Friday, March 23, 2012

Tourist Trap (USA, 1979)

The feature-length debut film of the underappreciated director David Schmoeller – who went on to do other interesting genre oddities of varying quality such as Netherworld (1992, trailer), The Arrival (1991 / trailer), Puppetmaster (1989 / trailer) and Crawlspace (1986 / trailer) – is probably one of the weirdest and unjustly forgotten horror films of the Golden Age of Horror. Sure, it's one of those films you know you've heard of, that you think you've heard of, but you just don't know where or why or what was said – it simply has that ring of familiarity like, dunno, Motel Hell (1980 / trailer) or Vacancy (2007 / trailer). And like the former of the two films just named, in terms of creativity, of surreal creepiness, of total uniqueness, Tourist Trap definitely deserves a broader reputation than it has. Really, after we saw it, we could only wonder why the fuck we waited so long to pull the DVD down off our shelf.
That Tourist Trap is going to be something different is already indicated as the credits roll due to the notably eccentric main title music by Italian composer Pino Donaggio (Don't Look Now [1973 / trailer], Piranha [1978 / trailer], Dressed to Kill [1980 / trailer], The Barbarians [1987 / trailer] and dozens of other fab films), probably one of the oddest title score to ever grace a horror film. But it fits the film well, a film that may be low on gore but is nevertheless strong and nightmarish enough to deserve a higher rating than the PG it was given upon its original release. (To quote the director: "That rating stunned us. And it killed the movie.")
Which is not to say that the storyline, in its most basic summation, in any way indicates originality: a group of twens on vacation stumble upon a back-road tourist trap when their car inexplicitly breaks down and they consecutively meet their fates. Wow. How creative – a variance of a basic plotline (with or without dark stormy nights) that has been regurgitated in hundreds of ways since before Ulmer's The Black Cat (1934 / fan trailer)* on up to Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974 / trailer) and long past Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses (2003 / trailer) or the unjustly maligned 2005 version of House of Wax (trailer). But it is here that it should be pointed out that the director, David Schmoeller, attended the Universidad De Las Americas in Mexico City, where he studied with directors Luis Buñuel and Alejandro Jodorowsky – something that shows in this film, if only in a more naturalistic and earthy manner. Yes, the story is old, but damn! He sure takes it in a different direction! But for all its surrealistic horror, for all the preposterousness, for all its insane nuttiness and black humor, Tourist Trap never tips into camp or stylistic excess or intellectual pretentiousness: the film is good old fashion meat and potatoes, only the herbs and spices come from another planet. (One briefly visited planet is that of Jess Franco's 1968, surrealistic cinematic dreamscape Succubus, which is brought to mind in a short scene that echoes the death scene of Bella Olga [Nathalie Nort] in Jess Franco's far less satisfying art film.)
Initially, Tourist Trap almost seems to be a low budget version of TCM, primarily due to its off-road setting and the art direction and special effects of Robert A. Burns, who did the same job (uncredited) on Hooper's classic. But Tourist Trap takes the basic premise of the psycho hicks in the middle of nowhere a step further by adding an "über-natural" (vs. "supernatural") plot element and mannequins – an idea already explored by director David Schmoeller in his Oscar-nominated student film The Spider Will Kill You (1976) – to take the film down a side road all of its own. The road may be paved with the expected deaths of a bodycount film, but it is nevertheless a twisted journey, and the final turn is simply batshit crazy! This film is simply cool.
Another strong plus to the film that definitely deserves mention is the convincing cast, which includes the always enjoyable Chuck Connors (Walk the Dark Street [1956 / full film], Hot Rod Girl [1956 / full film], Kill Them All and Come Back Alone [1968/ German trailer], Soylent Green [1973 / trailer] and Last Flight to Hell [1990 / trailer]) as Mr. Slausen, the owner of the tourist trap, and a young and undeniably hubba-hubba Tanya Roberts (Forced Entry [1975 / trailer], The Beastmaster [1982 / trailer] and A View to a Kill [1985 / trailer] braless in a tube top** as the not-Final-Girl Becky – were this the only film of hers that we had ever seen, we would even say she can act. Rounding out the two above-mentioned names are the equally game but less known Jocelyn Jones (The Great Texas Dynamite Chase [1976 / trailer]) as the prim Molly, Jon Van Ness (Hospital Massacre [1982 / full film] and The Hitcher [1986 / trailer]) as the wanna-be hero Jerry, Robin Sherwood (Death Wish II [1982 / trailer]) as Eileen, who just has to go outside alone, and Keith McDermott as Woody, whose death, which virtually opens the film with a bang, also promptly reveals that Tourist Trap is not a by-the-numbers. Y'all did good, folks! Have a beer on me!
And as for the rest of you: watch this undeservedly underappreciated film now. You won't regret it.
*OK, you're right: the people taking shelter in The Black Cat aren't twens, but the core set-up of strangers stuck in the middle of nowhere endangered by those they take shelter with is the same basic generic situation.
**No full-frontal nekkid booby scenes in this film, kids – Darn!

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