Even though it features a masked maniac boring through teens one at a time with a roaring powerful, I’ve always been loath to class The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as a slasher flick – at least not one that plays by conventional rules at least. However, that doesn’t mean that horror legend and Texan wildcard Tobe Hooper didn’t take full advantage of the stalk and slash boon of the 1980’s and as a result we got The Funhouse, a perky, gaudy, kill-a-thon that saw its director go from the low budget, guerilla filmmaking in which he made his name and graduate into slicker, studio productions that would eventually lead to the likes of the blockbusting Poltergeist and his infamous three picture deal with Cannon.
Taking full advantage of his colourful setting and finding a cozy home for the type of eccentric characters and elaborate sets the director adores sticking in his movies, does The Funhouse entice you to step right up?
While trying to avoid the obnoxious pranks of her horror obsessed younger brother, virginal Amy Harper hurries to get ready for her date with popular jock, Buzz Dawson who wants to take her, her best friend Liz and her incredibly irritating boyfriend, Richie to a sleazy carnival despite the warnings of her protective parents.
Bullshitting them that she’s actually going to the movies instead, the quartet experience all the things the carnival has to offer such rides with questionable safety precautions, candyfloss that looks like it could trigger a diabetic coma and most worrying of all, a live strip show, but as the evening draws to a close, Richie hits upon the Hindenburg of dumb ideas: why don’t they hang around after the place closes for the eveninc and spend the night in the large funhouse that dominates the fair.
However, their planned night of trespassing and heavy petting is interrupted when the carnival’s fortune teller/prostitute fatally falls foul of the Frankenstein masked funhouse assistant who is angered at his inability to perform sexually and throttles the fortune teller to death as the horrified teens look on. As the gang realises it’s probably an optimal time to split, matters are made even worse when it turns out that Richie has also seen fit to rob the funhouse of the nights takings and the perfect end to a perfect night occurs when he also gives their position away to both the masked assistant and his father, the funhouse owner.
Being witnesses to a murder and associating with the guy who’s robbed a carny isn’t exactly the type of outing good girl Amy was expecting, but after its revealed that the Barker’s son is a hideously deformed maniac with a violent bloodlust, it seems Buzz’s chance of a second date is shrinking by the second. Can Amy’s annoying kid brother who snuck out to follow her somehow save the day?
You can tell Hooper had both eyes open when deciding to tackle an out and out slasher flick and he knew full well who’s property he’d be treading on and never is this more evident than in the opening scene which has the balls to not only shamelessly homage Halloween (complete with a POV shot looking through some eye holes of a mask), but then seamlessly switches to ripping off the shower scene from Psycho instead and even has the nerve to make it all one big red herring. However, after starting things off by tweaking the noses of Hitchcock and Carpenter, the director takes it’s basic premise and piles on typically Hooper style levels of sleaze a weirdness that gives the potentially overfamilar proceedings an unpredictable spin. For a start, The Funhouse takes that notion that a lot of slashers have by making the adults seem either unwilling or unable to help the teens in trouble and turns it up to eleven with every single character who’s north of thirty either an impressively shitty parent, out and out nuts or a collossal pervert. Take the random guy who thinks its hilarious to pull a gun on a terrified child for shits and giggles or the seemingly benevolent carny who protects the same kid with squirm inducing tenderness (right in front of his fucking parents too!) or – you know what, just take it from me, all the adults are simply awful.
While Hooper’s usual lack of restraint is a high point in his spirited bash at hack and slash, his enthusiasm for sleazy craziness results in the odd brow furrowing plot hole such as the utterly nonsensical younger brother sub-plot or some highly questionable interior design for the titular Funhouse which suggests that it seems to be the size of the fucking Nostromo from Alien and even has a basement and ventilation shafts big enough to stand in despite the attraction being totally portable. But on the other hand, if Hooper doesn’t seem to care, should we?
Anyway, this forging of the director’s earlier, scummier mindset with increased, polished production values really does add a mean spirited twist to a genre that’s usually governed by a need to appeal to the lowest common denominator and gives the flick a personality its peers usually lack.
Take the movie’s masked antagonist Gunther, who rails against the silent juggernauts of destruction that the genre usually shobes into the spotlight. This monstrous killer feels more like Leatherface: bullied by his father, uttering screeching hoots and racked with sexual insecurities (probably because he has a bad case of zombie-bat-face), the slaughter is triggered in the first place by the fact he suffers from premature ejaculation while trying to bed an elderly prostitute – something Michael Myers never had to deal with.
Yet despite Hooper making full use of the surroundings to fantastic effect (Kevin Conway takes multiple roles as three completely separate barkers) and his habit of randomly going off-book (William Finney’s cameo of a cigarette puffing magician has nothing to do with anything but is still fun), The Funhouse is surprisingly tame when it comes to the murders, eschewing creative kills in favour of maintaining its peculiar tone. However watching Gunther spectacularly clutz his way to oblivion in the chaotic finale like a shrieking, fanged OJ Simpson in The Naked Gun is worth the price of admission alone and while it’s hardly aged as gracefully as some of Hooper’s other works, it’s still a memorable weird punt at a genre that’s usually defined by its lack of character that supplies ample carnival carnage.