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, but after witnessing a gruesome murder, are stalked by the maniacal, deformed offspring of the carnival barker.
Tobe Hooper’s masterpiece The Texas Chain Saw 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: not even many of Hooper’s own subsequent offerings could live up to the extreme intensity it generated. That said, much of his earlier work still retains an edgy grittiness to it; the sweaty bijou snuff-atmospherics 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 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 hip 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. Characterisation, aside from Amy – who is clearly signposted as the 'final girl' – could be written on a pinhead. The characters are 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 carnival workers, 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 fun-house. This is when the film really kicks into gear, boasting one or two memorably suspenseful moments, like when Amy sees her parents outside the fun-house after they are summoned to collect her brother (whose fearful loyalty to her ensures he doesn't tell their parents she's at the funfair) 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 throughout, and the eventual (inevitable) confrontation between Amy and the monster - which comes after a taut chase scene in which Amy crawls deeper inside the mechanical background of the fun-house while the monster gropes and grasps after her - just sort of fizzles out.
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 Chain Saw Massacre. Our heroine Amy’s family is also drawn in a less than flattering light; with her distant mother, ineffectual father and strange little brother Joey who delights in menacing her when she’s in the shower (!). 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 bratty city kids coming to gawp at the country 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 fun-house; his nights spent trying to obtain sex – either by paying for it from seedy older carnival women, or, as implied when several characters discuss the ‘missing girls’ from the last town the carnival passed through – by abducting, molesting and murdering young women. After the gruesome scene in which he throttles the life out of the wretched fortune teller (Sylvia Miles) when she ridicules him, his father reacts violently, beating and goading his son, who cowers in the corner before flying into an inarticulate rage. 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 luridly atmospheric slasher that boasts a supremely creepy setting, vivid production design, eerie score and utterly deranged killer. Hooper ratchets the tension as much as he does the grim atmospherics.