My two favorite genre films are Fright Night (85) and Night of the Creeps (86). Both are similar in their Those-Who-Came-Before homages, but differ greatly in tone; however, both remain in a perpetual tie for first place in my head. Mickster did a great Five Favs on Fright Night, so I am going to give my five for the latter. I will list them in order of least to most favorite thing. *SPOLIER ALERT* Number one is Tom Atkins.
5: The Character Names
Chris Romero, James Carpenter (JC) Hooper, Cynthia Cronenberg, Det. Ray Cameron, Det. Landis, Sgt. Raimi, and Mr. Miner. I don’t need to tell any of you what those names mean. Oh, and the first three all attend Corman University. Fred Dekker obviously loves his chosen field, and even more he loves the people who helped to build his chosen genre. In fact, he goes out of his way to pay homage to the giants upon whose shoulder’s he stands. The entire movie is Dekker’s love letter to the sci-fi b-movies he grew up on. Opening in a flashback, a rogue alien aboard a UFO launches a canister into space, only for it to fall to Earth- specifically, right into 1959 middle-America in the backyard of Corman U. Meanwhile, two clean cut American teens are making out in a sweet-ass convertible. Following the path of what they think is a meteorite, they run into a recently escaped axe-wielding maniac.
As poor Peggy Sue (Sure, let’s call her that.) is being diced like an onion, her boyfriend finds the canister in a smoking crater. Space slugs fly out of it and into his mouth. Smash cut to 1986 Coman U., and Chris Romero (Jason Lively being as perfectly him as only he can.) being moody over unrequited love. His pal, JC (Steve Marshall giving some real heart to what would be just another comic relief role for other actors.) is providing solace with promise of others girls and parties to come. Before we know it, our heroes are accidentally thawing the corpse of our slug swallower from the opening, as he has been cryogenically frozen by a scene stealing David Paymer.
Why? Who cares? The point is, Dekker now gets to pay homage to the zombie films he also loved, as the slugs start inhabiting people’s brains, turning them into living dead pollinators. As more people are infected, the more fun we have watching the protagonists get stuck in tighter and tighter spots. By the movie’s end, we have been treated to not only the above mentioned homages, but there are easter eggs galore, including a Dick Smith cameo (More on that in a minute.), slasher tropes, Plan 9 playing on a television set, and not one, but two references to Dekker’s other cult classic/my Goonies, The Monster Squad, which would not be released until the following year.
4: “STRYPER RULES!”
JC is hiding in a bathroom stall while the floor teems with space slugs hungering for his meaty cerebellum. There, clearly over his shoulder is the graffiti, “Stryper Rules!” The story goes that this was done as an in-joke for makeup artist Kyle Sweet, who was then dating and would later marry Stryper front, Michael Sweet. I am not a Christian, but I am a metal fan, so there’s no way I should like anything about Stryper. However, in 7th Grade, I had a crush on Bev M, and she was a member of one of those churches that do moralistic haunted houses for Halloween. So, I went to a Stryper concert with her youth group just to hang out with her. I don’t remember a ton about the show, other than it was the only metal show I have been to that had not one but two prayer breaks. Anyway, seeing that graffiti always takes me back to that time during my misguided youth when I could have gone down one a path that led to conversion camps and belief that Halloween was satanic, but in a bad way. Thank Buffy, I went the other direction.
3: The FX:
We all know that when it comes to splatter, we want to see that oversaturated, red corn syrup magic potion that is so much more satisfying than the pixelated cartoon blood used in modern monster movies. Not only that, but if a head splits open to spill a bunch of space slugs onto the ground, isn’t it better when we can hear them plop satisfyingly to the earth? Only horror fans can truly appreciate FX from the team of makeup artists including Howard Berger (Day of the Dead, Evil Dead II, Misery), Robert Kurtzman (The Walking Dead), and David B. Miller (A Nightmare on Elm Street). When the blood flies in this one, you can almost feel it sprinkle across your face. Close up shots of zombie Frat boy faces cracking in two while viscous fluids (Likely corn syrup and K-Y Jelly, standards of the Horror FX toolbox.) stretch between the dividing cranium, slimy slugs dripping with more gross liquids slither across tile floors at breakneck speeds (Sure, you can see the pull wire in a lot of the shots, but that’s just part of the charm.), and skeletal axe murderers on the prowl are just part of the practical FX that all horror fans seek. Zombie dogs causing major bus accidents are just the icing on the gore covered cake.
2: It’s a Bonified Walter Paisley Movie:
When I was around 14, I was reading a Fangoria article about the Corman produced, Wynorski helmed cult classic, Chopping Mall. In it, they casually mentioned Dick Smith “once again appearing as Walter Paisley.” It caught my eye. What did they mean by “once again?” That’s when I found out about the oddity that is Walter Paisley. In the days before Google, I dug through old periodicals in our small-town library looking for any references to Corman movies, and particularly to Walter Paisley. Eventually, finding articles from underground newspapers in exotic locales like Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco that friends would mail to me. Piecing it together, I found five movies in which he appeared as Walter Paisley, a number that would go up by one when I saw NotC in the theaters as a teen, and by one more when the World Wide Web opened: The aforementioned CM, A Bucket of Blood, Hollywood Boulevard, The Howling, Twilight Zone: The Movie, Shake, Rattle And Rock! (TV), and the movie that this article is about. None of the characters were similar in anything but name, and one occasion of career overlap. (He plays WP as a cop in both Shake and NotC.) It was such a bizarre notion to me, that it became one of my favorite things about the entire genre. Horror doesn’t just push our sensory boundaries; it also bucks the norms of narrative storytelling. You’ll never see a Walter Paisley in a rom-com, no matter how much we all want it.
Knowing much of this before NotC was released made seeing it in the theater that much richer for me. When Tom Atkins, JL in tow, go to the police equipment room and call out a hello to Walter, then we see a close up on Dick Miller sporting a nametag that said, “Offc. Paisley,” I was in on the joke. I immediately leaned across my friends, attempting to explain why I had laughed, only to quickly see that they didn’t care. So, it was my own little joke, and my heart grew three sizes that day, all thanks to this movie.
1: It’s Tom FREAKING Atkins:
It’s Tom FREAKING Atkins.
1: The Opening Credits
The Funhouse opens with the Universal Pictures logo, followed by the opening credits. Accompanied by John Beal’s sinister title theme, the credits match the names of the major cast and crew members with animated puppets (we won’t see these figures again until well into the film, as they reside within the funhouse of the title). Watch closely, and you may notice that each puppet seems to have a thematic link to the accompanying name.
Largo Woodruff is matched with a female puppet brandishing a knife (sure enough, her character, Liz, ends up using a knife in self-defense near the climax of the film). Sylvia Miles, the fortune teller, is matched with a similar looking old crone puppet. John Beal is represented by a piano player. Editor Jack Hofstra gets an ax-wielding puppet (get it?). Screenwriter Larry Block’s puppet is a Howdy-Doody lookalike wielding a pencil. And the director himself, Tobe Hooper, is represented by the laughing female animatronic that looks over the funhouse from its roof. There’s a subtle suggestion that both director and lady oversee everything that happens inside the funhouse (or The Funhouse). And both get the last laugh, so to speak, when the movie ends.
2: Classic Horror Films
The Funhouse very smartly calls back to classic horror films, particularly the great Universal films of the 1930s (having the very same studio bankroll this film undoubtedly helps). Sylvia Miles’ fortune teller has a likeness to Maria Ouspenskaya in The Wolf Man (though, befitting a disreputable carnival, Miles’s character is faking her vaguely European accent). Carnival magician Marco the Magnificent (William Finley) resembles Bela Lugosi’s Dracula. The monster that lurks within the funhouse (Wayne Doba) wears a Frankenstein’s Monster mask (sporting Jack Pierce’s makeup design for the 30s films – Universal helping out here, as they have Pierce’s design trademarked). The Monster also briefly appears on a poster in the opening scene, and Bride of Frankenstein can be seen on a television set in the next one. Stretching the idea a little bit, I can see surviving heroine Amy (Elizabeth Berridge) as a kind of bride of Frankenstein, rejecting the funhouse monster in self-defense and horror, just as the Bride did in the 1935 movie.
Though it’s not just that era of horror – the film’s first scene sends up both Halloween and Psycho. And The Funhouse’s horrors are set in motion for the four teenagers when Richie (Miles Chapin) selfishly steals money from the carnival, calling back to Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane, also struck down by terrible fate after doing much the same thing. But I think Hooper and Block had more on their minds than just making references to past films. Universal likely backed The Funhouse on the success of the slasher films, starting with Halloween and Friday the 13th. Neither of those films made much reference to the genre of the horror film itself (aside from a brief glimpse of The Thing on television in the former).
The Funhouse, by contrast, does evoke the cinematic past, I think to suggest how much the horror film had changed, and how the monsters that frightened audiences in earlier years had become harmless over time, replaced by more modern creatures. This theme reaches a metatextual peak when the funhouse monster loses its mask, to reveal its monstrous true face in the form of a horrifying make-up appliance designed by Rick Baker (a new Jack Pierce), which exceeded the expectations of a new generation of horror fans (as he would do again and again in later films).
3: The Funhouse Itself
Tobe Hooper and his crew shot the exteriors of the carnival within The Funhouse on the grounds of a real carnival in Florida. The interior of the funhouse, however, was constructed on a soundstage (also in Florida). This should be immediately obvious. The interior of the place looks much larger than anything the exterior could possibly hold – and this traveling carnival’s funhouse improbably has a basement. The film’s IMDB entry lists this “basement” set-up as an error. I think that’s a literal-minded reading of the movie. The funhouse’s interior, which the teens can’t seem to escape, is more of a psychological or cinematic horror (or both) than a realistic one (in real life, it wouldn’t be very difficult to find some way out, probably by following the coaster tracks). It was a deliberate, considered choice by Hooper, hardly an error.
The director’s horror films frequently use an uncanny, morbidly designed interior space as a source of terror – the Sawyer house in the Chainsaw films; the Marsden house in Salem’s Lot; the factory in The Mangler; the hidden rooms within the hotel in Toolbox Murders. In the same style, the funhouse is a gothic/industrial nightmare, the heart of a dark fairy tale set in motion by the bad decision to intrude in a space where four teenagers are not supposed to be (not unlike Texas Chainsaw Massacre). The kids are trapped by their choices as much as the funhouse they can’t seem to escape. The improbable basement is an industrial machine that keeps the funhouse running, and ends up destroyed by the very monster that it housed. If you are taking the dimensions of the funhouse literally, I think you’re missing out.
4: Child Abuse or Neglect
It’s a subtle theme, maybe not immediately obvious, but child abuse and neglect haunts the movie. That’s a difficult thing to “like,” but I (sometimes) love horror films for the emotional catharsis they provide regarding difficult personal issues. The funhouse’s monster, a teenager (according to Hooper), is abused and manipulated by the real villain of the film, one of the carnival’s barkers, played brilliantly by Kevin Conway. This barker is likely the monster’s father, as well, biologically or perhaps socially, within the carnival family. The monster’s one line in the film is to call the barker “father,” much to the barker’s anger. The fortune teller, another member of the carnival family, exploits him for money and verbally abuses him. The barker both rejects the monster as a son and protects him from outsiders – the kind of intertwining of love and violence common in abusers. The monster may have homicidal tendencies (two young girls went missing when the carnival visited a nearby town), but, within the film, he only reluctantly targets the four teenagers when his father manipulates him into killing to recover stolen money (putting the film as odds with contemporary slashers). The real horror of The Funhouse is dysfunctional families and child abuse. In a neat touch on the family theme, Conway plays three carnival barkers (separate individuals, not the same barker in three outfits), suggesting that the carnival family is so dysfunctional, it’s incestuous (metaphorically).
Amy and her brother Joey (Shawn Carson) aren’t abused, but their parents seem awfully neglectful. Amy’s parents can’t be bothered to meet her date (such a meeting was filmed, but discarded by Hooper), or keep an eye on their son, devoted as they are to watching television. Joey runs away to visit the carnival without being noticed. When his parents come to the carnival to claim him, they seem more upset by their shabby surroundings than relieved to bring their son back home. Even worse, the carnival employee who found Joey seems to have sinister motives (another form of child abuse, perhaps). Amy’s status as the surviving teenager suggests she is a double of the monster, both products of dysfunctional families.
5: The Crane Shot
Having a Hollywood budget for the first time, Tobe Hooper had access to a crane. And he used it beautifully. The crane shot appears in the scene where Joey sees his sister and her friends enter the funhouse, only to not come out when the coaster cars emerge from the exit. As he wanders around the carnival in confusion, the carnival begins to empty out and close for the night. The camera takes this all in as it rises on the crane, giving us a sprawling view of the (quite large) carnival, and Joey wandering alone (another form of neglect). The teens have made their decision to trespass in the funhouse. Earlier in the movie, an old woman warned the teenagers that “God is watching you.” Is this shot the eyes of God, watching after all? Is it the laughing lady who overlooks the funhouse? Is it Tobe Hooper (literally and creatively)? All three? It’s an unforgettable scene.
Directed by John Grissmer (“Blood Rage”), this movie may not be horror, but there are enough twisted and horrible things going on here to please most horror fans. A psychotic plastic surgeon helps a go-go dancer who had her face bashed in by giving her a brand new face….the face of his young adult daughter! See…he allowed his wife to drown and killed his daughter’s boyfriend, which was enough to send the daughter packing. In her absence, she inherited a hefty sum of money, so the surgeon does what any father would do and gives the dancer his daughter’s face so SHE would inherit the money. They then have an icky sexual relationship. Everything seems fine until…..his real daughter shows up again. Then things really get twisted! Horror elements include face-bashing, pseudo-incest, murder, and a general all-around sleaziness that makes one wonder how on earth it got away with a PG rating.
We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
This disturbing film follows a psychopathic boy from birth to young adulthood and the horrible event that ensues once he reaches high school. Tilda Swinton, as Kevin’s mother, is outstanding in this movie and is totally believable as a mother who is at times frustrated, infuriated, confused by, and afraid of her son. As you watch Kevin grow up, you just know something terrible is going to happen eventually. It’s like waiting for a train wreck to happen. As a parent, this film made me aware of a horror I’d never even considered: the horror of not knowing who your child is and being afraid of the answer.
The Devils (1971)
This ranks as one of my top 5 favorite movies, horror or otherwise. In 17th century France (in the midst of the plague) Father Grandier (Oliver Reed) is the only person preventing Cardinal Richeliu from taking over the city of Loudun in an effort to control all of the country. The power-hungry Cardinal and his witch-hunters accuse Grandier of being a demon and of having control of the local nunnery, run by an insane hunchbacked nun who lusts after Grandier. An exorcist is brought in to rid the “possessed” nuns of their demons and to prove Grandier guilty. The corrupt court humiliates, tortures, and ultimately kills Grandier by burning him at the stake…all while his fellow townspeople watch. Grandier is dead, the town is taken over.
Enough scenes of horror are in this movie to make it qualify as “horror” in my eyes. You’ve got several scenes of torture, a crazy, hunchbacked nun, plague victims thrown in pits, Oliver Reed being burned at the stake, forced vomiting, and the movie’s most controversial scene: “possessed” naked nuns going berserk in a church, taking down a statue of Jesus, and masturbating, fondling, and going batshit crazy all over it. It must be seen to be believed! Unfortunately, an uncensored version of The Devils has never been officially released in the United States because of its controversial nature. Everything depicted in the film, however, is true and actually happened. The fact that Warner Bros. refuses to release a masterpiece of a film about church corruption BECAUSE of Catholic influence is the real horror!
DGTS is a 1982 telefilm about a girl named Mary (Robin Ignico of the same year’s ANNIE) who is seemingly persuaded by the ghost of her dead sister Jennifer (Kristin Cumming) to murder the rest of their family. This “is it a ghost or are you insane?” flick is drowning in eighties-era eccentricities and is undoubtedly one of the most entertaining killer kid movies this side of THE BAD SEED. (It may also be the most accurate depiction of middle child syndrome created excluding the trials and tribulations of Jan Brady).
1: The Opening Credits
DGTS flies out of the gate with an uncommonly low-tech opening sequence that gives it the air of a cobbled-together home movie. Stranger still, it switches back and forth between a noisy driving sequence and title cards accompanied by creepy music box melodies. Its rough, flatfooted manor feels way out of step for a prime time television presentation of its time and it lets you know from the get-go that you’re in for something peculiar.
2: The Drama.
TV legends Dennis Weaver and Valerie Harper portray increasingly troubled parents Phillip and Laura and do so to the extreme hilt. The events that occur would put anyone on edge but this couple does the deep dive into self-pity, resentment, and oppressive grief like they’re trapped in an eternal production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?”. The two chew scenery like competing dogs fighting over a bone and the only one who can claim victory over the histrionic skirmish is the audience. That said, amidst the theatrics, the two-slam dunk more than a few pure notes.
DGTS also deserves some extra points for presenting multidimensional child characters that are written as more than your average precocious moppet. Mary, Jennifer and their brother Kevin (POLTERGEIST’s Oliver Robins) deal with a stew of complex feelings involving rivalry, regret, and the lingering ramifications of death (plus how may movies feature a child in a rubber room wearing a straight jacket?).
3: Ruth Gordon.
Any movie with Ruth Gordon in it is likely to hold me spellbound. It’s so fun to try and decipher what parts of what she’s saying were actually in the script and what parts she’s just ad-libbing to amuse herself.
4: The Pizza Cutter
DGTS’s pizza cutter scene is rightfully infamous to all who have witnessed its illogical glory. How can you not love a ghost movie that can’t resist indulging in the “creative kill” element of the then booming slasher craze? Each of the horrific demises the movie presents (the frisbee watermelon fall! the bathtub electrocution! the heart attack by way of lizard!) has a charm of its own but nothing can compare with the extreme close up of a pizza cutter rolling down a bannister or slicing through a phone cord. My pizza cutter can barely cut pizza.
5: The Final Scare
The most impressive thing about DGTS is that no matter how many times your brain may tell you that much of what you are seeing is ridiculous, there’s still a good chance you’re going to be left feeling genuinely unnerved. By either happy accident or sheer technical brilliance, DGTS leaves its audience with a visual corker that burns hot enough to sear. There’s something so uncanny, unnatural and unforgettable about Jennifer’s last Cheshire-cat grin before the curtain closes. It’s a wink from death that reeks of true unworldly madness and its one of the greatest kindertrauma moments that has ever appeared on the small screen.
OK, I’m going to totally cheat here because I’m about to give my three non-horror movies for horror fans as well as three runners-up. I will divide them into the categories of science fiction, comedy and fantasy.
Science Fiction: Because horror so closely rides a parallel rail next to science fiction, I’ll start with that category. My pick for a non-horror sci-fi movie for horror fans is The Hidden (1987) (If you liked The Faculty (1998), you’ll love The Hidden). The runner-up would be Ex Machina (2014). Both underappreciated gems in the Sci-Fi genre.
Comedy: I find the best non-horror comedies for horror fans aren’t parodies but surreal comedies that make you feel like you’re in a fever dream. My pick for a non-horror comedy movie for horror fans is UHF (1989) which is one of the three mothers of surreal comedy to me (Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), Big Top Pee-Wee (1988) and UHF). Runner up would be One Crazy Summer (1986) whose cartoon interludes are worth the price of admission (And is one of the three mothers of John Cusack comedies: Better off Dead (1985), One Crazy Summer and Say Anything (1989)).
Fantasy: Fantasy movies are the lighter side of horror (plays Tales from the Darkside theme…”but not as brightly lit”…). My pick for a non-horror fantasy movie for horror fans is Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). The runner-up would be Legend (1985). Both are fantasy movies whose imagery evokes feelings of horror but are tightly woven into a fantasy setting. (I was going to put in the Dark Crystal (1982) but my inner child is still too traumatized to mention it.)
1: The Music
Charles Bernstein knocked it out of the park. From the main theme, that could be best described as “playfully sinister”, to the catchy end credits song “Too Bad You’re Crazy”, the soundtrack perfectly compliments the tone of the movie.
2: The Tone
The movie has a lot of lighthearted fun with the cast, pranks and the slasher movie tropes, but is also willing to get surprisingly dark when it needs to be. It never gets bogged down with over the top violence and perfectly walks the tightrope between horror and comedy, without sacrificing the scares for the laughs and vice versa. It plays with your expectations and, like jack in the box, it springs you along until it jumps out to scare you silly and make you laugh.
3: The Jokes
The cast is extremely charming and instantly likeable (lots of eye candy too!), but let them loose in a house full of silly pranks and practical jokes and you are practically guaranteed to win your audience over. It’s all about the ways all characters get pranked / tortured and their reactions to the increasingly uncomfortable situations.
4: The Twist & Cut Ending
I mean the whole movie is about people playing jokes on each other so the twist is pretty obvious from the get go. The whole thing still works wonderfully right until the very last shot of the movie, but it almost makes you wonder what the movie would be like with the original ending.
5: Amy Steel
After stealing the show in Friday the 13th Part 2, Amy returns as yet another smart, resourceful final girl who is more than capable to handle the situation at hand. Amy Steel has incredible screen presence and it makes you wish she made more horror movies!