Tobe Hooper's career has been "sporadic", to put it mildly: after it got started on such an all time high with the iconic "Texas Chain Saw Massacre", it could only really ever go downhill from there on. Apart from the occasional rallying revival with "Poltergeist" or the recent "Toolbox Murders", there has been little in his filmography that comes anywhere near emulating that initial success. Looking back though, some of those early films, though paling when set beside his masterpiece of a debut, are actually pretty respectable efforts. "Eaten Alive", with its unexpected move into Bavaesque, hyper-real studio settings, had its moments and his "slasher" effort "The Funhouse" is another flick that deserves another look from today's horror fans. This beautifully sharp and colourful new 2:35.1 anamorphic transfer, available on Arrow Films' new UK DVD release, provides the perfect means of reassessing this little-seen gem.
I call it a slasher, and the film certainly begins by courting all the slasher clichés to an absurd degree. The opening sequence shamelessly steals from both "Halloween" and "Psycho", starting with a POV shot of a masked assailant sneaking up on a naked girl taking a shower, and then switching to a shot whose composition recreates exactly the famous sequence from Hitchcock's masterpiece, where an ominous shadow creeps up an oblivious Janet Leigh. But the posters on the bedroom wall where the "killer" selects his weapon give away the real inspiration behind this film: Boris Karloff as Frankenstein and Lon Chaney Jr as the Wolfman! This is really a classic monster movie posing as a slasher; with a large helping of TCM's macabre black comedy thrown in for good measure.
The story is simplicity itself. A funfair is in town and Amy Harper (Elizabeth Berridge) sneaks out to join a group of friends for an illicit night out, while her parents are watching "The Bride of Frankenstein" on TV! Ominously, the last time it was in town, several girls disappeared. After enjoying the deliciously politically incorrect sights of the fair (freaks and strippers, mainly) Amy and her friend Liz (Largo Woodruff) are persuaded by their boyfriends, Richie (Miles Chapin) and Buzz (Cooper Huckabee) to spend a night in the Funhouse after the fair has been locked up for the night. While making out amid the gruesome wax figures and plastic skeletons, the gang are disturbed by strange noises coming from a grate in the flooring and witness the lumbering figure in the Frankenstein's monster mask who takes the ride's fairs, raiding that day's takings to pay for the chance to shag the fair's ageing fortune teller! The night of unbridled sex doesn't develop quite how either of them expects though, and after things come to a head (so to speak) a little too quickly to justify his monetary expense, the masked figure brutally kills the woman in frustration!
When his "keeper" comes home and sees the fortune teller's mangled body, he sets about trying to think of a convincing cover-story ("we'll dump the body and blame it on the locals," he cackles!). The gangling giant in the mask removes his disguise to reveal a grotesque deformed creature, barely human in appearance, and the shocked watching teenagers give their presence away. The scene is now set for a tense man hunt through the darkened, cramped passages and ramp-ways of the deserted funhouse.
Like many of those early 70s slashers, "The Funhouse" spends an inordinate amount of time quietly building up to the main business. Modern audiences might find it slow (Tarantino's "Death Proof" was quite authentic in that regard, and it too was unfairly criticised for its "quiet" beginning) but actually, Hooper fills this first half with a host of strange and grotesque carnival folk that add an offbeat humour and a sense of unease through the accumulation of bizarre details. The strange old bag lady who jumps out on unwitting spooning teens, cackling "God is watching you!"; and the odd way in which every one of the drooling carnies seem to pick out Amy from the crowd, directing their tub thumping sales pitches at her alone, are among the ideas that keep the audience guessing about how and when exactly the real threat is going to materialise. It works. And when the chase comes, the funhouse setting is of course ideal. From here on in the film plays it pretty much by the book, with the small cast being bumped off one-by-one; and it could also be argued that the film's creature is too obviously a poor man's Leatherface -- a similarly retarded monster, trapped in a lumbering body -- but Hooper keeps the tension riding high quite effectively and the Cinemascope aspect ratio is a delight, especially in the film's climactic showdown with the "last girl standing". Gore-wise, today's audiences will probably find this all a little disappointing (strange that what we used to call "Gore Hounds" now constitute your average multiplex audience!) but the restraint doesn't diminish the fun of this old school horror flick which makes for perfect Halloween viewing.
The film looks gorgeous in this beautiful transfer on Arrow Films' DVD. There are no extras of any kind though; a Hooper commentary track would have been much appreciated.