Released nearly 40 years ago in 1979, Tourist Trap was a commercial failure, but it has since gone on to achieve cult status. Written and directed by a young, aspiring filmmaker named David Schmoeller and produced by genre pioneer Charles Band, the film follows a group of young people who stumble upon a roadside museum housing mannequins that wield supernatural powers.
Tourist Trap was the first film from Schmoeller, who was raised and educated in Texas, and it was heavily inspired by one of the most iconic and influential horror films ever made to come out of that great state.
Often considered one of the most underappreciated low-budget horror films of the 70s, Tourist Trap is an eerie, exceedingly creepy, and wonderfully weird horror film that should be on every horror fan’s must watch list.
Now, here are 13 things you may not know about this essential cult classic.
1. KILLER INSPIRATION
Writer/director David Schmoeller had just graduated from film school and was attending grad school at the University of Texas at Austin. While he was shooting his thesis film, Tobe Hooper was in Austin shooting The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Inspired by the low-budget hit that launched Hooper’s career, Schmoeller decided to do a horror film in the same vein in an attempt to break into Hollywood.
2. HORROR EDUCATION
Tourist Trap began as a student film. Schmoeller’s thesis film called The Spider Will Kill You was a “Twilight Zone” short about a blind man and mannequins, inspired by a bizarre line of mannequins he found in J.C. Penney. He thought the idea of mannequins coming alive and creeping people out would make a great basis for a feature. He admits to incorporating some elements of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Psycho into his script for Tourist Trap.
3. EARLY ACCOLADES
The short that inspired Tourist Trap, The Spider Will Kill You, was nominated for a student Academy Award. Schmoeller (pictured above) was a finalist in the Special Jury Category, alongside Robert Zemeckis (for his short Field of Honor). Zemeckis won, and Schmoeller was runner up. William Friedkin (The Exorcist) presented him his award. After writing the script for Tourist Trap, Charles Band read it and wanted to make the film. Band took a chance on first-time director Schmoeller because he was so impressed with his short.
4. CULTURAL RELEVANCE
Schmoeller attended the Universidad De Las Americas in Mexico City where he studied theatre and film with directors Luis Buñuel and Alejandro Jodorowsky (pictured above). The surreal tone of Tourist Trap was inspired in part from Schmoeller’s literature studies while in Mexico and the influence of magic realism.
5. MIND OVER MATTER
The character of Slausen has telekinesis in the film, which was a change to the final script suggested by producer Charles Band (Schmoeller would later go on to direct Band’s Puppetmaster, a film he co-write under the pseudonym Joseph Collodi.). At first, Schmoeller didn’t like the idea because he wanted more of a psychological horror and not a supernatural one. He purposely left the character’s abilities vague and unexplained to keep some mystery to the film.
6. A SIGNIFICANT SCORE
Schmoeller met Italian composer Pino Donaggio on the set of Piranha, where he was hired by Joe Dante to be an interpreter for Donaggio (who didn’t speak any English). After that film, he asked Donaggio to score Tourist Trap. Charles was fluent in Italian, having spent much of his childhood in Italy, so he and Pino hit it off immediately. It was Band who raised the $50,000 to pay Donaggio’s fee, which ended up being one sixth of the movie’s budget. The entire score for the film was recorded in Rome.
7. MAJOR DISCHORD
The distributor for the film, Irwin Yablans, famously hated the score done by Donaggio. He had both Halloween and Tourist Trap in post-production at the same time. He originally saw both films as picture cuts, with no music or sound effects. At the time, he thought Tourist Trap was going to be a huge hit, while he considered Halloween just an average horror film. Then John Carpenter (pictured above) added his remarkably effective score, and the film was transformed. Yablans wanted something similar for Tourist Trap.
As an interesting sidenote, John Carpenter was originally being looked at to direct the film, but his fees were too high and producer J. Larry Carroll wanted Schmoeller to direct instead.
8. TEXAS TIES
Tourist Trap was co-written and produced by J. Larry Carroll. Schmoeller met Carroll while attending UT Austin. Carroll was one of the editors on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Bob Burns, who was also from Austin and had worked on Chainsaw, did the majority of the special effects as well as the mannequins. Schmoeller hired Burns because of his work on that film.
9. A RATING’S CURSE
Tourist Trap received a PG rating from the Ratings Board, which stunned Schmoeller given the film’s violent and disturbing content. He attributes that rating to the film’s commercial failure.
10. ROYAL PRAISE
Stephen King has called Tourist Trap one of his personal favorite horror films. The reigning king of horror praised the film in his book “Danse Macabre”, especially its frightful opening scene where a character is immediately killed off. Schmoeller explained that he created such a shocking opener to get the attention of distributors, who typically only looked at the first reel of a film before deciding if they were interested or not.
11. TIME TO KILL
Tourist Trap was made in just 24 days, which Schmoeller still considers a great luxury of time. He’s stated that, given how much he has grown as a filmmaker, he could make the twice the movie with 24 days as he made with Tourist Trap as a first-time director.
12. STAR POWER
Legendary actor Chuck Connors (“The Rifleman”, Soylent Green) played Mr. Slausen in the film. Schmoeller has stated that Connors was hoping to reinvent himself in the 80s as a Boris Karloff style horror film villain. A self-taught actor, Connors often questioned the routines classically-trained actress Jocelyn Jones would do before scenes (such as breathing exercise). Joceylyn is the daughter of Henry Jones, a character actor whose credits include some 40 films and over 300 television shows.
Future “Charlie’s Angels” star Tanya Roberts played Becky in the film early in her career. She insisted on running through the woods barefoot in one scene, as she thought it would help her better project a sense of fear and pain. The result was also that her feet were bloodied. The script originally called for nudity, but Schmoeller said he was too embarrassed to bring it up with Roberts during casting. When they got to the lake scene, he finally asked her if she’d be willing, and she said no.
13. A FAMILY AFFAIR
The mannequin who gives the female lead something to drink is actually Schmoeller's then-wife. The mannequin originally had 2 lines, but Schmoeller had them edited out during post-production. She then never forgave him for that. Connors' "parents" in the movie were actually played by Schmoeller's parents. And the character of Davey (a character that doesn’t really exist in the film) is credited as Shailar Cobi, the fist and middle name of Schmoeller’s son.
Tourist Trap was released for the first time on Blu-ray on May 20, 2014 by Full Moon Features. However, many fans were dismayed to find that, while the transfer looks great, the Blu-ray contains a truncated version of the film. So, if you want to catch the unedited version of the film, you’ll need to track down the 1998 DVD release by Cult Video or the 2013 re-release by Wizard Entertainment.
Fans of this bizarre but brilliant 70s cult classic should stay tuned for a very special announcement regarding an Officially Licensed Tourist Trap Release coming soon from Terror Threads!