David Schmoeller’s Tourist Trap (1979) is one of the best films of the “wax museum” sub genre of horror. The film combines elements of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) with Psycho (1960) while firmly rooting both in the world of House Of Wax (1953). The film opens with a group of young people (among them the late Tanya Roberts in one of her earliest roles) driving along a desolate country road when their car breaks down and they wander on foot into Mr. Slausen’s (Chuck Connors) tourist trap. Slausen, in addition to being a homicidal psychotic, is telekinetic, schizophrenic, and turns innocent passers-by into mannequins.
Slausen’s world is entirely made up of kitsch wax figure recreations of American history; a past romanticized into plastic. In the shadowy world of this kitsch labyrinth Slausen literally changes masks, assuming the identity of his younger brother, who he murdered, at various stages of his life. One minute he is a little boy, the next a strapping young man. It’s a lot for any actor to pull off but Chuck Connors seems born for this role.
Connors’ identity as a celebrity and as a cultural signifier is almost entirely based around his role as Lucas McCain on the television show The Rifleman (1958-63). Set in the 1880s, The Rifleman followed the heroic exploits of a rancher, McCain, in the American West. McCain always had the moral high ground and was something of role model for a generation. In Tourist Trap Connors and Schmoeller systematically dismantle this legacy. Part of the terror that is evoked by Tourist Trap is the terror of villainizing one’s hero or role model. In this instance the strategy is even more affective because Connors gives the performance of his career as Slausen.
In Tourist Trap one can also see the beginnings of Puppet Master (1989). Schmoeller and producer Charles Band explore a number of special effects in Tourist Trap with the use of mannequin puppets that would be elaborated upon a decade later. Schmoeller’s films always have an eye for the uncanny in the everyday and this is epitomized by the use of mannequin’s in Tourist Trap. They aren’t just props. When coupled with Nicholas von Sternberg’s highly stylized cinematography and the great Pino Donaggio’s haunting score they become a secondary antagonist.