You Fellow Fans out there know that, in the horror heyday that was the early ’80s, it seemed that everyone was on the bandwagon of seeing what beloved holiday could be exploited, defiled, or otherwise besmirched with a gruesome horror flick (typically a slasher). Carpenter got the ball rolling with Halloween, followed closely by Cunningham with Friday the 13th, and it was off to the races: Valentine’s Day, Christmas, New Year’s, Mother’s Day, April Fool’s Day…hell, even birthdays were rolled into the meat-grinder of horror films running with the holiday gimmick (and I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed most of these). Typically, when I ask someone about that part of horror history, it’s almost always one of these so-themed titles that immediately springs to their minds, and understandably so. However, we gotta be careful not to overlook the other, non-holiday themed films of that era; there was certainly no small amount of inspired work during those years that had nothing to do with the calendar dates.
One such film is genre legend Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse, from all the way back in 1981.
A quartet of teens head out one night to a carnival that’s set up on the outside of town; one of the girl’s father warns her that it’s a shady outfit (children have disappeared there, it’s rumored), but she and her studly, aw-shucks date and another couple disregard this…after all, what do adults know? Unbeknownst to the group, the girl’s little brother sneaks out and heads toward the carnival as well.
Once there, after smoking up a little reefer, the group sets about the usual “bad kid” antics; heckling the magic show, cutting a peephole in the “strip show” tent, terrorizing the fortune-teller…you know, good, wholesome fun! One of the two guys comes up with the grand idea of hiding out and spending the night in the creepy funhouse of the carnival (because that’s such a kickass idea, right?), and the teens readily conspire to do just that. Once inside and the lights shut down, the teens engage in a little licentiousness, only to be startled by sounds coming from a room below the funhouse; it seems they weren’t the only ones interested in a little romance tonight, as a man in a Frankenstein mask and the gypsy fortune-teller seem to be headed for a little amorous action themselves. It’s not a good night for lovin’ though; as the kids watch through cracks in the floorboards, an altercation erupts between the pair, and the masked man kills the gypsy in a rage, then flees the scene. Of course, this prompts our foursome to want to quickly vacate the premises, but not before one of them decides to liberate the carny’s cashbox stash, just because it was available. This doesn’t go unnoticed by the masked man (who turns out to be a deformed, psychotic freak) and his grizzled father who return moments later, and the two carnival workers set about to hunt down the thieves and murder witnesses, who find themselves trapped in the locked down, creepy funhouse…
The film takes a while to get it’s footing, but I for one felt this time was well-spent; whereas some might take issue with the slow pacing that sets up the flick’s frenetic last act, I thought it did wonders for establishing the overall atmosphere and feeling of the narrative. Hooper lets us wander around with the protagonists, taking in all the sights and sounds of the old-school type of traveling carnivals that are all but extinct in this day and age. Granted, there’s not a lot of character development amongst the teens, but in it’s place is the development of a different kind of character; I tell ya, you can almost smell the popcorn, corn dogs, and cotton candy as Hooper pilots us through this particular little fun park. In my opinion, this serves the purpose of putting we the audience in the film as well or better than giving us highly-relatable characters. To this end, my hat is off to the production design, using old carnival equipment complete with the jerky puppets and freakish designs; there aren’t a lot of films that come to mind with a creepier setting.
Now, before I go off letting you good folks think that the characters are throw-aways, I want to quantify my stance: there’s nothing wrong with the performances in this picture, there’s just even less time spent on character development than one expects, and you don’t expect much from most horror films.
Elizabeth Berridge, as Amy, does portray a layer of complexity with her character that is well-nuanced, the “good girl” breaking out of her shell, but it’s neither expanded upon much nor really a plot point of the film. Her co-stars were equally convincing in their roles: Cooper Huckabee (resembling in 1981 a gene-splice between Harrison Ford and Patrick Swayze) plays out his “tough-guy with a soft side” character with an ease that made him a likeable scoundrel, and Largo Woodruff and Miles Chapin were equally viable in their characterizations, taking what were essentially small roles and making them into something more than mere fodder for the villain of the piece. Speaking of villains, I do have to give some respect to Kevin Conway, playing all of the barkers in the film, and turning in a particularly grimy yet somehow sympathetic take on the father of the deformed man-child/monster. Finally, that same monstrous character, who in essence was both Wayne Doba, the actor in the make up, and the make-up itself; Doba managed without dialogue to create a character that was both fearsome and pitiable; monstrous, and yet pathetic. I don’t think the choice to have him in a Frankenstein mask early on in the flick was accidental; yet another tortured creature bent to evil by the influence of others.
Of course, you had the make-up talents of Rick Baker contributing to the look of the beast, and the malformed, split-face with it’s red eyes and drooling lips was pretty damned freaky, to say the least.
All of this points toward a monster movie, and in some respects The Funhouse is that, but at it’s heart, it’s still a slasher…well, at least for the last reel. That said, this film is virtually bloodless! Most of the kills occur off-screen, and the ones that happen onscreen involve methods that aren’t blood-letters…so how in the hell can this be a slasher, you ask? Well, I can’t quite put my finger on it, but somehow, this fact is not a detriment to the flick’s impact (although I’m sure some hardcore gore-hounds out there will argue that point!). Hooper’s use of the creepy-ass setting and his use of camera movement still inspire the same kind of terror, but without the spraying red stuff that we’d come to expect from the era…something he perfected way back with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. As with that earlier classic, this film is about what Hooper makes you see in your mind, feel in your bones, rather than gore splattered on the screen.
The only real issue I had with the film came from some suspension of disbelief about the setting of the funhouse itself; it’s apparently like the Tardis when it comes to spatial dimensions.
From the outside, it looks to be a two-story structure, something that would fold up to tractor-trailer size for transportation. Inside, it seems to cover thousands of square feet, as the characters wander about for what seems like hours trying to find an exit. Also, there’s yet another floor beneath the main floor, and later we find ourselves in a sub-basement below even that, a machinery-level that would do Freddy Krueger proud! I found myself hoping for a post-credits scene to see how the carnies pack that son-of-a-bitch up to move it!
Violation of the laws of physics aside, somehow, the overall entertainment level of the flick make its shortcomings absolutely forgivable. I’m a fan of this one, friends; for a good time in front of the screen, enjoying an era back when horror movies were just plain fun, I often find myself coming back to this one…
…especially between holidays. 😛
Two-fifths of a nickel down.
P.S. One rumor I’d like to dispel is that this film was based on the Dean Koontz book of the same name. In actuality, Koontz wrote the novelization for this film, then expanded that into a novel…so actually, the book is based on the film. Write that down…pop quiz later!
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