun, immediately claiming how he used to charge visitors to swim but the tourist trade has since dried up.
The kind old man offers to tow their car to his house where he can try to fix the problem. Arriving at what was once his tourist museum, they discover a house filled with mannequins, where he explains that once his wife had died all he had left was ‘this junk and my memories.’ Molly takes a liking to the old man, feeling sorry for his lonely life. Mr. Slausen explains that his brother had designed the mannequins but his talents had developed so much that he had been hired by the city. But when he reveals that he is based in the museum and only ‘Davey’ Crockett (Shailar Coby) lives at the house Eileen grows suspicious. Ignoring his warning of not wandering outside due to wild coyotes, she lets the curiosity get the better of her and suddenly vanishes. But when her friends grow worried and try to find her, they discover the shocking truth about the museum.
Tourist Trap’s weakest asset is the acting, with the attractive cast lacking any distinctive characteristics or screen charisma. Jones, in particular, makes for a feeble final girl, almost sleepwalking through her role, although the sexual appeal of Roberts helps keep Becky interesting. Connors is suitably creepy in his role as the old man who may not be what he seems, but the remaining performers are generic and lack sympathy. The script borrows heavily from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (a group of kids find an old gas station, they trespass where they are not welcome and are eventually dispatched by a bulking-yet-effeminate killer) but has enough originality and suspense to provide enough genuinely unsettling moments. The concept of city slickers wandering too far into the wilderness and angering the locals has been re-used countless times since Deliverance but it is such an interesting premise Schmoeller (and co-writer J. Larry Carroll) manage to craft an interesting tale.
By far the film’s most impressive elements are the special effects and production design, performed by Richard O. Helmer (Apocalypse Now) and Robert A. Burns (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), respectively. The mannequins prove to be the most chilling feature, their blank expressions and unsettling laughter creating an eerie atmosphere. One sequence in particular that lingers in the memory is when one victim is literally transformed into a dummy, her face being drowned in plaster. The one plot point that never quite works is the telekinesis, which takes away from the realistic elements of the story and instead lifts it into the supernatural, immediately diluting the constant sense of dread much of the film employs. Whilst the end result is somewhat disjointed, Tourist Trap is still an effective and unique horror that still stands as arguably Charles Band’s best effort.