Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Tobe Hooper
Writer: Larry Block
Producer: Derek Power, Steven Bernhardt
Stars: Cooper Huckabee, Miles Chapin, Largo Woodruff, Sylvia Miles, William Finley, Elizabeth Berridge, Kevin Conway, Wayne Doba, Shawn Carson
After inadvertently witnessing a horrible event while spending the night inside a funhouse, four friends are stalked by a pair of murderous carnies.
It’s a simple premise. One that would probably be too simple in this day and age. Two teenage couples on a double date, with the boys played by men in their late twenties, dare to sneak off the ride and spend the night inside a carnival’s haunted mansion. Hiding in the attraction, the quartet inadvertently spies an unplanned murder in the office below, and a cat-and-mouse chase ensues with the demented funhouse barker and his deranged monster of a son.
“The Funhouse” has a cheekily inauspicious opening, in which legendary horror director Tobe Hooper dares to double dip from the plagiarism well by copycatting famous shots from both “Psycho” and “Halloween” in one single scene. Poetic then, that a movie cribbing clips from “Bride of Frankenstein” alongside its knowing homage or deliberate duplication would eventually have its own style stolen by every subsequent carnival-colored thriller from “House of 1,000 Corpses” to “Dark Ride.”
Evaluated in its era, “The Funhouse” flame no doubt fails to flicker against the stronger winds of its influences. In contrast to the increasingly menacing slow-burn setups of Hitchcock and Carpenter’s classics, virtually nothing of consequence occurs during the first 50 minutes of a 93-minute runtime. After a few red herring threats rear up in the form of a derelict woman and an incensed psychic, the movie’s actual big bad isn’t formally introduced until that past-the-middle tipping point. First act foreshadowing between the Final Girl and her baby brother has zero payoff as an ultimately divergent thread. The protagonists aren’t even truly tormented until late in the story’s slow jog from third base to home plate.
What occupies the bulk of “The Funhouse” instead? Nearly three-quarters of an hour of fairground traipsing that includes a ride on the carousel, a visit to a middling magician, a tent filled with deformed animals, and a mallet swing on the strength tester to win a kewpie doll for leading lady Amy. What horror fan would want to endure such a limp pace in 1981, when “proper” slasher peers of “The Funhouse” were piling up bodies, scares, and creating more merchandisable villains with iconic images?
Taken out of its time however, “The Funhouse” becomes something like the mutated misfit in its liquid canister circus tent display: a sideshow curiosity defying easy description and commanding rapt attention no matter how unusually deformed it may be. Hooper’s leisurely carnival stroll probably played more dully when suburban entertainment like vampire-themed illusionists and two-headed cows were commonplace attractions. Decades after the film’s original release, such inclusions are now interesting in their own right as time capsule throwbacks, even though they have no direct bearing on the primary plotline.
Seeing it for the first time at an impressionable age, “The Funhouse” instilled in me a desire to peek into dark corners of carnival tents for potentially sinister secrets, and yearn for what seemed like an outlaw era when traveling shows were fixated on a fascination with the macabre. What wonder-filled imagination wouldn’t be captivated by fantasized mysteries of carnie lifestyles and animatronic skeletons after hours? Would I want to spend a night in the haunted funhouse like Amy, or as a sneaking stowaway behind the scenes like her little brother Joey? Absolutely.
Who wouldn’t? The titular attraction is an enormously elaborate construct with as impossibly intricate of a layout as any Disneyland dark ride. Multi-storied and labyrinthine enough to become lost in, the funhouse is even stocked with real steel props for its medieval knight setpiece, convenient for impaling murderous carnies and trespassing locals alike. Ridiculously realized for a ride meant to be mobile, it’s an easier suspension of disbelief when Morton Rabinowitz’s production design and Andrew Laszlo’s cinematography drench each frame in atmosphere both subtly spooky and gobsmackingly gaudy.
As much as Larry Block’s script is dinged for its go-nowhere brother subplot and barely-there characterization of secondary couple Liz and Richie, flourishes of fleshier drama do develop. Amy’s first date beau Buzz is introduced as an obnoxiously car-honking baddish boy throwing insults at Amy when she doesn’t get a joke and slitting switchblade holes in tarps to peep at sagging burlesque dancers. But Buzz bucks against type by surprisingly turning into less of a lout once the sleepover plan goes belly up and cooler heads are needed to plan a path through the mayhem.
There is also the absurdly grotesque Rick Baker monster makeup that somehow manages to be silly and scary simultaneously. Wayne Doba’s enthusiastic performance takes the mute monster to the next level by creating a creature concurrently villainous yet strangely sympathetic purely through physical mannerisms.
Interestingly, the movie’s most uncomfortable moments have less to do with the funhouse and more to do with outdated seventies sensibilities. In one scene, Amy’s parents weirdly watch willingly as an overeager carnie nurses their traumatized son following a spooky encounter. “I washed him up real good!” says the carnival manager. It’s more of a cringe inducer than the odd amount of time the boy spends with his nude sister when he intrudes upon her shower. Pedophiliac and incestuous undertones might not have been on the radar in 1981, but it is definitely in keeping with the movie’s newfound ability to come off as creepier in the 21st century.
There is simple charm in the straightforward story and retro horror appeal that makes “The Funhouse” the gold standard granddaddy of killer carnival thrillers. Put it on prior to patronizing the local county fair during summer season and see if it isn’t still lurking in your mind while milling about the midway. At the very least, it will make paying $5 for a two-minute tour through a haunted truck trailer, the way “real” carnival funhouses operate, a fleecing far easier to smirk at.
Review Score: 85