The Funhouse (1981)
“Something is alive in the funhouse!”
Director: Tobe Hooper
Cast: Elizabeth Berridge, Shawn Carson, Jeanne Austin
Synopsis: Four teenage friends spend the night in a carnival funhouse and are stalked by a deformed man in a Frankenstein mask.
Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse supplies the obligatory female nudity in its very first scene as it delivers a homage to both Hitchcock’s Psycho and John Carpenter’s Halloween, with Amy Harper (Elizabeth Berridge) climbing into the shower only to receive a visit from a masked knifeman who turns out to be her little brother, Joey (Shawn Carson). Amy’s getting ready for a big first date with local gas station attendant Buzz Dawson (Cooper Huckabee), much to the disapproval of her parents, who make her promise not to visit the carnival which is in town. The reason they don’t want her going there is because two kids were killed in the last town the carnival passed through which, let’s face it, to horror movie teens is like honey to a bee. So it goes without saying that Amy’s date with Buzz turns out to be the worst first date ever.
Amy and Buzz hook up with fellow teens Liz (Largo Woodruff) and Richie (Miles Chapin) on their way to the carnival, and it soon becomes apparent that Amy is something of a cold fish as the others partake of a spliff and tell dirty jokes while she looks on with ill-disguised disapproval. Things improve a little as they wander the various sideshows and attractions at the carnival, stopping at a freak show involving one cow with a cleft palate and another with two heads, and then a seedy magician’s show before eventually hitting on the brilliant idea of spending the night in the eponymous Funhouse (an American ghost train ride). After all, what can go wrong, right?
Well, after indulging in a spell of teenage canoodling in the dark environs of the locked Funhouse, the four friends hear voices from below and see, through the slats of the Funhouse floor, the Funhouse worker who’s sported a Frankenstein’s Monster mask all night (Wayne Doba) receiving a little hand relief from the ageing, booze-raddled fortune teller, Madame Zena (Sylvia Miles). Now, while most males would struggle to raise a smile let alone anything else when being administered to by Zena, the current recipient of her favours clearly hasn’t been around much (for reasons which will become painfully obvious when that mask comes off) and things are over before you can say ohmygod! In fact, their liaison is so brief that he wants his hundred dollars back (yeah, I know), and when Madame Zena refuses to hand it over he strangles her to death, unaware, of course, that the kids upstairs are watching. When the killer’s dad (Kevin Conway) gets involved, one of the kids inadvertently gives away their presence when his lighter falls from his chest pocket, through the slats, and onto the floor at dad’s feet.
After a fun opening ten minutes, The Funhouse quickly descends into an ordeal of mind-deadening boredom for nearly 45 minutes as we watch Amy and her mates randomly wandering around all those fairground attractions largely for no reason other than to provide some padding to what would otherwise be a very short movie. Every now and then, Amy gazes at sideshow barkers (all played by Conway) as if mesmerised, as if they held some sinister power over her, but this idea also goes nowhere. Amy and her mates are followed by her annoying younger brother, who sneaks out of his bedroom to do so and we spend a fair amount of time with him for the same reason that we follow his older sister, because his side of the story goes nowhere and would not be missed if it was excised from the film completely.
The last half-hour, however, once the murder is committed and the kids’ presence detected, is so good that it deserves to be in a different movie to the preceding hour. To be sure, it delivers nothing that similar movies haven’t done, but it does so in such an entertaining and fast-moving fashion that it stands head and shoulders above them. For once, the kids aren’t stupid enough to split up to make their predator’s job that much easier so we feel a little more sympathetic to their plight (even though three of them are still fairly obnoxious). Unusually for this kind of movie, from the way they interact we’re also invited to feel some measure of sympathy for the monster and his father (or at least appreciate that they’re human beings with emotions) which is kind of strange considering it’s clear that the monster was responsible for the deaths of the two kids mentioned at the beginning of the movie and the father knew about it. The monster, a hideous mutant whose mutation is never explained, still looks impressive today, more than thirty years after the film was first released, and considering The Funhouse is far superior to movies like Friday the 13th it’s something of a surprise its comparatively unknown.
(Reviewed 11th January 2014)