THE FUNHOUSE (1981)
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The Funhouse is Tobe Hooper’s third flick and the last before he worked on Poltergeist and turned into more of a mainstream director in the 80s with his 3 picture deal at Cannon. I am not overly fond of this flick though it does have a following and many view it as a classic.
The story is fairly simple. Two young couples, including the pretty Amy (Elizabeth Berridge), go to a local carnival unknowingly followed by Amy’s little brother Joey (Shawn Carson). They plot to spend the night in the carnival funhouse after closing and once locked inside, they run afoul of a deformed and homicidal member of the Funhouse crew, Gunther (Wayne Doba). Now a harmless prank becomes a fight for survival as the four witness a murder and are pursued through the locked the carnival attraction by the deformed Gunther and the equally deranged carnival barker, Conrad (Kevin Conway who plays multiple barkers in the film). Can little Joey get help for his sister and friends or will he too meet the fiendish carnival inhabitants?
My biggest problem with this flick is that it takes so damn long to get going. It’s at least halfway through before the kids are locked inside and witness Gunther kill an older female fortune teller (Sylvia Miles) during a botched sexual encounter for money. It’s then over an hour till Gunther and Conrad are finally in pursuit of the four teens and this is only a 96 minute film including closing credits. To be honest, its only in the last ten minutes when Amy faces off with Gunther, that the film really generates the tension and thrills we came to see. I don’t mind character development but, did we need 45 minutes to get to know four blandly written teens? The film is scripted by Larry Block so, the screenplay is not director Hooper’s fault but, regardless, the film takes too long to get to the good stuff. On the positive side, Hooper’s visual style makes great use of the carnival/funhouse setting. The look of the film, shot by Andrew Laszlo, is similar to Hooper’s Eaten Alive with some bright colors and surreal visuals once inside the horror attraction. There is some really nice design work inside the funhouse and it certainly gives the film some nice atmosphere. While things take a long time to get going, there is a purveying feeling of something not quite being right at this carnival and, of course, it isn’t. The stuff inside the attraction looks great and certainly accents what is going on when the film finally cranks into gear. Other positives are the spooky score by John Beal and the cool creature design of the deformed Gunther but, they are not quite enough to make up for the fact that the first half of the film is kinda dull and what we get in the second half isn’t consistent or intense enough to completely make up for it… and it’s all rather tame compared to Hooper’s previous work.
Aside from Kevin Conway’s creepy Conrad and his various carnival barkers, the cast is fairly dull. Berridge is an OK heroine but, Cooper Huckabee, Largo Woodruff and Miles Chapin are mostly forgettable as her friends/potential victims. Shawn Carson’s Joey is a typical generic kid… though his activities in the opening scene make him a bit creepy…and, to be honest, the sub-plot of him following his sister on her double date, doesn’t really add anything to the story except some irony later on. Doba is adequate as the deformed Gunther but, anybody could have worn the mask and issued grunts and groans and shrieks. The actors portraying the carnival crew give the film a little creepiness and Amy’s parents (Jack McDermott and Jeanne Austin) are stereotypical clueless adults and are played as fairly oblivious. Nothing really special here other than Conway being solidly creepy.
Overall, a lesser effort from Hooper, though his visual style and atmosphere go a long way to making this far more watchable then it should be. The film has some very cool and spooky visuals but, the characters are fairly forgettable and it takes far too long to get to the goods and then it’s over too quickly and the action is fairly tame. There is a nice early 80s nostalgia to the film now but, it’s still not enough to make me change my mind about a movie I wasn’t impressed with when first viewed opening night in 1981 at the Fox Theater in Hackensack, N.J. A lesser effort from a director whose film’s became less and less unique the further he got from his initial masterpiece, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Worth a look but, in my opinion, nothing special.
2 and 1/2 horrified heroines.