Disobeying her parent's orders, teenager Amy sneaks out to visit a sleazy travelling carnival with her friends Liz, Buzz and Richie. They decide to spend the night in the carnival funhouse and after witnessing a gruesome murder, are stalked by the deformed offspring of the carnival barker.
Tobe Hooper’s masterpiece The Texas Chainsaw Massacre needs no introduction. One of the most highly regarded, visceral, provocative and controversial horror films of all time, few films have matched it for its raw intensity: least of all, any of Hooper’s own subsequent offerings. Since then the director has wallowed in a mire of increasingly dire output. Few directors have experienced as much critical backlash or seen their career take such a downward spiral as Hooper. His earlier still work retains an edgy grittiness to it though; the intense and unrelenting ferocity of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the sweaty bijou snuff-production values of Eaten Alive and the nasty underbelly of Spielberg produced Poltergeist, all display intensity seemingly only Hooper could muster. Even in the creepy Prime-Time vampires-invading-a-small-town Stephen King TV adaptation, Salem’s Lot, Hooper managed to remain true to his horror roots and provide several spine-chilling moments; not least the little undead boy floating outside his bedroom window beckoning to his older brother to open it.
The Funhouse stands as one of his last films of any genuine interest or originality. Released in 1981, it was one of the more memorable in a glut of Halloween-inspired slasher flicks – in fact it was actually released in a double bill alongside Canadian slasher My Bloody Valentine. Like many of Hooper’s flicks, The Funhouse exhibits an abundance of grimy, queasy and downright lurid production design (courtesy of Mort Rabinowitz) and a moody atmosphere that becomes more sweat-inducing and off-kilter as events become more delirious and violent. Opening with a double homage to Psycho and Halloween in which one of the characters is menaced in the shower and seemingly murdered by a knife wielding, masked intruder (only for it to be revealed as a practical joke), is telling for The Funhouse; a film that constantly reveals all is not as it seems.
The bulk of the movie is made up of our rent-a-Scooby-gang, Amy (Elizabeth Berridge), Ritchie (Miles Chapin), Liz (Largo Woodruff) and beefcake Buzz (Cooper Huckabee), exploring the carnival, hanging out, going on rides, eating candy floss, smoking pot, drinking beer and sneaking peeks into the strip show – a dank and sleazy sight boasting a plethora of flabby older women with swirling titty-tassles and dour expressions. Characterisation, aside from Amy – who is the final girl, natch – could be written on a pinhead. The characters are stock types simply there to be chased throughout the lividly lit funhouse and murdered in various nasty ways.
Hooper sets about building an uneasy atmosphere of dread that is bolstered by the film’s undeniably effective production design – freakish carnies, deformed animals, luridly lit sets. The carnival is depicted as a sleazy, seedy and creepy place; everything about it is just ‘off.’ The folks who work there are all depicted as sinister, marginalised lugs that couldn’t be further from ‘normalcy’ if they tried.
Eventually the teens decide to spend the night in the funhouse. This is when the film should really kick into gear, but alas, Hooper never seems to be able to up the ante quite enough. The Funhouse does boast one or two memorably suspenseful moments – like when Amy sees her parents outside the funhouse after they are summoned to collect her brother – whose fearful loyalty to her ensures they remain unaware she’s inside – and her desperate cries for help are blown back in her face by the giant blades of an air-conditioning fan. By the time we’ve made it to the end though, Hooper can’t sustain the tension carefully created at the beginning of the film and it just sort of fizzles out with the inevitable, though less than protracted, confrontation between Amy and the monster. She is reduced to a pathetic, whiney wimp while the monster gropes, grasps and flails about in her general direction as she backs further towards sparking machinery…
As with many of the director’s films, the notion of a ‘monstrous family’ nestles at the dank heart of The Funhouse – the carnival barker and his hideously deformed son recall the grotesque family of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Our heroine Amy’s family is also far from perfect either and depicted in a less than flattering light; with her alcoholic mother, distant, ineffectual father and strange little brother Joey who delights in menacing her when she’s in the shower (Erm, paging Doctor Freud!). These elements also lend the film an unsettling edge – there is something oddly unfeeling about it all. Another deeply discomforting moment comes when Joey is ‘cleaned up’ by a carnival worker who watches, a little too fondly over him while he sleeps. Again with Hooper we have this ‘urban’ versus ‘rural’ dichotomy – the rich city kids coming to gawp at the carnie crazies and getting way more than they bargained for.
What is also one of the most disturbing aspects of this increasingly claustrophobic film is the depiction of the monstrous son. He is an unfortunate creature to be pitied as well as feared. His days are spent covered up in a mask and gloves, traipsing around tending to the titular funhouse; his nights spent trying to obtain sex – either by paying for it from seedy old carnival lushes, or, as implied when several characters discuss the ‘missing girls’ from the last town the carnival passed through – by abducting, molesting and murdering young girls. After the gruesome scene in which the son throttles the life out of the wretched fortune teller (Sylvia Miles) when she ridicules him, his father reacts violently, beating and goading his deformed offspring who cowers in the corner before flying into an inarticulate rage, too. The fact that he hides his hideous visage beneath a Frankenstein’s Monster mask is also telling. Both were created and shunned by unloving ‘fathers’ and both are misunderstood, but ultimately tragic, hulking lugs.
A by the numbers slasher that is redeemed by its creepy setting, vivid production design, eerie atmosphere and utterly deranged killer. Could have been so much better though, had Hooper bothered to ratchet up the tension as much as he does the grim atmospherics.