NICHOLAS CHANG | REPEAT OFFENDERS
"Pay to get in. Pray to get out!"
To think this is the film that got Tobe Hooper the directing job for Poltergeist. Had any other director helmed The Funhouse, it would just be a traditional blood-and-guts horror flick that would become obscure. But Hooper didn't let that happen. Thanks to his keen eye for style and suspense, his unique vision for The Funhouse is what makes it an upsettingly underseen horror classic.
There doesn't seem to be anything special about the premise: Four teenagers (Elizabeth Berridge, Cooper Huckabee, Largo Woodruff and Miles Chapin) visit a local carnival to watch exhibits, go on rides, smoke marijuana, and finally spend the night in ‘The Funhouse.’ But once our main characters go inside ‘The Funhouse,’ they witness something shocking… and eventually, they're hunted down by a killer, far more monstrous than they could imagine.
Interestingly, Hooper chooses to open The Funhouse with a cross-homage of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and John Carpenter's Halloween: POV shots of a masked intruder intercut with another scene where the protagonist Amy (Elizabeth Berridge) is taking a shower. The intruder breaks into the bathroom and repeatedly stabs Amy… but the knife turns out to be rubber, and the intruder is simply Amy's brother Joey (Shawn Carson), who happens to be a horror enthusiast! That's where horror fans know they'll be in for a true treat, and it's a strong opening hook to captivate audiences.
What The Funhouse does right is that it recognises various tropes in the horror genre and the fact that its main characters would be commonly found in slasher films. So instead of trying hard to do something innovative, The Funhouse opts to embrace its slasher tropes and breathes life into its characters instead, making them far more likeable and less clichéd than expected. Rather than indulge in senseless gore and cheap scares, The Funhouse spends its time getting to know the characters, and while there's little to the story, there is still fun substance to digest. The revelations regarding the main villains are intriguing and even slightly reminiscent of Hooper's classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and that's where Hooper makes the most out of Larry Block's script to construct an overall solid plot.
Although carnivals should be harmless fun, Hooper recognises the sleaziness of the film's setting. It's genuinely filthy, with various attractions drawing attention to "freaks," and several patrons are rude towards the characters, allowing for subtle commentary on the values of middle-America. It's cinematographer Andrew Laszlo's opportunity to shine, and he does by soaking in the scenery of the carnival and utilising aerial shots, highlighting how gorgeous the view looks… and how oddly terrifying it feels. Most images are atmospherically lit, aimed at enhancing the tension and shows the thought put into the style.
What makes The Funhouse worthwhile viewing is Mort Rabinowitz's production design. The sets are beautifully composed and even believable to look at, where the titular setting becomes unsafe to travel in, and it's this attention to detail that makes The Funhouse far scarier than it should be. When the monster of The Funhouse is unmasked, the practical design is chillingly effective. This, along with a healthy focus on character, maximises the suspense factor, and audiences' patience will be rewarded by a relentlessly tense finale, all of it further accentuated by Jack Hofstra's tight editing and John Beal's orchestral score. The violence is surprisingly tame, even when compared to the likes of Friday the 13th, but that's because Hooper favours tensely constructed set pieces and significant references to horror films, which transforms The Funhouse into fun viewing.
Despite how enjoyably captivating The Funhouse gets, it's likely to polarise modern audiences. Although the first act surprisingly hooked me into the film and its focus on the central characters makes them likeable, The Funhouse sometimes spends too much time engaging with the attractions and sleazy nature of the carnival, which causes the pacing to drag drastically. It's not until nearly an hour through The Funhouse that the characters realise they're in grave danger, and before that, several of the events are uneventful. It'll wear on viewers' patience, but I suspect hardcore fans would have little issue with pacing problems. These issues are further inflated by a subplot revolving around Amy's brother, Joey, and never at a point does it impact the plot. It's abruptly removed two acts through The Funhouse, and the film forgets that this subplot takes place.
A few character interactions are poorly performed by the teen cast, and the acting feels slightly unbelievable, but this isn't largely problematic. Instead, the performances are decently watchable, with Kevin Conway stealing the show as a crazed freak show barker who hides something dark, and even Wayne Doba is genuinely terrifying as the monstrous killer.
With a few more re-writes, The Funhouse would vastly improve. It's mostly these pacing and writing flaws that have led audiences not to view the film as highly as Poltergeist and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. But through a strong sense of style and an eager focus on production design, Tobe Hooper has a deep respect for the horror genre. The Funhouse is a loving ode to slasher films of the 80s, and it's one that deserves your attention.
The Funhouse is available to buy and rent digitally on Google Play, Microsoft, YouTube and Apple.