Tourist Trap (1979) Retrospective

SUMMARY
Eileen and her boyfriend Woody are driving through the desert. When their car gets a flat, Woody goes to find a gas station. Their friends Becky, Jerry, and Molly are traveling separately in a different vehicle. They reach Eileen waiting at the car and they all drive off to collect Woody. Woody has found a gas station but it appears deserted. He enters the back room but becomes trapped. Various mannequins appear in the room, and multiple objects fly at him until a metal pipe impales and kills him.

The others find a tourist trap and conclude Woody is there. As they drive in, their vehicle mysteriously breaks down. Jerry tries to fix his jeep and the girls go skinny dipping in a nearby oasis. As they swim, Mr. Slausen – the owner of said tourist trap – appears holding a shotgun. Though outwardly polite he also seems embittered by the decline of his tourist trap since the highway was moved away. The nude girls feel awkward in the water as he chats and they apologize for trespassing.

Slausen offers to help Jerry with the jeep, but insists the group go to his house with him to get his tools. There, they see the tourist trap: animated waxworks figures, including armed bandits. Eileen is curious about a nearby house, but Slausen insists that the women should stay inside the museum. Slausen takes Jerry to fix the jeep, leaving the women. Eileen leaves to find a phone in the other house. There she finds several mannequins inside the house. Someone calls her name, and a stranger wearing a grotesque mask suddenly appears behind her. Various items in the room move of their own accord and the scarf Eileen is wearing tightens and strangles her to death.

Slausen returns to Molly and Becky saying that Jerry drove his truck into town. When told that Eileen left, he goes to the house and finds Eileen has been turned into a mannequin. He returns and tells Molly and Becky he did not find Eileen and will leave again to continue the search. The women are frustrated, and later leave the museum to search for Eileen. Becky enters the nearby house and finds a mannequin resembling Eileen. Becky is attacked by the masked killer and then by multiple mannequins. She later wakes up tied up in the basement along with Jerry. Jerry says the killer is Slausen’s brother. Also held captive is Tina (Dawn Jeffory), who is strapped to a table. She is killed when the masked man covers her face with plaster, causing her to suffocate. Jerry frees himself and attacks the killer, but is soon overpowered. Jerry tries to reach for a key but the killer telekinetically moves it from his reach.

Molly is still outside and searching for the others. She is soon pursued by the masked man. She meets Slausen who drives her to the museum and gives her a gun while he goes inside. The masked man appears and Molly shoots, but the gun is loaded with blanks. The man removes the mask, revealing himself to be Slausen. She panics and tries to elude Slausen but is soon captured and restrained to a bed.

Becky and Jerry escape from the basement, but get separated. Slausen appears and takes Becky to the museum. There the Old West figures begin shooting at her. Becky is killed by an Indian Chief figure who throws a knife at her, stabbing her in the back of the head. Back at the house, Jerry arrives to rescue Molly, but he is revealed to have unknowingly been turned into a mannequin. Slausen dances with the figure of his wife, and Molly sees that the wife has become animated. Traumatized, she kills Slausen with an axe. The next morning, an insane Molly is seen driving away in the jeep with the mannequin versions of her friends.

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DEVELOPMENT
David Schmoeller’s Tourist Trap (1979), a film that does more than just recycle elements from such mid’ 70s horror hits as Carrie (the mind-over-matter gimmick) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the rustic predator). A backwoods recluse with telekinetic powers seems like a stretch, for sure until we see how vividly Connors inhabits the character of Mr. Slausen, proprietor of a desolate, ramshackle museum filled with mannequins. In a period full of films that refreshed the horror genre, including John Carpenter’s trailblazing Halloween and such major-studio releases as Magic and Brian De Palma’s The Fury (which also dealt with mind control), Connors’ portrayal and Schmoeller’s gathering-nightmare mood elevate the lesser-known Tourist Trap up into that company.

The screenplay for Tourist Trap was written by David Schmoeller and J. Larry Carroll, the latter of whom pitched the film to producer Charles Band. Initially, Schmoeller intended for John Carpenter to direct the film, but Carroll was unsatisfied with the financial arrangements, and opted instead that Schmoeller should direct. Carroll and Schmoeller had previously pitched the film to producers Samuel Z. Arkoff and Bruce Cohn Curtis, but were unable to secure a production arrangement. The original screenplay did not feature the telekinetic powers; according to Carroll, the idea was proposed by Band, who insisted it be implemented into the script.

The captive kids react with the appropriate terror, and Schmoeller is too compassionate a director to let them come off as mere expendable ciphers doomed though they may be. But only Connors is allowed the mixed luxury and responsibility of creating a compelling character. He does, summoning forth a genuinely alone presence for Slausen, whose sad and friendly hillbilly demeanor masks a mixed bag of conflicts that include gender confusion and serious questions about the use of his otherworldly talent. Tourist Trap ends on a note of last-survivor defiance much like Chainsaw but raises the ante significantly by suggesting a transference of Mr. Slausen’s madness.

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PRE-PRODUCTION
Production designer Robert A. Burns, who had worked on Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977), handled the art direction  and the majority of the special effects on Tourist Trap, including the mannequins and their physical manipulations. To accomplish the poltergeist-like effects in the film’s opening scene, the set was constructed at a rotated 90 degrees; this allowed items to be hurled by the crew from the cabinet which was in fact anchored to the ceiling to the floor, which appeared on camera as a wall. Other special effects were accomplished with the use of wires. For the death sequence of Tanya Roberts’s character, for example, a block of wood was taped behind Roberts’s hair; a knife attached to a wire was hurled at the back of her head, which stuck into the wooden block.

Casting
The production did not appoint a casting director for the film, instead relying on independent talent agents to help cast the roles. According to director Schmoeller, $50,000 of the film’s budget was dedicated to salary for the lead actor portraying the villain Mr. Slausen. The role was offered to several older Hollywood actors, such as Jack Palance and Gig Young, but both turned the project down. Chuck Connors, who was the production crew’s third choice for the role, accepted the role. According to Schmoeller, each of the actors in the film aside from Connors auditioned for their parts. Jocelyn Jones was cast as the female lead, Molly, after Schmoeller had seen some of her previous performances, while Tanya Roberts was given the role of Becky. Jon Van Ness and Robin Sherwood were given the roles of Jerry and Eileen, respectively.

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PRINCIPAL PHOTOGRAPHY
Tourist Trap was filmed in 24 days in Los Angeles County, California, with additional interiors shot at Rampart Sound Studios in Los Angeles. Principal photography began on March 27, 1978. A portion of the interior scenes were shot at an abandoned house located at 5255 Hollywood Boulevard which was scheduled for demolition. Schmoeller made arrangements with the contractor to postpone the demolition of the building for five days, during which time the crew shot footage. By using the abandoned location, the production saved an estimated $30,000 in set construction and soundstage fees. David Wyler, the son of William Wyler, served a second assistant director, while the director of photography was Nicholas von Sternberg, son of Josef von Sternberg.

BEHIND THE SCENES/INTERVIEWS: Director David Schmoeller
Your producer and co-writer for Tourist Trap was J. Larry Carroll. How did that collaboration come about?
David Schmoeller: I knew Larry from UT. He was one of the editors on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. We wanted to repeat that experience, i.e. write a script with me attached as director and Larry as producer. It worked, except we didn’t have the phenomenal box-office success that Chainsaw had…

Two sons of very famous and important directors worked on the film. One was Nicholas Von Sternberg, son of Joseph Von Sternberg (the man who discovered Marlene Dietrich and directed her pivotal early roles).The other was David Wyler, William Wyler’s son. Was that a coincidence or did you think you might learn something by working with these men?
David Schmoeller: It was strictly a coincidence. But I did learn a lot from Nick Von Sternberg. He was great. Ron Underwood was my AD and Robert Harmon was my Still Man. Both went on to become excellent directors.

Pino Donaggio score for the film is often described as one of his loveliest and most haunting pieces. Were you pleased with it and do you think it serves the movie well at all times? Are there any points during the film where you would change anything about it?
David Schmoeller: I was pleased with the score. It rarely happens that you are happy with every cue. Sometimes, you move them around. On a low-budget movie (and with Pino doing the score in Venice, Italy…the recording session was in Rome) you don’t get to redo cues. So, I’m sure there are certain cues I’m not as happy about as others. But I think it’s a very effective score for this movie. That opinion is very subjective though.

Within the first few minutes of Tourist Trap, we see Woody get killed off in a very powerful opener. It certainly sets the tone of the film and lets you then introduce the major players with a bit more ease, before spiraling into madness. Were there any reservations about killing off a character so early on, or did you feel it necessary to provide this jolt to keep the audience’s interest?
David Schmoeller: You have to place that scene in a certain historical perspective. Tourist Trap was made at the tail end of the “drive-in theater” period. In those days, distributors and exhibitors looked at the first reel. If it grabbed them, they bought it. If not, they didn’t. So you had to have this big “grabber” right at the start. It was a required formula.

Tourist Trap was made in 24 days. Is that average for this type of film? Did you feel rushed during the shoot or do you think you had enough time to realize your vision?
David Schmoeller: Directing is all about getting enough days in your schedule. And you never have enough days. Lately, I’ve been doing 18-day films. So, I would kill to have 24. I had 40 on The Seduction. Too bad I didn’t have a better script. I wrote it with much assistance from Bruce and Irwin, the producers. Twenty-four days would be a luxury for me now. I’m so much more experienced as a director, I could make twice the movie with 24 days as I did when I was making Tourist Trap as a first time director.

Bob Burns, who had worked on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, did the majority of the special effects as well as the mannequins. Did you hire him solely because of his work on the earlier film?
David Schmoeller: Yes. Bob was also from Austin and we wanted him because of his extraordinary work on Chainsaw. He delivered. What he is great at…is that he can do so much for so little money.

The masks by David Ayres are very effective. How did you come to hire him?
David Schmoeller:  I actually don’t remember how we came across David. He might have worked with Charlie before – or maybe we selected him after an interview. There were a lot of mask works in Tourist Trap…and the mask work was spread out between a handful of very gifted artists.

What was it like to work with Chuck Connors?
David Schmoeller: He was basically pretty good to work with. He really liked the project and his role. He actually wanted to become the new Vincent Price or Boris Karloff of the horror genre. To rejuvenate his career at that time. He tried to give me a hard time because it was my first time out but I knew he didn’t mean it. He worked very hard on the film…which a lot of actors in his position don’t do. I won’t name names but I have worked with some of them who were bitter about doing low-budget movies after being stars at some higher level.

How did you find the experience with Tanya Roberts? Did you find this future Charlie’s Angel to be particularly ambitious?
David Schmoeller: Tanya was fairly new to acting but she worked very hard. She needed a director who knew much more about working with actors than I did at the time. But she was game and her death scene is pretty chilling.

It’s been said that during the filming of Marathon Man, Laurence Olivier had little patience for Dustin Hoffman’s “method” acting. “Just act, my dear boy” was the advice he gave the younger star. You have mentioned a similar dynamic between Chuck Connors and Jocelyn Jones.
David Schmoeller: Chuck was a baseball star who stumbled into the acting game as a career change. He had no training at all as an actor. He just did it and he expected everyone else to work the same way. Jocelyn was a thoroughly trained actor, on the other hand. Her father was the great character actor Henry Jones of The Bad Seed fame. And Jocelyn used her training in her work. (I later studied acting with her before I studied with Milton Katselas). She did these wild breathing exercises and this chair thing to prepare for a scene. Chuck thought it was pretty goofy. And he said so. Jocelyn held her ground and eventually Chuck let her do her preparations. It’s amusing to me as I look back on it now. I can still see Chuck starring at Jocelyn incredulous as she did these wild breathing gyrations. But it was pretty stressful at the time because I had to work so hard to keep Chuck cool about it.

Jocelyn is now an acting teacher?
David Schmoeller: Yes, I think she is still teaching at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, Milton Katselas’ school.

How in the world did Tourist Trap get a PG rating? Do you think that hurt it at the box-office?
David Schmoeller: That rating stunned us. And it killed the movie. No one goes to see a PG horror film. I would not let my son see any of the movie before we got that rating because I thought it was far too intense and violent for him. It usually works the other way. The Ratings Board is much harder on indie movies. And it gives the studio movies easier ratings for tougher material, i.e. a PG-13 to an intense Spielberg movie so that it will reach a much wider audience.

You cleverly credit someone named ‘Shailar Cobi’ in the role of Davey, a character that doesn’t exist. It reminds us of the fact that Hitchcock held auditions for the non-existent role of Mother in PSYCHO, just to throw audiences off.
David Schmoeller: My son’s name is Shailar Cobi Schmoeller. We wanted the audience to think Davey was a real character.

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POST PRODUCTION: Pino Donaggio Score
Getting Pino Donaggio to score the film was a coup. Tell us about his involvement. We got really, really lucky. I got a phone call from Joe Dante when he was making Piranha. I don’t remember how it came about, but he needed a translator Pino didn’t speak English. I spoke Spanish and so did Pino. So, I sat down with Joe and Pino as a translator when they were working on Piranha That’s how I met Pino. His fee was $50.000 and our whole budget was $300,000. Our executive producer, Charlie Band, agreed to pay the fee and Pino did our score.

We showed Pino the film in a screening room. We started at the very beginning and went through scene by scene. He was very experienced doing film scores and I had never scored a film, so l let him lead. He would provide his recommendations and I would suggest the element or the mood that wanted. In terms of what he came up with, though, that was all Pino. I would suggest a cue here or a cue there and he would say “yes” or “no.” It took us a couple of days to map it out and then he went back to Italy.

Pino Donaggio’s score, recorded in Rome, is an unexpectedly quirky and off-kilter delight which, as with his music for Schmoeller’s later Empire efforts Crawlspace and Catacombs, helps to push the movie skywards in the quality stakes. As indeed it should, since the orchestrations ended up eating into l/6th of the film’s meager budget. Donnagio’s contribution was apparently detested by producer Irwin Yablans, who was hoping for a more typical Carpenteresque synthesized score and thought that Pino’s cues had completely ruined the dark tone of the film.  Irwin Yablans was only the distributor of Tourist Trap and had nothing to do with the making of it. He did have the unique opportunity to see both Tourist Trap and Halloween in picture cuts without any sound effects or music. Looking at them in that form, he thought the better film, the one that would do better commercially, was going to be Tourist Trap. Then John Carpenter added that amazingly simple but extraordinarily transformative score that made Halloween a landmark film. When Yablans saw Tourist Trap with Pino’s symphonic score, it didn’t have the same transformative effect and he was disappointed. He said I had ruined the movie, but he was just disappointed the film wasn’t Halloween. They are two completely different movies.”

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RELEASE/DISTRIBUTION
Upon its original release back in 1979, Tourist Trap garnered an astonishing PG rating from a seemingly asleep-on-the-job MPAA, which pretty much killed the film’s box-office chances. Compass International attempted to counterbalance this with a wonderfully gaudy ad campaign, desperately highlighting the movie’s horrific content (‘Shock you can see! Terror you can feel!’). I guess one can follow the board’s thinking: there’s no nudity or bad language in the film and much of the violence is implied rather than overtly shown.

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One of your best films is undoubtedly Tourist Trap. It’s an old idea, the House of Wax thing, but it’s a really scary film.
Charles Band: “I have made very few scary movies, I’ll admit to that, and that’s probably one of the three or four. The rest of them have a different effect. They’re certainly not scary. It was an idea that I wrote – sometimes I write a short story or a paragraph – and yes, it was inspired by other films I had seen as a kid. What’s interesting about Tourist Trap, beside whatever somebody would want to know about making it: first of all, the idea was to try and make a film that was really creepy and scary and we had a pretty good idea. Early on in the process, Chuck Connors was mentioned as someone who may be available who really liked the script, so it came together really quickly.

“The funny part of the story is, at that time I was still unable to control my own distribution. I was working with a small company named Compass Films and I was really friendly with John Carpenter, we had been in touch for years. John and I were talking once and he said, ‘You know, I’m actually going to make a movie that’s going to be distributed by Compass and I know you’re doing stuff for them.’ Had we both known a little more at the time I’m sure we would have done better. But nonetheless, we were comparing notes and then it turned out we were going to be shooting around the same time and we said, oh, we should come visit each other’s set. Then it turned out that we were going to be shooting one block from each other in a little shady street in Hollywood. His movie was called, at the time, The Babysitter Murders.

“And John and I were talking and I said, ‘Look, I’m shooting the same week you’re shooting on the same damn street. I think we’re going to be a block from each other.’ And I remember kidding him because I said that my movie was a bigger budget movie. I think his was around $300,000 and mine was $380,000. And I kept rubbing it in that my movie had a star, which was Chuck Connors, and his movie had essentially unknowns. So in fact during that week he walked over to my set and said hi, and we were fooling around, and another day I walked over to his set. Of course, although people remember Tourist Trap and like it and think it’s a cool movie, it sort of faded away – and his movie became Halloween. That’s my biggest memory of Tourist Trap: John making Halloween right down the street.”

CAST/CREW
Directed David Schmoeller
Produced Charles Band J. Larry Carroll
Written David Schmoeller J. Larry Carroll

Chuck Connors as Mr. Slausen
Jocelyn Jones as Molly
Jon Van Ness as Jerry
Robin Sherwood as Eileen
Tanya Roberts as Becky
Dawn Jeffory-Nelson as Tina
Keith McDermott as Woody
Shailar Coby as Davey

CREDITS/REFERENCES/SOURCES/BIBLIOGRAPHY
mjsimpson-films
Delirium#01
Fangoria#215
Rue Morgue#136

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