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Five Favorite Things:: The Funhouse (1981) By SmallDarkCloud

July 26th, 2020 by unkle lancifer · 12 Comments

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.

Tags: Five Favorite Things




12 responses so far ↓

  • 1 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Jul 26, 2020 at 6:12 pm

    WoW Bravo SmallDarkCloud!

    I LOVE this! One of my all time favorite films! I’ve seen THE FUNHOUSE a million times and wrote about it several times and you were still able to point out so many things that I had not seen in it before! Wonderfully done!

    My favorite scene is when Amy looks out of the funhouse and sees her parents picking up her brother and she can’t call out to them. For some reason it reminds me of The wizard of Oz when Dorothy sees Aunt Em in the witches crystal ball and can’t reach her. It’s heartbreaking in a way. they’re both trapped in different worlds and unable to reach their homes and previous normalcy. Amy Harper is one of my favorite horror characters-she’s so wonderfully flawed and looking for trouble and I love her connection to the film’s sympathetic monster. Tobe Hooper forever.

    Thanks so much for this!

  • 2 Caffeinated JoeNo Gravatar // Jul 26, 2020 at 7:39 pm

    Great post on a great film. So atmospheric. One of the better from the early 80s.

  • 3 SmallDarkCloudNo Gravatar // Jul 27, 2020 at 9:26 am

    Thank you, unkle lanicfer! That is a great scene, and very well shot (heck, the whole movie has great cinematography, above most slasher films from the era).

    I think the whole movie has the feeling of a dark fairy tale (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre does, as well). Hooper even filmed a scene of Joey reading a book of fairy tales, with an illustration of a witch resembling the old woman from the carnival. He cut it, maybe because it was a little too unsubtle.

  • 4 Chuckles72No Gravatar // Jul 28, 2020 at 11:15 am

    Just watched it. Pretty good. You can watch it on Amazon but it is not a Prime freebie. I really liked the classic horror film references. Weirdly I am on something of a Tobe Hooper run now – kinda by accident (or is it?). I watched Poltergeist over the weekend and Lifeforce yesterday and now The Funhouse.

    And yeah, I’ve seen all of the evidence that Spielberg was the “real” director or Poltergeist, but I gotta call it joint effort – there is just too much Hooper DNA to be ignored.

  • 5 Peach6972No Gravatar // Jul 28, 2020 at 7:18 pm

    i want to see this movie ,where can I see it

  • 6 SmallDarkCloudNo Gravatar // Jul 29, 2020 at 7:13 am

    Peach6972 – there is an excellent Scream Factory blu-ray, with good extras and the best the film has ever looked on home video (I’ve owned a few incarnations). It’s also available as a HD digital download to rent or buy from the usual places.

    Unfortunately, it is only streaming through DirectTV. The Funhouse would be a slam dunk for a service like Shudder, but the major studios tend to not license their titles to niche services like Shudder, sad to say.

  • 7 DarkmanNo Gravatar // Jul 30, 2020 at 2:55 pm

    Weird, creepy and pretty damn good.

    One underrated moment is Amy looking at the different barkers, allowing us to register, ‘Holy shit! That’s the same guy!’

  • 8 GeoffNo Gravatar // Jul 31, 2020 at 6:17 am

    Great post, SmallDarkCloud. The Funhouse is one of my favorite 80s horror films. I remember the box in the video store haunting me long before I actually watched the movie. There was actually a really good novelization of the screenplay written by Dean Koontz under a pseudonym. It expands the story in an interesting way and introduces some ideas not in the finished film.

  • 9 robstercrawsNo Gravatar // Jul 31, 2020 at 12:27 pm

    I read the novelization a looooong time ago (80’s). In the book, wasn’t the pickled punk in the sideshow a sibling of the monster, which would make it also the carnival barker’s son? I remember the novelization being more disturbing than the movie.

  • 10 Brother BillNo Gravatar // Jul 31, 2020 at 1:46 pm

    I have seen this reading before, that the carnies that take care of the child until his parents come for him exhibit some kind of unsavory interest, but honestly, after multiple viewing both as a child (about the same age as the kid in the film) and as an adult, I don’t see that at all. Quite the opposite, I think Hooper was trying to show us the other side of the fun-house facade…that it wasn’t all monsters and hucksters working the traveling circuit, but also good-hearted people who perhaps had some sadness in their own past and could relate to a child running away to the carnival.

  • 11 GeoffNo Gravatar // Aug 1, 2020 at 7:59 am

    robstercraws, it’s been years since I read it too so my memory is foggy but I remember that family ties were much more a theme in the book than in the final movie. I recall Amy Harper’s mom had a much bigger role in the book and had a personal connection to the carnival and that’s why Amy was forbidden to go. Truthfully, aside from the general setup of teens trapped in a carnival it’s quite different from the finished film but I remember enjoying it a lot. I actually wondered at the time if Koontz got an actual screenplay to work from or if they just gave him a basic plot and character summary.

  • 12 SmallDarkCloudNo Gravatar // Aug 3, 2020 at 10:05 am

    Brother Bill –

    Good point. I’ve seen the merit in both interpretations. The first few times I watched it, I didn’t see anything unsavory in the carny’s behavior.

    However, Tobe Hooper stated in an interview with the website Shock Till You Drop that the carny was acting badly. The interview is no longer up, but Matthew Hurvitz’s excellent blog on The Funhouse, which is still up, published the relevant quote from the interview.

    Granted, Hooper said this decades later, and it may not have been the screenwriter’s intention, or his at the time – hard to say now – but I can’t discard what the director of the movie once said.

    I do think the movie does depict a fairly normal relationship among the carny folk in Marco the Magnificent and his daughter, which seems healthy.

    For what it’s worth, I’m not fond of Koontz’ novelization. If I remember correctly, he worked with the script and, due to production delays, the book was published months before the movie was released.

    Koontz departs heavily from the movie (the barker kills Madame Zena, for example). He introduces a lengthy plot including Satanists, the monster being Amy and Joey’s half-brother, and on and on. Instead of being an abused child, the monster is basically a demonspawn that is inherently evil, which neatly discards the themes Hooper was working. The book’s also very judgemental about sex (maybe not surprising coming from Koontz). I vaguely remember Koontz once claiming that he improved the story from the movie, which really annoyed me.

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