Tourist Trap: VHS Retro Big Box Collection (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Stephen Bjork
  • Review Date: Oct 26, 2022
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Tourist Trap: VHS Retro Big Box Collection (Blu-ray Review)

Director

David Schmoeller

Release Date(s)

1979 (November 24, 2020)

Studio(s)

Charles Band Productions (Full Moon Features)
  • Film/Program Grade: B
  • Video Grade: B-
  • Audio Grade: B-
  • Extras Grade: B

Tourist Trap (Blu-ray)

Buy it Here!

Review

Tourist Trap is a nifty little horror gem from 1979 that does have a cult following, but it’s probably still unfamiliar to far too many horror fans. Directed by David Schmoeller for producer Charles Band, and made on one of Band’s typical shoestring budgets, it works well despite the budgetary limitations because it trades on the inherently creepy nature of dolls and mannequins. From Michael Curtiz’s Mysteries of the Wax Museum in 1933 to the present day, wax figures, mannequins, ventriloquist dummies, and other dolls have all been used quite successfully in the horror genre. No matter how many flaws that any of the individual films may have, the basic imagery of menacing simulacra remains a potent and unforgettable one.

Schmoeller and J. Larry Carroll’s script was inspired by the short film The Spider Will Kill You that Schmoeller had directed as his thesis in college. The stories are unrelated, but both films feature someone living with mannequins that come to life. Interestingly, one of the most crucial elements for Tourist Trap wasn’t in the original script, but was instead added at Band’s suggestion: having the dummies brought to life via telekinesis. Since that was added at the last minute, the film never explains how or why the villain has these powers, but it still creates an eerie sense of menace that’s rather different than if the figures had been possessed instead.

Speaking of the villain, Chuck Connors was cast in the film after Jack Palance and Gig Young turned down the part. When Stephen King wrote about Tourist Trap in his classic survey of the horror genre Danse Macabre, he complained that Connors was miscast, but the counterintuitive casting choice actually works quite well. Connors successfully skated a fine line between being sympathetic and repellent, whereas Palance would have started out over the top and kept going up from there.

Take all of that, add in a very interesting score by Pino Donnagio which veers sharply between ominousness and jocularity, and you have a memorable horror film that stands out from many other genre efforts from the era. Unless, of course, you aren’t disturbed by dummies or other figurines—but if that’s the case, you may not be human, either. (For the record, sane, well-adjusted people also abhor clowns, so anyone who says otherwise is automatically suspect.) There are plenty of rough edges to Tourist Trap, but they add to its charm, and nothing can take away from the universal effectiveness of the central concept.

Unfortunately, when it comes to Tourist Trap in high definition, things can definitely be taken away from the film itself. Nothing is ever simple where Charlie Band is concerned, so fasten your seat belts, because it’s going to be a bumpy recap. In 2014, Full Moon Pictures announced that they were releasing a Blu-ray version of the film, uncut and “remastered from the original 35 mm camera negative.” Yet to paraphrase a curmudgeonly Jedi, every word of what the company said was wrong. Far from being uncut, this version of Tourist Trap was missing approximately five minutes of footage. Schmoeller didn’t even notice until it was pointed out to him later, as he had sat down and recorded a new commentary track for the disc without saying a word about the cuts. (Tourist Trap was his first film, made 36 years prior to that point, so we’ll cut him some slack for not remembering everything.) Band made a statement that “the issue of the 5 missing minutes of Tourist Trap is upsetting for all of us as we never touched the negative that has been in storage for 36 years. When the time came we simply had the lab deliver the negative to the color correction house who did their work and they then delivered an HD master back to us.”

Unfortunately, the new HD master clearly didn’t come from the original negative, and it probably didn’t even come from an interpositive or an internegative, either—it looks like a print. So, it’s undoubtedly true that they hadn’t touched the negative in 36 years; the problem is, it appears that they still haven’t touched it yet, despite any claims to the contrary. Rather than spending the money accessing the original elements, they simply used a print that they had available to them, but for whatever reason, it seems to have been edited down without their knowledge. There’s been speculation that it was a print that was created for foreign distribution, but even if Band was forthcoming about that fact, it’s hard to take anything that he says at face value. So in 2020, Full Moon issued a new Blu-ray that purported to be really uncut. Thankfully, that much was true, but we’re still talking about Charlie Band, so there’s a major hitch involved. More on that in a moment.

Cinematographer Nicholas Josef von Sternberg shot Tourist Trap on 35 mm film using Panavision Panaflex cameras with spherical lenses, finished photochemically, and framed at 1.85:1 for its theatrical release (it’s been reframed slightly here at 1.78:1). For a transfer that was likely sourced from a print, with no real restoration work performed on it, everything is in reasonably good shape. There’s some light speckling and other damage throughout, as well as a few dropped frames here and there; for example, there’s a jump cut at 2:32 as one character is rolling a tire down the street. There’s also some horizontal wavering at times that makes any lateral pans have a stuttering effect—it’s noticeable in the two shots that immediately follow the one with the tire-rolling. Light density fluctuations are visible as well. Contrast is fine, though there’s definite black crush during the night scenes, and in the darkest interior scenes as well. On the plus side, the level of fine detail is definitely improved over the DVD version, and the color balance generally looks natural. The grain is moderately heavy, but reasonably well-controlled. Overall, it’s pretty average compared to other Full Moon releases, even if it lags behind what other companies would have done. There’s still that hitch to cover, though.

The reality is that this is the exact same transfer as the one that was used for the 2014 Blu-ray. Rather than scanning an uncut print (or other elements), inserts from the DVD transfer were used to replace the missing footage, upscaled to 1080p. So, there’s no need to figure out which scenes were affected, because they stick out like a sore thumb. On the other hand, that proves conclusively that the newer HD scan shows considerably more fine detail than previous versions, regardless of the source element that was used. It’s a genuine upgrade from DVD, despite the issues.

Like most Full Moon Pictures Blu-rays, there’s no lossless audio included. Instead, the audio is supposedly offered in English 2.0 Dolby Digital Stereo and English 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround—or at least, that’s what the packaging and the menu options claim. In keeping with the spirit of everything else related to Full Moon’s treatment of Tourist Trap, both tracks are actually plain old mono. The only difference is that the 5.1 does spread the same signal into the front three channels, while the 2.0 decodes to the center channel when run through a processor. The 5.1 might give the impression of a bit more spread, but it’s just an illusion. That said, both tracks are in surprisingly good shape, with only a bit of noise, distortion, or other artifacts. There are no subtitles available.

The Full Moon Features Vintage VHS Collection #3 release of Tourist Trap is a 2-disc set that includes a standard definition DVD copy of the film. The amaray case is housed in an oversized retro VHS-style box, with a Mr. Slausen action figure tucked inside. The latter isn’t articulated, so it’s a bit of a stretch to call it an “action figure,” but that’s in keeping with everything else about this set. The following extras are included:

  • Audio Commentary with David Schmoeller
  • Exit Through the Chop Shop (HD – 24:35)
  • Still Gallery (HD – 3:35)
  • Trailer (SD – 1:55)
  • Crash and Burn Trailer (SD – 1:05)
  • Intruder Trailer (SD – 1:34)
  • Mansion of the Doomed Trailer (SD – 1:41)
  • Shrunken Heads Trailer (SD – 1:57)
  • Prehysteria Trailer (HD – 1:46)
  • Crash Trailer (SD – 3:55)
  • Blade: The Iron Cross Trailer (HD – 2:04)
  • Weedjies: Halloweed Night Trailer (HD – 1:56)

Unsurprisingly, we’re not quite finished with the saga of Tourist Trap on Blu-ray. While David Schmoeller did sit down to record a new commentary track in 2014, that wouldn’t have matched this longer version of the film, so Full Moon dug into the archives and used the one that he recorded for the uncut 1998 DVD instead. As a result, if you have the 2014 Blu-ray, you’ll want to hang onto it for the alternate commentary. For this one, Schmoeller first provides some background for the film, then spends his time discussing the actors, the locations, and the low-fi nature of the special effects. He has some interesting production stories, especially about Connors, who apparently had some fun messing around with his inexperienced director. It’s a pretty sparse commentary overall, especially toward the end, where he seems to run out of things to say. He also falls into the trap of describing the action onscreen sometimes, but there’s still some interesting nuggets to be had here.

Exit Through the Chop Shop is an interview with Schmoeller produced and directed by Daniel Griffith at Ballyhoo Motion Pictures, originally created for the 2014 Blu-ray. Unlike the commentary track, it’s a fast-paced and focused look at the making of Tourist Trap, covering the writing of the script, the cast and crew, production, post-production, and release of the film. He also discusses the ending of Tourist Trap, and how the various fan interpretations vary wildly from what he intended. The most interesting revelation: prior to making his debut with this film, Schmoeller interned on the Peter Hyams classic Capricorn One. The Still Gallery includes pages from the script, behind-the-scenes photos, and other production materials. Finally, the Trailers are all for other Full Moon or Wizard Video productions, though none directed by Schmoeller, oddly enough.

Aside from the variable commentary tracks, there’s nothing else missing here from the previous Full Moon Blu-ray version. 88 Films in the UK releasef a version in 2014 that included an interview with Schmoeller from the 1998 DVD, but they unknowingly used the cut version of the film. 84 Entertainment in Germany released their own hybrid complete version in 2016 that included that interview, plus the Trailers from Hell with David DeCocteau, an extended review from the YouTube channel OcpCommunications, more promotional materials, and a copy of the soundtrack on CD. (It’s not clear which commentary track that they used). From a special features standpoint, their edition clearly has the edge, although Exit from the Chop Shop easily supersedes the old interview with Schmoeller, so it’s not really necessary. Of course, Full Moon being Full Moon, and Charlie Band being Charlie Band, it’s a fair question if the hybrid cut on their Blu-ray is one that they created themselves, or if they just borrowed the one that 84 Entertainment created in 2016. All things considered, it’s likely the latter.

Since the soundtrack CD is readily available elsewhere, and this Full Moon Blu-ray is substantially cheaper than scalper prices being charged for the 84 Entertainment version on eBay, it’s probably the best choice for now. Is it definitive? Oh, gosh no. But unless someone pays to get the original negative out of cold storage, it’s likely as definitive as we’ll ever get. The only wildcard is that the American Genre Film Archive (AGFA) announced back in 2020 that they had entered into a theatrical distribution partnership with Full Moon, but nothing related to that deal has trickled down into home video. So while you can certainly hold out in the hopes that something miraculous happens, that might never materialize, and it would be a shame to miss out on experiencing Tourist Trap in the meantime. The choice is yours, however. This disc still gets a qualified recommendation, as it’s the best that we’ve got for now.

- Stephen Bjork

(You can follow Stephen on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook.)

 

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