Poor Tobe Hooper. Unlike other genre contemporaries such as John Carpenter, George Romero, and David Cronenberg, he really didn’t waltz into the 1980’s with unlimited potential and the brightest of futures. Despite helming the Texas Chain Saw Massacre in 1974 and the well-received television adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot in 1979, Hooper’s reputation was one of an unreliable commodity; a combative personality who had been a contributing factor to the troubled production of Eaten Alive, Hooper’s third feature, and someone who had been outright fired from the William Devane/Cathy Lee Crosby vehicle, the Dark, in 1979.
But with horror at peak interest in the early 80’s, every studio was looking to get in on the action. And what studio wouldn’t want to splash “From the director of the Texas Chain Saw Massacre” across the front of the poster? Universal Studios certainly did. What emerged from Tobe Hooper’s major studio debut did him little favors in terms of his future (Poltergeist was a life-raft tossed his way by Steven Spielberg). But, in retrospect, the Funhouse is one of Hooper’s strongest films; another addition in a line of narratives about an almost folklorish, ruined America, where families are still separated by class and equally troubled. If the cannibalistic Sawyer family represented the unmanageable pioneer lifestyle amid an industrial society in the first Texas Chain Saw Massacre and a gluttonous shark swimming in Reagan’s pools of unfettered hypercapitalism in the sequel, the Funhouse’s twin families reflect America’s white hot fascination with both nightmarish tragedies that were being peddled by television magazine shows and tabloids and their voyeuristic curiosity for the malformed versus a travelling family populated by society’s outcasts.
There is a certain urban myth flavor permeating the central idea of the Funhouse. After a night of pot smoking and grab-ass at the local carnival, the wise guy in a group of four kids on a double date proposes they all spend the night in “The Funhouse” (which, as Wikipedia would correctly point out, is actually a dark ride). What lives within the Funhouse is the Barker and his hideously deformed son who helps work the Funhouse with the cloaking aid of a Frankenstein’s Monster mask. Not long after the kids witness the murder of a fortune teller at the hand of the Barker’s son, they are discovered by the Barker and their attempts to exit the Funhouse are thwarted at every turn. Will they survive the night?!?
In 1981, the failure of the Funhouse was partly due to Universal’s decision to make the film look more like it was an entry in the slasher genre than what it really was; an homage to the horror film in general with elements of multiple eras represented throughout. While it was certainly made sense from a production standpoint to utilize as much no-charge Universal Monster iconography as possible, it’s hard to discount that the monster in the Funhouse is, like the majority of those early creatures, truly a monster to be pitied and goaded on to aggressiveness by his abusive, alcoholic, and manipulative father. For more modern influences, the opening shot recalls both the shower scene in Psycho and the opening moments of John Carpenter’s Halloween (and even Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill, if you’re being generous). The traveling carnival setting has its roots in the oldest of American folktales including those that are represented in our films, such as Tod Browning’s Freaks.
But the Funhouse also hints at a true, simmering horror within in the modern family, and if there’s a nagging issue with the film, it is that its less successful in fleshing this out effectively. The mother for the representative “good” family seems to be a short-tempered alcoholic that instills nothing but fear and dread in her children but we can only guess at this given her scant screen time and the opaque dialogue surrounding her character.
Other than that, the characters and situations do offer up a certain dark streak that runs throughout the film and hints at something deeper. The clean-cut daughter, our identifiable “Final Girl,” isn’t exactly the frigid, do-gooder as in other films from the era. Instead, Elizabeth Berridge’s all-American Amy Harper disobeys her dad, smokes grass, engages in some free-spirited sexual misconduct, and goes along with the crowd without much resistance at all. The ubiquitous younger brother character has a certain perverseness given his prank in the opening moments of the film. I mean, it never occurred to me to, as a goof, take pictures of my older, naked sister in the shower. Additionally, in a nifty plot pivot, the “good kids” find themselves in double-jeopardy after the wise guy pulls a dick move and steals from the Barker and his son. Sure, this is a standard horror device but the motivation suggests a certain deterioration in Hooper’s overall worldview. After all, in both the Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Eaten Alive, the protagonists’ transgressions were no greater than simply stumbling upon the antagonists’ hunting ground.
But from most standpoints, the Funhouse is an impressive film. The cast is uniformly great; Elizabeth Berridge radiates a nervous and apprehensive sweetness, Kevin Conroy is perfectly greasy as the corn liquor-soaked Barker (Conroy actually turns up as three different barkers, hustling for the strip tease, the freak-of-nature tent, and the Funhouse), Cooper Huckabee sports the right amount of Dirk Daring-Do as Barrage’s lunkheaded date with a heart of gold, De Palma regular William Finley turns up as the nip-taking, ghoulish Magician, and the always exciting Sylvia Miles, sporting the hammiest gypsy accent this side of Grayson Hall on Dark Shadows, steals each scene she occupies as the Fortune Teller. The film also sports some really beautiful widescreen camera work (including some fun split-diopter compositions and epic crane shots) courtesy of the great Andrew Laszlo, a master of color and darkness who gave Walter Hill’s the Warriors and Streets of Fire their distinctive comic book look. Here, much like in Hooper’s Eaten Alive, the colors give the film a roadside attraction garishness the look of which is as threaded into the American consciousness as the colors of the flag.
Like anything Tobe Hooper made after 1974, the Funhouse is far from perfect. The ending confrontation feels anticlimactic, uninspired, and deflated and there is a wish that at least some of the backstory that was written into the Dean Koontz’s novelization (initially released under the pseudonym Owen West) could have been incorporated into the domestic moments, if only to flesh out the parental conflicts with the children and restore a much-needed balance of subtext. But, as it stands, the Funhouse remains an overlooked, colorful homage to the institution of American horror, both real and imagined.