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.
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.