“Pay to get in. Pray to get out.” Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse (1981) is one of those wacky, slightly tacky terror-fests from the early 1980s that inherited its mantel of blood and guts from John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978); an ironic congenital condition indeed, especially since Carpenter’s classic is very restrained in its ‘execution’ of fright. The Funhouse’s treatment of human sexuality is as perverse as its take on disfigurement and death – a telling critique on where all three commodities divvyed up the schlock and nonsense on the gross-out scale.
Immediately following the debut of Halloween the horror movie experienced a curious renaissance in pop culture. But it was a different animal entirely from the one that had come before it. The early era of gothic dread that had ushered in the horror film had given way to atomic bugs and cosmic mutants from another world by the late 60s. Throughout these permutations, horror movies endured primarily because they preyed upon the immediacy of our collective fears and found ways to weave these into narratives that dealt with basic human desire. But by the 1980s plots became incidental at best; a necessary – if extremely threadbare - evil rather than an integral set up for all the carnage that was to follow. The average age of the filmed ‘victims’ plummeted from mid-forties to twenty-something’s pretending to be teenagers, reflecting a general and deliberate shift designed to appeal to a much younger audience.
The resultant ‘more for gore’ potpourri that became the popular popcorn main staple throughout the 1980s successfully tapped into this teenage psyche. But it also gave birth to the slasher movie; a subgenre of horror where the explicitness of human bloodshed and body counts accrued between the main titles and end credits virtually became the only prerequisite selling feature necessary to draw in their target audience. As a result, the line between ‘horror’ and ‘slasher’ was irreversibly blurred and remains so to this day; the tragic fallout of 80s horror movies, because true terror rarely – if ever - has anything to do with a movie’s ability to top out the gruesome factor.
The Funhouse is fortunate in this respect, because it isn’t so far gone in the cycle of B-grade blood-fests to have succumbed to its own repulsiveness. And it has Tobe Hooper’s stamp of excellence for nuanced shock that would reveal itself in full flourish the following year with the release of Poltergeist (1982). Still, Hooper isn’t about to rewrite the ‘rules’ of horror as established by Carpenter in Halloween a scant four years earlier, and so The Funhouse treads heavily on very familiar – if hallowed – ground. We’re given a stock cliché as premise: oversexed teens in peril, placing a single virginal flower in their midst, whose sexual purity guarantees her sole survival after one night of mind-paralyzing fear.
But Hooper has ripped yet another page from the horror movie playbook that bodes very well with Lawrence Block’s less than original plot. In confining his chills to a carnival setting – and more directly, inside the one dark ride attraction that has a real monster lurking behind its audio-animatronic mannequins – Hooper manages to create a petrifying isolationism within this familiar world of fun, unraveling our collective expectation for a good time and a few surprises that turn out to be anything but wholesome and cathartic for our protagonists.
The Funhouse stars Elizabeth Berridge as the pseudo-innocent with an attitude, Amy Harper; a buxom virgin who cannot wait to escape her parent’s prudish middle-class suburbia and go slumming with her own motley crew of teenage toughies. These include her newly acquired bo-hunk boyfriend, Buzz Klemmet (Cooper Huckabee), girl of easy virtue, Liz Duncan (Largo Woodruff) and bookish, wannabe tough guy Ritchie Atterbury (Mile Chaplin); just your typically oversexed/morally bankrupt adolescents who get their kicks by getting high and into trouble.
So when a carnival comes to town it seems like the perfect backdrop to let all their inhibitions hang out without a single thought or care for tomorrow. Unfortunately for Amy and her friends this carny is home to a hideous and horny little monster (Wayne Doba) - a deformed hunchback mute midget who lumps around like an ape wearing a Boris Karloff inspired Frankenstein monster’s mask to conceal his own ghastly visage.
Believing that it would be ‘cool’ to spend a night in the funhouse after everyone else goes home, and maybe get a little business going with a hint of kink and masquerade role playing on the side, Amy and her friends accidentally stumble across Madame Zena (Sylvia Miles), an elderly fortune teller who ends up getting raped and murdered by our crazed monster. Amy and her friends witness the killing and retreat in fear into the funhouse where, naturally, the monster sets to work picking them off like flies, one at a time.
In the meantime, the monster’s father, carny barker Conrad Straker (Kevin Conway) notices that someone has been tampering with the safe. We later learn that Ritchie has pocketed a few bucks while no one was looking. But Conrad is more concerned with how much the teens have seen. After Amy and her friends run into the funhouse to hide, Conrad locks them in with the monster and waits for the inevitable to occur. Impatient, Conrad helps the monster stalk his victims. Liz meets her untimely end inside an air duct while Ritchie is strangled. Buzz manages to kill Conrad in self-defense, but he is then murdered by the monster, forcing Amy to flee into the funhouse’s utility room where she is successful at electrocuting the monster before he is crushed between two very large gears.
Clearly inspired by visions of Tod Browning’s perversely enthralling Freaks (1932), director Hooper tries to recapture some of the taut dread of Browning’s classic with The Funhouse, but ultimately succumbs to the urge to create more contemporary chills instead. It’s perhaps forgivable of Hooper, given he is the man who made the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre – as bloody a B-budget horror as any. But in The Funhouse, Hooper is remarkably restrained and he does manage to effectively ante up our collective anxiety with clever pacing. Yet, in hindsight the results are less memorable than expected. Still, Hooper gets a lot of economy from the claustrophobic atmosphere in Mort Rabinowitz’s production design and Andrew Laszlo’s darkly lit cinematography that remains unsettling and spooky even when nothing particularly shocking is going on.
Elizabeth Berridge distinguishes herself from the rest of the cast. Beyond looking disheveled and terrorized throughout most of the movie, she manages to tap her own emotional wellspring, projecting that anxiety, pity, fear and empathy outwardly in what is essentially a limited variation of the stock ‘scream queen’ made iconic by Jamie Lee Curtis. The Funhouse isn’t a bad horror movie. In fact, there is much to commend it for what it is. But it never quite graduates to the top tier from its vintage (Halloween and Poltergeist). That said, it is very solid second tier with a fairly evenly paced amount of ferocity and ennui about the horror genre in general. It isn’t high art. But then again, so few horror movies are.
Shout Factory gives us another impeccable 1080p Blu-ray transfer derived from vintage materials that will surely not disappoint. The 2:35.1 image has a fairly crisp quality with bold, richly saturated colors. Film grain looks very natural and age related artifacts are practically nonexistent for a smooth but film-like visual presentation. There’s really no point in comparing this transfer to the DVD issued by Universal some years ago. You can use that old disc for a Frisbee.
But it’s interesting to note the minor discrepancies between this Blu-ray and Arrow Home Video’s region free disc – especially in the contrast levels which are a tad lower on Shout’s release. In most scenes this difference goes unnoticed. But The Funhouse is a very dark movie. As such, hints of fine detail more obvious in hair and clothes during the darkly lit sequences inside the funhouse on Arrow’s transfer tend to get lost as a dark blur on Shout’s reissue. In fairness to Shout, I cannot argue which hi-def transfer more accurately recreates the look of the original theatrical engagement. But Shout’s blu-ray is very solid indeed, particularly in its repurposed 5.1 DTS that is startlingly aggressive in spots and will have you jumping out of your seat on occasion. Dialogue still sounds very frontal, but this is to be expected given that Dolby technology was in its infancy when The Funhouse was made.
Extras are where Arrow’s release easily bests Shout’s offering. Shout gives us an audio commentary and several exceptionally scant ‘interview’ vignettes with behind the scenes crew that barely total 30 min. put together. There’s also an audio interview, deleted scenes and trailers to wade through. Arrow’s release, not reviewed herein, contained almost 2 hours of extras, including extensive featurettes on the SFX, making of the film, and interviews with both cast and crew. Depending on one’s proclivity for back stories, make your purchases accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)