In 1981, Tobe Hooper made a nifty little film called “The Funhouse.” It got a bit of attention from Fangoria and a couple of other industry magazines, and then quietly slipped into obscurity. There it remained, largely forgotten, thanks to Hooper’s better known films like “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, “Salem’s Lot”, and “Poltergeist.” But that doesn’t mean it deserves to be.
In a beginning so obviously derivative of “Halloween” and “Psycho” that it has to be deliberate, young Joey Harper punks his sister Amy so badly that she reneges on a promise to take him to a carnival that is in town. After Amy leaves for said carnival on a double date, Joey decides to sneak out and go on his own. Once there, he witnesses Amy going into the Funhouse, but doesn’t see her come out. Meanwhile, his sister is doing some witnessing of her own: After bailing from the funhouse cars in an effort to spend the night inside, Amy and her friends see a murder and, suddenly, spending the night locked inside doesn’t seem like such a good idea after all.
“The Funhouse” moves at a decent pace. Once the action truly gets going there’s only a half hour left, and I found myself wishing more time had been spent inside the titular ride. That doesn’t mean that the rest of the carnival isn’t as interesting though; in fact, the real reason to see “The Funhouse” is for its incredible atmosphere outside as well as in. Bells ring, barkers hawk their tent-concealed freakshows, and lights chase each other around signs and rides. Calliope music plays and everything is in constant motion; one can almost smell the fried dough. However, with the exception of the creepy background, you’ve seen this film before; it’s basically Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” (mixed with a smidgen of “The Elephant Man” and “Friday the 13th”), only set in a carnival.
To achieve the film’s tone, Hooper found an actual period carnival with rides from 1940s and ’50s and relocated it to Florida, where the film was made. He shot the exteriors with only the existing lights from the carnival’s rides and tents, and the interior of funhouse was shot with only flashlights at times. This makes “The Funhouse” an extremely dark movie visually, but that only serves to match its dark subject matter. The darkness also works to the DVD’s advantage, as the version I watched (from Goodtimes) uses an incredibly dirty print. A newer version was released in late 2004 from Universal, so that may be the one to check out.
If you’re looking for tons of jump scenes and terror, this isn’t the film to see. If you want a creepy, fun time though, then “The Funhouse” may just do the trick. It’s an interesting, but not exceptional, offering from one of the horror genre’s greats.
Pros: Great atmosphere. Character actor Kevin Conway, one of those people who everyone recognizes but no one remembers, is terrific in multiple roles…
Cons: …but the rest of the cast is nothing special. The home release from Goodtimes uses a very dark and dirty print.
Review Rating: 3 out of 5 creepy, cackling, fat lady animatronics.
“The Funhouse” (1981)
Also known as: “Carnival of Terror ”
96 min Minutes; USA
Rated R for nudity, drug use, and violence.
Elizabeth Berridge (Amy Harper)
Shawn Carson (Joey Harper)
Kevin Conway(Funhouse/Freakshow/Stripshow Barkers)
Jack McDermott (Mr. Harper)
Cooper Huckabee (Buzz)
Largo Woodruff (Liz)
Directed by: Tobe Hooper
Written by: Lawrence Block
Viewing Format: DVD