Also known as: Carnival of Terror (alternate)
Release Date: March 13th, 1981
Directed by: Tobe Hooper
Written by: Larry Block
Music by: John Beal
Cast: Elizabeth Berridge, Cooper Huckabee, Largo Woodruff, Miles Chapin, Kevin Conway, Sylvia Miles, William Finley
Universal Pictures, 96 Minutes
“…Who will dare to face the challenge of the Funhouse? Who is mad enough to enter that world of darkness? How about you, sir…?” – Funhouse Barker
I’ve never been a big Tobe Hooper fan. I don’t dislike the guy’s work either but it has never stood out as anything exceptional. He’s better than your average horror director and certainly made better movies than the sea of PG-13 teenie bopper diet horror flicks that rule the industry these days but he never had that one great film that made a mark on me. Sure, Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a game changer in 1974 but I never felt like it was all that great. In fact, I liked its hilarious and gory sequel better but that wasn’t great either.
The Funhouse may be the best picture in Hooper’s filmography, though. Sure, the average horror buff may scoff at my assessment of it, especially after what I said about his Chainsaw movies but it is Hooper’s one picture that I actually want to rewatch around Halloween every year. There is a certain mystique about it but a lot of what sells the picture is the work of Kevin Conway, who plays a different carnival barker at just about every tent. He sets the tone effectively and lures you in.
Also, I have always loved the monster in this movie. He’s a sort of tall, skinny, mutant beast that one could assume was the creation of generations of incestuous inbreeding. However, he seemed to be a really gentle and misunderstood monster that was unfortunately in the care of an asshole and surrounded by shitty people. Realistically, he was probably just a disfigured horny teenager but the film doesn’t really do much to explain the monster. But his look is cool, the makeup was superb and he has always stood out in my mind when looking back at slasher pictures from this era.
The film takes a lot of time getting to the slasher parts but the build up is good and sets the tone. Going through the carnival with the kids in the picture, for the first thirty or forty minutes, is fun. They’re all mostly likable and carnivals are cool. Once they decide to spend the night in the spooky funhouse though, their fate is sealed. Well, three of the four teens fate is sealed, as one girl gets out alive.
The final showdown between the final girl and the slasher is really good though. It takes place in the room under the funhouse with all the gears and dangerous hooks and chains.
The Funhouse also has a pretty impressive score. The music is well orchestrated for a slasher picture and it adds a sense of quality to this low budget feature. It does have some bits that feel repetitive but it may only be noticeable after seeing this a dozen times.
Also, the lighting is great. The use of colors and shadows to make the funhouse even spookier is executed well. I’m also a sucker for old school funhouse rides and this film is set in one. The place feels a lot larger than the outside lets on, which is probably true with the big sets but it gives the funhouse a maze-like structure that is hard for the frightened teens to traverse.
With all the shoddy slasher remakes that have come out over the years, I’m surprised this one has remained untouched. I personally prefer it that way but it makes me think that this one is sort of forgotten and underappreciated.
The Funhouse is a quality slasher picture from the early 80s that isn’t just a retread of the Halloween or Friday the 13th formula. The setting is cool and unique and gives this film its own distinct identity in a sea of slasher clones.