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The Funhouse
Tobe Hooper. A name that is almost infamous in film for what he has done in his later years as a director…most of it being complete trash. Tobe Hooper is also a name that is synonymous with clas
Published on November 3, 2009 | Filed under Review

Tobe Hooper. A name that is almost infamous in film for what he has done in his later years as a director…most of it being complete trash. Tobe Hooper is also a name that is synonymous with classic, as in he has directed a horror masterpiece with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The Funhouse falls much earlier in his career, but still 7 years removed from Chainsaw.

The Funhouse focuses on two young couples that double up for a night out at a carnival that’s in town for the week. After enjoying the odd and strange sights that this freak show has to offer, the teens decide it would be so kick ass to stay over night. And not stay overnight just anywhere, but in the fun house of all places. Soon after the park is shut down and the teens are just getting into some of that fun that can be had in the fun house with each other, they find themselves witness to a murder. Murders in fun house’s never equate to good and soon the crew of youths become part of a cat and mouse game of survival while trapped in the titular attraction. Oh yeah, did I mention there’s a monster? Yup, there’s a monster too…that certainly doesn’t make things any better for these kooky kids, now does it?

Not the most action packed horror film ever, The Funhouse is very slow for about the first 50 minutes or so, there are no kills or any real threat by any sort of antagonist. However, the film makes up for it with pure atmosphere. You just can’t get a creepier setting than a carnival, especially a carnival in the 80’s! “Carnies” as they are often called, are an incredibly odd and eccentric bunch and the carnies in The Funhouse are as scuzzy and crawly as it gets. Amy (Elizabeth Berridge) is the films main focus of the movie and will often find herself behind the rest of the group as she is almost mesmerized by these imposing carnival workers, who would appear to be talking directly to her as they spew their carnival propaganda. She can almost sense that this place is a little off, that there is something that is just not right about it…or it could be that she got baked with her friends too.

Most of the movie is spent following the teens as they dick around and go from attraction to attraction mixed in with a few dope smoking sessions here and there. They cross paths with a wide variety of freaks like a homeless woman collecting trash who repeatedly yells to the two females of the group that “God is watching you!” Then there’s a psychic who reads Amy’s palm while the rest of her pals giggle obnoxiously until the psychic losses her cool and says to the group “Don’t come back or I’ll break every bone in your fuckin’ bodies!” And she says it like she means it! They are teens, and they’re just having fun causing a ruckus like all teens do. Except for me, when I was a teen, I was busy mastering the skills of Ninjitsu, but that’s besides the point.

The Funhouse can get away with the uneventful amount of time spent with the characters throughout the first two acts, because there is just a ton of great atmosphere throughout the film. There is no outright, clear threat in the first 50 minutes or so, but you still feel a sense of unease in a strange setting such as a carnival. Things really heat up when the double dating teens are trapped inside the fun house for their overnight stay and it almost changes the entire pace of the movie. This is where the “monster” is discovered and also it’s the setting of the films first murder scene (that the teens unwillingly witness).

The real star of The Funhouse is the fun house itself…it gave Hooper a perfect setting to almost do whatever he wanted in terms of scares using the haunted ride that is built to frighten patrons. You have an excuse to light in whatever way you like and use wind machines and lightning…all things that are found in a location such as this. I get a strong sense that Hooper was going for a look and feel of something similar to Argento’s Suspiria (which came out 4 years earlier) as the movie will have shots partially lit by reds and blues, at times mixing together to create a nice purple hue.

There is of course the monster that I brought up, but I wont get into too many details about that…he is a cool looking monster and somewhat scary, yet a little cheesy at the same time. With the introduction of the monster however, The Funhouse when set in the actual fun house starts to tread Slaher/survivalist territory and it mostly works except for a few boneheaded moments sprinkled in. You really do not even need to have a monster in the movie and it would seem to only be included to just have a monster for the sake of having one. Easily the creature could have been replaced by a character that might just be slow, or slightly retarded and the film would have worked just fine.

Hooper has really dropped the ball over the later half of his career, but when you see some of his earlier films, it is impossible to deny that the man did have a shit load of talent. Being able to create a film that is a defining moment in exploitation cinema (or cinema period) with one of the grittiest and most intense films of our time – then having the chops to be able to direct a movie with as much atmosphere as The Funhouse, shows what he really was capable of. When the subject of Poltergeist is brought up, there are some that credit the stronger aspects of that film to Spielberg only, while pretty much writing off Hooper as a hack.

(I love this photo)

When you watch The Funhouse, you can see a film that translates to what was done in Poltergeist in terms of atmosphere, style, and technique – it’s almost impossible to just snub Hooper as being capable of directing a huge portion of it. Where that director is now? I have no clue…he has lost his way worse than almost any horror director of his generation, and after watching The Funhouse again, it reminds me of what could have been.

Author:

When god created man, he also created Matt-suzaka, and while this is looked at as a mistake by many, his loyal dance troop, “Gold Explosion,” would feel otherwise. Now, armed with the sword of vengeance and a group of off-the-chain back-up dancers, Matt-suzaka defends humanity at Chuck Norris Ate My Baby.com


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  • Emily

    It's funny how this film has grown on me with each viewing. It's messy and nothing revelatory, but damnit if the whole carnival doesn't reek of cheap toys and pure evil. It also has a disturbing and restrained rap-ish scene that always feels so awkward and wrong, plus the awesome dude from Oz as the head carny and the lady cop from The John Laroquette Show as the final girl!

    I may have to rewatch this film yet again soon.

    Good stuff as always young Ninjitsu.

  • KPaffenroth

    I'm not a big slasher fan, but I like this for the exact reason you say – it's atmosphere – as well as some sympathy it shows to the monster. It has what's lacking in so much horror – a sense of awe or wonder.

  • Matt-suzaka

    Emily: Thank you so much! It's funny, I thought about you so many times while watching this! There was a lot of creepy looking ventriloquist dummy heads and doll type heads strewn about the fun house…and that laughing animatronic clown lady thing at the front of the fun house?! Creepy!

    I'm not sure what it is about Elizabeth Berridge, but the way she looks at the end of the film when she is all upset and crying is so appealing (like in the photo I love). She's pretty enough normally, but her look is drastically different when she is scared…she has a great frightened face I guess? I wish she had done more horror films in the final girl role. Tell me if I'm crazy!

    KPaffenroth: I am a huge Slasher fan and you are correct, The Funhouse does go outside of typical Slasher boundaries. The creature almost immediately is shown as a sad character. He pays for a lay, then doesn't get it and is ridiculed afterwards. And even when he kills her, you can't help but almost think that she deserves it for being such a jerk to him.

    The monster gains even more sympathy when you see him interact with his father who clearly has mentally and physically abused his son throughout his entire life.

    Most Slasher films, if there is sympathy to be had, it is told in a second or third act and explained by someone as opposed to unfolding naturally like it does with The Funhouse.

    Thanks for commenting!

  • William Malmborg

    I think one of the most interesting things about this movie is that they decided it would do even better if a novel written from the screenplay with the same story and title came out at the same time as the movie, thereby giving it even more publicity, and went to Dean Koontz to write it. The book he wrote based on the screenplay is incredible, one of my favorites actually, and gives a nice back story on all the characters.

  • James

    Great review Matt. I've been a hankering to see this for ages – most of what I've read about it praises the atmosphere and tension Hooper musters. Thanks for posting those images too – it looks like a sufficiently lurid little film. I may ask Santa for a copy this Christmas.

  • Jeff Allard

    A lot of people find The Funhouse to be a giant snooze just because of its long build-up but I love the meandering first 50 minutes or so. I can't get enough of just seeing these kids walk around the carnival, taking in the acts and the rides. The atmosphere is perfect! And as leisurely as the build-up is, the final half-hour or so delivers a really exciting climax. Why Hooper went on to tank so badly, I don't know (although I'm gonna give a shout-out to The Mangler!) but when he was on his game, he was one of the best.

  • Matt-suzaka

    William: I believe the book may have even come out before the movie due to it getting pushed back for some reason…I could be wrong though!

    I will have to seek out the book though…it's always nice to be able to read a novelization of a movie and learning more about a characters background.

    Thanks for the comment and recomendation!

    James: Thanks!
    Knowing your love for Argento, you will like some of the visual aspects of The Funhouse for sure…it is very pleasing to the eyes and the overall film is solid outside of the visuals too.

    You would enjoy this film I think and I personally would buy it for myself, so I can recommend it as an addition to your Christmas list!

    Jeff: Ha! I always forget he did The Mangler!
    It does show some solid skill to make a movie where nothing happens for almost an hour, yet, I was completely into it! It has the perfect 80's greasy, sleazy, and creepy carnival aesthetic and that was enough for me.

    The last act is a huge pick up from the first 50 minutes and even then, it is beautiful to watch at times. There are some complaints, but they are minor squabbles…like how do they pack up a fun house that has a basement?!

  • Thomas Duke

    Yeah, I really like this one. A big part of why it works, I think, is the cinematography. The colors and the framing (and with all of the creepy dolls and such lurking in frame) really crate an atmosphere of impending horror even when there is not a clear threat present (as you were saying). I also wrote a review of it here: http://cinemagonzo.blogspot.com/2010/06/funhouse-1981-when-carnival-was-defacto.html