One of my favorite past times as a kid was going into a video store and spending my visit in the horror section, among the gallery of VHS covers. They were tattered and faded, some misshapen from a decade-long of hands squeezing the box so the customer could really take in the cover’s images. There were the tapes that had no covers, their plastic cases like see-thru coffins, doomed to never be rented without an image to sell them. The only thing you knew were the title and their distributor ; Vestron, Canon, Full Moon or New Line Cinema, to name a few. In fact, you felt lucky enough just to be holding the physical copy of a film that otherwise is likely bringing in little profit for the store. But when you found a good one, you never forgot it.
I remember the first time I saw the box for TOURIST TRAP. On the cover was a bizarre face screaming at you, appearing to be human but mostly artificial in some way. It was androgynous with the mouth, agape, having more similarities to a crude ventriloquist dummy. At a quick glance, you’d think it was the cover of Ken Russell’s “Tommy” by The Who. With a second glance you would’ve sworn it was Leatherface. More than likely, as a marketing plea, these striking similarities were not accidental. It was the tag line that caused the most intrigue for me–“Every year young people disappear”. It was brilliantly vague and your mind immediately flooded with scenarios that the tagline could be eluding to. What happens to these young people?
As the story goes: five youths are taking a road trip. While the rest are in a separate car, Woody and Eileen get a flat. If you know your sacred horror tropes, you already know this isn’t going to end well (why these kids never get tune ups before long trips, I’ll never know) The other three arrive to find Eileen, waiting along side the car. She informs them that Woody has walked to the nearest gas station. Upon arriving at the station, he finds it to be seemingly deserted. After calling out, he enters the back room, but he finds it empty. One of my favorite elements of this setup is director David Scmoeller’s use of silence. There’s very little sound until Woody opens the far door and out bursts the first scare–a figure with a mannequin head, that has the warped face of an old man, is crudely fashioned onto a spring-activated base. To make things worse, a maniacal recorded laugh emits from it, sounding like something you’d hear on an old “dark ride”.
Let me also quickly say, one of the other things I’ve come to appreciate about this opening sequence is that it’s all happening in broad daylight. Ironically, its the opposite of HALLOWEEN‘s brilliant stark-shadowed opening. When Woody initially enters the room, it’s bright and warmly lit–almost relaxing. With a few exceptions up to this point, horror films have taught that us that no harm will come to us in daylight. Turning that expectation on its head is another example of the film’s unsettling mood. I’d be surprised if THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE wasn’t another inspiration to the film considering thats most of its famous scenes also took place in broad daylight.
When you think TOURIST TRAP can’t get any stranger..it does, spinning a supernatural twist into the story with scares throughout that are equally effective even after the impressive beginning. We’re soon introduced to the creepy house nearby and the masked man from the cover who, in what has to be one of the more uncomfortable and disturbing deaths of the earlier slasher films imaginable, covers a girls face in plaster while two others are forced to witness her suffocation. There’s also something to be said for Pino Donaggio’s eerily effective score as well, its childlike qualities with wood blocks and slide whistles only adds another unsettling layer onto the film. If this all isn’t enough, it gets even more bizarre, culminating in such a head-scratching finale that it’s known to cause some unintended laughter.
This was the second film produced by Irwin Yablans and distributed by Compass International, after their first, which was a little sleeper hit called HALLOWEEN (directed by some guy who never went anywhere named John Carpenter). They were similar in production, running on limited time with the intense passion of a devoted crew and a scarily-low amount of money which, by the standards of today’s obscene film budgets, wouldn’t even cover a week of catering. In some cases, it’s these circumstances that made the films as good as they are–It’s rare but it does happen.
Although, initially a financial let-down, it has since become a cult favorite and gotten the attention it deserves. I wasn’t the only one it left an impression on. The film went on to become an influence on the equally underrated 2005 reimagining of HOUSE OF WAX. Its director, Jaume Collet-Serra (who also helmed the wonderfully crafted 2009 thriller, ORPHAN) has sited it as one of the major influences on his film. TOURIST TRAP is definitely a unique, bonafide creepfest and unlike anything you have ever seen in the slasher genre. Its definitely held up well although it would be nice to have a special edition by someone like Scream Factory who would really give it the appreciation it deserves.