A secondary classic in the long line of well-regarded (if only dubiously good) B-tier 1980s slasher flicks, Tobe Hooper’s 1981 stalk-and-kill splatterer The Funhouse has been given the star treatment on a recent Blu-ray release. Even though I consider myself relatively well-versed in the horror films of the 1980s, The Funhouse was an unfortunate hole in my education. It has now been filled, and I have returned from the trenches to report.
It turns out The Funhouse is pretty good, although I can understand why it’s not nearly as well-received as Hooper’s other horror films The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (from 1974) and Poltergeist (from 1982). The Funhouse follows a quartet of horny teens, out on a double date at the local carnival. The lead character is the relatively innocent Amy (Elizabeth Berridge), who, in a lesser film, would serve as the virginal lamb, but who is actually given a sex drive in this film, and is eager to lose it to the boorish and kind of jerky Buzz (Cooper Huckabee). As such, the film features several scenes of genuine heavy petting. Indeed, the way Hooper approaches his teenagers strikes me as much more genuine than a lot of horror movies. Not that they have a lot of character, but the central quartet does, at least, seem bound by the strictures of actual teenage behavior. The film’s entire first 45 minutes is largely just the quartet wandering around a creepy carnival, having conversations and taking in the sights. They go on rides, make out when they can, and attend a few acts kind of ironically. One of the acts is a drunken magic show hosted by William Finley from Phantom of the Paradise.
The horror begins when our quartet foolishly decides, in a fit of subversive glee, to stay the night in the carnival’s funhouse. From their hiding spot, they accidentally witness one of the carnies, wearing a Frankenstein mask, accidentally murdering the local carny fortune teller-slash-prostitute. The teens are then pursued by the lead carny (Harb Robins), and the guy in the mask (Wayne Doba). We also see that the monster, when unmasked, is an enormous beastly retard with a cleft face. He’s a scary-looking monster (created by Rick Baker!), but he’s also very clearly a direct echo of Leatherface. The only real difference between the dangerous hicks of Texas Chainsaw and the filthy carnies of The Funhouse seems to be a matter of setting. The grimy, tallow-caked walls of a remote Texas slaughterhouse have been replaced by the green-lit phantasmagorical automatons of a particularly awesome carnival ride, the budget is clearly much higher, and the photography has substantially improved over the years, but the dynamic is largely similar. With The Funhouse, you can see Hooper growing from his roots as a low-budget horror pioneer, into the kind of director who would eventually handle slightly crazier fare like Lifeforce and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. He’s still drawn toward weirdos who live in filthy pits and who commit murder as a matter of course, but he’s now at a point where he can do playful things, like cast an appealing character actor (in this case Kevin Conway) in three roles.
I think I’m too late an entrant to the world of The Funhouse to love it the same way a lot of old school gorehounds do. It’s still a solid and professional entry into a canon not necessarily known for its big budgets or quality. The film is still considered a minor classic, though, and fans of it will love this new Blu-ray. It looks fantastic, and compiles an interview with Finley, a few deleted scenes (previously added to the TV releases of the film in order to pad out the gorier and sexier bits that had to be cut), and a rband new commentary track from Hooper who opines and reminisces openly about the making of this film back in 1980.