THE FUNHOUSE: There’s Nothing Scarier Than Carnies

When most fans or critics discuss The Funhouse, it is usually discussed in terms of the slasher genre.  This review will look at it in a different light.  While there’s a definite element of stalk and slash to the film, it’s actually a mixture of a few different horror subgenres.  The Funhouse is actually a carnival-horror film that has monster movie and slasher movie components to give it extra spice – and it exploits the creepy yet alluring qualities of its carnival setting in a way few horror films ever have.

The setup is admittedly slasher movie-ish, with two late-teens couples getting together for a night of forbidden fun at a carnival passing through town.  Amy (Elizabeth Berridge) is on a first date with Buzz (Cooper Huckabee), a bo-hunk who she previously thought was out of her league.  Liz (Largo Woodruff), Amy’s more worldly friend, is along for the ride with her date Richie (Miles Chapin), the comedian of the group.

Things change once everyone gets to the carnival.  It is colorful and seedy, laden with creepy hucksters like magician Marco The Magnificent (William Finley) and sham-psychic Madame Zena (Sylvia Miles).  After a night of rides and freakshows, Richie talks the others into hiding in the funhouse and fooling around after it closes.  This is when they witness a murder committed by the Monster (Wayne Doba), a weirdo whose ever-present Frankenstein mask hides a terrible secret.  Their presence is discovered and the Monster teams up with his father, the Barker (Kevin Conway), to give the four teens a private spook-show of the fatal variety.

Despite this commercial horror plot, The Funhouse takes some surprising chances.  Unlike many of its contemporaries, it goes for a slow-burn approach.  The first half subtly builds the creep factor and takes its time to draw the viewer into the sinister yet hypnotic vibe of the carnival setting.    Director Tobe Hooper clearly relishes the opportunity to work in the carnival setting and sometimes gives it a “Fellini goes grindhouse” vibe, particularly during a moment where sleazeballs lustily cheer on some over-the-hill strippers.  The film also shows an irreverent attitude towards then-current genre trends, including a fake-out “shock” opener that cheekily references both Psycho and Halloween.

However, once The Funhouse shifts into its second half, it is all business and it works over the audience with malicious effectiveness.  In fact, most of the second half actually takes place in the title location, taking spook-show mannequins and tricks that once seemed goofily amusing and transforming them into cruel devices that taunt the heroes – and by extension, the audience.  The body count is small but each death builds tension until it reaches a showdown that, like the Monster’s mask, evokes the imagery of Frankenstein.  It also delivers a spooky coda that sends you out on a disquieting note.

The biggest criticism that can be leveled at The Funhouse is that it doesn’t invite much emotional involvement from the audience. This is mainly because the characterization is slim, perhaps due to hasty on-set script editing caused by budget/schedule troubles.  That said, Hooper’s ability to create a sleazy, dangerous atmosphere goes a long way towards making up for this flaw.  The main setting plays into his skill set for capturing the down-and-out side of life at its most dangerous and darkly humorous – and he milks that for all it’s worth.  He also puts together cat-and-mouse setpieces that would put most slasher directors to shame, the best being a creepy cat-and-mouse moment in an airshaft between the Monster and one of the teens.

It’s worth noting that The Funhouse has a good cast and uses this attribute to its advantage.  Hooper gets good performances from the actors playing the teens despite the limits of their characterizations, with Berridge coming across best as the uncertain yet charming heroine.

However, the real scene-stealers are the carny folk: Finley and Miles shine in brief but memorable roles and Conway is unnerving as the calmly amoral Barker (a neat touch has him playing a few other barkers in the film via disguises, all of whom leer menacingly at Berridge).  Doba in particular does stellar work as the film’s all too human monster: he was a professional mime, which helps him bring a real physicality to a dialogue-free role.  The killer he creates lives up to the Frankenstein imagery of the film by being both tragic and terrifying all at once.

Finally, Hooper has an excellent above-the-line crew helping him out here.  The strikingly colorful cinematography was done by Andrew Laszlo, who worked similar gritty-yet-dazzling wonders on The Warriors, and Jack Hofstra’s editing orchestrates the big shocks in a meticulous style.  The production design by Mort Rabinowitz absolutely nails the “seedy carnival” look the film needed to work. That said the film’s best technical attribute might be a magnificent orchestral score by John Beal, who mixes carnival music motifs with bone-rattlingly bombastic string and horn arrangements.  It plays a major role in the operatic intensity of the film’s second half.

In short, The Funhouse takes some time to work its sinister magic but its clever fusion of slasher, monster and carnival horror elements makes it truly one of a kind.  It’s required viewing for fans of Hooper – and anyone else interested in early ’80s horror films should give it a spin.

3 Replies to “THE FUNHOUSE: There’s Nothing Scarier Than Carnies”

  1. I’ve always been intolerant of the teenagers-in-peril aspect of this, but, having just viewed the English BluRay (which is loaded with incredible extras), I’ve come around to even that aspect of the movie. As you say, the carnie focus in the second half is great, and Hooper is clearly in his element with the freak and geek melodrama.

    This would make a strange but perfect double feature with Claude Miller’s THE SMILE.

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