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Lost Oasis: An Interview with Tourist Trap Director David Schmoeller

“God help those who get caught in the tourist trap.”

To watch Tourist Trap is to wonder if the film had been accidentally made by an escapee from an insane asylum after he’d held a mini-studio hostage. And that hyperbole isn’t to insinuate that the filmmaker was channeling high-brow works of art like E. Elias Merhige’s Begotten or Buñuel & Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou, which are artistic to the extreme of defying convention. No, Tourist Trap is a different kind of insane – one that sports a straight-forward concept that became rather go-to in the late ’70s and early ’80s thanks to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: a group of kids getting lost in an unknown territory and falling victim one by one to a madman. On its surface, one would assume that’s all it would seem to entail. But oh, how wrong one would be to assume such a thing.

tourist-trap Have you ever heard the expression “a mystery wrapped in a riddle wrapped in an enigma?” Tourist Trap is that movie, in spades, but with mannequins. It, truly, is the most bizarre film you’ll ever see. It’s a film that, at some points, is deeply unsettling, and at others, completely ridiculous, whimsical, and odd. It’s almost as if two directors, whose styles completely contradicted each other, directed different portions. Picture an unhappy studio executive screening the latest film from David Lynch, then picking up a phone and requesting an immediate meeting with the guys who made Airplane.

This is certainly not a case of presenting something insane for the purposes of insanity, but failing to live up to that insanity for the remainder of the film. Rather, Tourist Trap hits the ground running with a bizarre opening and never lets up. It wastes no time in easing the viewer into the insanity that is soon to unfurl. “We’ve only got 90 minutes here, people,” the film is saying, “so strap in for the worst nightmare you’ve ever had while wide awake.”

To make sense of what’s soon to unfold is a fool’s errand. A rather simple-minded premise about mannequins with a life of their own soon morphs into a story featuring quirky and potentially dangerous twin brothers, split personalities, telekinesis, necromancy(?), and even heartbreak.

All of this, on the surface, feels easy to mock. A low-brow concept it may have been, and populated with not-so-great teen actors as was often the case for low-budget horror, writer/director David Schmoeller knew exactly what he was doing behind the camera. Every single solitary shot of a mannequin, or doll, or masked madman, is eerie, or disturbing, even deeply unsettling. Because nothing makes sense. And no explanations are provided. If you’re looking for the James Bond villain-esque explanation at the end where the antagonist lays it all out on the table – “here’s how I bring the mannequins to life / here’s how I learned to move objects with my mind / here’s how I resurrect the dead” – forget it. You’re barking up the wrong tree here, and you’re way way way in the wrong film. Gaps in logic can be detrimental to a screenplay unless you are in a filmmaker’s such capable hands that you not only forgive those gaps, but actually respect them and allow them to enhance your reaction to the story. It gets to be that you want to ignore these gaps, because to do otherwise would result in over-thinking and ruining the experience for yourself.

Each insane development occurs with no for warning, because Schmoeller wants you to feel just as broadsided as his characters. “Wait a minute, since when can this guy move shit with his mind?”, etc. He wants every new occurrence of supernatural territory to slap you across the face. He wants you to feel uneven and on edge, honestly believing anything could happen at any moment. At one point someone could have opened their chest to reveal they were a robot the entire time and it would have felt right at home. (Not to mention something like that kinda-sorta happens.)

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Schmoeller is also wise to exploit the hordes of mannequins found everywhere in Slausen’s Lost Oasis to immense satisfaction and disturbance. At one point the killer is chasing one of our victims and holds out, at arm’s length, a severed mannequin’s head.

“See my friend?” the killer grumbles, as the mouth on the mannequin head opens widely and screams.

At this point we have seen enough insanity and unexplained activity that we know this is not a simple case of ventriloquism: This head is somehow alive, and it’s screaming at our victim like it’s being brutally murdered. This is later confirmed when the killer heaves the screaming head at her as she turns and flees. The head, landing on the ground in front of her, promptly turns by itself and yells at her again.

Adding to this insanity are the occasional bouts of humor. Not unintentional humor, mind you, but honest-to-gosh scenes in which Schmoeller forgot he was making a haunted mannequin, masked-killer movie and was perhaps instead directing a vaudevillian stage play featuring Abbot and Costello.

Also adding to this insanity is the completely wacko score by Pino Donaggio, perhaps most famous for having scored the majority of Brian DePalma’s earlier films like Carrie and Dressed to Kill. Much like Tourist Trap itself, the score alternates between chilling, with stabbing strings, and goofy, with clumsy xylophone hits. It’s an awkward pastiche that at some points is trying to drive you mad with fear, but at others is trying to convince you you’re in the presence of someone whimsical and eccentric and you should be having a really amusing fucking time.

The last shot shows our lone survivor driving down the street with mannequin versions of all her friends filling out the car that now suddenly works, as Pino Donaggios’s score assaults your every sense, slamming home the fact that, yes, what you just experienced was real, and no, you will never forget it.

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Cut Print Film: I think the best way to start off is for you to provide the genesis of Tourist Trap. This is a film that I saw for the first time several years ago and just did not know what to think. It was horrific and strange and alternately kind of hilarious. I’ve revisited it several times since then, and not only does it hold up, but it gets better – and I find more to appreciate about it – with each viewing. This isolated man’s nightmarish house seems to exist in its own world and with its own rules, and nearly all of it defies explanation. How on earth did you come up with this concept?

david_schmoeller_interview_2David Schmoeller: There is a “why” and a “how” aspect to this question. The “why” – why did I come up with this idea? The answer is a very practical one. I had just graduated from film school and was looking for a way to break into Hollywood as a feature director. When I was in grad school at the University of Texas at Austin shooting my thesis film, Tobe Hooper was in Austin shooting The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It was a low-budget hit that launched his career. So, I decided to do a horror film in the same vein.

The “how?” My thesis film – The Spider Will Kill You – was a “Twilight Zone” short about a blind man and mannequins. I thought the aspect of mannequins coming alive – and their ability to scare you (or creep you out, at least) – was a good ingredient. So, I used some of the basic structure of Chainsaw (van full of young victims) and the lone madman who appears to be okay (Psycho).

Cut Print Film: Tourist Trap exists in a very surreal and nightmarish landscape – I would compare it to Phantasm, due to its dreamy tone and ambiguity. Tourist Trap stands out from its other late-1970s counterparts because of this. At what point in the production phase did you realize you wanted to push this kind of surreal and unusual approach?

Schmoeller: I think that dreamy quality was in the script, and also in previous short films I had made. (The Spider Will Kill You and Lora Lee’s Bedroom – those are just two of my shorts that had the same quality.) And the tone of those short films probably came in part from my literature studies from my days living and studying in Mexico – the influence of magic realism. And of course, the main influence of The Spider Will Kill You was this bizarre line of mannequins I found in J.C. Penney’s that was so perversely surreal, it makes me laugh to this day (this was the late 1960s). The infant mannequins had some facial features – eyes, nose, mouth, ears – but parts were starting to disappear. As you went up the age-representation of the mannequins – say, the three-year-olds – they started losing whole features – maybe just a single eye. It was just smoothed over. As the mannequins aged, they lost more and more features – until you got to the adults, and all their features were just gone…all smoothed over…so that they almost looked alien. They were so highly stylized; they just didn’t seem to belong in a place like J.C. Penney’s – very surreal and very bizarre. That was when I came up with the story for The Spider Will Kill You.

Cut Print Film: There is a wonderful juxtaposition of legitimate terror and strange, almost absurd humor. I’ll cite the “dinner scene” – when Slausen and his “brother” share a meal of soup, which ends with the brother’s head falling off – as an example. Noticeably, the film doesn’t inject any humor until the kids are already in peril. Because of this, the humor seems to come out of nowhere and feels unexpected. Was this a conscious choice?

Schmoeller: Well, I certainly hope the humor was intentional. Although, at the first cast and crew screening in L.A., there was some unexpected laughter in places that surprised me – I remember asking the person next to me, “Why are they laughing?” It could have been nervous laughter – or they could have been laughing at the absurdity of it all. Or, maybe they just thought something or other was just so awful that it was laughable. L.A. cast and crew screenings are full of people who are very cynical – not at all like the cast and crew screenings in Las Vegas, which are nice love-fest screenings. In L.A., they have seen and worked on everything and they tend to judge film work much more harshly. It’s like: “Show me what you got, sucker. I am not very easily impressed.” By the way, that is not the brother in that surreal dinner scene – because he is dead. It is a figment of Slausen’s imagination – it is not real; it doesn’t really happen; it is a dream…it is Eileen, in fact, as far as Slausen is concerned.

david_schmoeller_interview_1Cut Print Film: In a movie like Tourist Trap, especially after a point, I feel like anything could happen, and I stop questioning what I’m seeing and I just kind of hold on for the ride. That’s the beauty of it. About that dinner scene, I need to know: How did you manage to concoct such a strange exchange between these characters? Were you channeling “Abbot and Costello” as you wrote that scene?

Schmoeller: This particular exchange just came out almost in whole – as is. Writing generally is very easy for me, but in this case, I think it can be explained this way: the scene is completely organic. Slausen is having a meal with Eileen, who is just a mannequin with Eileen’s face-mask, scarf, and clothes. Slausen has a conversation with her and she responds in Davey’s voice, which is just Slausen slipping deeper and deeper into the abyss of his madness. And at the very end, the lines get crossed (Eileen/Davey gets ahead of the question) and then her head snaps off. It was one of those scenes that came to me in its entirety, and I just had to type it out…the best kind of scene.

Cut Print Film: The character of Slausen possesses incredible superpowers. He has the ability to move objects with his mind, and because of this can seemingly bring mannequins and dolls to life. Yet, there is absolutely no explanation for this. Why did you choose to leave his abilities vague and unexplained?

Schmoeller: The power of telekinesis was suggested by Charlie [Band, producer]. It was his only contribution to the script, which was complete when we submitted it to him. At first, I really didn’t like the idea, because the story was entirely psychological. Giving Slausen the power of telekinesis actually explained a lot of the occurrences – not directly, but just vaguely. The audience may assume that the mannequins move because Slausen is making them move with his T-powers. I thought I was already explaining too much, so I certainly didn’t want to explain how or why he had this power. The historical figures in his museum (Custer, Sitting Bull, et al.) are automatons; they are mechanical creations and move because of science. If [audiences] think they move because Slausen is making them move with his telekinetic powers, that’s okay with me.

Cut Print Film: Tell me about the film’s musical score.

Schmoeller: How Pino Donaggio became the composer was just a stroke of luck. I was asked to be an interpreter by Joe Dante, who had hired Pino Donaggio to score Piranha. Pino did not speak English, so Pino and I spoke Spanish. After we finished spotting the film I asked Pino if he would score Tourist Trap. We screened it for him and he agreed. Charlie Band had spent much of his childhood in Italy, so he was fluent in Italian and he and Pino hit it off immediately. Somehow Charlie came up with another $50,000 dollars for Pino’s fee and the entire orchestral score, which was recorded in Rome. The budget rose from $300,000 to $350,000. I learned so much about scoring a movie from Pino.

Cut Print Film: Charles Band has a somewhat divisive reputation in the horror community. You collaborated with him on this and your 1989 film Puppetmaster. How would you describe your working relationship with him?

Schmoeller: For me, Charlie was a very good producer to work for, because he left you alone for the most part. And for most of my movies, we had enough money to make a reasonably good movie. He was not an on-set producer at all. He didn’t pay very much, and sometimes it was hard to get paid, but in my case, I always got paid – until I left his employment. He owes me money for Puppetmaster, and when I tried to collect it he took my name off the movie and put his name on it. (He took off my “A Film By David Schmoeller” credit, and put his name above the title: Charles Band’s Puppetmaster.) That’s a real shitty thing to do – and very petty and small-minded. He’s starting to get old and I think the business is more of a struggle for him, so he feels the need to crib credits. So be it.

Cut Print Film: I don’t suppose you’re lucky enough to receive any royalties each time a new Puppetmaster film is made, are you? I believe the series is hovering somewhere around ten entries, now…

Schmoeller: Yes, that’s the money he owes me – Puppetmaster residuals.

david_schmoeller_interview_10Cut Print Film: One could argue that the 1970s produced some of the best genre films to date, and Tourist Trap was released at the end of its run in 1979. What was it about this ten-year period that resulted in films like The Exorcist, Halloween, Phantasm, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and the many more?

Schmoeller: The ’70s also produced some of the most original mainstream movies, too, so it wasn’t just genre films. I think it mostly has to do with the fact that filmmaking was considered more of a director’s domain, and the writers and directors were not interfered with as much as they were in later decades, when the cost of movies started to rise considerably. While The Exorcist was a big studio movie, William Friedkin was just coming off winning an Oscar for directing The French Connection, so he had almost complete control. There is a very funny story of how these three studio executives were assigned to The Exorcist and when Friedkin was way over schedule and way over budget, one of these executives had finally had enough. So he picked up the phone and called Friedkin on the set and said, “Billy, this has just got to stop, it has to stop. And if it doesn’t, well, I’m just going to have to pull the plug.” And Friedkin said, “Okay, go ahead – pull the plug.” And the executive quickly backtracked and said, “Well, Billy, I don’t mean I would REALLY pull the plug.” At which point, Friedkin hung up. Back at the executive’s office, when HE hung up, one of the other executives said, “That was the most expensive phone call you have ever made.”

Halloween was an auteur film, made by Carpenter with no interference from anyone. Same with Phantasm and Texas Chain Saw. The budget [of The Exorcist] greatly eclipsed the budgets of these other three films, but they were all directed by extremely talented filmmakers.

Cut Print Film: Now that Little Monsters, your newest feature, is available on video, do you have anything next in the pipeline that fans can look forward to?

Schmoeller: Yes, I am writing a new horror film called “Dead Angels” (from the children’s refrain: “When angels fail, they go to hell.”) It’s about dead people whose souls are stuck in the netherworld until they can track down and kill the person who killed them in the first place. It deals with who is really the living dead among us and how many times do you have to kill someone before they stay dead. It’s horror film noir.

Tourist Trap is available on blu-ray. David Schmoeller’s new film, Little Monsters, is currently available on DVD, and the director’s early short films are available on DVD directly from his official website.

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J. Tonzelli is a writer, film critiquer, and avid Arnold/Van Damme/Bronson enthusiast who resides in rural South Jersey. He is the author of "The End of Summer: Thirteen Tales of Halloween" and the "Fright Friends Adventure" series, co-authored with Chris Evangelista. He loves abandoned buildings, the supernatural, and films by John Carpenter. You can read some of his short fiction at his website, JTonzelli.com, or objectify him by staring at his tweets: @jtonzelli. He apologizes for all the profanity.

  • The 70s is fast becoming my favourite decade for film. After Tourist Trap, which had its moments, I checked out Jocelyn Jones in The Great Texas Dynamite Chase – a very different persona and a lot of fun if you like farce.

    Watching Puppet Master, right NOW, and it’s a little better than I remembered… so far.