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The Funhouse (1981)
21st Oct 07
A bunch of kids hide in a carnival funhouse and end up getting chased by a freak carnival monster.
Tobe Hooper is one of those love-hate characters in horror. Forever tarred as Tobe 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre' Hooper by horror aficionados, he's churned out quite a mixed bag of work in the 30 or so years since Chainsaw, and not all of it has lived up to the dizzying heights of his most seminal piece. Actually, that's a very nice way of putting it, as you could argue that a lot of Hooper's later work is, in fact, a bit crap.
It didn't start out all that bad though. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of the few films that actually deserve the term 'ground-breaking' and, if you've come to a site like ours, you probably know all about that. Eaten Alive, the weird croc swamp horror that followed, was filled with the same kind of kooky characters that we saw in Chainsaw but had less violence and as such almost comes across as a mondo style black comedy, which I don't think fans of Chainsaw were really looking for. Then along came The Funhouse, a scary carnival movie that pays seriously pushing it a bit homage to both Halloween and Psycho in the opening few minutes, before descending into a kooky carnival movie full of very kooky back water redneck creeps, a bit like Eaten Alive and Chainsaw.
So, the plot is pretty simple. An implausibly young looking Elizabeth Berridge plays Amy, who's got a hot date with a local gas station attendant named Buzz that her folks are none too impressed with. They don't think he's good enough, and they don't want her going to that creepy traveling carnival that's in town because of the two dead girls they found when the carnival came round last year. They'd much rather she went to the movies. Buzz is having none of it and gets quite shitty with her, so they pick up her friends Liz and Richie and head to the carnival anyway.
Once they arrive they spend a good half hour of screen time wandering around the very atmospheric but a little bit boring carnival looking at all the kooky stuff - deformed babies in jars, slightly overweight ladies flashing flesh, the guy dressed as Dracula that gets the girl to stand in the box then hammers a big stake into it - that kind of stuff. It's pretty lame really and between seeing those things, jumping on lame merry-go-rounds and sharing sneaky joints behind the tent poles they realise the whole shebang's been a bit of a let down. Until, that is, Buzz has the brilliant idea of spending the night.
Hiding in the internal workings of The Funhouse our kids get on down, smoking more joints and making out, until underneath them they're disturbed by a deal being made. A creepy guy in a Frankenstein mask is trying to talk the rough old fortune teller bird into sex and, after money changes hand, the drunken hag and creep get down, only for the young lad to get a little excited and to blow his load before he even gets his pants down. She laughs and goes to leave and he - incensed - loses his temper and kills her. Shit, lets get out of here says one of the kids and, after Richie controversially checks the corpse to see if she's dead, get to the back door.
Only, it's locked tight. They then have nothing to do but wait till morning and hope that no one spots them. And they probably would have got away too if the creeps dad hadn't come back, realised someone had stolen all the money out of the takings tin and gone ballistic.
You'll work the rest out for yourself, it's not rocket science, but there are a few things I have to point out.
Firstly, the sets and lighting in the flick are great - the carnival is as authentic a sleazy 40s style carnie as you're ever likely to see on film. Mind you, after seeing that if there's one thing Hooper does well it's film backward creepy redneck characters, so we expected nothing less. Still, it's good to know he delivers here.
Secondly, the opening blatantly pays homage to Halloween with a wicked little POV masked killer sequence that will make you smile even though you know they're being very naughty lifting the scene almost shot for shot. And then before you've caught your breath we're on the Psycho homaging shower scene which is actually really well done even though Berridge looks far too young to be getting those boobs out so eagerly.
Thirdly, I have to mention Amy's younger brother Joey, who's a vicious little shit and will let nothing stop him get to that carnival. He's actually one of the better characters in the movie and many of you will feel is underused, although his final scenes, with his parents and the car, are great. Are the parents going to save the day? I asked myself the same question at the time and thought the outcome was terrific. I'm sure I've seen the victim calls for help being drowned out in umpteen other horrors, but can't think of any at the moment.
So, in a nutshell The Funhouse looks and feels like a much better movie than it actually is. It's one of those movies that looks great, is acted well and is in general pretty good in most departments, but it's let down horribly by some very bad pacing decisions. After the homage-like intro, the film walks round the carnival at a snails pace, and the flick is over half way through before the killer gets going and things get exciting. And there are only four wayward teens here, so you know your body count isn't going to get that much higher than three, which isn't great for a so called lost Slasher classic. Neither is the lack of decent claret, hence the recertifying of the film to a fifteen certificate in the UK. Tch.
Still, this is a damn site better than Crocodile, The Mangler, Spontaneous Combustion or Mortuary, but I guess that's not that hard.
Versions Available uncut in widescreen from Arrow films with authentic cigarette burns in the print.
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