While horror maestro Tobe Hooper never managed to top the groundbreaking brilliance of THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE or the box-office success of 1982’s POLTERGEIST, I think he deserves far more acclaim than he gets for the films he made in the interim: 1977’s EATEN ALIVE, which retains the backwoods sleaziness of its predecessor while adding a surreal swamp setting and a suitably sickly color palette; his atmospheric and frequently terrifying TV adaptation of Stephen King’s SALEM’S LOT; and his first theatrical feature for a major studio: a seedy, nightmarish circus of the macabre known as THE FUNHOUSE.
Filmed on location near Miami, Florida, FUNHOUSE gives the audience a voyeuristic peek behind the filthy curtain to spy the inner workings of a traveling carnival — the kind of attraction which has largely vanished from the American rural landscape. Even by the beginning of the 1980s, there was already an atmosphere of doom and decay that seemed to hang over the cheap and rickety rides, rigged midway games, greasy snack stands and grim freakshow exhibits that populated these fly-by-night enterprises throughout most of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Not unlike the forbidden appeal of the bygone 42nd Street grindhouse, there was a certain otherworldly appeal to these rickety fairgrounds-on-wheels (there’s a reason they call them “attractions”), and Hooper manages to capture a chilling snapshot of this eerie upside-down world.
Since this is a variation on the now-standard slasher formula, our story follows teenager Amy Harper (Elizabeth Berridge, AMADEUS), her hunky date Buzz (Cooper Huckabee, DJANGO UNCHAINED) and their fun-loving friends Liz and Richie (Largo Woodruff and Miles Chapin) as they do all the things fun-loving teens do in this genre: smoke pot, drink beer and try to get into each other’s pants.
Of course, a proper slasher flick also needs a proper villain, and THE FUNHOUSE has a doozy: a mute carnival worker who wears a rubber mask of Frankenstein’s Monster… itself a façade which conceals something far more horrifying.
Our young protagonists are guided through the carnival’s insane sights and sounds by a rogue’s gallery of barkers — three of whom are played by veteran character actor Kevin Conway in various guises — as well as a drunken, bumbling magician (William Finley, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE), an aging palm-reader (Sylvia Miles, THE SENTINEL) and the genre’s requisite Prophet of Doom in the form of a homeless woman who berates the kids with the raspy proclamation “God is watching you!”
When the mischievous kids decide to spend the night in the carnival’s massive funhouse (which apparently can warp space, as it’s about six times larger on the inside), they become unwilling witnesses to a horrific murder, and learn a dark secret about the masked funhouse worker — not to mention his relation to the barker(s) and the disappearance of several young women from previous towns along the carnival’s route.
While the script contains far more setup than punchline, there’s no wasted time or space in THE FUNHOUSE; every scene plays into a larger, more hallucinatory picture, depicting an alien world where visitors are seen as rubes and victims; where foam-rubber and painted plywood props conceal real-life monsters driven by beastly impulses, who leer at visitors from the shadows, hungry and waiting. Brilliant widescreen compositions by award-winning cinematographer Andrew Laszlo (THE WARRIORS) and a haunting carnival-themed orchestral score by John Beal turn an otherwise modest production into a cotton-candy-colored, wild and wicked wonderland.
I won’t spoil the reveal of the “monster” for those who haven’t caught the movie yet, but let’s face it — it’s just a Google search away, and photos, figures and paintings of the killer have been around for decades before the Internet. For what’s basically an inarticulate mask, the mutant creature’s look is truly unsettling, thanks to excellent effects work by the legendary Rick Baker.
THE FUNHOUSE generated decent box-office numbers when it hit theaters in March of 1981, and along with the well-received SALEM’S LOT served as a bridge between Hooper’s low-budget beginnings and the legendary, Steven Spielberg-produced genre blockbuster POLTERGEIST. (Surprisingly, Hooper had already been approached by Spielberg about the prospect of directing E.T., back when an early draft of the story contained scarier elements — i.e. more hostile aliens — but he was still working on this project at the time.)
THE FUNHOUSE gained even more notoriety across the Atlantic, where British film censors added it to the infamous list of 74 banned films nicknamed “Video Nasties.” It’s possible this was a mistake, as the film is far less violent and sadistic than Hooper’s previous releases… and while it packs a lot of sleazy atmosphere into every frame, it’s not particularly exploitative or misogynistic. Some film historians have theorized that censors mistook the film for another similarly-titled project that was far more shocking and controversial: 1977’s LAST HOUSE ON DEAD END STREET, which was alternately titled THE FUN HOUSE in the UK.
After a successful run on VHS from Universal, THE FUNHOUSE made an uneventful transition to bare-bones DVD, but thankfully the genre gurus at Scream Factory have blessed the film with a glorious Collector’s Edition, packed with extras and featuring a commentary track by the director, who references the classic horror films which inspired this project (the entire opening scene, for example, riffs openly on both HALLOWEEN and PSYCHO).
Here’s some interesting trivia for collectors of vintage movie novelizations (like yours truly): the paperback adaptation of THE FUNHOUSE was commissioned by Universal for an up-and-coming horror author whose name has since become a household word — Dean R. Koontz, writer of bestsellers like WATCHERS, THE KEY TO MIDNIGHT and DEMON SEED. At the time, Koontz opted to pen the novelization under one his many pseudonyms, “Owen West,” but future editions of the novel capitalized on Koontz’s worldwide fame by dropping this nom de plume.
Koontz was given an early draft of Larry Block’s screenplay as reference, and fleshed out the skeletal plot by inventing a far-reaching backstory of devil worship, curses and supernatural shenanigans that, while wildly entertaining, has almost no relation to the finished film apart from the final third, which is basically where the shooting script picks up the thread. It’s a fun, pulpy read, but I’d recommend it only after you see the film — or you’ll be shocked by how little of Koontz’s book appears on screen.