The early parts of Tourist Trap are an exercise in throwing horror tropes at the wall to see what will stick. Director David Schmoeller introduces his cast of young, attractive college students on that most popular of horror movie outings, the large group trip to nowhere in particular; they immediately begin being pelted with ominous misfortune. Someone gets a flat tire and ventures to a mysteriously abandoned gas station for help. The other car in question breaks down with less obvious cause, and the girls all decide to go skinny-dipping in a nearby oasis. There are singing mannequins, telekinetic powers, a kindly-but-unnerving local, wax dummies, and a Final Girl so clearly designated that she wears a billowing white dress just so you’ll be in no doubt about who’s going to survive the movie.
All of that makes for a good bit of ridiculous fun at the film’s start. But gradually, the movie becomes something grimmer and more frightening. It never particularly makes sense–if Slausen is making his prey into dummies by covering them up with plaster, why is he later able to wrench off their limbs like they’re actually mannequins?–but that lack of sense starts to seem like a feverish extension of heroine Molly’s own collapse and her increasing inability to see the mannequins and wax dummies as lifeless. This is, I think, the first horror film I’ve seen that actually implies a particularly nightmarish psychological side-effect to the grueling tradition of the almost-rescue. Characters in horror films often encounter rescuers only to find out that their rescuers are either in league with their pursuers or instantly doomed, sending them from hope right back to cheated despair. Molly, put through this ordeal multiple times, simply and evocatively snaps. What’s real? What’s part of Slausen’s tableau? What are the dummies? She can’t know, and in the end, free of Slausen, she drives off with her “friends” piled in the back of the car. It might not have the punch of a Texas Chain Saw Massacre ending, but it has its own surreal terror.
Most of that success is due to Chuck Connors, who plays Slausen with a kind of empty-eyed fervor, aptly conveying him as a man too wrapped up in delusion to ever be reasoned with. As “Davey,” the masked figure who serenely smears plaster across a girl’s face while narrating how the process will kill her, he’s terrifying. As himself, laughing jovially as a girl screams in terror, he’s even worse. Tourist Trap is a movie about how frightening it is when things that look human aren’t, and Slausen, not his mannequins, is its ultimate villain, Carpenter’s “The Shape” given a backstory but left without a soul. Dr. Loomis would have a field day with him.