One week a month, Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. Because it’s Horrors Week here at The A.V. Club, we’re highlighting some of the best unsung slasher movies.
In his 1981 book of essays Danse Macabre, future Maximum Overdrive director Stephen King took a moment to acknowledge another master of inanimate terror by endorsing Tourist Trap, referring to it as one of those rare gems that are “the horror film fan’s reward” for sifting through endless crude B-pictures. That lover of creepy dummies was producer Charles Band, whose films about tiny terrors and killer dolls would later come to define his career.
Tourist Trap was released in 1979, part of the post-Halloween glut of slasher flicks every studio was then scrambling to get into theaters. Stylistically, however, it owes more to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, building a story around hulking redneck recluse Mr. Slausen (The Rifleman star Chuck Connors) and his deranged telekinetic “brother,” who dons a stiff, ventriloquist-style mask before kidnapping and killing anyone who has the misfortune of stumbling upon the family’s crumbling roadside museum. It’s not nearly as gory as Tobe Hooper’s film, however; although undoubtedly a slasher movie—you still get the co-eds in tube tops and shorts running around and screaming—this is a rare PG example of the genre, with little gore and zero nudity. (Director David Schmoeller, who would go on to direct Puppet Master for Band, blamed the film’s poor box-office showing on its lack of an “R” rating, proving that the ’70s truly were a different time.)
In the absence of gratuitous violence, what makes Tourist Trap a worthy, if minor, entry into the classic slasher canon is its sheer oddity. Nearly every surface inside Slausen’s house/museum is covered with mannequin limbs, torsos, and heads, enhancing the Texas Chain Saw vibe as well as providing a place for our imperiled protagonists to hide from the killer, Jurassic Park-style, by standing perfectly still. Things get even weirder when those mannequins come to life, turning around and lunging at (okay, more like tipping over and falling on) their victims with a breathy sigh and a bizarre slide-whistle sound effect. What keeps it all from becoming high camp is the film’s eerie atmosphere and unsettling childlike quality, which sucks the viewer into a nightmarish alternate reality with such plainspoken innocence that we have no choice but to accept it at face value.
Availability: Tourist Trap is available on DVD from Amazon, Netflix, and possibly your local video store/library. It’s also currently streaming on Shudder, and is free to stream on Amazon with a Prime subscription.