If you take a look at the filmographies of the most well-known and popular of the name-brand genre directors, you will find that almost none of them have what you could call a flawless track record. While John Carpenter earned his immortality with Halloween, The Fog, The Thing, Escape From New York, Big Trouble In Little China and They Live, he also gave us Prince of Darkness, In the Mouth of Madness, Village of the Damned, Vampire$ and Ghosts of Mars. Wes Craven will always be the man who made The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, A Nightmare on Elm Street, New Nightmare and Scream, but he was also responsible for Deadly Blessing, Swamp Thing, The Hills Have Eyes II, Deadly Friend, Shocker, Vampire in Brooklyn and Cursed. Of them all, only David Cronenberg has managed to avoid this kind of inconsistency, with only the non-genre Fast Company and M. Butterfly besmirching his otherwise spotless record.
And on the other end of the spectrum you have Tobe Hooper, who after earning his reputation with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre proceeded to lay waste to it by directing such unfortunate films as Eaten Alive, Lifeforce, Invaders From Mars, Spontaneous Combustion, I'm Dangerous Tonight, The Mangler, Toolbox Murders and Mortuary. Once you've waded past these outright disasters, you're left with the merely mediocre Salem's Lot, the heavily Steven Spielberg influenced Poltergeist, the darkly comic Texas Chainsaw Massacre II and the topic of today's post, 1981's The Funhouse.
Although The Funhouse is a highly uneven movie that is hampered by a screenplay that fails to capitalize on virtually everything worthwhile that occurs in its first 45 minutes, it's easily my favourite film from the director that doesn't feature the word Chainsaw in its title. Unlike the majority of Hooper's post-TCM oeuvre, his first slasher movie manages to transcend its many flaws, rather than be buried by them.
A large part of this is due to the film's cast and specifically it's leading lady, the then 19 year-old Elizabeth Berridge. To most viewers, Berridge is best remembered for her role as Mozart's long-suffering wife in Milos Foreman's amazing Amadeus, but seeing her in The Funhouse reminded me of the first time I noticed her in the two television sit-coms she appeared in during the mid-ninties, the short-lived Washington satire The Powers That Be and the ahead-of-its-time The John Larroquette Show. Interestingly, both of these shows went out of their way to strip the actress of her palpable femininity, which may explain why I find her work in this film so appealing. In Larroquette she played a cynically corrupt beat cop who spoke in a dull monotone and who hid her sexuality beneath a bulky police uniform (with the result that her most memorable moment in the series came in an episode where she changed out of her work clothes and into a tight minidress for a date and casually admitted to her stunned cohorts, "Yeah, I have a killer rack"). Having first seen her play such a drab, unsympathetic character, I found it fascinating watching her play the role of a typically fresh-faced horror movie final girl/ingenue, and while I doubt most viewers will be aware enough of her work to be similarly impressed by this, I have no doubt that they will ultimately find her to be one of the more appealing examples of the sub-genre's most important and cliched of characters.
Also worthy of attention is the work of the easily recognizable character actor Kevin Conway, who appears in several roles throughout the film, playing a trio of the carnival's barkers. But as good as he is here, his different appearances in the film go a long way towards revealing the film's biggest flaw. In the first half of the film we are bombarded with a host of different characters, all of whom present their own interesting dramatic possibilities, but once the second half begins, virtually all of these characters are abandoned in favour of a standard teens-trapped-in-a-confined-space-with-a-maniac scenario that casually abandons the narrative seeds the film so carefully planted in the beginning. As fun as it is to see the same actor portray three different characters, it ultimately hurts the film since we are never given a reason for the distraction. Are they supposed to be brothers? And if they are, why is it necessary to suggest it when it has absolutely no dramatic payoff?
Another example of this comes from the one scene that features 70's Brian DePalma regular William Finley as the carnival's magician. Although most films buffs will immediately recognize the actor from his roles in DePalma's Sisters and Phantom of the Paradise (in which he played the title character) and might assume he only appeared in the film as a sort of referential cameo (the equivalent of Miike's scene in Eli Roth's Hostel), to the average viewer he simply isn't recognizable enough to justify the scene he appears in. And this is unfortunate, because there is no good reason why his character couldn't serve some kind of role in the film's final acts. Like all of the threads the film fails to capitalize on, he appears to be dropped from the narrative more out of laziness than dramatic necessity.
Ultimately the result of this strange division between the films first and second halves is that The Funhouse feels like two completely different movies, and though this could have been disasterous, it manages to work if only because the two seperate halves manage to entertain on their own disparate levels. In the first half we are treated to an amusing look at how the essential appeal of a traveling carnival comes from rather than despite their often obvious seediness and in the second we are given a traditional slasher storyline, albeit one with its own unique twist. Of the two, I enjoyed the first half the most, if only because of its relative novelty and though the second half is never tedious, it feels strangely rushed and almost arbitrary, as if Hooper and company suddenly realized that they were actually making a horror movie and tried to make up for it midway through production.
As for the twist I mentioned earlier, it is actually revealed so early at the start of the film's second half that much of its potential impact seems to have been wasted. Not long after the man in the Frankenstein's Monster mask (who operates the titular attraction) kills the course, abusive fortune teller for mocking his premature ejaculation, he takes off the mask and reveals himself to be something far worse than Mary Shelley's famous creation. Personally I've never totally bought into the notion that it's always scarier to keep things hidden in horror films (sometimes I do think it's far worse to show us what we don't want to look at), but in this case Hooper does make the mistake of totally blowing his wad at the very beginning and leaving nothing to surprise us with at the end. The F.M. mask the monster wears is creepy enough that it could have been effectively kept on until the very end, waiting for just the right moment when during his final attack on Elizabeth Berridge's character , she rips it off of him and reveals his truly horrible face. Instead, we are shown his true face before he starts killing our protagonists and his monstrosity fades into the background without truly serving its purpose. (And, in the name of not being a massively annoying nitpicker, I won't mention that there is no way his "real" head would ever fit inside the mask he's shown wearing.)
As a production, the movie is extremely well-shot and is filled with bright colours that look great on the DVD, but--especially in the second half--the film does suffer from the same problem that plagues nearly all of Hooper's films, with the exceptions of the first Chainsaw and the Spielberg-produced Poltergeist--it looks like it was filmed for television. Even in its original widescreen ratio, the only thing that distinguishes The Funhouse from a particularly well-shot TV movie is its nudity, language and violence. As a filmmaker Hooper has always seemed incapable of producing works that look inherently cinematic, even when given an enormous budget (as was the case with his biggest financial flop, Lifeforce). Though The Funhouse isn't as obviously limited as many of his later films and does contain several ambitious shots, it's hard to imagine it not looking out of place on the big screen for which it was intended.
As hard as may be to believe after reading this, I did enjoy watching The Funhouse and my criticism of it comes more from being disappointed by its inability to match its own potential than its outright failures. With a more ambitious script what is merely a good slasher movie could have been a great one thanks to its perfectly creepy setting and own interesting twist on the formula. One cannot help but wonder how it would have turned out with a more ambitious and talented director at its helm.
Body Count: 6 (2 women/4 men)
Shower Scenes: 1 (And it's a good'un)
Instances of Nakedity: 2 and 1/2 (Ms. Berridge gets nekkid twice and a scene in the burlesque tent shows strippers in pasties, which counts for the half)
Obligatory Has Beens: Seeing two-time Oscar nominee Sylvia Miles in her underwear is probably the most disturbing moment this movie has to offer.
Instruments of Death: Hands, Sword, Hatchet and Gears.
Creepy (and therefore suspicious ) Old Guys: After awhile I stopped keeping count.
References to Pot: 1 (our heroes smoke up behind one of the tents)
Amount of Time Required to Correctly Identify Killer: There's no attempt at mystery this time around.
Cheesy References to Other Horror Movies: Quite a few. The opening shot is a direct homage to the opening shot of Halloween. The shower scene is a direct parody of the shower scene from Psycho. People are shown watching The Bride of Frankenstein on TV and there are several other references to the James Whale films beyond the obvious mask warn by the mutant maniac.
Utterly Pointless Trivia: The movie was briefly banned in England as a "video nasty" because its title was similar to "The Fun House", an alternative title for the much more disturbing The Last House On Dead End Street.
Final Girl Rating: 6 out of 10