Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse is a flick that really took me a long while to warm up to. When I first rented the film back in the mid-eighties, the horror genre was in full-on slasher mode, and this somewhat simple monster movie struck me as somewhat passé and woefully out-of-step with the direction the genre was going in. Of course, the slasher boom came to a well-deserved end, and, after revisiting the film several times over the course of the next two decades, I learned to truly appreciate what I think it was that Hooper was trying to achieve with The Funhouse. As with the cult-classic Lifeforce – a clever blend of 50s b-movie hokum, Hammer Horror, and the eras obsession with epic science fiction – Hooper took what was popular at the time, and infused it with the elements of the films that made him want to make movies in the first place. The Funhouse is essentially Hooper’s hybrid of a slasher film and a Universal Monster movie, with a vaguely sympathetic antagonist, creepy Carnival locale, and a healthy dose of the director’s omnipresent social commentary.
Amy Harper (Elizabeth Berridge) is heading out on her first date with local bad boy Buzz (Cooper Huckabee) and her friends, Richie (Miles Chapin) and Liz (Largo Woodruff). Much to her horror-obsessed little brother Joey’s (Shawn Harper) chagrin, Amy plans to go to the carnival, despite her father’s insistence that she avoid the place due to the murders of twin girls when the carnival passed through a nearby town the year prior. Buzz arrives (with a blaring horn), and Amy rushes outside where, in a moment of guilt-induced weakness, she tries to convince him to go to the movies rather than the carnival, resulting in a tense moment between the two when Buzz suggests that Amy’s “old man” is just trying to ruin their night. Eventually, he convinces her that the carnival will be a blast, and the two speed off to pick up Richie and Liz, unaware that Joey has snuck out of the house to follow them.
The quartet arrive at the carnival, where they wander about stoned, ride the rides, and, in a moment of foreshadowing, take a tour of the traveling Freak Show, where they see the preserved remains of a deformed infant. The kids even visit the fortune teller, Madame Zena (Sylvia Miles), but, as she reads Amy’s fortune, the others make light of the experience, causing Zena to break character and kick them out (but not before exhibiting some actual supernatural ability).
As the crowds dissipate, Amy suggests it’s time to go home, but Richie has a better idea. Some friends of friends told him about how they once spent the night in a Funhouse, and convinces the others to do the same. Amy and Liz call their parents and tell them they’re staying at each other’s houses while Buzz and Richie prepare for a night of sweet leaf and heavy petting. Soon, our heroes man the last of the cars into the Funhouse, and hide within until the carnival shuts down. Joey, meanwhile, waits for his sister and her friends to come, but, when it becomes apparent that they aren’t coming out any time soon, he sneaks around the carnival grounds, exposing himself to the colorful characters who make up the traveling show.
Inside the Funhouse, Amy, Liz, Richie, and Buzz have their make-out session interrupted by activity downstairs. They peer through the floorboards and see one of the Funhouse employees – a man in a Frankenstein costume – escort Madame Zina into the bedroom/office. The man rummages through the cash box, bartering for sexual favors from the old psychic, and, once he comes up with an amount she deems satisfactory, Madame Zina goes to work. Sadly, the obviously inexperienced man doesn’t last beyond the unzipping stage, and displays his displeasure with Madame Zina, who refuses to give him a refund. Liz and the others watch in horror as the two engage in a struggle that results in Madame Zina’s death, and the young intruders quickly decide to vacate the premises. While on the way out, Richie sneaks into the office to steal the remaining funds in the cashbox, but quickly regrets it when he learns they’re locked in. Meanwhile, the man in the Frankenstein suit returns to the scene of the crime with his father, the Funhouse barker (Kevin Conway, in one of three roles), who, upon finding the empty cashbox, beats his son until his mask falls off, revealing the horribly disfigured visage beneath! Now, trapped inside with a monster and a madman, the kids must try to find their way out before this Funhouse claims another victim.
The Funhouse is a fun little monster movie that’s somewhat light on the gore, but features enough scares and menacing imagery to make it stand out as one of the better examples of non-slasher horror that the eighties had to offer. The film borrows from everything from Frankenstein to Hooper’s own The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, recycling the latter’s mix of eccentric characters and arrogant protagonists (and, to a degree, said film’s finale). This makes our heroes (save for “final girl” Amy, of course), a less-than-likeable lot who make sport of mocking the carnies and their rituals, and pay the ultimate price for doing so.
Scream Factory, undoubtedly the year’s most exciting purveyor of fright films, releases The Funhouse as part of their Collector’s Edition collection, joining Halloweens II and III, Terror Train, as well as the upcoming They Live, and Deadly Blessing. As with the other releases, The Funhouse features reversible cover art; one side sporting a fantastic retro-style painting by Nathan Thomas Milliner, while the other features the original DVD/VHS cover art.
The Blu-ray edition presents the film in its native 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and features a very attractive and vibrant transfer that offers a much cleaner image than previous DVD incarnations, as well as a respectable level of fine detail. There are a few scenes in which excess grain is evident, but, overall, the picture quality is quite nice, and the accompanying DTS HD Master Audio tracks (the film’s original stereo mix, as well as an expressive 5.1 track) compliment the image nicely.
Extras include a brand new commentary track featuring Hooper and 2001 Maniacs director, Tim Sullivan that’s more of a general discussion about the genre and filmmaking than a focused commentary on the film. Still, it’s a good listen, even if Sullivan sounds a bit too ingratiating at times, nervously talking over Hooper’s answers to his questions.
Other extras include three on-camera interviews (HD) with Kevin Conway, executive producer, Mark L. Lester, and composer, John Beal. Conway’s is the best of the lot, as he offers up some hilarious reminisces from his time on set. There’s also a short audio interview with the late William Finley, who relays some troubling information about the production, including a suspicion that Hooper may have, in fact, been fired for a spell during filming! Seeing as how Hooper doesn’t touch on this in the commentary, one has to wonder how much of this is true, of course.
Rounding out the extras are an assortment of television and radio spots, as well as a vintage trailer for the film.
While The Funhouse isn’t on par with Hooper’s best films, it’s still very entertaining and, in retrospect, a breath of fresh air when one considers the sorts of horror films that were clogging the multiplexes during the period. Scream Factory’s Collector’s Edition Blu-ray presents the film with a very impressive transfer and a welcome collection of quality extras, making this a must-buy for fans of the film and fans of 80s horror in general. Recommended!