Director Tobe Hooper is sort of a “two hit wonder.” He gave us Poltergeist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, two phenomenal horror films to say the least, but when you look at the rest of the man’s resume, it’s mostly a lot “okay” horror flicks as opposed to “great” horror flicks. Stuff like Salem’s Lot, Eaten Alive, Spontaneous Combustion and so on. But a filmography composed of decent (if somewhat forgettable) films isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as most of his less spectacular efforts are perfectly enjoyable in their own right. As it happens, I have a certain soft spot for The Funhouse, an otherwise run-of-the-mill early ’80s slasher film rescued from total obscurity by its excellent use of setting.
A shady carnival has just rolled into town and four teenagers (Elizabeth Berridge, Cooper Huckabee, Largo Woodruff, Miles Chapin) think it’s a swell way to spend their Saturday night. As their evening of merriment draws to a close, the idea hits them: Spend the night in the funhouse! Because this is the sort of thing rationally-thinking teenagers do for fun, the quartet sneak into the chamber of horrors for a spooky orgy. However, their orgy doesn’t last long, as they find the funhouse to be the home of a deformed monster (Wayne Doba) that likes strangling hookers. After making the mistake of raiding the funhouse’s cashbox, enraging not only the monster but his unscrupulous carny father, the teens are locked inside the maze-like freakshow to be hunted down one at a time.
If you’ve seen the movie, then you know EXACTLY what this picture sounds like.
For me, The Funhouse was another film from those long-lost days of staying up super-late on Saturday nights to catch whatever horror flick the Sci-Fi Channel was showing at 1am. It was a well-known fact back then that the Sci-Fi Channel saved its best stuff for the most ungodly hours of the night. The Funhouse was one of those flicks that I had to fight to stay up for (I was a kid and staying up wasn’t as easy back then as it is now), but by 3am, all the sugar and soda had totally paid off.
The Funhouse follows your average slasher film checklist with a deformed, mentally handicapped villain who likes to prowl around, murdering idiotic teenagers (except the virgin girl because that bitch always lives). So in that regard, The Funhouse isn’t especially unique. So what makes The Funhouse a real trip is its setting (a, uh, funhouse). I remember the funhouses and spook shows from the carnivals I went to as a kid and I can assure you that none of them were as awesome as the one in this movie.
The various grotesque animatronic puppets, all writhing, laughing and shrieking at the mercy of gruesome predicaments, make for some great window dressing as the monster (not named in the film but apparently referred to as Gunther in the script) messes with the teens’ heads, turning the show on and off at the most strategic times. This is where Hooper really shines, as the man has a keen eye when it comes to sets and atmosphere (these being the only redeemable parts of Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and The Mangler).
If you were to take the funhouse out of The Funhouse, however, you wouldn’t be left with much. The aforementioned villain of the movie is as mundane as they come. Even his makeup fails to impress, looking just as cheesy and rubbery as the Frankenstein mask he wears during the first half of the film. The characters are all your standard horror archetypes, which is why I didn’t even bother listing them by name during the summary. Then there’s the subplot with the virgin girl’s younger brother, who received exactly one word of dialogue during his entire participation and really serves no other purpose than to waste time and kind of sort of add a smidgen of depth to the character of the monster’s father.
Still, taking the funhouse out of The Funhouse would kind of be missing the point, so you never mind that. As the slasher genre definitely flowed downhill over the course of the ’80s, The Funhouse came out early in the decade and is one of the more enjoyable entries from that era. If you’re sick of the Halloweens and the Friday the 13ths and are desperate for a more refreshing and entertaining one-off slasher flick, you could do a Hell of a lot worse than The Funhouse.