The late, great horror Director Tobe Hooper‘s 1981 film “The Funhouse” likely won’t be remembered as a classic of the genre, but it deserves better than to be forgotten. One of Hooper’s most coherent films, it entertains the audience with a well paced, albeit threadbare, plot, some great kills and camera work, and pulls off the Joe Bob Briggs triple crown of breasts, blood, and beasts that landed it a spot in the ‘Video Nasties‘ family, enshrining it amongst the 80’s better Slashers.
The setup is simple: four horny teens hit a travelling carnival that has come through town. They hang out, view the weird attractions, and eventually decide to stay in a ride called “The Funhouse”(natch) overnight, where mayhem ensues. What elevates “The Funhouse“, though, is Tobe Hooper’s execution. The director doesn’t rely on cliches of the early slashers of the decade, instead establishing a downright creepy atmosphere through the use of inventive lighting, odd camera angles and even odder characters that populate the carnival. With a colourful palette and some great widescreen shots, we’re well outside the drab grey and black look of Friday The 13th, or the even more bleak feel of his seminal debut “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”.
“The Funhouse” opens with a Halloween-inspired POV shot, misdirecting us to be a prank played by a younger brother on his older sister, Amy (Elizabeth Berridge). This opening shower scene immediately marks a change from the cliches of early slashers, as getting naked is the surest way to a death sentence, and most “Final Girls” avoided this at all costs. Amy heads out to the carnival with her boyfriend and another couple, and, as these things ALWAYS seem to happen, her kid brother Joey sneaks out after her. After getting sauced and looking to get it on, the quartet decide to hideout in the titular Funhouse for the night. Needless to say, this is the wrong move…They’re not alone, and here there film revs up the murder machine we’ve all been waiting for. Tobe Hooper fully embraces the setting of “The Funhouse” in horrific fashion as our teens are stalked through the ride by the masked killer, and his dad (Kevin Conway), the barker of the ride, doing whatever they can to keep the carnivals secrets hidden.
Hooper skillfully drops hints earlier in the film that something is off about the people of the carnival, revealing its odd past through conversation, and subtly establishing the bizarre deformity of the film’s villain without allowing the viewer to anticipate the terrifying true identity of the awkward carny dressed as Frankenstein’s monster. One of “The Funhouse“‘s biggest successes, and the second way it sets itself apart, is the way it crafts a legitimately creepy atmosphere and a feeling of impending dread during this downtime before cutting the monster loose. Mutated animals at the carnival’s freak show, a ride through the garish funhouse, and perhaps most unsettling, the same man acting as three different barkers in front of the freakshow, the funhouse, and the girlie show, all set the films tone and keep the tension high. It was actor Kevin Conway’s suggestion for him to play all three roles, and while attention is never really drawn to it, the effect is quite disturbing and lends an air of surrealism, or an icky suggestion of inbreeding, to the scene.
Hooper and co-writer Larry Block’s script also departs from the typical backstory with a killer who’s both goofily, gloriously deformed (he looks like Sloth from the goonies fucked Doc Brown from Back To The Future in a wind tunnel) and somehow sympathetic. He doesn’t look it, but he’s more human than most of his victims, as his rage is only released as he’s pushed too far by the cruel and cackling carnies. The kills in “The Funhouse“are supremely satisfying, with a HVAC powered mutilation that’s a high point, and the score is serviceable in keeping things moving and setting the tone. The teens are the usual mix of far too old and dumb to be teens, but they do a fine job in being dispatched by Gunther, our masked maniac. The real standout is Kevin Conway as the evil owner, absolutely chewing through every scene he’s given with growling, glorious sleaze.
While there are the “Three Bs” in ample amount (Blood, Breasts, Beasts), “The Funhouse” the film was actually unsuccessfully prosecuted as a video nasty in the UK a few years after its release. While recent re-issues, and Hooper’s unfortunate passing in 2017, have elevated his body of work, it’s a shame the initial explosion of home video wasn’t enough to keep Funhouse form obscurity. You can catch this classic on Amazon Prime in glorious HD, or grab one of THREE re-issues from the always great Arrow Video…if you can find them! For completists and film fanatics, The 2-disc Blu-Ray has audio commentary with The Funhouse S/FX wizard Craig Reardon and Jeffrey Reddick (creator of the Final Destination series) plus featurettes like Carnage at the Carnival: Tobe Hooper Remembers “The Funhouse” , Miles of Mayhem: Acting in Tobe’s Funhouse with star Miles Chapin, A Trilogy of Terror: The Make-up Madness of Craig Reardon, in which the S/FX wizard recollects his collaborations with Tobe Hooper; Eaten Alive, Poltergeist and The Funhouse, Master Class of Horror: Mick Garris, in which the director of Sleepwalkers and the miniseries adaptation of The Shining reflects on the crimson-covered career of his longtime colleague Tobe Hooper, a live Q&A with Tobe Hooper from San Francisco, never-before-seen behind the scenes photographs from the collection of Craig Reardon, the film’s trailer, a brand new transfer of the film in high definition (1080p), a four-panel reversible sleeve option with original and newly commissioned artwork, a double-sided fold-out artwork poster, and a collector’s booklet featuring brand-new writing on the film by critic and author Kim Newman! Well worth the $60 price tag and more proof that physical media still has its place in film.