1974, Tobe Hooper made an outbreak of horror genius with his second feature film, The Texas chainsaw massacre, a gritty horror classic that would prove to be one of the most influential films in horror history. Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a brilliantly brutal, thoroughly disturbing, and strangely real slasher before slashers, who preferred a hellish atmosphere to blood and yet felt like a climax of cinematic violence.
As many know, he has made some genre classics and cult hits, including poltergeist, Life force, and Salem’s lot. Hooper is responsible for at least 2 of the greatest horror films of all time, as well as a number of smaller hits, but there are more gems between the cracks than some can tell.
Two years later Texas Chainsaws Massacre initially had an effect, directed by Hooper Eaten alive, a strange, filthy exploitation film about a maddened redneck motel owner who feeds victims to his alligator, which didn’t attract box office and still hasn’t stirred up enough internet chatter to be considered a cult classic. Though you have to imagine a couple of Sleazeballs, sick cinema dogs and Hooper fans.
Just a few years after that misfire, and this very week 40 years ago, Tobe Hooper’s unsungvable piece of creepy movie gold was released. The Funhouse (1981) is the largest Hooper work that is not recognized as a horror great. It’s one of the best films that was never mentioned in the “horror classics” discussion. It’s a scary little treasure if ever there was a scary little treasure; if not scary then at least soaked in scary goodness, and a damn near perfect creepy romp of the early 80s. With this big anniversary and this movie turning 40, there’s no better time to watch and praise Tobe Hoopers deliciously creepy The funhouse.
A group of teenagers and a curious younger brother spend the night in a scuzzy Carnival from Hell. A great set-up and an absolutely shabby setting – somewhere familiar and fun, but unsavory and strange, always with the feeling of gross activity behind the scenes. Hooper leads us to a particularly filthy fair, where shady characters run the show, monsters lurk and a crew of curious youngsters start out one night wanting to come home alive. The result is an atmospherically and visually remarkably haunting ride with great blood, disgustingly cool make-up and an arsenal of spectacular set pieces. The Funhouse combines several horror elements; Hence, it can’t fit a subgenre as it plays a bit of a monster movie, a bit of a slasher, and possibly paranormal, with an onslaught of spooky events and a feeling too spooky to be called creature cheese or standard butcher shop. This well-made light shocker offers a tasteful, bloody, appropriate, really unsettling and all-round fun look and feel. Despite a premise to be tackled with camp and comedy, The Funhouse is a dark and disturbing journey into a house of horror with a palpable spirit.
The funhouse begins with shocking deception and fear when Joey Harper (Shawn Carson), the annoying little brother of our leading actress Amy Harper (Elizabeth Berridge), scares her while she is drying off after a shower. The blood is already pumping, and we’re shown that Amy is fed up with Joey’s dickish younger sibling nonsense.
Mr. and Mrs. Harper (Jack McDermott and Jeanne Austin) are the typical parenting couple with teenage children – strict and concerned, but either too aloof or not concerned enough to investigate what is really going on. Mardi Gras is in town, but they forbid Amy from setting foot there with her friend Liz (Largo Woodruff) and their dates Richie (Miles Chapin) and Geek (David Carson).
Amy, a good egg, listens to her parents and suggests a movie to her friends, but they don’t want any of it. They go to the carnival. Unbeknownst to Amy and her parents, young Joey sneaks out and follows Amy and the crew for spy action and carnival fun.
What can our teens and Joey expect at this muddy carnival? The usual hokey shit like freak shows and rides. Plus peep shows, an eerie old fortune teller who does a little sex work on the side, a number of haunted barkers and eerie wandering old ladies warning that God is watching. Oh and a grueling funhouse filled with terrifying animatronics, creepy dolls and possibly an extra killer creature.
While the concept screams Slasher Cheese or monster shlock, The Funhouse aims to confuse, insecure and puzzling rather than shock the audience. From the moment the movie begins, Hooper presents us with a seemingly generic beginning of a teen hack-’em-up movie. A melancholy killer hiding and slitting this naked young woman? Have seen it. Then the carpet is pulled from under our feet, which may destroy the possibility of normal slasher territory; spurs on the question: “What IS this trip we are going on?”
It is not splash Vehicle where hordes of stupid teenagers are picked up meaninglessly. Nor is it particularly heavy with blood or rudeness. The spooky street The Funhouse takes us down is lined with spooky toys, memorably spooky characters and a hellish monster.
Rick Baker did phenomenal makeup effects, and made a grotesque creature for the horror record books. The Funhouse Monster is a disgusting treat – just bellicose enough to actually be an 80s creature, but mostly stomach upset and appalling. An objectively unpleasant sight, and no picture viewer will soon tremble.
In addition to great bloody effects and great creature work, The Funhouse also features beautiful funhouse sets straight out of a nightmare. Colorful tents of horror, filled with annoying, authentic set pieces. In an interview titled “Tobe Hooper On The funhouse“Hooper said that props were picked up by an old woman who ran a small antique shop; some were puppets used for the 1906 World’s Fair. Wicked wind-up toy. Then there is the cavalcade of creepy animatronics. A huge, egg-shaped, laughing animatronic woman screeches on the outside of the funhouse while worse horrors await inside. Layers of horror are perfectly painted.
Evil dolls and characters can’t do all credit, however, because the characters in The Funhouse are a big part of the terrifying fun and as intriguing as they are harrowing. Experienced character actor Kevin Conway plays all 3 carnival screamers terrifyingly well. He vacillates between the seemingly soulless funhouse barker, the greasy strip show barker and the disturbed freak show barker. Each one fits right in, creates a strange atmosphere, creates a sense of doom and gives the place everything. All barkers are unquestionably chilling weirdos, and the fact that they are all the same man dressed differently creates strange excitement.
Sylvia Miles plays Madame Zena, the sex worker’s fortune teller, with horror brilliance. It is seductive and fascinating, but still imperturbably cool. Madame Zena is the creepy textbook fortune teller you fear could take away your soul. Miles embodies every bit of what you think a creepy personality should exude.
Although it’s only a small part, Sonia Zomina is fantastic as a baglady. She sneaks around just to make our teenage heroes feel like godless sinners and you have to love the horror wealth. “Old Person Warning of the Coming of Evil” is a nice addition to the typical slasher tropics. Zomina plays a scary, senile religious zealot, as effectively as anyone can.
The main performances and the depth of their characters don’t leave much, but that’s excusable as they are just pawns in the House of Horrors game. Elizabeth Berridge is a strong, leading teenage lady with a head on her shoulders, and Shawn Carson does pretty well as a mischievous younger brother who is wise with his sister’s antics and knows about the terror that could develop. Having a smart young kid in a story is never a bad thing. The chemistry among leading teenagers is fine, and the lines they spread around are mostly funny. While they might not be the most amazingly complex group of teen lead cast members, they are easy to maintain for cookie cutter characters spicier than what is usually presented to us in the horror diet of the early 80s.
With a thick, creepy atmosphere, and lined with soul-stirring personalities, The Funhouse has creepy special surprises in store for every horror fan and a few outstanding shock moments. One scene that I will remember forever is a dark basement fiasco in which the carnival owner’s son, a mute in Frankenstein costume, strangles Madame Zena after a prostitution deal that went wrong. It’s as rotten and scary as it sounds, and a fine example of how cloudy this colorful carnival water can be.
The music is fantastic too and sounds just like the soundtrack to a festival beyond the gates of hell. Every element of The Funhouse could be the icing on the cake of horror ’80s, but we give the score credit.
All that is left is to ask, “What’s not to love and praise about this Tobe Hooper treasure?” A bloody monster movie, a teen slice-and-dice affair, and a creepy atmospheric ride all wrapped up in an exhilarating early 80s package. It has something for every horror fan, be it a twisted creature, cunning kills, a sleazy aura, or just a general sense of darkness and weirdness. What could be pure fun is both funny and scary. What could be campy is full of atmosphere. Hooper took a fantastic horror setting, ran with its inherent weirdness, and made it even more terrifying. If you think Mardi Gras is scary, The Funhouse will agree with you. If you love horror, especially pre-2000s horror, this one will be a treat for you. Maybe all you have is one new strip to add to your all time favorites list.
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