Sunday, November 7, 2010

Film Club Funhouse!

When Final Girl Stacie Ponder announced The Funhouse as this month’s Film Club choice, I smiled wider than the laughing fat lady who so eloquently frames the movie itself.

Love. Her.
And almost love The Funhouse, Tobe Hooper’s 1981 slasher is a perennial Doll’s House watch, one I grew up with via the USA Network and a well watched VHS tape. Though it never ascended to Killer Klowns-levels of adoration territory, this was something of a classic (by my definition) and one that I was excited to watch from a reviewing point of view.
Quick Plot: Two naughty teen couples (including one halved by Elizabeth “The Cop From The John Larroquette Show” Berridge as goodish girl Amy) decide to spend the night in a traveling carnival’s funhouse. Really, who can blame them? Between the dancing skeleton, horrifying animatronics, giant eyeball and comfy Alice In Wonderland-like grass, who wouldn’t want to lose their virginity inside?

Unfortunately, there’s the unpleasant business of catching the funhouse barker’s son breaking the neck of the sexy (to some) old fortune teller, played with great trashiness by an Academy Award nominee who in my heart, will always be Meryl Streep’s mom in She-Devil.

Have I told you lately that I love She-Devil?
Before you can pass the douche on the left hand side, the quartet is being hunted by the mutant murderer and his abusive pops, played with the same hatable Irish American charm actor Kevin Conway brought so devilishly to his role on Oz.

Rewatching The Funhouse for the first time in a few years, I was struck by a few happy factors I’d somehow never noticed. Primarily, as a horror film, it’s kind of awesome.
Now, I’m not calling The Funhouse a wrongly underrated masterpiece, but it is something of a dusty diamond in the rough of sleazy cinema. Hooper takes his time establishing the carnival as a seedy, potentially evil setting rich with cooky old crazies (at least three by my count) and mutated cows. 

At the same time, Larry Block’s script never quite ascends past typical. We know pretty quickly who will make it to the morning, even though Hooper does manage to squeeze some intense tension from a few key chases. Likewise, we get a mini-subplot involving Amy’s little brother and his Halloween-like hobbies, but where does it really go other than a brief scene of irony? And another fabulous scene with his and Amy’s grouchier than Oscar wet towels of parents, which in fairness, is super.
So as for story, The Funhouse could certainly use a stylish haircut. Something unexpected and new, like The Rachel highlighted with snakes. We don’t get that, but that doesn’t necessarily take away from the eerie atmosphere or lingering ickiness of a messy psuedo-rape scene. The film succeeds in making you tense and upset. I just wish it did a tad more.
High Points
We’re all agreed that the opening credits are about as perfect as anything in this world could possibly get, yes?

Tobe Hooper gets his share of sometimes deserved criticism, but jiminy jippers is this a well directed and shot film (extra kudos to cinematographer Andrew Laszio, he of Newsies, Southern Comfort, and everybody’s life-changing classic, Ghost Dad). You can pull out quite a bunch of stand-alone scenes that show just how effective his style is, including a few minutes following Amy’s rascally little brother that are done in complete, utter, and rather terrifying silence

An imposing score can sometimes kill a not too deep horror film, but John Beal’s music--a catchy blend of ominous circusness--amplifies the tension to pretty fabulous levels
Low Points
I know this was the early ‘80s, a time when strong women were confined to jobs that required shoulder pads, but did final girl Amy have to be such a helpless coward who could only stand and cry while her date’s being stabbed in front of her eyes?

Lessons Learned
You risk the ire of blonds when you preach...especially in bathrooms
Things most college aged girls of the 1980s didn’t like seeing with their sweethearts: preserved displays of mutated fetuses, nudie shows, and murder

Yet another reason not to smoke (you know, dropping a lighter upon the monster you’ve just seen kill a woman with his bare hands)
If you play your cards right on a first date, you can lose your virginity. If you play them wrong, you can be dry humped by a mutant
Though not without its problems, The Funhouse deserves a viewing from every genre fan. What it lacks in story innovation it more than makes up for with incredible mood, from the titular carnival ride to the effective stalk ‘n slash sequences underneath its floors. Sadly the DVD offers nothing but subtitles, making it not the best investment of your cash. At the same time, this is a film that you can go back to quite often. The brisk pacing and circus-like atmosphere makes it inherently rewatchable, at least if you have a soft spot for scantily clad middle aged fortune tellers and dark rides.

So rent the movie if you dare, but first, head over to Final Girl to check out all the other kool kids and their reviews. If you’re lucky, they just might wiggle and dance. 

That’s right, they wiggle AND they dance.


  1. Oh man, I soooo wanted to fit they wiggle and they dance into my review, but couldn't make it happen! You are too good.

    I agree with a lot of what's here, particularly the credits and the setting - though I think one of my biggest problems in that regard is that I was more interested in the outside of the carnival than the funhouse. I'm sure I'm nitpicking, but after TCM Hooper's always been one of those directors I hope to find a hidden masterpiece from. This one had the potential, I thought.

  2. I can agree Mike. Hooper is a frustrating filmmaker. I want to root for him sooooo bad, but his reputation was essentially tarnished by the Poltergeist question, and the fact that he really has nothing else near that caliber just can't quite get you to ever really believe he was the main proprietor behind that film. TCM is a masterpiece, but it's also something of a juggernaut.

    In the past, I definitely would've agreed with you on The Funhouse. It's a better buildup than final product. Something about this viewing really clicked for me though. Maybe it was knowing, without any surprise, every plot point taht happened and just being able to truly enjoy the atmosphere. I still have a bunch of problems with it, but I guess I now have the ability to look past a lot of them.

  3. I will go ahead and call Hooper's THE FUNHOUSE an underrated masterpiece. ;) I love this movie. It has tons of style, a wonderful EC comic-booky feel, and one of the most memorable creature faces of the 80s. Admittedly though, I have a very soft spot for creepy carnival movies, and this one's kind of my gold standard.

    Also, I think the film fits in better with Hooper's oeuvre than a lot of people will admit. I think I once called it "TCM, on the road." The family of carnival folks is of the same ilk as the family in TCM, imo, though without the skinning and cannibalism. Still, you've got the masked mutant son, the father whose evil is tinged with a strange sort of love for his offspring, and a bunch of innocents who stumble into their world and pay the price. Just as Leatherface didn't go out LOOKING for his victims in TCM--remember, they came to HIM, and invaded HIS space (see that famous scene where Leatherface looks out the window, frantic, exasperated, seeming to wonder "Where in the hell are they all COMING from?!?!"), here the kids would have been all right if they hadn't snuck into the Funhouse to spend the night.

    I've never quite known what to make of all the Barker's "twins" in the carnival, except that it speaks to Hooper's fascination with these "outsider" families.

    Sure, the funhouse is a million times larger than any real funhouse, and is apparently stocked with real bladed weapons, but hey, this is a dark fairy tale. (Hooper I think has called TCM inspired by Hansel & Gretel, and I think there's a similar fairy tale vibe here.)

    And finally, the scenes with the brother--I see them as establishing a theme of confused adolescent sexuality (as when he Psycho's his sis in the shower--how creepy is that?) that mirrors the Freak's own struggles with the same. I haven't fully developed that thesis, but I stand by it. ;) The Freak is a strangely sympathetic character to me too--all he wanted was to be loved, is that so wrong?

    Fave shot: the Nosferatu "shadow" homage in the air duct. Beautiful, and really uses that widescreen.

    So that's my piece. I love FUNHOUSE, and will defend it to my grave.


  4. Hmmmm. I can't even think of any other genuinely good creepy carnival movies. Recommendations please!

    I kind of forgot about the Barker twins. Seems fitting with a lot of the theme, this separation between the 'normal' people and the carnies, as evident in the scene where the good Barker finds Amy's little brother and their awful parents barely seem to care. Maybe that in itself is some comment on how family life can still function in this deformed society?

    I could totally see a great article being written that compares the pervy lil bro to the monster. And I completely agree that the monster is sympathetic. Him wearing that Frankenstein mask certainly helps, since it calls back that oh-so-sad moment in Bride when Frankie realizes that even another monster won't love him. That fortune teller ain't no prize!

    I don't know how I missed all the kooky homeless people my first few times around. I knew there were other weirdos in the movie, but only the ohter night did I catch how awesome they each were.

  5. >>Him wearing that Frankenstein mask certainly helps

    And doesn't the brother have a big poster of the Frankenstein Monster in his room? LAYERS!

    (Or am I thinking of a different movie? I get confused sometimes...okay, lots. :P )

    Anyway, I don't think the choice of the Frankenstein mask was an accident. Definitely has that Bride vibe you mention. And in the novel of course the whole reason the creature turns murderous is because people can't get past his monstrous appearance and treat him like a human being. Even though the Freak is far less articulate, you can see the same thing happening in microcosm.

    YOU SEE? Could a truly bad movie inspire such learned discourse? :)

  6. OH AND! Speaking of novels, Dean Koontz did the novelization of THE FUNHOUSE under a pseudonym. I found a copy at a garage sale last year, and it's actually my favorite Koontz book now. ;) It takes lots of liberties with the story, but it works on its own imo.

  7. Well, he has a dummy head on call, so I wouldn't be surprised if he also has a Frankie poster. Also, he's probably evil.

    I'd heard about the Koontz adaptation! Pretty interesting stuff, was that before he was famous and Koontzy?

    Overall, I'm genuinely surprised at how much more interesting a film FUnhouse seems at this point in life/this particular viewing. If only Hooper could summon SOME of that talent back for something today.

  8. Haven't seen this film in years but I recall at the time (when all the 10 y/o me wanted in a horror film was gore and jump scares) that it dragged until the third act. In other words: the kind of atmospheric, slow-burn horror film I've come to love as an adult. I'll definitely be revisiting this having read your positive review.

  9. Ahh, the follow of youth. I think the Hooper name and scary-doll opening definitely suggests a different type of film that you actually get, but I tells ya, in my old age, this felt like a much better film than the slow, anticlimactic slasher I used to think it was back in my younger days.