The Funhouse (1981) Short Review

This is a gratifying horror flick for genre fans. I think of all Tobe Hooper’s films, I think I enjoy this one the most. Hooper is, of course, the director of such horror films as the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the original Salem’s Lot TV movie, Poltergeist (at least partially since Spielberg allegedly canned him two thirds of the way through) and quite a few other enjoyable genre flicks (Dance of the Dead being a guilty pleasure).

He’s one of the few that has a grasp of telling a story and the ability to manipulate the audience that one has to be able to do in a horror film.

There’s something naturally creepy about carnivals and side show acts after dark. Hooper fully embraces that in “The Funhouse”. He also knows how to build suspense.

When I saw this as a kid (at a friend’s house… My parents wouldn’t let me watch this crap), it really did scare me. The characters and the setting were all relatable to a younger horror fan. This film was also a little less disturbing than some of Hooper’s other films. His movies get a bum wrap anyway when it comes to the violence. Even the Texas Chainsaw Massacre is mostly bloodless. The gruesomeness is implied.

Hooper’s films are well put together and surprisingly moral. Everything in this is grounded mostly in reality, but there IS a creature in the film. So for a monster lovin’ fool like me, this was almost a perfect early horror film (to keep me awake at night).

The Mutant in the film is an imposing antagonist. I love the prosthetic FX in this. There’s some great setup shots first of the animals in the sideshow that gives the audience a hint of what’s coming.

There are quite a few nods to the one of the icons of the horror world (Frankenstein), also. There are toys, posters and film clips of the most iconic Universal creature littered all over the movie. One of the villains even wears a Frankenstein’s monster costume as he works the Funhouse ride.

The film does surprise at times in an 80s horror film sort of way. The film is aware of the conventions of horror and the director has no qualms with gratuitous scares such as a barking dog suddenly  jumping into center frame from off screen. I’m not one who minds that, especially when it works.

There are also nods to slasher horror classics like Psycho, Halloween, Black Christmas or even his own earlier work. The opening sequence involving a shower scene and a POV shot of a killer that dons a mask (over the camera) sets the tone while Hooper winks to the audience.

Unlike other films that  bear the negative tag of ‘slasher’ film, Hooper reassures the audience immediately that the heart of the film is in the right place and that he knows where audience  sympathies should lie. It’s almost like he’s reassuring the audience that it IS only a film and it’s all going to be in good fun.

The story itself is simple. A group of friends go to a traveling carnival. They decide, just for kicks, to stay the night even after the carnival closes. They find themselves locked in the Funhouse spying on the carnies.

They witness a murder of the resident fortune teller (and elder lady of the night) by a large carnie  worker who is not what he appears to be (or maybe he is) and are soon discovered. They quickly find themselves fleeing for their lives. It’s pretty direct, but it is a smart film. It has humor along with the creepiness.

Elizabeth Berridge does a great horror turn as the film’s scream-queen before going on to work on a whole different level with Milos Foreman on Amadeus (my Best Film Of The 1980s).  She is not the prototypical actress for this kind of role. She is a very pretty girl, but not in the classic sense I suppose, but like Jamie Lee Curtis she seemed to have a bit more going on upstairs.

She even makes the part of  the unsophisticated typical teen seem a little smarter than she’s written.  She also has an innocent quality that makes her an ideal casting for the heroine/victim role. And she’s an A-level actress in a B-flick. That usually makes for a much better horror film than you’d normally get.

Kevin Conway is also worth mentioning. He plays multiple parts at the carnie, including that of one of the villains. He’s of the human villain variety and every bit as nasty as the creature in the film. He plays it relatively straight which adds to the credibility and grittiness of the movie.

When I first saw this,  I had no idea who would make it out of the funhouse. Eighties slasher film cliches had not yet become cliches.  It’s more of a monser flick, anyway. The final death sequence is a memorable one even if it’s kind of random. It is logical, though. If you like horror, especially of the monstrous and of the slightly seedy variety, then you should like this one. Is it flawed? Sure, but nothing that can’t be overlooked in a great horror movie. Briskly paced and fun, it’s one of my favorites.

4.5 of 5


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