After SALEM’S LOT but before POLTERGEIST, Tobe Hooper did a humble little teen horror movie that acts as a rickety jerry-rigged bridge between his nasty beginnings and his guy-who-works-with-Spielberg years. Filming in Florida, Hooper was able to create a vibe of sweaty southern depravity in the tradition of THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE and EATEN ALIVE, but bigger – THE FUNHOUSE is a $3 million Universal movie. I don’t know if it’s the sweeping aerial views from cinematographer Andrew Laszlo (THE WARRIORS, FIRST BLOOD, REMO WILLIAMS) or the ominous orchestral score by John Beal (primarily a composer for trailers), but I swear there’s a faintly classy polish on this trashy drive-in sideshow.
I suppose the influence of HALLOWEEN might’ve contributed. The opening is an obvious homage – maybe even straight up ripoff – a POV shot of what turns out to be a kid (Shawn Carson, SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES) putting on a clown mask and creeping up on his naked sister (Elizabeth Berridge, AMADEUS, HIDALGO). The difference is that he’s not a psycho, just a little brat trying to scare her. This pranking and the horror movie memorabilia in his room don’t turn out to be relevant, other than that the real horror he encounters hides itself under a Frankenstein’s monster mask, and when he sees it he won’t be laughing, he’ll be crying like a baby.
The sister is Amy, our heroine who goes out with new boyfriend Buzz (Cooper Huckabee, COHEN AND TATE, DJANGO UNCHAINED), best friend Liz (Largo Woodruff, STARDUST MEMORIES) and her preppie boyfriend Richie (Miles Chapin, HOWARD THE DUCK) to the carnival. Amy is the prototypical Final Girl: the goodie-two-shoes of the group, teased about being uptight. But the movie doesn’t seem judgmental about their smoking joints, making out or hiding in the funhouse after hours. I mean, that would be fun. It’s a good idea!
The trouble comes when they see something crazy through the cracks in the floorboards. A grunting carnie with drool dripping from the mouth hole of his Frankenstein’s monster mask (Wayne Doba, SCARFACE, MONKEYBONE) tries to pay the psychic Madame Zena (Sylvia Miles, HEAT [the Burt Reynolds one]) for sex. At first the kids giggle at the mischief of seeing this private moment with a woman they had a bad run-in with earlier. The fun stops when “the monster” prematurely ejaculates and then strangles Zena for not giving him a refund.
The funhouse barker (Kevin Conway, LAWNMOWER MAN 2), who seems to be the monster’s dad, figures out there are some witnesses trapped in the funhouse, and promises to take the kid fishing if he’ll tie up those loose ends.
The monster’s personality really comes through in the movements and grunts behind the mask, a dangerous-manchild character very similar to part 2 Leatherface. And I love the idea that this pure-’80s-Hooper character wears a mask of a classic horror icon, slightly warped to fit the deformed head beneath it. But I’ve always had a little trouble with what he looks like underneath (designed by Rick Baker, executed by Craig Reardon, who later did Sloth in GOONIES). He looks very plastic and the sharp teeth make him seem more like a straight up monster than a man living with birth defects, like the two headed cow or his baby brother in the jar seen in an earlier freak show scene. I feel like there should be some irony or shame to calling him “the monster,” but with this design it seems pretty accurate. Also, the actor is awfully short, smaller than some of his victims. If anything it seems like his malady should make him less of a threat because he must be pretty fragile and off balance with that head of his. If the Elephant Man was a psycho I don’t think he’d be able to beat you up, would he?
When he strangles her he smashes her against some of the electrical equipment running the ride. This leads to some great shots of creepy animatronic characters cackling at the murder, both in the basement and above, where the kids are trying to stay quiet and unseen. That’s definitely one highlight of the movie, these mechanized characters as creepy as the mannequins in TOURIST TRAP. To be honest the funhouse itself is a little all over the place thematically: mostly skeletons, ghouls, spiders, a big ape, but also clowns, exotic plants, and Humpty Dumpty. I guess trying to decipher the intentions of a low-rent dark ride is part of its appeal, though.
Something about the doomed tone the music creates reminds me a little bit of CARRIE, and Buzz reminds me of Tommy Ross: big handsome guy, a jock at heart, smiling bemusedly when his girlfriend is upset at him, but with a sweet side that does care about making her happy. Amy, meanwhile, has one of the less-discussed Final Girl qualities pointed out by Carol Clover in her seminal book: she’s more observant than anyone else. In the extras Conway even refers to this as clairvoyance. She’s the only one there who seems to sense the danger of the carnival, and she makes serious eye contact with the barkers in front of the funhouse, the freak show and the strip show, as if she’s the only person within the movie to notice that they’re all played by Conway. A sequence that cuts between all three seems to prove that they are, in fact, separate characters, not one carnival employee with multiple personas, but they’re all him in different costumes.
This, Conway explains, was his idea. I’m not sure what it means, but it seems more logical than when one actor played both the crime scene photographer and the mortician in THE MANGLER. Maybe it gave Hooper the idea for that. Or maybe that actor demanded both roles, following the Conway precedent.
The carnival is full of oddballs. A preachy homeless lady in the restroom (Sonia Zomina, EYES OF A STRANGER) fulfills the rambling-nut-in-the-cemetery role. The seemingly drunk magician Marco the Magnificent (William Finley, EATEN ALIVE, NIGHT TERRORS) has an act built around making the audience think he accidentally impaled a volunteer from the audience. But the truth is even if these kids had not gone to the carnival they might’ve run into some crazies. I offer as evidence the scene where some random dude in a pickup truck (Ralph Morino, “Deputy 2,” ISLAND CLAWS) sees Joey walking on the side of the street, offers him a ride, then points a rifle at him and cackles.
In other words, this ranks in the top five Tobe Hooperest movies of all time (as well as top two movies that HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES couldn’t exist without). It’s maybe Hooper’s non-TEXAS CHAIN SAW movie that mos resembles a TEXAS CHAIN SAW movie, what with its group of young friends trespassing and running afoul of a murderous, possibly inbred family unit, in this case just consisting of the father who yells at the mute, masked, child-like son, not so much morally objecting to his murders as resenting the work required to cover them up.
In a certain way it’s a reversal of TEXAS CHAIN SAW, since that was about the dangers of intruding in someone else’s home. This is a more xenophobic idea: the dangers of weird outsiders who come through your little town. But that’s in line with TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 (which came out five years later). That had the family moving around, leaving trails of mysterious disappearances, somehow getting away with it, and even living in a sort of funhouse with real skeletons instead of these animatronic ones.
At the beginning, Amy’s dad (Jack McDermott, SUPER FUZZ) tells her not to go to the carnival, and she pretends she’s going to the movies, so she tries to convince Buzz that’s what they should do. “Forget about your old man, he’s just trying to bum your evening,” Buzz says, which really offends Amy. “How can you say that? You don’t even know my father.”
It sets up this dynamic that he’s probly just a dude trying to get laid and she’s a sincere person who’s not gonna let him get away with the usual shit. But it also sets up a theme of male protectors and the ultimate lesson that she can’t count on them. “Who is man enough to enter that world?” the funhouse barker taunts before they go in. Buzz is man enough.
Throughout the movie she clings to him. He’s tall and muscly and she looks tiny with him wrapped around her. His brute strength is officially carnival certified when he wins her a stuffed panda by hitting the mallet thing. And he uses his his manly powers to protect her, but ultimately loses a duel to the death with the barker. In one of the extras Conway says he was worried about the obvious size mismatch in the fight, and convinced Hooper to have Buzz be unable to hit him. Somehow it plays convincingly, though. Strapping young man jock muscle defeated by the squat burliness of a dude who’s spent his whole life setting up tents and ferris wheels and shit.
By this point she’s already found that her father can’t protect her either. She saw him through a vent of the funhouse when he came to pick up her brother. She screams “DADDY!” at the top of her lungs but the camera pulls out to dad’s location and from there her voice is completely drowned out by the fan and the distance. It’s as if she’s in a nightmare, voiceless and helpless.
Liz, like Stretch in TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2, tries using her sexuality to escape a mentally and sexually challenged masked attacker. She pretends she’s gonna “be nice to” him to get him to lower his guard so she can stab him. For Stretch it works, reducing Leatherface to a horny mess, distracting him and getting his sympathy. Liz is not so lucky.
So in the end Amy must count on herself, her tenacity and toughness.
There are two amazing overhead shots showing you this carnival she must survive: one as it’s shutting down at night and the last stragglers are leaving, the other in the morning as Amy stumbles out, having just murdered a deformed killer and lost all of her friends forever. There are random weirdos around and not-necessarily-complicit carnies doing their job of taking things down, giving it that last-shot-of-TEXAS-CHAINSAW-MASSACRE-2-in-the-open-frame-version-only feeling of all-this-madness-was-happening-right-under-your-noses-and-you-didn’t-notice. She keeps turning and looking back, unable to believe this shit, not sure what to do now. A classic Final Girl exit.
The script is by Larry Block, who (as far as I can tell) is not the novelist Laurence Block who created Matthew Scudder (of A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES), but the other one who wrote the Albert Pyun version of CAPTAIN AMERICA. A weird thing that I only recently learned is that there was a novelization written by one Owen West, that came out well before the movie. Since Owen West was actually a pseudonym for Dean Koontz, it was later published under his name as its own thing separate from the movie. I haven’t read it (my copy is on the way) but judging from online summaries it sounds like Koontz reworked it so that Amy’s mom has a secret carnival past and is the mother of the monster. They’re brother and sister, like Michael and Laurie!
I’ve always liked THE FUNHOUSE, but like most Hooper movies it keeps seeming better as I get older and watch it more times. Step right up, etc.