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A Vacation to the Uncanny Valley || Tourist Trap (1979) Movie Review

It has been far too long since this blog has looked at an older horror movie, and Tourist Trap (1979, dir. David Schmoeller) is one that has been on my list for a long time yet I always forget about it. When it comes to personal preference, I find that I typically go for the older horror films more than I do modern horror. I believe the reasoning behind this is because I enjoy the practical effects but also because the early days of horror and slasher flicks allowed directors to get away with some crazy stuff. Take for instance my favorite film, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and how much of the set design contained real dead animals or how Sally’s finger being cut open was a real injury. Some of the things filmmakers could get away with would never fly in modern horror, at least on a Hollywood level.

But there’s another reason why I love older horror films – amongst the hundreds of B-movies, Jason knock-offs, and cash cows there are hidden gems and cult classics which have not garnered the attention they probably should. Tourist Trap has a solid balance of things that are working well and things that completely ruin the horror or creep-factor. Part of me feels frustrated over this, because had just one or two elements not been present then this film would have really freaked me out. Instead, it gives me the impression that it’s so bad it’s good, making it a slasher flick that you put on for a bunch of inebriated friends to laugh at.

Tourist Trap follows five young adults dealing with a busted tire while on an extensive road trip. Although, the cast of five gets cut down to four almost instantly as Woody (played by Keith McDermott) is killed in a gas station during the film’s opening scene. The four remaining travelers – Jerry, Becky, Eileen, and Molly (played by Jon Van Ness, Tanya Roberts, Robin Sherwood, and Jocelyn Jones) – grow weary of waiting for Woody and continue onward, hoping to see him along the road somewhere. Instead, the group runs into Mr. Slauson (played by Chuck Connors), a local who once owned a popular tourist attraction and who offers to help fix their car. Once inside Mr. Slauson’s old business, Mr. Slauson warns the girls not to wander around the premises after dark and of a figure/man named Davey to be wary of. From here, the plot delves into a run-of-the-mill slasher where tourists are threatened by a crazy local, killed off one by one, and ends with a predictable plot twist.

There’s a lot that Tourist Trap has going for it – especially for those who are affected by the uncanny valley. Eeriness leaks out of every set and scene that’s being overrun by mannequins, animatronics, and puppets. It’s unnerving enough to watch as mannequins’ eyes follow the protagonists around a room, or when an uncanny face begins to move out of the shadows, but it’s a whole other experience to make these figures vocal. While some figures move about due to Davey’s telekinetic powers, others are trapped souls that make themselves known in surreal and bone chilling ways. The figures that are dead people often scream, sing, or cry out in mangled, half-human voices. Some of the instances where this happens can be incredibly disturbing due to these figures being eyeless and having ventriloquist mouths yet still containing the realism of a wax figure. Likewise, when these trapped souls are screaming they’re often a head without a body but are still somewhat writhing on the ground. But it really is the voices coming from these figures that will send a chill down someone’s spine because, as stated, they’re half-human. There’s a faint hint of a human voice present, but it’s so detached, faint, and warped that it sounds like something else attempting to replicate a human. The uncanny valley is something that will always terrify me – I hate anything that’s not human attempting to be perceived as human. Tourist Trap understands the uncanny valley, what makes it so terrifying, and places some of the most horrific ideas surrounding it in your face.

I wish I could dub Tourist Trap as a surprisingly terrifying film that held up over the years – but I can’t. For every uneasy, scary moment the film gave, it was immediately overshadowed by something incredibly goofy. Sometimes it was due to the scene carrying on too long, dispelling any tension that something bad is about to happen. Other times the execution itself just looked silly. However, the biggest offender at killing the vibe of this movie was the slasher himself – Davey. You see, Davey talks and while it’s not unheard of for slashers to have speaking roles, it definitely kills everything scary about Tourist Trap. Once Davey is formally introduced to the audience he never once, for a second, shuts up. It’s like the never-ending stream of consciousness of a man attempting to sound as spooky as possible but instead coming off as dorky and try-hard. He completely ruins the creepiness of every scene he’s in which is a shame because his dialog ruins some otherwise amazing scenes.

For example, the scene in which Davey kills Eileen is twisted, slow, and scary, but the script has Davey narrating what’s happening as it’s happening which completely kills the creepiness of the scene. Before Davey gets started he tells Eileen, “It will be quick, but it won’t be easy. You’ll die of fright” as if he’s a Goosebumps villain. As Davey covers Eileen’s face in plaster, he describes that it will begin to burn her flesh – and he says this as he applies it entirely with his bare hands despite a spackle knife being within frame. Then, he goes on to explain that she will die as he seals the lips, her world will become darkness as he seals the eyes, and, attempting to be intimidating, goes into a monologue about how it’s all over for her once he seals the nose. If Davey had just stayed quiet while killing Eileen it would have disturbed me, but instead I was too focused on his ridiculously cheesy dialog and laughed my ass off. He also has a line as Eileen is dying that absolutely kills me and paints him as a mustached, caped, villain who ties women to train tracks: “You won’t suffocate. Your heart will burst from fright before you lose consciousness.” His dialog is so needlessly overdone and corny that I find it hard to believe any adult could watch this film and find it terrifying. Yes, the uncanny valley pulls a lot of weight to how eerie this film is, but every piece of dialog coming from Davey’s lips immediately ruins it.

However, despite these complaints there’s one large factor which I feel explains the ridiculous and comical nature of Tourist Trap – and that’s the film’s association with the name Charles Band. If you’re unfamiliar with Band’s name, you might at least be familiar with titles such as The Gingerdead Man, Puppet Master, Killjoy, or Evil Bong. While Band doesn’t play a large role in making Tourist Trap, he is the executive producer and the film is made under his production company. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, Charles Band is credited in over 400 horror films and he continues to pump out straight to DVD B-movies every year – one of his titles for 2024 being Barbenheimer. His work is primarily based in ridiculous, over-the-top, and silly horror concepts and his films are typically defined as “so bad they’re good.” With that being said, I’m not shocked at all that Band is somehow involved in Tourist Trap. In fact, I feel as if it makes complete sense that the film turned out the way it did – and I don’t mean that to sound like a bad thing. I’m actually a huge fan of Charles Band’s films and part of the reason I wanted to include this discussion is because I don’t feel as if enough people know who Charles Band is. He’s been killing it in the horror game since 1973, but because he’s not a John Carpenter or Wes Craven he doesn’t get the same kind of recognition. I especially feel passionate about highlighting Band and his involvement in the horror community because he was the first horror director/producer I ever looked up to. I believe his involvement in Tourist Trap explains a lot for why the film is the way it is, which has saved the film from getting a worse score.

Tourist Trap B Tier

Overall, I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy watching Tourist Trap nor that I wouldn’t willingly rewatch it. It was a charming horror film with a lot of great moments and frightening imagery, but the plot itself is nothing spectacular and Davey’s constant dialog makes the movie come off as silly. It’s a horror film that has a few eerie aspects to it, but for the most part it's so bad it’s good. Something I wanted to mention but couldn’t figure out how to include within the rest of the review is how comically obvious the final girl is. Eileen and Becky are wearing what I would consider normal clothes – shorts and tank tops – while Molly is in an over-the-top ruffled white dress with braided pigtails and a bonnet. The costume designer for this film must’ve not believed in being subtle because of course the girl dressed like she’s going to Sunday mass will become the final girl. Molly’s attire sticks out like a sore thumb compared to the rest of the cast. While her costume eventually becomes just the dress I still can’t help but find the humor in how blunt and obvious it was that she was the final girl. They didn’t even attempt to hide it or be nonchalant about it.

Tourist Trap is available to stream through Tubi, PlutoTV, Shudder, and Amazon Prime Video


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