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.