With the summer season officially upon us, it means many things, once again, are here for a brief time. Good old all-American things like BBQs, fireworks, screen doors, camping, pool parties and, of course, carnivals. Yup, nothing says summer quite like an overpriced, crappy food slinging, mediocre quality carnival. Remember the good old days when carnivals were still fun, still sleazy and all together creepy? The freaks, the strippers and the rat-faced carnies? Well, Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse sure as hell remembers, and if you give it a revisit you’ll remember too.
Despite frequently being listed among the great horror directors, Hooper will always have the hardest job of pleasing his fans. No matter what film he makes, it will always be compared to his 1974 classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. To this day it remains one of the greatest and most chilling horror films of all time and a true work of genius.
It’s surprising that it took Hooper almost 10 years to make a sequel to his horror classic. And when he finally got to make that film… well, it wasn’t what anyone expected. However, of the films Hooper made in between Chainsaw 1 and 2, the best true thematic follow-up to TCM is easily The Funhouse.
Released in 1981, The Funhouse came out when the slasher-craze was booming. However, rather than falling into the tropes of the age, The Funhouse is more of a throwback, atmospheric monster movie. The slasher genre is even poked fun of with a Halloween/Psycho homage during the film’s opening sequence. A masked intruder attacks the protagonist as she showers, resembling the famous shower scene from Alfred Hitchcocks’s Psycho. The “attacker” turns out to be her younger brother (playing a practical joke), a nod to John Carpenter’s opening to Halloween. Whether it’s intentional or not, this acts as a humorous snub to the flood of slasher films at the time.
In the film, level-headed teen Amy Harper (Elizabeth Berridge) heads out on a first date with hunk Buzz (Cooper Huckabee) and friends Liz (Largo Woodruff) and Richie (Miles Chapin) for a night at the traveling carnival. Harmless fun ensues – they ride the rides, see a fortune teller, attend a magic act and they sneak a joint behind one of the tents.
This leads to an idea so crazy that none of them can refuse. When Richie suggests they spend the whole night in the funhouse, Amy and Liz call their parents and sneakily tell them they’ll be spending the night at each other’s houses. Once locked inside the foreboding maze of puppets, pop-up skeletons, and fake spiders, the foursome spy through the floor cracks and, to their shock, witness the murder of prostitute-on-the-side Madame Zena (Sylvia Miles). The culprit is the monstrously deformed grown son of funhouse barker Conrad Straker (Kevin Conway), and, when the four teens accidentally give themselves away, he isn’t about to let them get out with their lives.
Hooper perfectly captures the haunting spirit of the grimy traveling carnival setting, from the dirty, ugly scary carnies to the general atmosphere and ghostly mood that drenches a traveling carnival like morning dew. He also rarely shies away from an unnerving cut-away to some random decaying mechanical doll in the funhouse itself – the kind of doll that almost seems to be staring right into the audience’s eyes (he would go on to employ this tactic again in 1982’s Poltergeist).
The result is a film just as memorable and unnerving as Texas Chainsaw. In fact, in some ways, it’s almost creepier. After all, every town gets infected with funhouses and carnivals at some point during the year. The “it could happen to you” factor is quite high here.
The climax, rising to a fever pitch within the bowels of the funhouse, is first-rate, while the final scene subtly says a lot without spelling things out. With thoughts of the hellish night she has just had permanently ingrained in her consciousness, Amy stands bedraggled and scuffed up at first morning’s light before listlessly stumbling off amidst the rides, tents and attractions of the carnival. Blending in with the heretofore lowlifes and miscreants around her, she has ultimately become one of them, a victim of fate and circumstance.
Menacingly scored by composer John Beal, the booming orchestrations complimenting the onscreen action, The Funhouse is a scary, fantastical, and most of all intelligent thriller that, like the original Halloween, proves slasher films can be sleek and upscale without going for low-rent gore tactics.
A true underrated gem, The Funhouse is a mini-masterpiece of frights and atmosphere. Of all the films attempting to piggyback on the horror bandwagon of the time, this is a ride that confidently stands near the top of the pack.
What are your thoughts on Tobe Hooper’s underrated classic? Let us know in the comment section below.