In 1974, Tobe Hooper made an eruption of horror ingenuity with his second feature film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a gritty and grainy horror classic that would prove to be one of the most influential films in horror history. A brilliantly brutal, thoroughly disturbing, and strangely real-feeling slasher before slashers that favored hellish atmosphere over blood yet still feels like peak cinematic violence,Texas Chainsaw Massacre expressed Hooper was already a developing master of depicting terror on screen.
As many know, he went on to make a few genre classics and cult hits, including Poltergeist, Lifeforce, and Salem’s Lot. Hooper’s responsible for at least 2 of horror’s greatest films of all time as well as a sprinkling of lesser hits, but more gems rest between the cracks than some care to recognize.
Two years after Texas Chainsaw Massacre initially made its impact, Hooper directed Eaten Alive, a strange, sordid exploitation flick about a demented redneck motel owner who feeds victims to his alligator, which saw little box office draw and to this day hasn’t stirred enough internet chatter to be considered a cult classic. Although you’d have to imagine a few sleazeballs, sick cinema hounds, and Hooper fans get a kick out of it.
Just a few years after that misfire, and this very week 40 years ago, Tobe Hooper’s most unsung piece of scary movie gold was released. The Funhouse (1981) is the greatest Hooper work that isn’t recognized as horror greatness. It’s one of the finest films that’s never mentioned in “horror classic” discussion. It’s a scary little treasure if there ever were a scary little treasure; if not scary, then drenched in scary goodness at least, and a darn near perfect early 80s spooky romp. Given the big anniversary and this flick turning 40, there’s no better time to look at and praise Tobe Hooper’s deliciously creepy The Funhouse.
A group of teens and one nosey younger brother spend the night at a scuzzy carnival from hell. An awesome set-up and perfectly sleazy setting – somewhere familiar and fun, but unsavory and strange, always lingering with the sense of gross activity behind the scenes. Hooper takes us to an especially grimy fair where seedy figures run the show, monsters lurk, and a crew of curious adolescents transition from a night out to just wanting to make it home alive. What results is a richly atmospheric and visually remarkable haunting ride with great gore, sickeningly cool makeup, and an arsenal of spectacular setpieces. The Funhouse blends multiple horror elements; thus it can’t fairly be fit to a subgenre, as it plays out a little bit monster movie, a tad slasher, and possibly paranormal, with an onslaught of eerie occurrences and a feel too uncanny to be called creature feature cheese or standard butchery. This well-crafted light shocker delivers visuals and feel that are tastefully gory, appropriately squalid, genuinely unsettling, and all-around fun. Despite a premise that begs to be tackled with camp and comedy, The Funhouse is a dark and disturbing journey into a house of horrors with palpable spirit.
The Funhouse opens with a shocking misdirection and scare, as Joey Harper (Shawn Carson,) annoying little brother to our lead Amy Harper (Elizabeth Berridge,) frightens her while she’s drying off after a shower. Already the blood’s pumping, and we’re shown Amy is fed up with Joey’s dickish younger sibling nonsense.
Mr. and Mrs. Harper, (Jack McDermott and Jeanne Austin,) are a typical set of parents with teen children – stern and concerned, but either too aloof or not concerned enough to look into what’s really going on. The carnival’s in town but they forbid Amy from stepping foot there with her friend Liz (Largo Woodruff) and their dates Richie (Miles Chapin) and Geek (David Carson.)
Amy, being a good egg, listens to her parents and suggests a movie to her friends, but they want nothing of it. To the carnival they go. Unbeknownst to Amy and her parents, young Joey sneaks out and follows Amy and the crew for spy action and carnival fun.
What awaits our teens and Joey at this slummy carnival? The usual hokey shit like freak shows and rides. Also peepshows, an uncanny old fortune teller who does a little sex work on the side, an array of haunting barkers, and eerie wandering old ladies who warn that God’s watching. Oh and a murderous funhouse, filled with horrifying animatronics, creepy puppets, and potentially an additional killer creature.
While the concept screams slasher cheese or monster shlock, The Funhouse cares to disturb, unsettle, and leave viewers in mystery rather than shock. From the moment the film begins, Hooper presents us with what seems to be the generic opening of a teen hack ’em up film. A heavy-breathed killer in hiding, about to slice up this nude young woman? Seen it. Then the rug is pulled out from under us, maybe nixing the possibility of standard slasher territory; spurring the question “What IS this ride we’re setting out on?”
It isn’t a splatter vehicle through which hoards of dumb teens meaninglessly get picked off. It isn’t particularly heavy on gore or grossness, either. The creepy road The Funhouse takes us down is lined with spooky toys, unforgettably creepy characters, and a hell of a monster.
Rick Baker did phenomenal make-up effects work, and crafted a grotesque creature for the horror record books. The Funhouse monster is a disgusting delight – Just campy enough to indeed be an 80s creature, but mostly stomach-turning and horrifying. An objectively unpleasant sight, and not an image viewers will soon shake.
In addition to great bloody effects and superb creature work, The Funhouse also features gorgeous funhouse sets pulled straight from a nightmare. Vibrantly colored tents of terror, filled with unnerving, authentic setpieces. In an interview titled “Tobe Hooper On The Funhouse,” Hooper said props were picked up from an old woman who ran a little antique shop; some were used for the World’s Fair in 1906. The Funhouse’s army of toys certainly do appear to be official, weird knick knacks from an earlier century. Wretched marionettes. Ungodly wind-up toys. Then there’s the cavalcade of creepy animatronics. A ginormous, egg-shaped, laughing animatronic woman shrieks atop the outside of the funhouse, while worse frights await inside. Layers of horror are painted to perfection.
Evil puppets and figurines can’t take all the credit, though, because characters in The Funhouse are a huge part of the frightening fun, and as fascinating as they are harrowing. Veteran character actor Kevin Conway plays all 3 carnival barkers alarmingly well. He veers between the seemingly soulless funhouse barker, the sleazy strip show barker, and the disturbed freak show barker. Each fits right in, driving a strange atmosphere, crafting a feeling of doom, and lending to the haunt of it all. All of the barkers are daunting weirdos, no doubt, and the fact that they’re all the same man dressed differently makes for strange excitement.
Sylvia Miles plays Madame Zena, the fortune-telling sex worker, with horror brilliance. She’s seductive and fascinating, yet unshakably chilling. Madame Zena is the textbook scary fortune-teller you fear may take your soul. Miles embodies every bit of what you think that eldritch personality should exude.
Though it may only be a minor part, Sonia Zomina is fantastic as the baglady. She creeps around simply to make our teen heroes feel like Godless sinners, and you’ve gotta love the horror richness. “Old person warning of incoming evil” is a nice add-on to typical slasher tropes. Zomina plays a frightening, senile religious zealot as effectively as anybody can.
The lead performances and depth of their characters don’t leave much to gush over, but that’s excusable as they’re mere pawns in the house of horrors game. Elizabeth Berridge is a strong, leading teen lady with a head on her shoulders, and Shawn Carson is quite good as a mischievous younger brother who’s wise to his sister’s antics and clued into the terror that may unfold. A smart young kid in a story is never a bad thing. Chemistry among the leading teens is fine enough, and the lines they pass around tend to be funny more often than not. While they may not be the most astoundingly complex group of teen leads, they’re easy to care for cookie-cutter characters who are sharper than what we’re ordinarily presented with in early 80s horror fare.
Laced with a thick, creepy atmosphere, and lined with soul-stirring personalities, The Funhouse holds spooky special surprises for any horror fan, and a couple of standout shocker moments. One scene that forever sticks with me is a gritty basement fiasco in which the carnival owner’s son, a mute in Frankenstein get-up, strangles Madame Zena after a prostitution deal gone wrong. It’s as depraved and scary as it sounds, and a choice example of just how murky these colorful carnival waters can get.
The score, too, is fantastic, sounding exactly like the soundtrack to a state fair from beyond the gates of hell. Any element of The Funhouse could be the icing on the 80s horror cake, but we’ll give credit to the score, there.
All that’s left is to ask, “What’s not to love and praise about this Tobe Hooper treasure?” A bloody monster movie, teen slice ‘n dice affair, and creepy atmospheric ride wrapped in an exhilarating early 80s package. It has something for every fan of horror, whether that be a twisted creature, crafty kills, sleazy aura, or just a general feel of dark and weird. What could be pure fun is both fun and frightening. What could be campy is soaking with atmosphere. Hooper took a fantastic horror setting, ran with its inherent weirdness, and made it all the more horrifying. If you think carnivals are spooky, The Funhouse will prove you right. If you love horror, particularly pre-2000s horror, you’re in for a delight with this one. You may just have a new flick to add to your all-time favorites list.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Movieweb.