Cable Box Confessions: TOURIST TRAP

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“Dad, will you get the Movie Channel for me?”

Thus began my education in slasher cinema, a rite of passage familiar to many a 12-year-old boy back in the early 80’s. Mind you, I wasn’t imploring my dad to order me a subscription to TMC. I just wanted him to do that little trick he had learned quite by accident one day as he channel surfed and discovered a flaw in how TV providers protected their premium content. It was the early days of cable, you see, and instead of the sophisticated digital decoders you pay a fortune to rent these days, all you got was this rectangular black box with an analog dial on the front. As he turned the dial, my dad–the observant guy that he is–noticed that for a split second, the scrambled picture you normally saw on the pay channels cleared up. So he tinkered with the dial a bit, delicately positioning it between channels, and voila! Scrambled TMC suddenly became viewable TMC–minus the monthly fee, of course.

And oh, the wondrous possibilities that opened up!  We soon found that the same method worked on other channels. HBO and Cinemax were next door neighbors on the knob–and with just the right placement of a cardboard wedge beneath, getting them got easy enough so that I could do it all by myself.  The Movie Channel always remained my go-to choice, though, because it always seemed as if they had the coolest stuff–especially if you had really started to dig scary movies, and wanted to move beyond the commercial-laden offerings of the local Saturday afternoon Creature Feature.

Even so, the pickings were slim back then, which meant that TMC mostly just ran the same handful of movies over and over again. A lot of them also tended to be pretty obscure titles, which were cheap to license–and, more importantly, filled broadcast time between A-list films like Chinatown. That’s how I ended up seeing flicks like Starcrash and Battle Beyond the Stars, and also how I came across a little horror gem called Tourist Trap, which turned out to be a defining moment in my love of the genre.

I dare you not to be freaked out

You know those movies that really mess you up as a kid?  Well, for me that was Tourist Trap.  Sure, it may have been a grindhouse quickie with a budget that would have made Roger Corman look like a spendthrift by comparison, but damn if it didn’t stick with me.  The setup is familiar enough for slasher fans:  a group of kids on a road trip get stuck in the middle of nowhere, nightmare hijinks ensue.  But rather than just dropping a bunch of character tropes into a meat-grinder, first-time director (and co-writer) David Schmoeller actually establishes a genuinely creepy mood, which gets off to a raring start from the very first scene–and the very first kill.

Oh, and did I mention it comes at the hands of mannequins?

hate mannequins.

Yes, even this one.

You know those department store dummies with no heads?  They used to give me nightmares when I was little.  To this day, when I’m stressed, those bastards will sometimes shamble back into my dreams and chase me through an abandoned amusement park or a Montgomery Ward or whatever, and I’ll wake up in a cold sweat cursing the darkness.  Well, as a preteen that shit was still fresh in my head, and when I saw it made manifest in this here movie, let’s just say that it made a lasting impression–much like the scar left from that time I accidentally beaned myself with a tire iron.  Throughout the years, and after all the scary films I’ve seen, I’ve never forgotten the dread I felt at watching those hapless kids live through my own personal terror.

But does the Tourist Trap I knew as an eighth grader still hold up to middle-aged me?  Well, to answer that question I gave it a spin on Shudder the other night, with the lights turned out and after everyone else went to bed, duplicating the conditions from my youth–and I have to say, that same creepy fascination remains, even if some of it can be attributed to nostalgia.  The characters, with the exception of Chuck Connors’ telekinetic psychopath Mr. Slausen, are paper-thin, to be sure, and the film could have been a lot scarier if we actually cared about what happened to them.  But the story itself is fairly well-crafted, and you can tell that Schmoeller has a good handle on what he wants the film to be and a firm command of mood and tone.  For a kind of movie where incompetence would have sunk the end result much faster than a low budget, that’s really saying something.

And those mannequins.

Couple of interesting notes I picked up about the film:

  • The producers wanted to cast an older, known actor in the role of Mr. Slausen, and ended up with Chuck Connors after Jack Palance turned it down.
  • Connors was definitely cast against type, as he was primarily known for good-guy roles, primarily the TV series The Rifleman, in which he starred for five years.
  • Schmoeller originally wanted John Carpenter to direct, but couldn’t come to an agreement over money.
  • The film features a pre-Charlie’s Angels and View to a Kill (not to mention brunette) Tanya Roberts.
  • The vast majority of the film’s minuscule budget went to Connors’ salary.
  • You won’t find much gore here.  In fact, Tourist Trap was tame enough to earn a PG rating.

That said, there’s plenty left to get under your skin, including:

  • That aforementioned opening scene, in which a mannequin head rolls across the floor, turns to the first victim, and howls like a banshee.  Talk about nightmare fuel.
  • Slausen’s psycho mask, which is weird and unsettling and downright terrifying.
  • Tanya Roberts’ death scene, which involves an animatronic Indian and a rusty knife to the back of her head.  ‘Nuff sed.
  • The way Slausen taunts one of his victims, as he straps her to a table and slowly smothers her by covering her face in plaster.  Heebie-jeebies for life, man.

So if you’re a tourist of terror, there are far worse traps you can find yourself in.  You won’t even have to jiggle the dial to get it.

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