Tis the season to celebrate scary movies—and new book of essays Because Horror, by 48 Hills contributor Johnny Ray Huston and Bradford Nordeen are here to help you slowly feel your way down the darkened staircase of lesser-known killer classics.
Because Horror—published by Dirty Look LA and Semiotext(e)—”is a collection of 13 essays (including one poem) that mixes critical writing and memoir to explore horror movies and how they haunt memory. Bringing the glee of fandom into cinema scholarship, Because Horror promiscuously sways through titles like Messiah Of Evil, Pulse, Mandy, Dante’s Cove, and Scre4M, with prose that spreads sticky like louche gore over the history of a genre and its mutating sites of broadcast.”
Below, we’re publishing the chapter on surreal fear-fan favorite Tourist Trap by Johnny Ray to get you in a ghoulish mood. (And you can see Johnny in Sky Thorstenson’s award-winning 2011 short paying homage to the film here.)
The Pit Stop That Time Forgot
I was but a kid, yet every Saturday afternoon, I had a date with him. The cemetery gate creaked open, a cat screeched, something unidentifiable howled, and he’d rise up from his coffin, welcoming “dear hearts” to the day’s tale of tale of terror with a hearty “NYAH-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!” I was a boy in Detroit and I loved Sir Graves Ghastly.
Looking back at Sir Graves’ show through surviving clips on YouTube, I fondly remember The Glob, a singing upside-down mouth with magic marker or Maybelline eyes. But I’m struck by more subversive characters such as the homely Tilly Trollhouse, who lip-synced to recordings by Mrs. Miller and Florence Foster Jenkins, and Walter, a fey fellow fond of rooting for athletic teams in a swooning manner. All of these folks were created and embodied by an imaginative actor named Lawson J. Deming.
You can have your Ghoulardi — to this day, Sir Graves Ghastly is the one for me.
Through the magical programming of Sir Graves, I first encountered the ever-present dark-eyed zombie of Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls, as he popped up next to the poor heroine’s passenger window while she drove through blackest night. Other TV avenues such as Shock Theatre showcased the delights of The Hypnotic Eye and The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-up Zombies. But it may have been Sir Graves that introduced me to the jumping brains of Fiend Without a Face, who’d wrap their lengthy stems around the necks of terrified victims and drain them of life.
I was scarred by such a vision, and for that I thank Sir Graves from the top and bottom of my horror-loving heart.
I was drawn to horror and true crime well before my teens. One influence was a night spent in an aunt and uncle’s spare bedroom, where I found copies of The Boston Strangler and Helter Skelter on the bookshelves. Soon I was consuming novelizations of slashers such as Halloween II, The Funhouse and obscurities such as Final Exam. I was even busted for shoplifting a luxe graphic novel version of Creepshow from my small town’s drugstore.
Of course, I also feasted on Stephen King’s books, their vivid covers second only to the glossy colors and trompe l’oeil trickery of V.C. Andrews’ at captivating my imagination. King’s nonfiction book Danse Macabre is where I first encountered the 1979 movie Tourist Trap. “The film wields an eerie, spooky power,” he writes. “Wax figures begin to move and come to life … there are a number of effective, atmospheric shots of the dummies’ blank eyes and reaching hands.”
I still remember the first time I heard Pino Donaggio’s brilliant and borderline goofy title credit theme for the movie, its impish woodwinds punctuated by rattles, while alone in my family’s living room. The same surprising PG rating that sentenced David Schmoeller’s debut feature to box-office oblivion delivered it to television, where young viewers such as me could see a pipe pierce a man so deeply that blood slowly dripped from its other end, a woman take a thrown knife to the back of the head, and most upsettingly, another victim die of suffocation from a fresh and thick application of plaster to the face.
Originally set to be directed by John Carpenter, Tourist Trap was released by the same company, Compass International, that put out Halloween. Its plot concerns a group of road-tripping young people lured into the title zone, in this case a forgotten roadside attraction called Slausen’s Lost Oasis, where dozens upon dozens of dummies and mannequins might come to murderous life at any moment, thanks to one character’s telekinetic powers.
If the plot sounds like a mishmash of Italian giallo, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Carrie, that’s because it is — producer Charles Band insisted on the addition of telekinesis to the story. As for Schmoeller, he’d studied under Luis Buñuel and Alejandro Jodorowsky, and hails from the state where Texas Chainsaw Massacre takes place. While the dominant presence of mannequins brings Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace to mind, Schmoeller insists he’d seen no gialli; nevertheless, Donaggio’s themes and motifs — including nervous high-femme “ah” sounds from the mannequin’s mouths — possess a European (think Krzysztof Komeda’s score for Rosemary’s Baby) flavor.
Tourist Trap was made for the same budget — $300,000 — as Halloween, and Donaggio’s efforts accounted for one-sixth of the sum. Like Halloween, the film is shot in Panavision, and the director of photography, Nicholas von Sternberg, is the son of none other than Josef. While understated in comparison to Dean Cundey’s Panaglide maneuvers for Halloween, von Sternberg’s cinematography still gracefully pans from one end of a macabre room to another, and in claustrophobic close-up, captures what King calls “the queer power that inanimate dummies, mannequins and human dummies can sometimes cast over us.”
It’s exactly this queer power that both attracted and scared the queer child that was me upon first viewing.
I’ll admit that decades passed before my next obsessive encounter with Tourist Trap. It happened in the early 2000s. I found a DVD at Amoeba Records in the upper Haight. “GOOD LORD I’M A GREAT FILM!” some mischievous employee had written in the tiniest possible block lettering on a small white sticker placed next to the mouth of the mortifying mannequin that dominates the box art.
Then, in 2005, Warner Bros. released a remake of House of Wax, perhaps infamous for a supporting turn by Paris Hilton, who, interestingly, suffers a death by hurled pipe — hmm, where had I seen that before? — in a scene that caused audiences to erupt in hooting celebration at the time. (For her part, Hilton is perfectly adequate in the role of a supporting victim.)
For me, the surprise of Jaume Collett-Serra’s movie was the discovery that it wasn’t at all a tribute to the 1953 version of House of Wax starring Vincent Price, so much as an effective if mechanical homage to Tourist Trap. Instead of harping on the cynicism of a major studio Hollywood moneymaker cannibalizing a film that at that point was struggling to achieve cult status, I took Collett-Serra’s pilfering of an abandoned town’s wax museum setting and other elements as a compliment.
As it turns out, there is maybe a single degree of industry separation between Schmoeller’s Tourist Trap and Collett-Serra’s interpretation of House of Wax. One of the production companies behind Collett-Serra’s “remake” is Dark Castle Entertainment, cofounded by director Robert Zemeckis. Tourist Trap’s genesis began as a short film, The Spider Will Kill You, that Schmoeller wrote and directed before expanding it to feature length. The Spider Will Kill You was runner-up in a special jury category for Best Dramatic Film at the 1975 Student Academy Awards. The winner? Robert Zemeckis for A Field of Honor.
From short to feature to remake back to short again: In 2010, I was part of a small group of people, led by the artist and video maker Skye Thorstenson, who put together a 13-minute no-budget update of Tourist Trap. The inspiration behind this lark was a song of the same name by me and Nathan Berlinguette. Nathan and I had set out to write and record a series of songs based off of ‘70s horror movies, and our initial two efforts were created from movies of Schmoeller’s.
The first wasn’t sourced from Schmoeller’s successful Puppetmaster series, but from Crawlspace, a perverse 1986 thriller in which Klaus Kinski plays an evil landlord who spies on tenants from the titular space, sometimes murdering them. A filmmaker and artist, David Enos, had translated the movie into a comic book, and in turn, I transformed his captions into lyrics. To this day, the result makes me laugh. Thanks to Nathan’s four-track prowess, the track sounds like a fusion of Right Said Fred and Cerrone, with Beat Happening’s Calvin Johnson hitting sepulchral notes over the dance beat.
Tourist Trap is more of a dirge, with prosaic lyrics that emphasize the film’s melancholic undercurrent: “You’re a long way from the new highway” goes the refrain. In the closing instrumental passage, Nathan takes elements of the Donaggio score and slows and sustains them to the point that they become glacial. For inspiration in illustrating the song Skye looked to a video of an off-camera teen arsonist laughing maniacally about his crime. The movie itself featured mannequin-masked satanists kidnapping me for a ritual that causes me to disappear. “I like to party,” one them says.
By the time that our Tourist Trap won an award at the San Francisco International Film Festival, the three of us were scarcely speaking to each other. I was going through a period of feeling freaked out about being ritually sacrificed, further intensified by a sense of shame that assumed my addiction issues were being mocked. We three have since moved on and become friends again, but I learned a hard lesson from the collaboration — be careful how much meaning you attach to things.
Be careful how much meaning you attach to things. That’s the lesson I also take from the true feature-length original of Tourist Trap. As a kid I was drawn in by the childlike imagination of the movie, the way it took a recognizable American realm and made it a place where a man could move objects with a steely glance, and where mannequins could come to life with the aim to commit murder. This is the stuff of an elementary schooler’s play-acting.
As an adult I look at Tourist Trap with the same kind of fondness I have for Sir Graves Ghastly — namely, an understanding that something deeper is going on beneath the surface. That something is played out in the relationship between the two main characters, the roadside stand owner Mr. Slausen (Chuck Connors) and final girl Molly (Jocelyn Jones). Molly’s friends include scantily-clad Becky (a gorgeous pre-Charlie’s Angels Tanya Roberts), but Molly arrives at Slausen’s Lost Oasis in a sundress and matching hat that’s pure Sunday best of the past.
Slausen takes an immediate liking to Molly, the only girl who he addresses by name, and Molly responds with a warm sense of fascination that’s strong enough to reduce her friends to distraction. Molly is young though, and she fails to recognize the sense of menace that lurks within the literal attractions of the Lost Oasis. It’s here that Tourist Trap distinguishes itself from films with similar lost-highway themes like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, not to mention the dozens of derivative, more contemporary films that have arrived in Tourist Trap’s fading wake.
Namely, instead of presenting Slausen’s Lost Oasis as purely a site of imminent terror, both Molly’s perspective and Donaggio’s poignant love theme for the movie convey a sense of sympathy for Mr. Slausen as an ambassador of a lost, abandoned American life. In fact, the movie’s love theme does double duty, applying to him and Molly and to his relationship with his late wife. For a horror film, Tourist Trap conveys a surprising amount of sentiment — up to a point.
In its own way, however influential, Tourist Trap has likewise become quaint, but in a manner that’s endearing. Aided by Connors’ underrated performance, a scene in which a pair of dummies share some soup is high comedy. With its strange mix of commercial influences overridden by a personality all it own, this is an oddball film, as strange as all its mannequins come to life. Lore has it that Compass International’s Irwin Yablans deplored Donaggio’s score in relation to the modern synth sounds John Carpenter concocted for Halloween, believing it played a role in the movie’s meager box-office returns. That may be true — with its complicated affection for Americana,Tourist Trap is Halloween’s spinster sister — but its undertow of sadness also makes it one of the composer’s most memorable works.
Memory is a funny and cruel thing. The horror of Tourist Trap takes place in a doomed nostalgic realm, and that’s precisely why it is fondly remembered today. By me anyway. A long way from the new highway indeed.