A group of friends have car problems and end up stuck outside a run-down tourist trap which – like the Bates Motel in Psycho (1960) – has lost its customers since the main highway was re-routed. As well as a friendly owner, a wax museum full of robotic mannequins and an ‘oasis’ (a waterfall with a pool beneath), the attraction also appears to offer a masked man with telekinetic powers and murderous tendencies.

The movie begins when one of the group sets off alone to find a gas station. Before long he’s trapped in a room with laughing life-size dummies, moving furniture, and things being propelled from a cupboard. When he’s finally impaled by a flying piece of copper pipe, everything suddenly stops, becoming eerily still and quiet. The camera explores the room very slowly, before coming back to rest on the the blood dripping from the end of the pipe. It’s a very effective, surreal opening.

Meanwhile the other ‘kids’ find the oasis. The three women immediately strip off their clothing (off camera) and take a swim in the cool, crystal-like, er, brown muddy water. The owner finds them and invites them to wait in his wax museum while he takes their male friend off to fix the car. And before you know it the killer turns up, wearing a face mask, wig and hat, and looking alarmingly like Angela Lansbury in Murder She Wrote.

The wax museum mannequins seem to be everywhere, and are an unsettling highlight of the film. Sometimes they move, sometimes they laugh or whisper, and – creepiest of all – sometimes they just stand motionless in the shadows. The set design is excellent, creating a cluttered, seedy atmosphere in a place that has clearly seen better days. The same art designer, Robert A Burns, did a similarly impressive job on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). A lot of thought went into the music too, which works very well – whether dramatic orchestral strings, scary female gasp-like vocals, or pretty-but-disturbing jewellery box music.

The actual killings aren’t bad. The death by suffocation scene would have been a classic for me, had it not been slightly spoiled by the obvious use of bread dough to represent plaster. There is a surprise twist about the killer, but to be honest it isn’t all that much of a shock. However the very last shot will certainly make you raise your eyebrows.

For a low-budget, made-for-TV movie it’s fairly well put together. Chuck Connors seems to have fun with the lead role, and future Charlie’s Angel – Tanya Roberts – runs around in tiny hotpants, trying her best not to pop out of a stripey boobtube. It has its campy moments, and once or twice it did feel a little slow, but on the other hand the acting is decent, and it’s genuinely creepy. It borrows ideas and themes from other films, such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Psycho (1960), Halloween (1978) and Carrie (1976). But in turn, it may also have been an influence on later films such as Maniac (1980), House of Wax (2005) and Mannequin (1987). (Ok maybe not the last one so much.)

Overall I was impressed with this movie, and I’m surprised it’s not better known, or more of a cult picture.

Review by Bad Film Friday

 

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