I’ve talked on this blog before about the concept of the “uncanny valley,” how things that look almost like humans—but not quite—are intensely disturbing to most of us. I think this aspect of human psychology is one reason why horror films featuring dolls, dummies, realistic robots and the like are so common, and more often than not, end up being pretty effectively scary. With that in mind, today I’d like to discuss a lesser-known gem from the 1970s that does something a little different with that tried and true horror standby: creepy dolls, or in this case, creepy mannequins. (And no, I’m not referring to that Crow T. Robot favorite starring Andrew McCarthy and Kim Cattrall, so get that out of your mind right now.)
While the underrated Tourist Trap (1979) may fall into the very common horror genre of “group of sexy teenagers gets lost in a remote area, slaughter ensues,” its premise is actually fairly weird and its imagery creepily effective; even its goofball musical score lends to its offbeat charm. The five young people in question have been driving through the desert to some unspecified vacation destination, utilizing two vehicles. The first vehicle, containing Woody (Keith McDermott) and his girlfriend Eileen (Robin Sherwood) gets a flat, and Woody blithely rolls the likewise flat spare tire off to find a gas station. We see him enter what appears to be an abandoned store, calling out for service. He hears something in the back, and because this is a horror movie, he goes to investigate. He sees what appears to be a person under a blanket, but when he touches the person the blanket falls away revealing a freaky-looking and apparently spring-loaded mannequin. Then shit starts to go REALLY awry, as more cackling mannequins start popping out of closets and in through windows, the door locks by itself, chairs and other furniture start rattling around like in one of those poltergeist videos on YouTube. A cabinet starts opening and closing, and then glass bottles start flying out and smashing all around Woody’s head, and the fun part is, he can’t move, because his arm is through a hole in the door and someone seems to be holding him in place. At last, an iron bar that’s been shimmying around on the floor shoots toward Woody and impales him through the side. It’s an unsettling scene, and effective because you’re not quite sure what’s going on here…is there some supernatural force at work? Or does some killer get off on setting up elaborate pranks like some kind of murderous funhouse?
We sort of find out what’s up as the story progresses. Eileen gets a ride with the second vehicle in the caravan when it passes by, and the four remaining vacationers head off in search of the wayward Woody. They see a sign pointing toward some sketchy-looking museum and surmise that he must have gone that-a-way, but before they get there, their Jeep also breaks down in a clearing. As the sole male, Jerry (Jon Van Ness) gets stuck trying to figure out what’s wrong while the women wander off and naturally end up skinny dipping in a lovely waterfall-fed pool that’s hidden back in the woods. As they thrash around all naked and gratuitous, they notice that a kindly-looking but shotgun-wielding old man is watching them from the bank, with much amusement. From just above his down-home overalls, his pretty mouth tells them that his name is Mr. Slausen (Chuck Connors), that he runs the little museum they saw the sign for earlier, and that no one has really been around there since the new highway got put in and he’s really kind of bummed out about it. He actually seems a pretty nice fella, and he doesn’t seem to mind that the girls are sloughing their boobies through his pond, though he warns them that they should probably get out before it gets dark because the pond is full of water moccasins. He then heads back into the woods as the women make Mr. Yuck faces at each other and haul ass out of the snake-water.
When they get back to the car, Mr. Slausen is helping Jerry with the Jeep. He says he needs his tools from the house, and offers to give the youngsters something to drink and a place to chill out if they’ll all just pile into his truck and come back to his house/museum. Red flag? Sure, but Slausen does seem like a genuinely nice man, and he actually hasn’t done anything the least bit sinister, so even though the kids are a little reluctant, they end up going with him, because there would be no movie if they didn’t.
And here we finally get to the creepy-ass part of the flick, because Slausen’s little house is just full of kinda-cool-but-also-fairly-disturbing animatronic mannequins. Some of them are gunslingers that turn and shoot at each other, one is a pretty lady in a white dress tucked into a lighted shrine that turns out to be a representation of his late, much-adored wife. It’s initially sort of weird, but the way Slausen talks about his wife and breaks down crying is so sincere that at least one of the women, Molly (Jocelyn Jones), really starts to feel bad for him.
Of course, you can see where this is going. One by one, the youngsters wander off alone for one reason or another and get either straight-up murdered or taken captive by a heavyset dude in a wig and an eerie-looking mannequin mask. It’s here that the movie is really at its most effective, because the killer, as well as the shadowed shots of the mannequins, are intensely skin-crawling. It’s also worth noting that the killer, for absolutely no reason whatsoever, has telekinetic powers, and can sic mannequins on people and make their mouths drop open in a really, REALLY unsettling way.
Although for the bulk of the movie’s running time, you’re meant to believe that it’s Slausen’s crazy brother who has suddenly snapped and started offing people and adding them to his mannequin collection, viewers will not be surprised to learn that it was actually Slausen doing the killin’ all along.
Despite the movie’s obvious telegraphing, the whole atmosphere of the thing is what makes it great, and I have to say that Chuck Connors puts in a really noteworthy performance here, since his character really does believably seem like a sweet but slightly addled old man who then turns out to be a raging psycho by the end. Though he gets his just desserts at the hands of Final Girl Molly (who was of course the most prudish of the group, and also the one who showed the most compassion for Slausen), the closing scene makes it clear that Molly was all but broken by her horrible experience, as she tools down the highway in a convertible with a freaky grin on her face AND THE MANNEQUINS OF ALL HER DEAD FRIENDS IN THE CAR WITH HER. So yeah. The 70s were a strange time, kids.
Until next time, keep reading, keep watching, and try to keep away from any run-down mannequin-centric museums, okay? Until next time, Goddess out.