At this year’s Crypticon KC, I found myself at Charles Band’s booth, signing up for Full Moon Streaming and walking away from the table with an armload of free merchandise for my trouble. One of those was a Blu-ray of Tourist Trap, which I had never heard of previously but which promised to feature a wax museum, and since I’m a total sucker for wax museum movies, I had to check it out.
Directed by David Schmoeller who is better known for Crawlspace (1986) and the original Puppetmaster film, it’s a kind of incredibly bizarre PG-rated proto-slasher from the days before the slasher boom, coming in the year between Halloween and Friday the 13th. As such, it weirdly cribs from prior, better movies and at the same time prefigures all sorts of later ones, from Friday itself to the 2005 House of Wax remake, which almost feels like it had to have been made by people who had seen Tourist Trap.
While I was lured in by the promise of a wax museum, and while the movie assured me repeatedly that this was a wax museum, it actually more closely resembled a mannequin museum, which, to be fair, will also do nicely, and is maybe even more creepy. Also, the sort of weird quasi-magic implied by the killer’s ability to turn people into mannequins, rather than just covering their corpses in wax, is nicely surreal. In fact, the whole movie is pretty surreal, in spite of its rather by-the-numbers plot, which goes a long way toward making it hold up better than it otherwise would.
It stars a whole lot of nobody very famous, though lantern-jawed Chuck Connors does a good job as the killer (that’s technically a spoiler, but you’ll figure it out pretty quickly on your own) and one of the disposable girls went on to be a Charlie’s Angel. Where its pedigree becomes more interesting is in the crew, with a suitably bizarre score by Pino Donaggio, who was in town working on Joe Dante’s Piranha while Tourist Trap was being filmed, and art direction by Robert Burns, who had previously worked on Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes (and it shows) and who probably went a long way toward defining the creepy look of the titular roadside attraction.
All that is enough to make Tourist Trap a historical oddity, of academic interest to those with a yen for horror history, but fortunately Tourist Trap has something else going for it. It’s heavy on the stalking and light on the kills, and those it does have are mostly bloodless, hence the PG rating, and its tone and pacing have been described, pretty accurately, as “baffling,” but there’s one odd trait that keeps the movie interesting, even as the pacing drags. See, the slasher in Tourist Trap may have all the gimmicks that we’ve come to expect from later slasher movies, but he’s also got completely unexplained telekinetic powers, which allow him to, among other things, control his mannequins and bring them to a semblance of life. While the angle is mostly used to have creepily trap-jawed mannequin heads shriek at people, it’s weird enough to make the production more than just a historical curiosity.
In his book on horror Danse Macabre, no less an authority than Stephen King claimed that Tourist Trap “wields an eerie, spooky power,” a line that is wisely provided as the pull quote on the back of the Blu-ray. He’s not exactly wrong, but it’s also the nicest thing you’ll likely ever see anyone say about Tourist Trap. As might be expected from the guy who would later bring us Puppetmaster, it’s a movie whose ideas outstrip their execution, but it’s also a film that’s simultaneously formulaic and unlike any other film I’ve ever seen, so it’s probably worth your time, especially if you want an obscure snapshot of an odd point in the history of the American horror flick that also features telekinetically-controlled mannequins.