There’s something alluring, yet forbidden and scary about closed carnivals and amusement parks. Who hasn’t thought about what it would be like to spend the night in a closed funhouse? That’s the premise behind Tobe Hooper’s underrated 1981 film The Funhouse.
The opening is clearly an homage to both John Carpenter’s Halloween and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Furious with her little brother Joey’s (Shawn Carson) juvenile pranks, Amy (Elizabeth Berridge) tells him that she’ll get even with him and won’t take him to the carnival that’s come to town.
Amy is going on a first date with Buzz (Cooper Huckabee), accompanied by another couple, Liz (Largo Woodruff) and Richie (Miles Chapin). She tells her parents that she’s going to the movies when her father tells her he doesn’t want her to go to the traveling carnival. Of course, that’s just the place they are planning to go.
Amy feels guilty about lying to her dad, and attempts to change the evening plans with her friends to no avail. The couples hit the midway, peppered with tents containing such entertainment as the freak show, a bizarre magician whose hecklers are laugh out loud funny, and a strip show. One of the creepiest people in the movie is the carnival barker (Kevin Conway). He plays all three barkers in the film, enticing patrons into the various attractions. If his calls aren’t included on the film’s soundtrack, then it’s missing a vital part of the movie. The same is true of the fat lady’s haunting laughter.
Richie gets the brilliant idea to spend the night inside the funhouse after he heard that other kids were able to pull it off. The others reluctantly agree, and the girls call their parents, giving them an excuse for not coming home that night.
While locked in the attraction, they see a murder in a room beneath the funhouse. Even worse, the perpetrators know they have trespassers in hiding and will stop at nothing to silence any witnesses to the crime.
This funhouse is a dark ride. Patrons don’t walk through it; instead they ride in cars that move along rails. It’s similar to Captain Spaulding’s Murder Ride in Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses. The vintage animatronics are creepy when operating, but when power is cut to them at night, when the sound effects slow and the motion grinds to a halt, they become far scarier. Add a weirdo in a mask stalking you, and it makes for a bad night.
Tobe Hooper has a knack for crafting dysfunctional families, as in his acclaimed 1974 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Some of the stereotypical carny folk found in The Funhouse have family ties. There’s the barker, Zena the shady fortune teller, and someone or something in a Frankenstein mask that operates the funhouse. There’s even an old woman whose sole purpose is to tell carnival patrons that God is watching them.
I just learned that Dean Koontz, under the name Owen West, adapted the film’s screenplay in his book of the same name. The book was released before the film, as Hooper ran behind schedule on his project. It should be a good companion to the movie, as it provides back story on some of the characters.
I love the simplicity of 1980s horror movies. The decade spawned iconic franchises and lesser known gems like The Funhouse. It’s available on DVD and Blu-ray and can be rented from Amazon. See it if you have the chance, it’s one of my favorites. Maybe you’ll find it as wickedly fun as I do.