Eye For Film >> Movies >> The Funhouse (1981) Film Review
Reviewed by: David Graham
Tobe 'Texas Chainsaw' Hooper's sadly neglected Eighties gem is ripe for rediscovery and rewards repeated viewings, packed with glorious attention to detail and genuinely tense sequences. It's a pivotal entry in his canon, retaining the raw-edged seediness and intriguing pathos of his previous work but paving the way for his Spielberg-mentored smash Poltergeist with its focus on children and relatively mainstream sensibilities.
Amy is on a first date with handsome jock Buzz, who insists they visit the local carnival despite her parents forbidding her to do so on account of its suspected involvement with a murder in another town. They double up with her friends Liz and Richie. Amy's nerves are tested by her new beau's advances, but peer pressure leads her to agree to a dare for them all to spend the night in the eponymous attraction. After their requisite fumble in the dark, they find themselves unable to get out, their situation growing desperate after they witness the fortune teller they earlier enraged being killed by one of her co-workers. With their presence revealed to the attraction's inhabitants, their struggle to escape becomes one to survive, as they are stalked by the funhouse residents on their own turf.
An excellent credit sequence lingers on the sinister mannequins common to funfairs, the limitations of their animation only making them more perturbing. This also highlights John Beal's excellent score, flipping from suitably tinkling circus sounds to frighteningly intense orchestral stabs of noise. Opening with a cunning Halloween pastiche that segues into Psycho tribute territory, Hooper makes his respect for his horror forebears immediately clear; posters of The Wolfman and Frankenstein are also glimpsed. Later, there's an effectively voyeuristic Hitchcockian bent to the pivotal murder scene, which skilfully shifts from sleazy to pathetic. Even the size of the gaps in the floorboards that conveniently allow the youths to see below them is credible given the ramshackle nature of the titular location.
The characters are much more rounded than is usually the case with this genre; the girls are highly opinionated and express concerns that are easy to relate to. Liz's disgust at the sideshow exhibits is out of disapproval for their exploitation rather than girly revulsion, while elsewhere she and Amy have frank conversations about sex and partake in drug-taking and peeping tom activity along with the lads. Buzz proves to be a more realistic hero than most, aware of his blue collar status and admirably hesitant to do anything rash when the group find themselves in hot water. Richie makes for a classic clown, obviously in thrall to his companion's more macho leanings but considerably weaker-minded, being increasingly the one to blame for his friends' predicament (their overnight intrusion was his idea, and a later act of secret greed has deadly repercussions). The young actors all put in fine performances, with Elizabeth Berridge making for an appealingly grounded heroine and Shawn Carson convincingly playing the sort of mischievous little git that we've all either been or been the victim of at some point.
There's a strange karmic undertow to the film's events; every selfish and foolish act has consequences for the characters, from Amy's threat of vengeance on her little brother to his spiteful decision not to inform his parents of her whereabouts in response. This gives the story the quality of a moral fable, echoing the EC horror comics of the Fifties where bad people suffered suitable comeuppances for their dubious behaviour. This aspect is compounded by the amusing but chilling appearances from a lecturing hobo hag - 'God is watching you!' - and the significance the script places on parental control; in some ways everything that happens is a result of over-protective adults and their effect on their rebellious offspring. Further depth is added to the narrative by how unmistakably this is mirrored by the villains; the carnival code makes them an extended family with many of the same values and dysfunctions as any 'normal' unit.
The relationship between the funhouse boss and his disabled son carries echoes of the Frankenstein myth, reflected in the over-sized Karloff mask the wordless freak sports to conceal his deformity. Kevin Conway is excellent in three separate roles as the omnipresent carney barkers, alternately being skin-crawlingly dry in their monotonous intonation and comically trashy in advertising their wares ('they are creatures of God and they are all alive!'). He also conveys real emotion in the poignant scene where he tries to make up for losing his temper with his child, the exposition giving us subtle insight into their existence and making us realise they are themselves victims of circumstance and society. His lines even come loaded with brilliantly wicked humour, evident in his outrage at the amount his son was willing to pay for his sexual encounter and also when he's trying to defend his deadly child as being 'not so bad - once he's been fed.' His later admonition as to why he goes to such lengths to cover up their crimes also hints at the themes of exploitation that lie at the heart of carnival life.
Inspired by one of the most infamous cases in teratology, Rick Baker's makeup may be disappointingly immobile but it's also instantly memorable and judiciously employed, Hooper's big reveal being a truly heart-stopping moment, while the director skilfully keeps his monster mostly in the shadows thereafter to maximise the menace. The unhinged howls the character constantly emits and Wayne Doba's maniacally physical performance combine to make for a brilliantly unsettling and even tragic villain, comparable to Leatherface in many ways but ultimately a very singular creation that's miles more interesting than the usual masked and faceless goons of this fare. Near-subliminal images of his disturbing demeanour are ingeniously interspersed in scenes of Amy's futile attempts to find a way out; this montage further reinforces the location as a character and the killer as inextricably linked with it. His final scene hauntingly has him trapped and thrashing around like one of the puppets that he's been surrounded by, consumed by the mechanics of the building that he's been a slave to, the protracted death throes sealing our sympathy rather than satisfying our typical desire to see the baddie dispatched in spectacularly cathartic fashion as is the norm.
Hooper's direction is thoroughly impressive throughout, with several techniques recognisable from his previous films but just as effectively employed here. The cornball but skin-crawling atmosphere of the carnival is expertly established through faultless set and sound design. At one point an audacious tracking shot slowly takes us high above the fairground as it winds down for the evening, hammering home its eerieness as well as its underlying sadness. This is appropriately repeated for the final scene, surveying the desolate aftermath of what has otherwise been a normal evening for everyone else, forcing us to identify with the workers left to clean up the mess after we've had our fun and gone back to our cosy lives. It's a surprisingly bleak, sombre way for Hooper to wrap up his film, leaving us pondering the ordeal our heroine has experienced, but it cements The Funhouse as a more thoughtful effort than its slasher brethren, to which it really only deserves cursory comparison. The score may be a little overbearing at times, and some will find the many lengthy pauses pointless rather than pregnant with dread, but otherwise it's an extremely assured and well-mounted chiller.
The Funhouse is a cult classic that has languished in obscurity for far too long; perhaps this is because it was ridiculously and unceremoniously dumped on the video nasties list by the BBFC and denied a certificate for some years, despite being a million gore-free miles from the likes of The New York Ripper. Almost all of the violence happens out-of-shot, and despite the sleazy nature of one crucial scene the film's tone is thoroughly tasteful (unlike his previous film - gonzo Southern gothic oddity Death Trap - but that wasn't exactly a gorefest either). Maybe James Ferman deemed Tobe guilty by association - the notorious reactionary was on record as commenting that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was so effective in its purpose and execution that it couldn't be cut in any way that would lessen its impact.
Ultimately, this film makes for a fantastic companion piece to its better known and respected predecessor, and a deeply enjoyable and eminently exciting experience in its own right. Hopefully its reappraisal will see Hooper cement his position in the ranks of the horror greats; it's an important cornerstone in his ouevre, putting his early work right up there with the contemporary efforts of the more highly regarded triumvirate of Romero, Carpenter and Argento. Arrow's lush Blu Ray edition comes highly recommended to genre aficionados and those unfamiliar with The Funhouse's twisted charms alike.Reviewed on: 09 Jul 2011