You ever see a movie when you were a kid and for some reason it gets stuck in your head for the rest of your life? Usually, you don't even remember the whole movie, just one particular scene, or even a single shot. You try to describe it to people, but you lack the context. It's like trying to describe a dream. "There was this, like, hallway. I think it might have been blue. Possibly from the seventies. There may have been a door, as well. Do you know it?"
This is what happened to a certain ladyfriend of mine when we got to talking about movies last weekend. Naturally, the movie that got stuck in her head was a horror movie, because nothing affects a person, particularly a child, more profoundly than mortal terror. A single creepy image, even when trapped in the middle of a preposterous movie, can sink its fangs deep into a person's psyche, injecting slow-release venom whose effects can be felt for a lifetime. When you're a kid, a scary scene is like herpes: you carry that shit around forever, whether you want to or not.
Luckily, this lovely young lady happened to be talking to Mr. Majestyk his-goddamn-self, so when she said "seventies movie where a woman gets wax poured all over her face," I knew just what she was talking about: Tourist Trap, a 1979 drive-in flick that I remembered from Stephen King's non-fiction book on 20th century horror, Danse Macabre. Big Steve called it his favorite bad horror movie, but since this was in the same book where he offhandedly dismissed Planet of the Vampires, Last House on the Left, and Mad Max, I didn't think too much of it. Of course, that didn't stop me from buying Tourist Trap on DVD when I saw it in the used bin earlier this year. When it comes to horror movies, I am nothing if not thorough.
So, in an effort to help my ladyfriend overcome her childhood fears by ripping the rubber mask from her demons and revealing them as the puffed-up charlatans that they are, I showed her Tourist Trap last night. I figured that confronting the movie that scarred her as a child would cure her of her phobia of dolls and mannequins. There was only one problem with that plan: The movie is actually kind of scary.
Tourist Trap is based on Horror Movie Plot #1: four to eight young people go somewhere they shouldn't, two to zero of them come back. This movie could have been made at any point in the past sixty years and the only thing that would change would be the hairstyles. In this case, five fun-loving, feather-haired friends (including Tanya Roberts, of Charlie's Angels, That 70s Show, and the-waterfall-scene-from-Beastmaster fame) end up at this rinky-dink redneck roadside attraction wax museum out in those scrub-brush hills in California that always make me think of M*A*S*H. The proprietor is a genial hillbilly (played by Old Hollywood beefcake Chuck Connors) who likes to emphasize the first syllable of his words ("I'm gon' go fetch the po-lice.") but who's a little peeved that the new highway took all his business away. (You ever notice how much trouble "the new highway" causes in movies?) So the way he deals with that stress is by wearing freaky rubber masks and pretending to be his dead telekinetic kid brother so he can make wax mannequins out of everybody who visits him. The telekinesis really comes in handy, because he can makes his mannequins move and laugh and jump out at people. It sounds kinda stupid, but I don't know, man, mannequins are just creepy. Particularly these ones. Some of them smile like they're thinking about some sick private joke, and some of them have mouths that flop open unnaturally wide, creating gaping black maws like in that Aphex Twin video. I could see how this movie could totally fuck you up when you're a kid.
It's not very violent or bloody, but it's one of those movies where the killer just won't stop talking. It feels like you're tied up along with his victims, unable to escape as he pours his poison into your ear, feeding you his insane nightmare logic. It's definitely got a little Texas Chainsaw in its DNA. In fact, the torture-porny Paris Hilton House of Wax remake seems to have stolen much more from this movie than it did from the seminal Vincent Price movie it took its name from.
And then Tourist Trap has one of those great seventies endings where somebody survives but they're so emotionally devastated by what happened to them that you almost wish they hadn't. They don't really know how to do these endings anymore. Nowadays, the shocking twist is to have one last ooga-booga jump-scare right before the nü-metal end-credits song kicks in. That just shows the paucity of imagination in a lot of modern horror movies. The worst thing they can think of is dying, but they don't get that there's some shit that's so fucked up that you simply wouldn't want to live through it. Your only recourse would be to make a clean break with reality and escape into dementia, which is where Tourist Trap leaves us.
An interesting bit of trivia about this movie is that it was produced by future straight-to-video kingpin Charles Band, whose company, Full Moon Entertainment, has had a lock on cheesy movies about evil little bastards since the early eighties. This is the man behind, among many others, Troll, Ghoulies, the Puppetmaster series, Dollman vs. Demonic Toys, and The Gingerdead Man, which stars Gary Busey as a psycho who gets trapped in the body of a killer cookie. Clearly, Mr. Band is just as creeped out by the eeriness of dolls, puppets, and mannequins as my ladyfriend, and it's interesting to see that it all began way back in '79 with Tourist Trap. Just think, without this movie, the world may have never been blessed with Ginderdead Man 2: Passion of the Crust. Now that's scary.
And what about my ladyfriend, you ask? Did Tourist Trap cure her of her pediophobia (fear of mannequins)? Let's just say we won't be taking any trips to Madame Tussaud's anytime soon. On the upside, at least she's still talking to me. That's more than can be said for this other ladyfriend that I brought to see House of 1,000 Corpses once. Thanks a lot, Rob Zombie. Cockblocking bastard.