Ah, what a magical time, the early 1980s. After enduring a childhood of network television, I finally got cable. Suddenly, I could watch movies on HBO and Showtime without edits or commercials. The former was a bit of a problem for my parents, seeing as now changing channels was like Russian Roulette. If it was 8 P.M. or later, one never knew what might flash on the screen-a severed head, a profane rant, or worst of all, a pair of female breasts. Sometimes all three, as would've been the case with director Tobe Hooper's 1981 THE FUNHOUSE.
Oddly enough, I never did watch the entire thing in those days. It did, like many movies these channels ran, play endlessly, however. But I always seemed to catch a few minutes here, a scene there. It was usually on way past my bedtime. I had sat through all manner of craptastic horror films in those days, and seeing THE FUNHOUSE now, I sorta wished I had stuck with it. Or not, but I'll get to that.
Hooper opens his film with an overt homage to PSYCHO. A young girl is showering while we get the POV of someone slipping on a Halloween mask (nod to J. Carpenter) and grabbing a knife. The soundtrack crescendoes, the curtain is pulled back. The knife meets flesh. The girl screams. Then we see the knife is a rubber toy, and the would be psychopath is a young boy, the brother of our heroine. She chases and threatens him. Like siblings do. One threat involves her not taking him to a local carnival.
Not the most clever intro but we move on quickly to the real story-the girl joins three other friends for a night at said carnival, the sort of sleazy extravaganza complete with sweaty barkers and rickety rides. We follow our none-too-interesting protagonists as they do all the usual midway things, plus as they argue, smoke a little weed, and try to scare each other. They see a tent filled with mutant animals: two headed cows and the like. They also peek behind another tent filled with over-the-hill strippers, strutting their sagging forms for a crowd 'o slobbering locals. Several bizarre characters wander around, including a ancient lady who yells "God is watching!" from bathroom stalls. She seems like she wandered in from a David Lynch movie. But if you've ever been to one of these fairs, you'll recognize it as fairly accurate.
Finally, one of the guys in the group has a brilliant idea-why not spend the night in the funhouse ride! How awesome would that be? Well, don't answer that, reader, especially if you're beyond your teen years and have an IQ above that of lint.
After some hesitation and blatant lying on the phone to their parents, our group breaks away and hides in the funhouse after all has shut down for the night. As creepy and vile as things were during normal business hours, well..you can only guess. After some attempts at intimacy, the teens hear some ruckus and then witness a murder. The victim? Madame Zena, the fortune teller. The killer? The dude in the Frankenstein mask who mans the Funhouse. But the mask is ripped off to reveal-a mutant! One frightful looking creature, courtesy of another of make-up artist Rick Baker's impressive jobs. How and why the killing occurs doesn't really matter, but it sets the story in motion, particularly when the carnival's barker (vet actor Jeff Conway), the mutant's father, shows up. He discovers the teens and then a deadly game of cat and mouse begins.
The possibilities of this scenario are well exploited. The ingenious sets allow some imaginative scrapes for our "heroes" (though truth be known at times I was rooting for the mutant; the main characters were quite the unlikeable bunch!). Hooper uses suspense over easy gore "money" shots quite effectively. Suspense builds, especially in the final reels. Of course, if you've seen enough of these slashers, you know that the virgin is almost always the lone survivor. But not before she tangles with the mutant in a really well-done climax in a boiler room, complete with rusty chains, gigantic metal gears, ominous bursts of steam clouds, and hanging hooks (nice TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE nod to yerself, Tobe). Up to that point though, the character of Amy (Elizabeth Berridge) is as vapid a leading lady as I've seen. Her later turn in AMADEUS was similiarly less than spectacular.
Hooper succeeds firstly and lastly with the atmosphere. The film just oozes the filth of a traveling fair. You can almost taste the cotton candy and diesel. The sense of dread really makes this film an uneasy watch, and that's why perhaps I'm glad I didn't watch this all the way through as an early teen. I would've never visited my beloved South Florida Fair ever again! I guess I never wanted to believe that these affairs reeked of the basest of human behavior, but I'm sure I knew better. The scariest scene in this film doesn't involve bloody hatchets or dismemberment but rather that when Amy's parents come to retrieve her little brother (who sneaked out of the house to follow his sister) from one of the carnies. The little boy is on the carny's greasy couch in his trailer, somewhat sleepy. As the guy explains to the parents how hard it was to get in touch with them, he touches the boy's arm. The implications of what happened before are unthinkable.
The main reason to watch THE FUNHOUSE is nostalgia. It reminds me of a simpler time. The movies of this ilk were mostly crap, yes, but generally fun. The latter day remakes have been coming faster and furious. A few weeks ago, FRIDAY THE 13th was re-imagined. A few weeks before that, we got a 2009 3-D MY BLOODY VALENTINE. Gorier, louder, and more frantically edited (so I'm told). Hopefully, THE FUNHOUSE will be one chestnut left alone.