Wayward teens get their just desserts in Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse, a taut and twisted horror film from 1981. Based on a screenplay by Larry Block, the movie displays affection for the genre with references to everything from Frankenstein’s Monster to the moral terror of Halloween. Hooper even opens with a nod to Psycho before he injects things with his own sinister spirit.
The travelling carnival forms the backdrop to The Funhouse, with some ominous stuff going down after hours. One imagines a multitude of stories involving the circus freaks, monsters and painted ladies and this picture does not disappoint. In Hooper’s world, there is sex and there are mutants and there is a really weird dynamic between a father and his son.
The story concerns Amy (Elizabeth Berridge), a teenager interested in dating Buzz (Cooper Huckabee). He’s the sort of young man her parents disapprove of, so naturally she’s into him. She’s also harassed by her little brother (Shawn Carson). One night, Amy sets out with Buzz and lies to her parents about where they’re headed. Liz (Largo Woodruff) and Richie (Miles Chapin) join the two lovebirds.
There’s a creepy carnival in town and the bad reputation is enough to drag the protagonists in. They wander around, smoke pot, check out a peep show through a tear in the tent, and see a fortune teller (Sylvia Miles). They also witness the murder of said fortune teller at the hands of a freak (Wayne Stroba) and decide that spending the night in the Funhouse was a bad idea.
The score by John Beal is delivered in classical style, with plenty of bending romps welded into Hooper’s web of spooky and shrill noises. The sounds of the circus blare through, with rapid jolts from the rides juxtaposed against wandering conversations and the clanging hiss of the climactic maintenance area.
As with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Eaten Alive, the director’s interest in the offbeat and frightening people of the fringes is apparent. While the assembly of characters comes with the travelling sideshow theme, there’s still an aura of something upsetting. A brief excursion through one exhibit features a two-headed cow and other mutations. Something’s not right.
There’s also Conrad (Kevin Conway), the barker. He is the father of Stroba’s character, who has his own issues with disfigurement and mutation. There is no overt statement as to how the freak became the freak, but there is an fascinating paternal dynamic that suggests the murdered fortune teller isn’t the first mess dear old dad’s had to clean up.
As with many pictures of the 1970s and 1980s, the young are set up for castigation due to some sort of sin. The Funhouse opens with Amy in the nude. She’s taking a shower, but Andrew Laszlo’s lens doesn’t spare the details and the audience just knows she’s going to pay for it somehow. Later, she lies to her parents, smokes pot and bangs her boyfriend. The flames of hell lick at her heels.
There are other indiscretions, like when the smart-alecky Richie steals the money or when the kids decide to spy on the peep show. They decry the events inside the slimy tent as “disgusting,” but there’s no hiding the fascination on their faces. When Liz intrudes on the territory of the bedraggled pervert for a glimpse of Rebuka Hoye’s assets, lines have been crossed yet again.
There are many cheeky delights in Hooper’s movie, from the frizz-haired monster the eccentricities of Conway to the finessed use of lens flare to the disconcerting mass of noise to some diabolical telescoping shots. The Funhouse leers and mocks like the fat lady herself, perched atop the resonant hall of horrors with legs spread and tittering mouth wide open.