October 8, 2007

Tourist Trap (Schmoeller, 1979)

“Every year young people disappear.”

As is so often the case with horror cinema, a good horror film doesn’t necessarily equate with a good film. In a phenomenon particular to the horror genre – a phenomenon ensconced in the genre’s extreme valuation of a “bottom line” – good acting, narrative coherence, and refined direction are rather dispensable qualities. In the end, a horror film’s reputation, its standing, if you will, depends on its ability to scare, its capacity to disturb the mind and set the heart racing. For this reason, it isn’t hard to comprehend why David Schmoeller’s Tourist Trap remains a fairly well regarded work (within the horror community) in spite of its numerous ineptitudes.

Tourist Trap seems a familiar film when discussed in broad terms. It depicts a group of college-age kids trapped in a strange place, terrorized by a masked man, and killed one by one. Released in 1979, sandwiched between John Carpenter’s archetypal Halloween (1978) and Sean S. Cunningham’s influential Friday the 13th (1980), it is rather enticing to lump Schmoeller’s film in with these exemplars as part of the 80’s slasher cycle. However, such comparisons remain apt only at a surface level, for although Tourist Trap’s narrative template suggests a strong relation to slasher cinema, Schmoeller has created a film that operates far outside the precise and restrictive boundaries of that much loved sub-genre.

In place of the brazen sexuality, gruesome violence, and formulaic predictability that have come to define the slasher film, an unmistakable surfeit of bizarreness marks every inch of Tourist Trap. Everything from Pino Donaggio’s eclectic, effectively creepy score (a strange amalgamation of instruments and dissonant vocal fragments), to Chuck Connors’s unhinged performance (an audacious attempt at late-stage career redefinition), to the disturbingly rigid (and later on not so rigid) mannequins, to Schmoeller’s willful, baffling commingling of incongruous horror references (Carrie, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, House of Wax), suggests Schmoeller’s attempt to root audience fear in the film’s connective tissue, its eerie atmosphere, rather than in increasingly extravagant murder set pieces.

Unsurprisingly, it is in these peculiarities that the film’s true value is located. Schmoeller generates fear with his environment, through an unsettling collage of disembodied sounds and grotesque facades that stay with you long after the film ends. Importance is placed upon the process by which we arrive at the film’s relatively few deaths, rather than upon the deaths themselves, forcing us to pay attention to the pervasive, distressing details of the environment. Collectively they generate an eerie, macabre ambiance so thick and unyielding that Tourist Trap remains frightening and at times even threatening despite the absence of any real gore and the low body count. Partially obscured by the heavy fog of terror are the elements that conspire to sink the film, namely the amateurish acting (save, of course, for Connors) and the many ridiculous logical inconsistencies. And though the film is a crude, flawed, easily ridiculed mechanism with all the subtlety of a jackhammer, it is certainly unique and strangely effective. Not to mention it’s got a killer final shot.

Film Rating: C+/B-
Scare Factor: B

View Date: 10/7
Shocktober Horror Film Count: #7

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