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Review: ‘Tourist Trap’ (1979) – An Underseen Classic

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Review: 'Tourist Trap' (1979) - An Underseen Classic

The 70s were pretty good for masked killers haunting heretofore unexplored locales. We’re talking about the decade of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. After all, the only thing scarier than being lost in Texas is Leatherface himself. It was a strange time in American history, and that was reflected in a lot of the pop culture of the time. America was turning inward, reexamining the cost of decades of hypernationalism. Suddenly, there was no longer some foreign other to scapegoat. Domestic disasters were dominating news cycles. Gone were the picket-fenced “simpler” times of prosperity, and in their place was a nation that grew uglier with each crisis.

Great time for horror, though!

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was, intentionally or not, a direct reflection of post-Vietnam fear at home. And Tourist Trap feels like an earnest stepsibling of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, just a little more revved-up and over-the-top.

Tourist Trap Torch

“Ka-pow… Ka-pow… Ka-pow! THEEEE RIFLEMAN!” That’s how I was first introduced to actor Chuck Connors, a full 55 years after he starred in that namesake role. I was a generation or two late to be caught up in the Howdy Doody/Hopalong cowboy fervor. But Chuck Connors was there in the right place at the right time! The towering sonofabitch was just about as perfect a cowboy as you’d find. His 6’6” frame led him to success as one of just 13 athletes to have ever played in the MLB and the NBA. It’s only natural that his hulking figure and strong chin would lend itself to a successful onscreen career. Purportedly, an MGM casting agent spotted Connors playing baseball, and put the then-first baseman in a Tracy/Hepburn picture. The following year, Connors starred as a football coach alongside John Wayne. The role proved Connors’ skill as a bonafide character actor, and co-starring with The Duke forecasted Connors’ later success as The Rifleman.

By the time I came to The Rifleman, the show had been off the air for half a century. I was working at one of those shady Cash for Gold stores you pass on the highway but never go into. It was a cheap operation, with no overhead spared for cable. And so, we watched whatever the antennae picked up. One such transmission was a channel called MeTV, which broadcasted many a bygone favorite, including, of course, The Rifleman. So in between buying stolen jewelry from junkies in need, I came to love Chuck Connors in his role as Lucas McCain. McCain was a widower with a Winchester rifle who always got the baddies. It was a simple, straightforward show, from a simpler, more straightforward time.

So when you put Chuck Connors in a horror movie in 1979, it seems like deliberate social commentary. Look how far removed we are from the era of square-jawed giddyup heroes of the silver screen. Look at how much has changed, not just in our media, but in our world since the 1950s. The TV may have been used at first to show us pacifying tales of good over evil, but the box transformed into the means by which America watched its downfall. Gone were the do-gooders of The Rifleman’s age, and in their place, a gang of antiheroes rose to power. Dirty Harry. Rambo. Charles Bronson in Death Wish. And with these new characters came a new and groundbreaking wave of hyper violence previously unseen on screen.

Tourist Trap starts in that quintessential American way wherein a gang of young people are just out looking for a good time. We’re to believe that these are good kids, American kids, clean kids, and if none of them are particularly memorable, well, that’s just because they represent the everykid. Now these good, old-fashioned American kids are out carrying on, they have some automotive issues, and wouldn’t ya know it? They soon find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Tourist Trap Mask 2

Much has been said of Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s sun-soaked terror, its scares made all the more frightening because much of it is in the light of day. But the folks in Tourist Trap aren’t quite so lucky. Instead, their descent into hell plunges them into inescapable darkness. Their masked killer may look an awful lot like Leatherface (and, really, he does look a lot like Leatherface), but he’s got a few distinct advantages. First, the killer in Tourist Trap has the benefit of shadows cloaking his every move. It’s a dark movie with dark themes and darker places to hide. On top of that, the killer doesn’t have any loud hardware store appliances that might alert a would-be victim to his presence. No chainsaw buzzing as he stalks his prey.

Oh, and one more thing about our killer in Tourist Trap. He utilizes telekinetic powers. And at first, you’re like “Oh ok, they’ll explain this. He doesn’t actually have powers, they’ll reveal the mechanism at some point.” But that never happens! The killer genuinely moves stuff with his mind and it’s just accepted in that universe! It’s creepy!

Speaking of creepy, the most unnerving thing in this whole movie has got to be the mannequins. There are a TON of them. See the unwitting kids stumble upon a genuine wax museum. That’s where they’re hiding out, and you better believe the set dressing helps make it one of the most disquieting locales in all of horror. Just a genuinely scary place to set a story. Because when you combine mannequins with telekinesis, things get really freaky. These mannequins are all singing and yelling and it’s so goddamn scary.

Tourist Trap Chuck Connors

The music is another high-point in this movie; the music really elevates everything about the story. Pino Donaggio is the composer here, and he’s really about to hit his stride, creatively, in the next couple years. Here he uses what sounds like very carefully-orchestrated found sounds. It sounds like an orchestra full of stuff you’d find in this creepy, old blown-out wax museum workshop. This is three years after Donaggio did Carrie, and even though I’m most familiar with his work for DePalma, here, Donaggio proves that he’s able to create a world of sound specific to a given story. Because this score is nothing like the lush orchestral arrangements and Psycho string stabs. Instead, here, the score is much more minimalist and percussive and otherworldly.

Tourist Trap is available to stream for free on Tubi. Have you seen Tourist Trap? Do you agree that it’s a classic, or do you think I’m giving it too much credit? I’d love to know your thoughts! Reach out either on Twitter (@billreick) or via email (billreick@gmail.com)!

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