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Hidden Horrors of Peacock: 'Tourist Trap' is a slasher like no other

This month on Hidden Horrors of Peacock, we're taking a look at an underappreciated slasher creeper.

By Matthew Jackson
Tourist Trap (1979)

Welcome to Hidden Horrors of Peacocka monthly column spotlighting off-the-beaten-path scary movies available to watch right now on NBCUniversal's streaming service. From cult classics to forgotten sequels to indie gems you've maybe never heard of, we've got you covered. 

This month, we're revisiting an early slasher gem that doesn't get as much attention as it deserves: Tourist Trap

I'm fascinated by what I like to think of as the second layer of horror releases in any given subgenre. The top layer, the films most recognizable to even casual horror viewers, gets discussed all the time, but if you're able to get into horror just a little deeper, you'll find a whole new world open to you, dozens of new movies that you may have heard of but never seen. And when you see them, you can tell a fellow horror fan your experience, and their eyes will light up. 

Tourist Trap, David Schmoeller's 1979 slasher film set at the title destination, is one of those second layer films, at least in my experience. On the horror calendar, it fell right between the better-known releases of Halloween in 1978 and Friday the 13th in 1980, and horror viewers are much more likely to gravitate to those two franchise-launching titans. If you stick around the horror section long enough, though, this weird little movie with its deeply unsettling visual effects and supernaturally tinged kills will eventually call your name, and you should definitely listen, because it's quite simply one of the most unnerving horror films of its era.

The setup for Tourist Trap is more-or-less exactly what the title suggests: A group of friends are on the road when their car breaks down, they find a strange tourist trap, and terror ensues. In this case, the tourist trap is Slausen's Lost Oasis, a rundown wax museum run by Slausen (Chuck Connors), an odd but seemingly benevolent man who's frustrated that the freeway has taken all of his business. All the friends get lured in one way or another, a killer starts picking them off, and...well, you know this formula.

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Or at least, you think you do. One of the things that makes Tourist Trap so delightful, particularly when you've already been around the block with better-known slasher films, is the number of twists it puts on certain established formulas, in part because it came around so early that there weren't that many formulas to follow. You might recognize certain aspects of the setting and character work as owing a debt to Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and of course the film owes a huge debt to 1953's House of Wax, but Schmoeller and company aren't just aping the style of better-known horror films. 

You see, this tourist trap isn't just a place where wayward youths are lured to their deaths, nor is it just a place where bodies might get made into wax figures. The killer at the heart of the story -- often seen sporting a truly creepy mannequin mask complete with ventriloquist dummy slits that allow the jaw to move -- isn't just a man with a weapon. He's got a strange blend of hands-on interest, a terrifying voice, and somehow, telekinesis. That's right, there's even a little bit of Carrie in this film, as the killer uses not just his own hands, but everything from flying furniture to moving mannequins to capture and kill his victims. 

And because this is a horror film produced in 1979, the visual effects are all practical, and they're both quite impressive and genuinely frightening even if you're looking at them as something that feels a little dated by modern gore standards. The jerky motion of the mannequins moving, the simple tricks to create flying objects, and of course the mask work all combine to craft something that's frequently bone-chilling, and it's not just effective because it plays like a gimmick. There's a level of creative detail at work in this movie, from the way blood drips to the way a severed mannequin looks while it's screaming, that's both effective and strikingly timeless. It all has the effect of giving the film an added layer of eerie verisimilitude, because everything is really moving in that way, and doing those things, even if it's all in service of make-believe.

So, the next time you're in the mood for a slasher, and you feel like you've seen all the big names, consider Tourist Trap your next stop. You might have trouble being near mannequins for a few weeks, but it's a small price to pay.

Tourist Trap is now streaming on Peacock.