September 5, 2020

Labor Day Weekend Travel Advisory: Avoid Roadside Tourist Traps

Poster - Tourist Trap (1979)
Now Playing: Tourist Trap (1979)

Pros: Adds a layer of surreal eeriness to the slasher genre; Pays clever homage to traditional horror tropes.
Cons: Based on your tolerance, it may require more suspension of disbelief than usual.

As the Covid-19 quarantine has ground many of us down to frazzled nubs of human beings, it’s perhaps not surprising that some sources are predicting that millions are going to say “screw it” this holiday weekend and hit the open road like it’s still 2019.

Well, maybe not exactly like 2019. Predictably, airline, rail and cruise ship bookings are way, way down. AAA estimates that when Labor Day closes the books on the summer of 2020, 97% of Americans’ travel will have been by car. Oil company executives are no doubt rubbing their bony, rapacious hands with glee as people in droves climb into cars and RVs to escape cabin fever.

There are just so many Netflix shows you can binge, boxed mac and cheese meals you can eat, and four grimey walls you can stare at before your brain and body rebel. It’s perfectly natural to want to mix things up, but hopefully people’s travel plans include prudent social distancing, mask-wearing and avoidance of maniacal killers.

Of course, there are plenty of homebodies who won’t be joining the fevered flight down America’s highways and byways. We all know the type (or maybe we are the type) -- hearth, home, family and familiar routines are reward enough. They (we) may even be relieved to be in quarantine, as there’s no pressure to leave the comforts of home.

And then there is that tiny fraction of homebodies who have built their comfortable surroundings on top of the bodies of unfortunate travelers and itinerants who have happened to wander into their lairs.

We tend to think of serial killers as predators in constant motion, stalking their prey and striking in deserted streets and victims’ homes. But a significant number of killers have been more like spiders patiently waiting for the next meal to stumble into their carefully crafted webs.

H.H. Holmes infamously built an ostensible hotel and “murder castle” near the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, where people would check in, but never check out. Lavinia Fisher, reputed to be America’s first female serial killer, slyly interviewed travelers staying at the roadhouse she managed with her husband to determine if they were worth murdering.

Similarly, Tourist Trap is all about the spider waiting for the fly, but in this case at a dilapidated roadside attraction sitting on a forgotten stretch of road.

When one of the cars in a two-car caravan of vacationing young people gets a flat tire, Woody (Keith McDermott) goes looking for help, but stumbles upon a deserted gas station fronting a shabby roadside museum, “Slausen’s Lost Oasis,” that looks like it hasn’t seen a visitor in years.

The film quickly gets down to business. Woody becomes trapped in a room at the back of the gas station that seems to have life of its own. The door is locked as if by an invisible hand, and then suddenly grotesque mannequins are hurling themselves through windows and out of closets and even bottles on a shelf shoot out at the panicked youngster. As he tears at the door trying to get out, a hollow pipe shoots across the room like a missile, embedding itself in his back, and everything becomes eerily quiet.

Keith McDermott as Woody in Tourist Trap (1979)
Woody is having no fun in the "Lost Oasis" escape room.

When Woody doesn’t come back, the rest of the group -- Eileen, Becky, Molly and Jerry -- pile into Jerry’s jeep to search for their friend.

They too end up as the “Oasis,” where the Jeep mysteriously breaks down. They meet the proprietor, Mr. Slausen (Chuck Connors), who seems like a garden-variety hayseed eccentric, complaining to the kids about the decline of his business since the opening of a new expressway.

Slausen takes the group over to the museum, where they gape at a bizarre assortment of mannequins dressed in costume, including a western gunfighter, a civil war soldier, and even General George Armstrong Custer in his own special alcove. When the group splits up (never a good idea in a horror movie) -- Jerry (Jon Van Ness) going with Slausen to fix the jeep, Eileen (Robin Sherwood) taking off to the main house behind the museum in search of a phone, and Molly (Jocelyn Jones) and Becky (Tanya Roberts) staying behind with the creepy mannequins -- the trap is set.

Slausen (Chuck Connors) gives a tour of his museum, Tourist Trap (1979)
Slausen gives the gang a tour of his house of horrors, er, wax museum.

Tourist Trap
checks off all the elements of the traditional slasher: a group of fun-loving, naive kids; car failure; characters heading off by themselves in spite of warnings; a final girl; and of course, a masked homicidal maniac. But the film adds a surreal, sci-fi element to the proceedings that makes it stand out from the late ‘70s/early ‘80s pack of slashers.

Per form, healthy young people die in a variety of grisly ways at the hands of a batshit crazy killer, but the film adds a fever dream layer to the proceedings. Everyday objects can seemingly move around on their own volition. Nothing and no one can be trusted, including scarves, chairs, bottles, lead pipes… 

And then there are the mannequins. They’re everywhere in the museum and main house, sitting in parlors, standing in hallways, situated in every nook and cranny and seemingly preferring the shadows. Some are uncannily realistic, others generic department store, but by sheer numbers they up the creepiness factor by several orders of magnitude. Plus, some of them have the disconcerting ability to follow you with their eyes and drop their jaws and scream at climactic points. Director (and co-writer) David Schmoeller cleverly inserts live actors among the dummies in the shadows to keep the audience off-guard.

He also pays homage to films like Mystery of the Wax Museum and House of Wax with an intense scene located in a basement workshop. Jerry and Becky, who have been captured and tied up, watch helplessly as the madman, wearing a chilling mask and bizarrely dressed in ill-fitting formal attire complete with top hat, attends to an unidentified girl strapped to a table (apparently the vacationing youngsters aren’t the only ones who have fallen into the Lost Oasis trap). The maniac slathers plaster over the face of the terrified girl, all the while describing what will happen to her as the plaster hardens and dries. Yikes!

The harrowing basement scene, Tourist Trap (1979)
The Phantom of The Lost Oasis channels Lionel Atwill and Vincent Price.

Another scene -- the obligatory chase through the woods at night -- ups the weirdness factor considerably. It’s one thing to be chased by your standard ax-wielding maniac. But poor Molly gets a double dose of terror by being pursued and tormented by the masked weirdo and his friend, a detached mannequin’s head that has a demonic life of its own. It’s a ventriloquist act from Hell, and Molly is not amused.

As the film races to its climax and the ranks of the youngsters thin out, the ranks of the mannequins seem to multiply into a veritable army. They surround and almost smother the final girl, who is rapidly losing her mind.

Slausen seems to be everywhere too, giving aid, comfort and sympathy to the innocent youngsters even as they’re cut down one by one by a force they can’t begin to comprehend. At each juncture, he provides a piece of backstory -- a beautiful wife who died young; a troubled, jealous brother -- that provide clues to the insane mystery.

Chuck Connors as Slausen in Tourist Trap (1979)
Slausen and his star attraction.

Oldsters like myself will no doubt take note of Chuck Connors’ presence in the film, which is a long way, chronologically and thematically, from his signature role as the upstanding Lucas McCain in The Rifleman TV series (1958-1963).

Jack Palance, among others, was reportedly offered the role before Connors. While a lot of fans apparently believe that Palance would have been a perfect fit, he was a very intimidating (not to mention urbane) figure, and from the very beginning would have been a bright red flag signalling danger ahead. Connors’ rough-hewn folksiness is not only a better fit for the backwoods setting, it lures the protagonists and the audience into a false sense of security and familiarity, making the ensuing developments all the more ominous and effective.

The other notable name is Tanya Roberts (Becky), who, shortly after Tourist Trap, joined the cast of Charlie’s Angels in the show’s last season. She leveraged that fame into becoming a Bond girl in A View to a Kill and securing a role in the cult favorite The Beastmaster before taking the acting escalator down to the direct-to-video market and the occasional TV appearance.

The terrifying chase through the woods, Tourist Trap (1979)
"Say hello to my little friend!"

This was director David Schmoeller’s first feature-length film. He would go on to other horror projects, most notably the very creepy Crawlspace with Klaus Kinski, and the franchise-spawning Puppet Master for Charles Band.

Tourist Trap is a low-budget cinematic attraction that has something for everyone (at least in the horror community): slasher fans will appreciate its concessions to and variations on the genre, and conventional horror fans will appreciate its masterful handling of surreal suspense and weird set pieces. Especially the mannequins, the creepy, creepy mannequins.

Where to find it: Tourist Trap is currently available on DVD, Blu-ray, and to rent; a new “VHS Retro Big Box collection” (Blu-ray & DVD) is due out in November, 2020.

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