Everyone needs an escape from time to time. A place apart from reality, where the strange whisper with the miraculous, and cheap trinkets are bartered with greasy denizens of the night. What better place to set a horror film than the carnival, where the potential for mystery awaits around every crimson tent and distorted mirror? If you’re so inclined, step right up and buy a ticket to The Funhouse (1981), the late Tobe Hooper’s wonderful tribute to the seedy shadowed world of carnies, caramel apples, and Universal monsters.
Released in March by Universal, The Funhouse underperformed at the box office, but critics (including Gene Siskel) admired it for focusing on suspense and thrills rather than gruesome mayhem. In a landscape littered with severed limbs and phallically inclined urban legends, Mr. Hooper used his genius to once again showcase the underbelly of the American psyche, this time with a major studio’s dollars. That he delivered something so different from what they probably expected fills me with no shortage of joy.
The Funhouse opens with a winking tribute to Mr. Hooper’s friend John Carpenter and the mother of all slashers, Psycho, before settling into its story proper. Amy (Elizabeth Berridge – Amadeus) slinks off to the fairground with her friends played by Miles Chapin (Get Crazy), Cooper Huckabee (Urban Cowboy), and Largo Woodruff (Stardust Memories), much to the chagrin of her little brother Joey (Shawn Carson – Something Wicked This Way Comes), who also sneaks out and follows.
Things start off well (as they do in these situations) until the foursome (not Joey though, he’s always on the outside looking in) decide to stay behind in the titular ride after it shuts down for the night. This, as we know, is always a bad idea; the gang witnesses the strangulation of the fortune teller/sex worker Madame Zena (Sylvia Miles – The Sentinel) by the Frankenstein mask wearing ride operator, which leads to them being discovered by the operator’s father (a virtuosic turn by Kevin Conway, who plays the Freak Show, Strip Show, and Funhouse barker). And once they find out what Junior really looks like underneath his mask, they’ll wish they had left before the lights went down on the midway…
Looking back, The Funhouse is very much, simply put, a Tobe Hooper picture. The gorgeous cinematography by Andrew Laszlo (The Warriors – and the reason Hooper wanted him) is of a piece with Eaten Alive (1976) and Salem’s Lot (’79); color used to express emotion in a way comparable to Bava and Argento. Whereas Eaten Alive’s palette showed a neon drenched seedy allure, and Salem’s Lot’s cold blues and inky blacks forewarned an eternal vampiric dread, The Funhouse’s kaleidoscopic warmth is meant to entice the viewer into a false sense of security and joviality. As adults we tend to see behind the curtains of ex-cons and hustling; the dirt clad hustle and hucksterisms causing nothing more than eye rolls from the jaded young adults. After all, the fairground holds no thrills for the cynical, only gropes on the Ferris wheel (if you’re lucky, don’t look at me) and overpriced teddy bears. So when Mr. Hooper finally reveals his seemingly subterranean monster (designed by Rick Baker, brought to life by Craig Reardon), all of our fears of what is really lurking behind the moldy curtains come true – the misshapen baby in the jar has grown to protect its hallowed grounds.
There’s always been a sense of family, however misbegotten and incestuous, to the carnival; they clearly look after their own, which helps give a stifling, claustrophobic feel to The Funhouse, aided immeasurably by the production design of Morton Rabinowitz (Salem’s Lot). This is a film that you feel; every dusty cable and creaking mechanism surrounded by the candy colored lights offer no respite from the dangers presented in Larry Block’s concise screenplay. Mr. Hooper proved once again that he was a master at upending expectations, as this film’s simple structure has to work within a (more or less) singular setting; once they’re trapped in the funhouse, all bets are off - the animatronic ghouls and plastic webbing providing the backdrop to the ensuing mayhem.
The Funhouse is a monster movie, not a slasher as it’s been sometimes erroneously labelled; yes it hits the beats, but that’s just exquisitely timed suspense, something that Mr. Hooper excelled at when he chose to apply it. And what a monster we get; the head double wide with fangs agape and drooling, truly a face that only a mother (or several mother figures, I sadly imagine) could stomach. But our monster elicits sympathy from the viewer, a lonely and tragic figure presented as such until his forced reveal. The fact that his Frankenstein mask hides an even more hideous visage highlights one of Mr. Hooper’s many enduring traits: his sense of humor.
It’s there in practically all of his films; whether going over the top with the heightened melodrama of Eaten Alive, the Hammer Gone Wild exploits of Lifeforce (1985), or the very moist and macabre wit of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986), Mr. Hooper’s films revel in the bizarre, but always filtered through a good natured love of life and film. There was nothing cynical in his filmmaking, only the pure joy of film itself. And in 1981, he chose to make an old fashioned monster movie with a ‘80s gloss in a climate of high schools and summer camp slaughter. Because that’s who he was; a filmmaker who made the projects that spoke to him regardless of trends or tastes. And that’s why a film like The Funhouse and many more will live on – his movies live under one glorious tent, where the lights will never dim as long as people buy a ticket. Step right up, won’t you? Mr. Hooper has such sights for you to see.
The Funhouse is available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: THE PYX (1973)