This week's Full Moon Fever selection was suggested by @LovelyZena.
Is there a difference between a movie that is good and one that is effective? And doesn't a film that's really effective just become good?
That describes 1979's Tourist Trap, a movie that feels cheap and crudely made but is so effectively creepy that it's good by default. A horror movie that looks very '70s but contains a lot of '80s weirdness, Tourist Trap comes from Charles Band's early days. It predates Full Moon Features. It even predates Empire International Pictures. It was released under the Charles Band Productions label, and while it's much more of a straightforward horror film than many of the titles eventually released under Band's labels, it certainly hints at his future fascination with puppets and dolls come to life. The difference here is that the dolls are life-size.
The power of Tourist Trap is that it's played straight despite the constant use of what JB wrote about last week as "magical realism." The movie looks and feels a lot like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in that it focuses on a group of young people taking a trip, breaking down and getting stranded at some obscure, out-of-the-way house cluttered with stuff (the same art director, Robert Burns, is responsible for both movies). It is the prototypical Bad Place. But in addition to the believable, claustrophobic, house-that-time-forgot atmosphere -- which in and of itself would be kind of scary -- there are a bunch of mannequins that come to life. No explanation is offered as to why this happens. There is no stupid scene where we see the villain putting a spell on them or any ancient curse at work. People are turned into mannequins. Mannequins come to life. That's just show shit works in Tourist Trap. And it's fucking terrifying.
The crudity and and the low-fi aesthetic end up making the movie even scarier. There is something that feels "safe" about slickly-produced horror; it is made with a lot of money and resources, and with that come business interests that must be protected. We know they're not going to go too far or really shake us up and. The status quo will ultimately be maintained. But independent and "fringe" horror isn't beholden to any bottom line or any crowd-pleasing sensibilities. Despite its PG rating, a movie like Tourist Trap is scary because we don't know what the filmmakers are capable of. It's rough, but its roughness works in its favor. It's not playing by any rules we know. And it feels like it was made by crazy people.
Like Texas Chain Saw, the movie is about people who live on the fringes -- failed capitalists abandoned by "progress" who begin using humans to create their product. There's a scary idea in there whether it's 1979 or today, when the disenfranchised 99% could choose to rise up and begin turning their neighbors into mannequins or chili (or mannequin chili, which actually isn't that bad if you pluck the mannequins first). Tourist Trap isn't really interested in scaring us with ideas, though. It's more about being unsettling in the moment, mixing visuals that don't quite compute (the faces are human enough, but missing eyes...and the mouths don't move properly...) with story beats that defy the reality that we know. Pino Donaggio's score goes a long way towards making the movie so supremely creepy, too. It starts as a catchy, whimsical little funhouse melody before segueing into string-heavy nightmare music. It's a fantastic score.
And it stays with you. A lot of Tourist Trap does, really. The story is thin and mostly forgettable. The performances of the teenage victims (among them a young Tanya Roberts of The Beastmaster) are, for the most part, generic. Even Chuck Conners, who gives what comes closest to a memorable performance in the movie, isn't what will remain in your head in the days after seeing it. No, it's an image here, a scare there, the sound design, Donaggio's score. Too often there is a temptation to call movies without a strong narrative structure "dreamlike" -- it's the word we assign to explain a story that floats from memorable beat to memorable beat while ignoring the lack of connective tissue. It's a habit I'm trying to break, but only after I suggest that Tourist Trap feels dreamlike.
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