Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Director Report Card: Tobe Hooper (1981)


5. The Funhouse

As the 1980s started, two words were quickly becoming synonymous with the horror genre: Slasher movie. The groundbreaking financial and critical success of John Carpenter’s “Halloween” and Hooper’s own “Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” not to mention how relatively cheap they were to make, opened the floodgates for hundreds of imitators. Soon, masked maniacs gorily slaughtering horny teenagers would become ubiquitous with the genre. Instead of resisting this new wave of horror, Tobe Hooper decided to join them. “The Funhouse” was one of the more high-profile slasher flicks of the era, being produced by Universal, a major studio. It even received a novelization tie-in from Dean Koontz. Though not popular enough to gain a sequel, “The Funhouse” remains well regarded among horror fans.

Amy is trying to be a good girl. She hasn’t had sex yet and always obeys her parents. Yet something about Buzz, her new boyfriend, makes her feel like breaking the rules. Buzz wants to go to the carnival that has just rolled into town. Amy’s parents forbid her from going there, pointing out that several murders took place at the same carnival a few towns over. Amy doesn’t listen, going to the carnival with Buzz and his friends, Liz and Richie. When one of the friends suggest spending the night inside the carnival’s fun house, Amy goes along with it too. Looking through the floorboards, the kids spy a masked man as he strangles a prostitute to death. This is the deformed son of the fun house barker. He pursues the kids through the fun house, killing them as he goes. Will innocent Amy survive?

A supporting character in “The Funhouse” is Joey, Amy’s little brother. Like the horror movie-obsessed Mark from “Salem’s Lot,” Joey is a classical monster kid. His bedroom is full of movie posters, model kits, and prop masks and knives. It’s clear that Tobe Hooper was a monster kid too. Amy’s parents watch “Bride of Frankenstein” on television. Before the killer’s grotesque true face is revealed, he wears a mask patterned after Frankenstein’s Monster. It’s clear that producing a film under the Universal banner allowed Hooper plenty of chances to references the studios’ beloved monster movies. Hooper also tosses in a few references to more contemporary classics. The opening sequence – a point-of-view shot concluding with a man attacking a woman in the shower – cobbles together two of the more famous scenes from “Halloween” and “Psycho.” The scene is so blatantly imitative that I can’t help but wonder if Hooper was poking fun. John Beal’s score, which loudly blares with overblown strings and trumpets, also recall golden age spook shows.

Despite peppering the story with references to classic horror, “The Funhouse” freely partakes in slasher movie clich├ęs. Amy is pointedly a virgin. Unsurprisingly, she is the only one of her friends who survives the night. The others, who smoke pot and have sex, are killed for their indiscretions. Naturally, the teens are stranded in an isolated location, away from help. The authority figures that do appear, such as Amy’s parents, are ineffective, to say the least. There are even references to a crime committed in the past, when the previous deaths at the carnival are mentioned. There’s some random nudity and bloody deaths. About the only thing that’s missing is a spring-loaded cat. “The Funhouse” might as well be Slasher Movies 101.

Carnivals make great locations for horror stories. Writers love juxtaposing the engineered thrills of roller coasters and teacup rides with real dangers. It also doesn’t take much to make clowns, calliope music, and jarred deformities creepy. Hooper is also more then happy to play up the sleaziness of the carnival location. Oddly dressed carnies bark off-putting warnings from their podiums. One such example is the fortune teller, who curses at the kids after they mock her. The teens spy on the stripper tent, while questionably attractive woman show their nude bodies to greasy men. Amy and Liz are yelled out by a crazy homeless woman, who screams about God’s all-seeing eye and their sinful ways. The director happily dives into the same well of sleazy weirdness he probed for “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” and “Eaten Alive.” Even before the murders and monsters are revealed, “The Funhouse’s” carnival setting is unnerving.

Once the characters enter the titular fun house, Hooper’s keen eye for location is displayed. On the surface, the fun house is the kind of hokey horrors the movie is clearly above. There are a few clever gags in the dark ride, like a giant spider or huge eyeball, but mostly the mannequins are cheesy and fake looking. The more time the characters spend in the fun house, however, the more it takes on an uncanny quality. The slow or manic laughter of the creaky attractions become creepy. The rushing shadows and swirling colors are disorientating. “The Funhouse” builds a solid atmosphere of dread, making a solid location for a horror flick.

For its blatant use of slasher tropes, “The Funhouse” is also a monster movie. When the killer is first introduced, he wears a Frankenstein mask. This is something of a sick joke, as he’s far scarier without it. Though never referred to as such in the movie, the monster’s name is Gunther. Gunther’s design is memorable. His skin is bone white and his eyes are piercing crimson. Pronged fangs extend from his jaws. His head is deformed, perforated and bulging, and accented by a mane of white hair. As creepy as Gunther looks, like all proper monsters, he’s also pathetic. His murder spree is prompted by a humiliating encounter with a prostitute. He’s manipulated by his father, barked at until he starts killing. Gunther is abused, forced to punch and beat himself. Mime Wayne Doba plays Gunther with a twitching, frantic body language, suggesting that the character is also in constant pain. His high-pitched screams are equally unnerving and pitiful.

Unlike most other slasher flicks, “The Funhouse” also brings something more to its story of disobedient teens and strict parents. Amy’s virginity is stressed but so is her repeated attempts to loose it. She goes to second base with Buzz on their first date. Yet her parents ignore her teenage desires. This is visualized when Amy’s mom and dad appear at the carnival. She yells for help behind a fan, near-by but unseen and unheard by her parents. They also seem to prefer her little brother, Joey, making Amy something like an unwanted child. Gunther is unwanted too. His father makes reference to Gunther’s stillborn brother, a deformed fetus on display at the carnival’s freak show. Dean Koonz’ literary adaptation runs with this theme, giving Amy an unwanted pregnancy, turning her mother into an religious alcoholic and Gunther into her vengeful half-brother.

While clearly falling into the boundaries of the slasher subgenre, “The Funhouse” is not especially gory. The death scenes mostly occur off-screen. However, the movie still makes them count. The strangulation of Zena the Fortune Teller is accompanied by blinking lights, the electricity in the fun house going nuts. Richie is suddenly taken from his friends, a rope swooping around his neck and pulling him out of sight. Afterwards, the body is revealed, an axe driven into his head. Later, the man is impaled on a suit of armor’s blade, one of the fun house attractions turned deadly. The most striking death occurs in the building’s air vent. Behind a swooping fan, Liz tries to bargain with Gunther, promising to sleep with the monster. After this fails, he strangles the girl, the attack emphasized by the flashing lights and the shrieks of both the victim and the attacker.

“The Funhouse” also has more memorable teen victims then many other slasher flicks. Elizabeth Berridge has a nice nervous quality that she brings to Amy, showing the teen’s twin desire for sex and fear of it. After the situation goes to hell, Berridge has no problem becoming a shrieking scream queen. Cooper Huckabee has a lunk-headed quality that is well-suited to Buzz. While not being much more then a horny jock, Huckabee also makes it clear while someone like Amy might be attracted to him. Largo Woodruff and Miles Chapin are less clearly defined as Liz and Richie. When Liz is cornered by the monster, Woodruff does a good job playing up the character’s frightened tendencies. Chapin, meanwhile, gets an interesting monologue midway through the film, where he talks about a traumatizing childhood experience that mirrors his current situation. The material is fairly thin but the actors are all likable.

The supporting cast of “The Funhouse” has its ups and downs. William Finley, the “Phantom of the Paradise” star who previously appeared in “Eaten Alive,” has an amusing cameo as a shitty stage magician. Marco the Magnificent luxuriates in how shitty his act is. Kevin Conway appears in multiple roles, playing every barker in the carnival. As Gunther’s manipulative father, he’s especially effective. Sylvia Miles is amusingly profane as Zena, the fortune teller who doubles as a hooker. Shawn Carson as Joey, Amy’s mischievous little brother, is less interesting. The character adds little to the story and Carson is relatively flat in the part.

“The Funhouse” is modestly paced. The film is not a murder-fest, as it’s a full hour before anyone is killed. Instead, “The Funhouse” is more occupied with cultivating a creepy atmosphere. This it succeeds at. However, it wouldn’t be a Tobe Hooper movie if the story didn’t eventually descends into insanity. As the film goes on, the fun house location seems increasingly less fun. The clown-like cackles of the mannequins soon take on a manic quality. After her friends are dead and Amy is left alone, “The Funhouse” becomes truly eerie. Gunther stalks her through the underbelly of the building, blue lights flashing all around. As he’s drawn into the fun house’s machinery, he shrieks in a wild, mad way. After finally escaping the attraction, Amy walks, dazed, through the empty park. “The Funhouse” concludes with a stunning crane shot, floating above the empty fairgrounds, leaving the audience unnerved.

“The Funhouse” was one of the better reviewed slasher flicks of its time, even receiving the thumbs up from Gene Siskel, who would later protest against the genre. It doesn’t match the abject madness of “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” However, it’s more focused then the disorganized “Eaten Alive” and far more effective then the hokey “Salem’s Lot.” It’s no surprise that “The Funhouse” has attracted a cult following among horror fans, for its memorable monster, sleazy location, and spooky atmosphere. Without breaking the slasher mold, it manages to be an entertaining entry in Hooper’s career. [Grade: B]

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