Tobe Hooper, the famed horror movie director who passed away on August 26, 2017 at the age of 74, is mostly known for his classic horror movie, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974). Many horror writers swear by this movie and cite it as their inspiration for entering the genre.
Other fans prefer Hooper’s work on SALEM’S LOT (1979), the chilling made-for-TV adaptation of Stephen King’s vampire novel.
A smaller group opt for today’s movie, THE FUNHOUSE (1981), Hooper’s entry in the 1980s slasher flick craze, a genre which received a nice kick in the pants with John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN (1978).
I’m a sucker for films which take place at amusement parks or carnivals, and so, while THE FUNHOUSE is not my favorite Tobe Hooper film, it does capture what it’s like to be a teenager at a carnival on a sultry summer evening. The sights, the sounds, and even the smells, as you can easily imagine the aroma of fried foods, hot buttered popcorn, sweet cotton candy, and of course the repugnant stench of full garbage cans, and the occasional sour sting of leftover vomit on the cement pathways.
As a result, THE FUNHOUSE is a guilty pleasure for me.
I mentioned HALLOWEEN, and one of the weaker parts of THE FUNHOUSE is its opening sequence, in which it pretty much copies the opening sequence in HALLOWEEN, complete with the child killer with a knife and the point-of-view shots from the child’s eyes as seen through a Halloween mask. I’m sure Hooper intended it as an homage, but since this movie came out just three years after HALLOWEEN, it doesn’t come off that way.
This same scene also includes a shower sequence, and so there’s also an obvious nod to Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960). This homage works better than the nod to HALLOWEEN since it’s less derivative.
In THE FUNHOUSE, teen Amy Harper (Elizabeth Berridge) can’t wait to get out of the house, away from her stifling parents, and if you spent five minutes with the folks playing her parents in this movie, you’d want to get out of the house as well! They sit like zombies watching television and speak in monotones and spew parental clichés when they talk to their daughter. With these parents, it’s a wonder that Amy isn’t the masked killer in this movie!
Anyway, on this particular summer night, Amy sneaks off with her friends and heads off to the local carnival, even after her father told her she was not allowed to go there, which, of course, is exactly why she decides to go to the carnival. Well, actually, to her credit, she tries to resist at first, but her friends convince her to go, and she gives in.
At the carnival, since they’re crazy teenagers, they come up with the daring idea to sneak into the funhouse and stay there overnight. Too bad for them the guy working the ride wearing a Frankenstein mask happens to be a murderous psycho. It’s going to be a long night, Amy.
So, what was supposed to be a wild night goofing around inside a funhouse turns into a night of terror as this insane monster chases Amy and her friends through the funhouse with the intent of killing them in various nasty ways.
And there you have the plot of THE FUNHOUSE. As horror movies go, it’s a fun enough story.
That being said, for me, THE FUNHOUSE has always been a poor man’s HALLOWEEN. It comes off as cheaper, the acting isn’t as good, and the scares are nowhere near as effective, but it’s still a heck of a lot of fun to watch, especially on a hot summer night.
One of the more memorable parts of THE FUNHOUSE is the Monster, played by Wayne Doba. At first, he wears a Frankenstein mask, which is creepy enough, but when he takes his mask off, his face is hideous. It’s a cool looking make-up job, which is no surprise since the man behind the make-up here is none other than Rick Baker.
Actually, the creepiest part of THE FUNHOUSE isn’t the Monster. It’s Kevin Conway’s performance as three different ride operators. He plays the Freak Show Barker, the Strip Show Barker, and the Funhouse Barker, and he’s effectively unsettling as all three. He’s really creepy, and the funny thing is, he reminds me of a lot of ride operators I used to see at amusement parks and carnivals when I was a kid. Yup, there used to be some pretty unsavory looking characters running those rides back in the day.
And Conway’s Funhouse Barker gets the most screen time as it’s revealed that he’s the stepfather of the Monster. How about that for a family portrait!
Also working against THE FUNHOUSE is in spite of its premise, it’s never all that scary. The scare scenes for the most part involve the Monster chasing the teens through the Funhouse which sounds scarier than it actually is.
The best part about THE FUNHOUSE is the way Tobe Hooper captures the essence of a summer time carnival. That’s the main reason I like to watch this one.
Lawrence Block wrote the screenplay, and the story it tells is compelling enough: a group of teens spending the night in a creepy funhouse, and it has a frightening looking Monster, but pretty much everything else about this one is rather standard.
Tobe Hooper will be remembered most for his work on THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. But it’s always fun to look beyond an artist’s best or most popular work and look at those projects which weren’t the best things they ever did. It’s how we gain and understand the complete story of the artist.
With that in mind, grab a cotton candy or a candy apple, sneak past that guy wearing a Frankenstein mask, and when no one’s looking, hide. Now, you’re all set to spend the night inside THE FUNHOUSE. You’re sure to have a good time.
And with a little luck, you may even survive.